Everest climber describes history-making ascent

AMHERST – When he was growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Ed Webster loved to climb trees. His mother would look out the window and see her 11-year-old son 40 feet off the ground.

To teach him how to climb safely, she got him a book on mountain climbing, and after Webster read “Everest Diary” by Lut Jerstad, who was one of the first five Americans to conquer Mount Everest, his future was set.

“I was immediately smitten,” Webster told a packed audience at his lecture and slide show at the Amherst Town Library last week.

Decades later, he achieved mountain-climbing fame when he and his team scaled the remote east face of Everest using a route that had never been tried before.

The Kangshung Face in Tibet is considered Everest’s most remote, and possibly its most dangerous side. The team climbed the 12,000-vertical-feet of the world’s tallest mountain with no radios, bottled oxygen or Sherpa assistance – a climb that “gave most intelligent climbers pause.” Webster said.

That 1988 ascent, when Webster was 32, has been hailed as the last of the great Everest expeditions, and one of the most audacious mountaineering feats of all time. Webster lost eight fingertips to frostbite in the climb, and their achievement is part of Everest history.

“There was no Google Earth, we used six photos (of Everest’s east slope) to prepare.” he said. “We were young and maybe too brave … we were scared witless most of the time, but we had a lot of fun,” he said showing a photo of tents above a sea of clouds.

One night when they were not far from the summit and the temperature was 30 below zero, the team of four set up tents in 100 mph winds, “and we knew if they blew away we would die.”

Now the climb is considered the last of the great Everest expeditions.

Webster talked for two hours to an audience that overflowed into the balcony of the library’s reading room.

So many people – almost 200 – signed up for Webster’s evening talk, said librarian Ruslyn Vear, that he added the one in the afternoon.

He seemed to have an endless supply of climbing anecdotes: about flying over Everest in a helicopter with 1980s rock musician Billy Squier to film an MTV video, and about spending three days with Jerstad, the Everest diarist, “one of the most magical coming-togethers of my life.”

Webster was socially audacious as well. Once he met Sir Edmund Hillary at a lecture in Boulder, Colorado, and “no one was sitting next to him, so I grabbed the seat, and asked, ‘Do you think you and Tenzing (Norgay) suffered brain damage’ from oxygen deprivation during their climbs?”

Everest is probably the only mountain known all over the world, he said, with an image of “solidity and height that fascinated me since I was 11.”

Webster is an acknowledged expert on the history of Mount Everest and the author of two guidebooks, “Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire” and “Climbing in the Magic Islands to the Lofoten Islands of Arctic Norway,” as well as “Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest.”

New England climbers are lucky to have the White Mountains, he said.

“If you can deal with the Presidential Mountains, you can climb on any mountain. It’s the best training ground you could possibly have.”

And how does his mother react to all that climbing?

She is 93 now, and when he sees her she likes to say, “I’m so glad I got you that mountaineering book. You had such a good time.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.