Assault on Mt. Everest -- with TV camera in tow

Climbing Mt. Everest may no longer be the arduous adventure it used to be, but, encumbered with a television camera and videotape recorder, Susumu Nakamura managed to add to the normal difficulties.

The cameraman was a member of a Tokyo television-station team that recently filmed the Japan Alpine Club's successful assault on the world's highest mountain from the hitherto-closed Chinese side. The result is a two-hour documentary film of outstanding technical quality belying the difficulties that had to be overcome to obtain it.

For Mr. Nakamura, a keen mountaineer, the only disappointment was failing to reach the summit. As the final assault team's oxygen supply began to run short, the cameraman had to stop a frustrating 280-feet short.

With darkness fast approaching, he could not have filmed at the top anyway. And the only way to have continued climbing would have been to abandon his expensive equipment in the snow.

So the cameraman had to spend a cold, miserable night alone tantalizingly close to the roof of the world, consoled only by the knowledge he had achieved a television first.

Mr. Nakamura was no stranger to Everest. In 1975 he filmed a successful Japanese women's expedition on the Nepal side.

Knowing both sides, the Japanese climber says the Chinese approach is tougher. The rough terrain means the base camp has to be pitched three times farther from the summit than the Nepal side.

Above 25,000 feet, in particular, a raging gale never seems to cease, making climbing more dangerous and adding to the biting cold. The rock structure near the summit is also much more difficult to climb than the graduated steps of the traditional south col route.

Finally, there are no Sherpas in China willing to help pack the heavy equipment.

Chinese climbers volunteered to help the Japanese as far as camp five on the north col. But they were on their own for the last few thousand feet.

On the lower slopes, the television crew used a camera/recorder weighing 40 pounds -- remarkably light for this sort of equipment, but still no joke when hiking up hills all day. Farther up, the switch was made to equipment weighing about 21 pounds.

Mr. Nakamura was on his own for the last 3,000 feet, toting an unusual four-pound camera and a videotape recorder tipping the scales at about six pounds. Weight was only one of the problems the television men faced, however. There was also the power source to cope with, which was overcome by portable generators around the base camp and by large batteries clipped to the cameraman's feather-lined vest at higher elevations.

The camera and videotape recorder needed considerable protection. They were fine outdoors during the day, but at night were kept inside heated sleeping bags.

Nevertheless, all the filming efforts would have been useless if moisture had got into the equipment, and there were plenty of chances for that.

The greatest danger of this came in the evening, when the crew returned to tents. Outside, the temperature dipped to a -35 degress F. on a good day. Inside, stoves heated the air to 15 or more degrees above zero.

Moisture would have quickly formed in the equipment had Mr. Nakamura not laboriously packed and sealed the camera and recorder in vinyl bags. If interior shots were required, he had to wait hours until the equipment warmed up.

"Nursing the equipment took up hours of every day," the cameraman recalls, although he somehow manages to make the Everest climb sound no more difficult than filming in Tokyo.

Mr. Nakamura and his chief director, Kanji Iwashita, are no strangers to filming in extreme conditions. The two men also crossed the Arctic to the North Pole by dog sled two years ago. Their cold weather filming feats will likely soon be repeated.

Japanese television cameras could be back on Everest again in a few months -- this time recording an attempt by Uemura (who has already scaled the mountain) to become the first man to make a successful winter assault.

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