Climbing Everest without oxygen

Leo Dickinson is one of the outstanding action sports filmmakers in the field today. He has made over 50 films of his own and helped on many others. Here Leo recollects his time on Everest, including Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler’s ‘Everest without oxygen – doing it without English Air’, where Rohan Windlord Garments were used on this successful attempt. Take a look at this video clip of Leo’s footage.

Werner Kopaka was an Austrian Journalist attached to our expedition planning on not only getting the first Austrian up Everest but also to fulfil the dreams of Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler in doing it without ‘English Air’ as the Sherpa’s often called it.

Everest of course was an English Mountain – we had named it after George Everest the Surveyor General of India in the 1800s, and we can only be grateful they chose his surname. The British contingent comprised of Eric Jones, myself and Times Journalist Ronnie Faux, and a good time was had by all.

The radio crackled to life, and we heard the excellent news that Robert Schauer had made the Summit along with his leader Wolfgang Nairz, his cameraman Horst Bergman and Sherpa Ang Phu. Now all they had to do was get down.

That evening I suggested to Werner that he might like to accompany me up the icefall the next morning to meet them. “What a good idea”, he said. Now Werner was not exactly a mountaineer but nevertheless, the route was well established and so far, safe.

After a hearty breakfast of fried salami (have you ever eaten frozen salami), Werner & I set off upwards to Eric Shipton’s Valley of Silence – the Western Cwm.

As first, Werner went ahead following the ropes over yawning crevasses and seemed comfortable in his unpracticed environment. After half an hour he slowed – this was the highest he had been in his life and the altitude was taking its toll. Now he lagged behind me as I recounted stories of daring-do to keep up his spirits.

Then something happened that is hard to forget. You know when you are on the phone and the line is cut off – for several seconds you keep talking before realising that no one is listening.

Werner wasn’t listening – Werner wasn’t there.

Like in every good script in Hollywood the hero looks around gormlessly shouting the name of their lost comrade. I didn’t shout but retraced my steps and looked downwards. I’d long ago forsaken belief in miracles and no angels were waiting for Werner.

He was down the biggest crevasse I had ever seen – or rather it opened up into the biggest crevasse because Werner was jammed in a bottleneck over this void that could have re-located St Paul’s Cathedral.

“Wait there!” I yelled helpfully.

I remembered the last crevasse ladder had a rope about 20m long. Knots were untied and I ran back tying a loop as I ran.

A second loop formed my waistline, and I dropped down the line to this shivering Austrian.

At first, I managed to lasso his head and thought that at least I would retrieve part of him.

That’s the problem with memories – did I think that at the time or was it afterwards?

Werner struggled into my loop and relaxed. He slipped into the vice further, and I had another thought - “We’re both going to die”.  For one brief billionth of a second, I thought about untying it. No Swiss Army knife here. Then to my eternal delight I spotted the solution – another crevasse into which I happily jumped. Now we had a classic Hoffnung Barrel situation. If Werner came up, I went down and visa versa.

Now all we had to do was wait for a Sherpa to come down the icefall. One hour turned into two, and I was getting cold. Up until now I had amused myself by pulling my 16mm camera out of my rucksack and pointing it around Werner’s corner. It didn’t record sound, so I have no idea what he said, but we were getting colder.

Solution two involved us both climbing up our respective ropes and emerging onto the flat ice together. It worked. I continued up, Werner went down muttering that never again would he go up a glacier…

Meanwhile my heroes Reinhold and Peter (dressed in his Rohan jacket!) set off into the history books. Carrying a small Canon Super 8mm camera, Reinhold recorded their arrival onto the summit.

My film, Everest Un-Masked is available on our website where you can see all the trials, self-doubts of this famous pair as they question their sanity about going where no man has been before…Everest without oxygen. Of course, like all good scripts they succeeded and more importantly are both good friends of mine.

I jokingly told Reinhold that I had made him famous to which – by now having a wicked sense of English humour – replied, “It’s possible I may have done that by myself but thank your help.”

Twenty-two years later I was lecturing in Saltzburg. Peter was my translator, although when I found out that the Austrian audience all understood my English, I sacked him. We had a few beers and reminisced.

The next day a young man came up to me and shook my hand. “Thank you”, he said.

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant – was it the lecture I had given?

“No – my name is Ian Kopaka – without you pulling my dad out of that crevasse on Everest, I would not be here.”

I told him I hoped I wasn’t responsible…. He laughed.

Leo Dickinson

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