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TOPSHAM — On his third and final adventure on Mt. Everest in 1988, Ed Webster and three colleagues decided to scale the world’s tallest mountain the hard way.
Not that there’s necessarily an easy way.
They went up one of Everest’s most dangerous sides, with no bottled oxygen, radios or Sherpa assistance. Their four-day ascent took them through a storm and deep snow with no food. Webster, who got 300 vertical feet from the top before oxygen deprivation forced him back, ended up with frostbite that claimed eight fingertips.
Still, everyone survived what became a story about goal-setting, motivation and perseverance that Webster, 53, shares on the lecture circuit. It is also a tale he recounts through his fifth and latest book, “Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest.”
Webster’s lectures have taken him throughout the U.S., as well as to Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Italy, and even an oil platform on the North Sea.
He aims to bring adventure into the classroom for kids when giving talks to local students. At Woodside Elementary School in Topsham he led students in building a facsimile Everest base camp, giving them a hands-on, albeit safer, take on what he experienced in his climbs.
For schools and scouts, his “Great Explorers” lecture encompasses bold explorations of the North and South poles, Everest and the Moon. Another illustrated slide lecture, “My Goal is to Climb Mount Everest,” incorporates the geography of Tibet and Nepal, features his Everest gear and embraces the virtues of teamwork, dedication and following childhood dreams.
Childhood ambition pushed Boston-born Webster up many a mountain and steered the course of his life. When he was 11, his mother brought him a library book, “Everest Diary,” about the first Americans to climb Everest.
“That’s the book that ignited my climbing passion,” Webster said. “I used to love to climb trees, and I started rock climbing at age 11, with ropes … on small 20-foot cliffs near my house (in Lexington, Mass.).”
His rock-climbing skills continued to improve, and he picked up mountaineering and ice- and snow-climbing skills. Webster began having articles and photos on climbing published while in high school, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Colorado College.
Among his books are “Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,” which has three editions.
Prior to 1990, a person had to be invited to climb Everest, he said. Having proved himself a strong climber, hard worker and team player, Webster got the invitation to scale the 29,035-foot mountain at the age of 28.
His first ascent of Everest was in 1985, to the west ridge in Nepal, and his second was to the north side of the mountain the following year, during which he soloed a new route, Changtse, or the north peak.
The most aggressive Everest climb was yet ahead. Webster joined fellow American Robert Anderson, Canadian Paul Teare and Briton Stephen Venables on the April-May 1988 climb, during which they pioneered a new route up the Kangshung, or the east face.
Webster’s friend, David Breashears, who co-made the “Everest” IMAX documentary, had been invited on the trip. “He said, ‘no thanks; give me a call if you get home,’” Webster recalled.
“The east face … is really remote, really dangerous, and no one ever goes there,” Webster said. “And that’s where we did the new route. … To the present day, Everest has only been climbed from the east side three times ever; we did the second climb.”
Webster’s desire to reach the summit kept him going back to Everest, and on the third ascent he got within 300 feet.
“Without oxygen bottles, I got to 28,700 feet above sea level with my own lung power, but I realized that I had given it my best try … and that if I went even 15 feet further I … probably wouldn’t come back,” Webster said. “I was hallucinating, I passed out twice.”
While it wasn’t greatly emotional at the time, he added, “it’s more emotional now when you look back on it and say ‘wow, I was that close. I was an hour from the summit.’”
Webster takes pride that Venables made it, though. Venables was the first British climber to ascend Everest without oxygen bottles, Webster said.
Webster is also pleased that he helped to save the lives of Venables and Anderson on the way down – Teare had already descended – leading them to safety, he said, after they ran out of food for three and a half days and got caught in a storm. And Webster’s frostbite, which also took three toes, was the worst.
“A lot of people have suggested to me, and it’s probably true, that maybe I had a higher purpose,” he said. “I didn’t get to the summit, but I helped everybody get down alive.”
On the way up, Webster had removed his outer layer of gloves off in the approximately 40-below-zero Fahrenheit climate to snap a stunning 5 a.m. photo of the third-, fourth- and fifth-highest mountains in the world, and still wearing liner gloves, Webster said, “in two minutes I took eight photos, and I froze my fingers holding the camera.”
His book illustrates the unfortunate frostbitten results. He calls the photo “the Frostbite Sunrise.”
Asked if the sacrifice of eight fingertips was worth the photo, Webster responded, “it’s a very beautiful picture. But it’s a very expensive picture.”
The experience also earned him a place in Trivial Pursuit.
“We were the smallest team that ever climbed a new route up Mt. Everest; that’s a big deal,” Webster said. “But the question was, ‘how many fingertips did American climber Ed Webster lose to frostbite on Everest in 1988?’”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected].
Ed Webster of Topsham has made three trips up Mt. Everest. He talks about those trips and exploration in general in a series of lectures, as well as his book, “Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest.”