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ExWeb series: Everest unsung heroes - Eric Shipton, part 4 final
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Mar 25, 2005 09: 09 EST
As a new generation of aspiring Everest summiteers migrates to the mountain, we take a look at perhaps the greatest Everest legend from our past: Eric Shipton.

Pioneer of the Alpine style, he was a team-member on all four Everest expeditions during the 1930’s and found the route that Hillary and Tenzing would follow to the top of the world. What now embodies pure alpinism, in Shipton’s times was almost blasphemy. He was therefore rejected from fulfilling the dream of reaching the summit of Everest, or at least to try it with style. Sacked as a leader of the historic 1953 expedition, he was replaced by Hunter.

The results are well known. The New Zealander and the Sherpa, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, “knocked the bastard off”. Still in BC, after dinner, John Hunt made a toast to Eric Shipton, “who had contributed a great deal to the achievement.”

Bitterly dissapointed to give up the mountain he had climbed since the 1930’s, Eric now forced himself to look for other peaks. He would later reckon, in fact, that Everest had blocked his vision from any other project. “Once you tried it, it was very difficult to stop.”

With that, Eric's focus shifted to Karakorum, Patagonia and polar crossings.

Today, part 4, final.

Part four: A far, far away land

“I have celebrated my 50th birthday in the Karakorum. The moment has come to plan a definitive expedition to Patagonia,” Eric Shipton wrote.

After an extensive exploration of the Karakorum Range – beautifully described in his book “Blank on the Map”-- Eric Shipton was itching to explore the distant lands of the Southernmost tip of America. By then, he was already a celebrity, and president of the British Alpine Club. An experienced diplomat, his agenda was full of engagements and lectures throughout the United Kingdom. But exploration remained his primary passion.

What’s a summit worth?

He often thought of Everest, and its mystique of “conquest.” Shipton never understood why the summit was so important, compared to the experience of climbing and discovering. “Those who climb Everest now, will never see the mountain as Mallory saw it,” he said. For Shipton, there was no glory in a summit achieved through an already known route. What he longed for was a long trip to somewhere far away to ease his soul, to slip into the simple pleasure of exploration.

And for someone aching to let the wind blow away the pain, there was a perfect, hidden corner of the world: Patagonia, the Land of Tempest, as Shipton himself would call it.

Ghost mountain

Sponsored by the British museum, Shipton left for Patagonia for the first time in 1958, along with Geoff Bratt, John Mercer, Peter James and Peter Miles, and Argentines Barny Dickinson and John Cotton. The Britons explored the Viedma and Argentino lakes and glaciers, as well as part of the Upsala glacier, the gate to the endless Patagonian Ice field.

Shipton rejoiced in the foreign and icy expanse of Patagonia, but there was a rumor, something like an explorer’s version of a buried treasure tale, that sparked his interest. Patagonian explorers gossiped that, somewhere hidden in the Southern Patagonian Ice field, there was an active volcano. Travelers on previous trips had caught scent of the sulfuric vapors, but no one had actually confirmed the exact location of the ghost mountain. The 400km long ice field was still mostly virgin territory.

A steam column rising from ice

The temptation was too strong for Eric. “I am going hunting,” he said when he left for Patagonia again, with no fixed return date. On January, 1960, Shipton led a small team from San Martin Lake to the edge of the Ice Cap. Incredibly lucky, they had a clear, sunny day which afforded a full view of the Pio XI Range peaks. Among the crests, they saw a steam column rising from a crevasse in the ice. They had found the volcano!

The explorers approached and verified there was volcanic activity there. They had no time for proper measurements due to worsening weather conditions, but the ghost volcano had been definitively found. After congratulating themselves on their find, they felt ready to pack it up and go home. All except Shipton, who could not avoid gazing southwards, toward the never-ending ice field. He had made up his mind to cross it.

Brand-new fiberglass pulk

Crossing the Patagonian Ice Field was no vacation, though. It presented the same difficulties and the same uncertainty as the first trips to the poles. In addition, Patagonia’s unpredictable weather conditions and hurricane-force winds had humbled even the most accomplished explorers of the time.

His teammates for the third Patagonian trip were British explorer Jack Ewer, and Chileans Eduardo García and Cedomir Marangunic. Shipton relied on a specially designed tent and a brand-new fiberglass pulk, both extremely light. He was so concerned with economizing weight that he measured every single gram of food and fuel.

The Southern Ice Field crossing 1960-61

The team was dropped on Jorge Mott glacier at where it met the sea at Calen Fjord (Chile). They would cross the Southern Ice Field from north to south. It took them days to locate a route up the glacier front and actually get on the Ice Field. Afterwards, soft snow and the extremely heavy sledges forced them to fight for every inch of terrain. The strain forced them to rest five minutes out of every 20 minutes of marching. When they reached the latitude where the Pio XI volcano was located, the blizzard was so brutal that they were blocked for days, and the volcano vanished from their sight. They would rest for three days by Viedma Nunatak, only to have another storm hit. However, they could not afford to hold out any longer on their scarce provisions. They set off into the storm.

Two months on the ice

If something had gone wrong, they would have just disappeared, leaving no trace. There was absolutely no possibility of rescue, or communication with the rest of the world.

But they made it. They would continue, climbing Cerro Don Bosco on their way, and attempting The Cerro Murallón, stopping a mere seven meters shy of the summit due to the unforgiving wind. From Murallón they proceeded to Estancia Cristina, the first glimpse of civilization and the finish line of their trip, after spending two months on the ice.

The dream builder

Today, the Shipton traverse would be considered incomplete. The actual crossing would demand bypassing the Reichert fault and finishing in Ultima Esperanza (last hope) Fjord. Nevertheless, his achievement was remarkable. He survived the crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, proving to other explorers that such a feat was actually possible. In following years, Patagonian expeditions would follow Shipton’s steps. The complete unsupported crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap would be accomplished only once, by a Chilean team in 1993.

In fact, the whole of Shipton’s career as an explorer serves as a model. Discovering paths and opening new doors for future adventurers, he set standards and laid out dreams for others to pursue.

The pioneer’s echoes

Eric Shipton’s example has been emulated by many climbers and explorers, some of them without even knowing about his life and deeds. The current “purist” supporters of clean, light, alpine climbing are discovering nothing new, actually. It was Shipton who wrote, before many of them could even read: "For me, the charm of the alpinism lies mainly in its simplicity: a rope, an ice axe, tinted glasses and shoes with crampons are the basic equipment. The simpler the approach is, the more one is in harmony with the environment.”

His preference for small teams, sensitivity to the culture of the area he was traversing, reliance on local food, and technique of climbing light and fast, would have made him an avant-garde climber and traveler even by today’s standards.

Farewell to Everest

Perhaps Shipton’s only regret was having not summited Everest. Ironically, after Shipton’s death in 1979, none other than Edmund Hillary wrote:

“Eric Shipton was a hero to me. He did all the things I wanted to do - exploring remote areas, crossing unknown glaciers and passes, and forcing a way through incredibly rough and unknown country. When I was invited to join his British Everest Reconnaissance in 1951 it was like the answer to a prayer. And Eric lived up to what I expected of him - tough and determined, incurably inquisitive about unvisited remote areas, and yet gentle and kind to young companions. He was a great explorer and a great man.”

Image of Eric Shipton, courtesy of Tecpetrol.com
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