Best of ExplorersWeb 2004 Awards: Over Everest

Posted: Dec 29, 2004 05:00 am EST

ExplorersWeb has been awarded best of adventure by National Geographic and best of the web by Forbes magazine. What is then the Best of ExplorersWeb?

We have covered hundreds of expeditions in 2004. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who continue to linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in the year of 2004.

Today number 3: Over Everest

Awaiting news on his climbers summit push, Ellie, the BC manager of Alpine Ascents suddenly dispatched: "We are also being treated to a rare sight this morning - there are a couple of ultralights flying around up toward the Western Cwm..."

We jumped up from our NYC predawn summit push slumber. "Flymicro! Flymicro!" the shouts echoed around the ExWeb office. It was unexpected. There was no warning, no build up. All of a sudden, the guys just took off.

FlyMicro stunned the entire mountain as they came soaring toward the summit. Wide eyed climbers near the top and below awed at the sight of a strange bird flying up Mount Everest West Face.

The gliders waved at the climbers and then they were gone. Well, at least Angelo was. You rarely get a story like this one even at ExplorersWeb. Here a quick recap of the flight that rocked Everest in 2004.

The "impossible" attempt

Every climber on Everest is acutely aware of wind speeds, but none more so than those rare few who plan on using the wind to their advantage. As this team would use ExWeb's AdventureWeather forecasts for their attempt, this expedition was particularly scary also to us.

The attempt was very bold. Skeptics believed that the air would be too thin and too cold - an Antarctic helicopter pilot veteran called the attempt flat out "impossible".

But adventurers British Microlight pilot Richard Meredith-Hardy and Italian hang-glider pilot Angelo DâArrigo, didnât give the nay-sayers a second thought.

The idea: One in the Micro - the other in tow

They had an idea to use a Microlight plane to tow a hang glider over Everest. This dream came true on the morning of May 24th. It wasnât all easy though.

At first the two couldnât get the engine started, and even drained one battery in the process. Fortunately they brought a backup and the setup, with hang glider in tow, managed to take off from the Syangboche airport: "It was only a minute or two before we were high enough to be able to land back again - that first bit is really scary - there's simply nowhere to go in the event of an engine failure or propeller damage on takeoff..."

"My first sight up the Western Cwm was incredibly dramatic"

After circling for a few to gain altitude the two headed up the valley towards Everest, "We came round the corner of Nuptse at 21,000 ft, I could make out the yellow and blue specks of tents at Everest Base Camp below in the rubble of the Khumbu Glacier and my first sight up the Western Cwm was incredibly dramatic, probably the most striking sight of the whole flight."

"It is really difficult to describe the sheer vastness of the South West face of Mt Everest, this is one BIG rock. And the same scale, the Western Cwm, the valley with the great Khumbu Icefall in it and surrounded by Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest looked rather a small space so I circled to gain height in front of it until we got to about 24,000 ft and then we started circling up and up, over Nuptse and then on up towards Lhotse (27,890 ft), the fourth highest mountain in the World."

"I saw Angelo bouncing around a bit in my mirror"

"Occasionally there was some mild turbulence but generally it was blissfully calm, on one occasion I got a bit too far into the lee of the west ridge and it got a bit bumpy and I had to make rather a sharp left turn to get clear of it, I saw Angelo bouncing around a bit in my mirror and there was a jerk or two as the tow line smapped tight but he hung on in there."

"All the time we had that massive South West Face of Everest in front of us. The colours were striking; grey rock with streaks of white snow and the famous 'yellow band' glowing in the early morning light. Up we circled, higher than Lhotse, a formidable spiky peak unlike the great hump of Everest just above us."

"Visibility was perhaps 150 miles; Makalu (27,765 ft) the fifth highest mountain in the World clearly visible off to the East and the vastness of the Tibetan plateau to the North speckled with low puffy clouds far below."

Vanished into thin air

But as they continued to rise, the towline snapped, and Richard, who was piloting the Microlight, lost sight of Angelo:

"At about this time in no turbulence there was a slight jerk and I realized we had a line break, and by the way my machine leapt forward I could immediately tell it was my end, whether it was the safety 'weak link' fuse which had broken or something else I had no way of knowing. Angelo suddenly would have been landed with 65 metres of rope."

"With all my high altitude kit on I don't have much neck mobility so I couldn't look round to see him and I didn't see anything in the mirror; by the time I had circled round, Angelo, in a white glider against the vast white background of the upper Khumbu Glacier was nowhere to be seen. Vanished into thin air."

"I waved at the climbers"

But the good news was that now Richard began to climb very well with nothing in tow. At 8.15 he flew right by the summit, "flew past two or three times too busy taking photos to really take it all in. On one pass I waved at the climbers and they waved back!"

It was time to turn around. On the way back Richard had to deal with a frozen throttle that fortunately became unstuck just before landing.

But where's Angelo?

Angelo was still missing though:

"Of course after the immediate elation of having actually made it back intact, my first concern was what had happened to Angelo. I had no idea, but we expected him to return here so there was no immediate panic. Massimo, Angelo's assistant came over to me with Angelo's satellite phone - he'd forgotten to take it with him. This was a rather serious development as we had planned to use the 'SMS a GPS position' feature of our phones in an emergency outlanding situation, and as time went by with no sign of him it became increasingly clear that Angelo might have had to outland."

After an increasingly tense couple of hours Angelo was located: "...apparently a bit bruised from a rough landing but otherwise safe and well." He had landed near the 'Italian Pyramid' scientific research station at Lobuche, close to BC. A chopper next took him out to lower altitude.

Question mark for comradeship

Two years of preparation went into this expedition. The two are now planning on writing a book about the flight.

The Flymicro totally blew our minds (even though the snapped line leaves a question mark for comradeship :). The team stays in our memory for their tremendous courage, ingenuity and very simply - a Great Spirit of Adventure!

By their performance, the awarded expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:

- Courage

- Determination

- Persistence

- Self reliance

- Ingenuity

- Pioneering

- Idealism

- Comradeship

- Compassion

- Respect towards competition

- Honesty

8 expeditions have been chosen best in the world of adventure in 2004.

Previous in the countdown:

4. Dominick Arduin (North Pole) for her refusal to compromise her goals.

5. The SpaceShipOne team for their self reliance, pioneering and ingenuity.

6. The Russian North Wall team (Mount Everest) for persistence, pioneering, courage and comradeship.

7. The Russian Extreme Project (Amin Brakk BASE jump) for pioneering, ingenuity and courage.

8. Fiona and Rosie (South Pole) for their record-breaking performance and respect for each other.

An additional 4 expeditions received a special mention award:

Edurne Pasaban and Juanito Oiarzabal (K2) - for their courage and honesty.

Henk De Velde (NW Passage) - for his battle to the bitter end.

Pavel Rezvoy (Ocean rowing) - for his power of will and refusal to retire.

Nawang Sherpa (Mount Everest) - for his determination and ground-breaking performance.

More on FlyMicro - A High altitude spiderâs brush with tragedy

Stuck in the valley below Everest because of thick fog, one of the team members, Sidney - who hoped to be the first Spider above 8,000 meters - was not particularly fond of one aspect of the expedition: It would involve a study of the migratory route of the Steppe Eagles (Aquila Nealensis). Here is what Sydney had to say about meeting an eagle while waiting around:

"I can tell you it was a very unpleasant experience. Before I could escape, the eagle grabbed me in his beak and in a moment I was pinned on the ground in his claws and he was trying to rip my legs off! Luckily I am a tough old thing and none of them came off (even if they did, everybody knows I can grow them back again).

Richard wasn't being much use all this time, just leaping around shouting "no no no" a lot, which didn't have the slightest effect on the eagle. Luckily he did come to my rescue in the end though, just as I was about to be swallowed whole he grabbed the eagle round the neck so I wouldn't go down its throat and I was spat out. I can tell you I was away out of range as fast as my eight legs would carry me, and apart from a few bruises utterly unscathed. Angelo told me later that the eagle was disappointed to have missed such a tasty looking meal, but otherwise quite unharmed."