Free-lance Writer on the Climb

When Dick Bass reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1985, he read from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” He’d succeeded on his fourth attempt.

Bass owns the Snowbird ski resort in Utah. This autumn’s Snowbird Everest Expedition hopes to put an American woman on the summit. “They don’t want to make a big deal about it being the first American woman,” said Chicago journalist Elizabeth Kaufmann. “They’re ashamed it hasn’t been done before. That’s my reading of it.”

Kaufmann’s reading is going to become Kaufmann’s writing. Last May, when she quit as an editor at Outside magazine to write full-time, “I worried about whether I’d have enough work.” Then she signed on with the Snowbird team to climb and report. Now she worries about surviving. “I could get sick,” said Kaufmann, who’s been inoculated against rabies, cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, and hepatitis.

Or something could happen to her on the mountain. Expedition leader Karen Fellerhoff (Bass isn’t making this climb) told us 170 people have conquered Everest; 90 climbers have died trying. Nevertheless, Fellerhoff said there’s a nine-year wait for a permit from the government of Nepal for an expedition. “The mountain is booked up. If you apply now, you could get a permit for your grandchildren.”

Kaufmann will send her stories to the Chicago Tribune–they bought first rights and syndication rights for the $21,000 they kicked in to the expedition, which is expected to cost about $300,000. “We’re at Liz’s mercy,” said Mary Knoblauch, editor of the Tribune’s Sunday magazine, which will run Kaufmann’s wrap-up account. “She’ll have to radio somebody in Kathmandu who will take dictation and then telex it or use Reuters to get it back to us. We can’t call up and say ‘How do you spell that name?’ There are women on a Seattle expedition, too. [They’ll be climbing the north, Tibetan, face at the same time.] It’s a real race. What if Seattle gets there first?”

“The Nepalis like you to leave something for the gods,” said Kaufmann. If the Snowbird team makes it, the gods will inherit a little magnesium plaque from the Tribune. “We haven’t seen this kind of sponsorship in some time,” Tribune marketing director Bob Dickey told us. “In the old days, newspapers used to sponsor these kinds of events frequently. But I don’t expect them to be really newsworthy until they get to the summit.”

Kaufmann, who’s never climbed before, won’t get that high. She’s in Nepal now, trekking with the other four women and six men of the Snowbird expedition toward base camp, 18,000 feet up the 29,028-foot mountain. They should arrive next week; Kaufmann will stay there with the team doctor and a Sherpa guide while the others go on. The last 11,000 feet will take weeks.

“Lots of people weaken. They just get wiped out,” Kaufmann said. “From lack of oxygen, your blood thickens. You can’t think. It might take you a half hour to tie your boots on the mountain. You might take eight breaths between steps. I will probably be a mush brain for a while. People tend to repeat themselves and be monosyllabic and not make much sense. You don’t want to go up more than 1,000 feet per day.

“One guy wrote letters home to his family. He thought these would be profound documents. He couldn’t wait to read them. He came across like a blithering idiot.”

After shopping around, Kaufmann took along a battery-powered Tandy computer and a portable Adler manual typewriter. “I was told that with a portable computer, the liquid crystals on the screen tend to lose efficiency at 32 degrees and tend to break down at minus 13 degrees. Batteries freeze and don’t last long at that altitude either. You’re supposed to sleep with your batteries to keep them warm. The Sherpas will throw them in the frying pan until they heat up.

“I’ve heard I should take a lot of pencils. That ink tends to freeze up there. I’ve heard ballpoints are better than felt tips.”

If the weather holds, Kaufmann could get midday temperatures as high as 70 to do her writing in. If the weather doesn’t hold, Everest could blow the entire expedition back down the mountain.

The Snowbird team has proceeded conservatively, choosing Everest’s “gentlest” face and taking along oxygen. Some master climbers have upped the ante in the Himalayas–no oxygen, no Sherpas, and no resting every thousand feet. “As more and more people reach the top of these mountains, they have to make it riskier,” said Kaufmann. “They take away the margin of safety. It’s all a big game.

“That’s one of the controversies in climbing today–use of oxygen. If you’re wearing an oxygen mask at 28,000 feet, that’s as if you were at 24,000 feet. So the real heroes are the ones who do it without oxygen.”

Kaufmann said everybody asks her what her husband thinks of all this. “I bet if I were a man, people wouldn’t ask me ‘What does your wife think about this?'” So we called her husband, Ernest Tucker, feature writer at the Sun-Times, and put the question to him.

“It’s going to be a major ordeal,” said Tucker. “I may have to start buying the Tribune.”

War-Movie Stories

Don James came back from the Philippines last November a changed man. “It took me weeks to recover,” said the 22-year-old Chicago actor, who spent 11 weeks there filming Hamburger Hill.

“We were around firearms, we were around explosives. Snakes, the ‘two steps,’ they bite, you go two steps, then die. Twelve different kinds of mosquitoes we had to watch out for; they carried sleeping sickness, malaria. . . . Two men died–the master electrician, who was electrocuted, and a special effects man who suffered a heart attack during an explosion. We were in the jungle, and there just happened to be cameras around.”

“Yes. I was scared.” This is James’s first lead role–he plays a Sergeant McDaniel–but he hasn’t seen the movie yet, which opens August 28. He’s been too nervous to go to screenings. “Besides, I didn’t want to leave my work.” James manages bands for a living.

He says Hill is the “real” movie about Vietnam: a true story written by Jim Carabatsos, former air cavalryman. In 1969, four thousand soldiers were sent to conquer Hill 937, which commanded a Viet Cong supply route. Ten days later, seven out of every ten were dead or wounded.

Don James had done his own research on Vietnam years ago. His stepfather was a veteran who cracked up ten years after his return. “There were times he’d be asleep on the couch and wake up screaming, thrashing, fighting,” said James. “He never talked to me about it.” There were James’s friends, too. He visited encounter groups. He wrote a screenplay, “Secret Journey,” that touched on Vietnam. “Besides my acting, I think that’s how I got the job,” he said.

Of the 14 principal actors in Hamburger Hill, four, including James, play “bloods,” or “the black guys in the platoon.” The actors developed their own characters. Sergeant McDaniel “is the baby in the bunch. He’s so naive you want to hug him–or slap him.”

James “adopted” two Filipino kids from the village of Boso-Boso. Before he left, he put a paycheck into the bank for their college education. “They were living in what we call hell. And they were so happy. This intrigued me. It helped me let go of some of the material bonds I had.”

People who know him tell James he’s been a lot quieter since he came home. He learned to jump from helicopters, weathered typhoons, sank in a field of ox excrement, and brought back a parasitic infection. He told us he can sum up his experiences with one line: “Don’t bother me–I was there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.