Jochen Hemmleb's statement regarding Thomas Noy and Maurice Wilson
09:06 a.m. EDT Jul 2, 2003
ExplorersWeb recently ran an article written by mountaineering historian Thomas Noy about the possibility that Everest might have been summited previous to 1953 by a lone climber named Maurice Wilson. As we all know that climbers are passionate about their mountains as Italians are about their food, there has since been a flurry of feedback from the climbing community as well as other historians. Below is Everest historian Jochen Hemmleb’s statement about Noy’s article and Maurice Wilson.
Jochen was a part of the project that found the body of Mallory, another climber who some believe to have possibly summited Everest in the 20’s, previous to Hillary and Norgay’s ascent in ’53.
Jochen Hemmleb has written several books about Everest history, including, “Detectives on Everest,” a book chronicling the search for Mallory and Irvine.
Tomorrow ExplorersWeb will publish another statement by German author, Peter Meier-Hüsing, who wrote a book about Wilson. Following these two articles will be an ExplorersWeb interview with Noy.
Although my usage of the word "rumor" has been somewhat of a misnomer for Gombu's testimony, as related by Thomas Noy, the following point needs to be addressed:
According to Noy, Gombu reported, "At 8500 meters, beyond the Yellow Band, we came upon a tent, one higher than another old tent, at about 8300 meters. It was tied down with ropes. Inside we found only a few articles of clothing... This was at 8500meters..."
A question of altitude
In a Beijing interview of 2001, undertaken by Eric Simonson and myself, Xu Jing (deputy leader of Gombu's 1960 expedition also reported finding two old camps, but at 8300 and 8100 meters respectively. Note that the altitude difference between the two camps is the same as in Gombu's testimony, 200 meters. The Chinese literature only mentions the camp at 8300 m (plus another camp lower down, at approx. 7800 meters). I also noted that the Chinese tend to be rather general about altitudes.
For example, when they say "8100 meters", what they actually mean is "in the vicinity of Camp VI", as 8100 meters has become the accepted figure for Camp VI in Chinese literature after 1960. There seems to be agreement only about one old camp the Chinese found above 8000 meters, the one at 8300 meters, which has been identified as the 1933 Camp VI. The correct altitude for this camp is 8380 meters. Plus there are now two individual reports (by Gombu and Xu Jing) of finding a second old camp up high.
In our interview, Xu Jing said, in essence, that he was the only one who saw the camp at 8100 meters, as it was away from their route to Camp VI. He didn't give a date for this discovery, but it could have been either May 2 the day they established Camp VI), or May 22 (the day they went up to attempt the summit). On both occasions Gombu was in the same group of climbers as Xu, so he might have seen that camp as well (or heard of it from Xu).
On May 4, Xu and Gombu continued towards Camp VII, as did another group of climbers. Xu had to give up exhausted and returned to Camp VI by Gombu and Shi Ching (not on his own, as we wrote in "Detectives").
Meanwhile the other group came across the old camp at 8300 meters. Gombu and Shi Ching passed through the site later that day, when they re-ascended to meet the others at Camp VII. Xu did not see the camp at 8300 meters (and didn't mention it in our interview), but could have done so on May 22, when he and Gombu passed again through the site on the summit bid.
Bottom line here is that Gombu was with Xu Jing (or close to him) on any occasion Xu could have found the camp at 8100 meters, and both passed through the site of the camp at 8300 meters (Gombu did so twice, once together with Xu).
Did Gombu simply find the same camps as Xu did, giving them different altitudes?
As I said before, the camp at 8300 meters is in fact higher (almost 8400 meters). It is also situated at the top of the steep bottom part of the Yellow Band, so the location could in broad terms be described as "beyond the Yellow Band".
But if Gombu did indeed find yet another camp, at 8500 meters, he could have done so only on the following days:
- May 3/4, the time he helped in establishing Camp VII on the Northeast Ridge at 8460 meters
- May 23/24 and 25, the days he passed through the area on the way to and back from the summit (but it should be noted that the upper mountain was covered in snow on May 25, and the party was exhausted) The persons climbing with Gombu at the time were Shi Jing, Lhakpa Tsering, Shi Zhanchun and Wang Fengtong (May 3/4), and Wang Fuzhou, Qu Yinhua and Liu Lienman (May 23/24).
Shi Zhanchun and Wang Fengtong embarked on a Second Step reconnaissance from Camp VII on May 3, while Lhakpa Tsering stayed behind at Camp VII to wait for the others - so he and Shi Jing might be the most promising candidates for verifying Gombu's discovery. In our interviews, Wang Fuzhou and Qu Yinhua didn't mention finding anything around Camp VII.
”Beyond my imagination”
While Maurice Wilson's unquestionable determination might have got him to the North Col or even partway up the North Ridge (to the bottom of the rocks at c. 7600 m), I personally do not believe that he would ever have been in the position to make a serious summit bid. For an explanation, one just has to see the strong opposition among experts against the possibility that Mallory and Irvine could have done it. How Wilson, who was less experienced and wasn't backed by the logistics of an expedition, could have succeeded where a number of skillful climbers had failed (Norton, Somervell, Wager, Wyn-Harris, Smythe) is beyond my imagination.
Image of Maurice Wilson courtesy of Thomas Noy.