Mountain climbing isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days of yore, when intrepid explorers raced to be the first to conquer distant peaks that soared high in the imagination. Today, climbers desirous of putting their names in the record books are reduced to securing gimmicky titles like Fastest Ascent Hopping Backwards While Juggling Mangos, or similar.
In the old days, it was all very different, of course. When New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay conquered Mt. Everest in 1953, they stood where no one had ever stood before. For the Chinese government, Hillary's conquest of he world's tallest mountain (increasingly known by its Tibetan name, Qomolungma) was a rallying call requiring a gesture of national pride that far outstrips any ambitions for Olympic gold. Hillary and Norgay had climbed the 8850-meter mountain via the Nepalese southern route, through Nepal. But the mountain was, after all, half Chinese, lying partially in Tibet. The seemingly insurmountable barrier was the craggy Second Step, 8610 meters above sea level.
Enter Qu Yinhua. To the casual observer, the warm, 69-year-
old grandfather with an impenetrable Sichuan accent shows few signs of his younger days of mountaineering. It's not until he reaches out to shake hands that you realize that he has lost one digit to frostbite. "I walk like an old woman nowadays," he fusses genially as he opens his apartment door. Qu lost his toes, also to frostbite, on June 25, 1960 - the day he became one of the first three Chinese people to reach the top of Mt. Everest.
The story starts in 1958, when the 23-year-old Qu was labor union leader in a Sichuan logging camp. A notice was posted inviting climbing enthusiasts to apply to join a major mountain expedition. "The ad said that we would spend time training in Beijing," recalls the self-effacing Qu. "I'd never seen Tian'anmen Square, and this seemed like my best chance."
After preliminary exercises on Beijing's Fragrant Hills, 40 young hopefuls departed for the Soviet Union for training. "Originally, the plan was for a joint Sino-Soviet ascent of Everest," says Qu. "But then political relations started to go bad, and the Soviets pulled out."
Undaunted, the Chinese government continued to push for the northerly ascent of Everest, backing ambition with a check for US$700,000 to buy imported equipment. Premier Zhou Enlai then followed up with a phone call saying, in essence, "Get to the top, or die trying".
"We were aware that the climb was of national importance," says Qu. "We knew other Chinese teams had failed, and we knew that it had become an issue of China's 'face'."
The final team included leader Wang Fuzhou, Xu Jin, Liu Lianman, and Gong Bu; Qu Yinhua was charged with carrying a camera to record the historic climb.
By the time the crew had established their camp at 8500 meters, supplies were running low, and critically, they only had eight bottles of oxygen left - enough for only four climbers. Qu decided to abandon his attempt, but Xu suddenly pulled out, freeing up one more place.
Qu produces a well-thumbed black and white photograph of the Second Step, taken in 1975. Tracing his finger across a sheer face of ice-covered rock, he illustrates the scale of their task. "We made three attempts at the 30-meter cliff," he says, prodding the image. "We went this way, and that way, but it was no use. We were exhausted, and night was falling." Liu succumbed to fatigue, and also abandoned the attempt.
With provisions exhausted and the Second Step unconquered, the three remaining climbers held an emergency meeting. "The English had said that not even a bird could fly across the Second Step," says Qu. "But then we noticed a crevice of about 20-30cm in width." Qu leapt to his feet, and squeezed himself into the crack to make a final, desperate attempt.
Qu's unyielding boots - weighing 4kg - afforded him insufficient grip on the slippery surface, and what he did next sounds inconceivable: he cast off his shoes and socks to climb barefoot. Temperatures hovered around -40C. "I could just hear Premier Zhou's words in my head," he says. "I knew that greater things than one man's feet were at stake - it was a question of national honor."
Qu spent five hours clinging barefoot to the rock face. By midnight, he had succeeded in hauling team members Wang and Gong up the cliff, and they began their final ascent. After four more hours, they reached the summit, at 4:25am on June 25, 1960.
Without the warmth of the sun, nighttime temperatures had plunged and they feared a sudden storm. The trio scribbled the time and date on a piece of paper, and placed a statue of Chairman Mao and a Chinese flag in a canister, which they buried. They then picked up a rock to present to Mao, who placed it in the National History Museum in Tian'anmen Square - where it remains today.
The team spent less than a minute at the summit, and the dark meant no photographs were taken. Controversy raged among overseas observers as to whether the Chinese conquest was just a faked publicity stunt; it was only in 1975, when the dated note was discovered, that the international climbing community recognized their achievement.
In 1975, a second Chinese expedition repeated their feat - but this time, strapping a 25-meter ladder to the slippery Second Step, cutting future climbing times on cliff face to a mere 20 minutes.
For Qu, his knowledge of China's extremes saw a future career with the General Administration of Sport, planning expeditions for groups such as the National Geographic Society. He then returned to Mt. Everest in 1996 to join a cleanup operation that he describes as simply "sad". On one single day in May last year, 118 climbers stood on Everest's summit. While Qu says it still takes a special kind of determination to make it to the top, today, he says, there's one crucial difference: "For us, climbing Everest was made harder by the knowledge that nobody had ever succeeded," he says. "You have to conquer that fear that it may be impossible."
(cityweekend.com.cn August 13, 2004)