Obituary: Raymond Lambert

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The Independent Online
Raymond Lambert was one of Switzerland's best-known mountaineers and glacier pilots. Despite his many successes, he will probably be remembered best as the man who narrowly missed making the first ascent of Everest, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, in 1952.

He was born on 18 October 1914 in Geneva, where he lived all his life. By his early twenties, he had emerged as one of the leading stars in a talented group of Genevois climbers, vying with French, German and Italian rivals for some of the hardest new climbs in the Mont Blanc Range. Second ascents of the Croz Spur on the Grands Jorasses and the North Face of the Drus (where his name is immortalised in the Fissure Lambert) put him at the forefront of international mountaineering, but his most futuristic climb, in 1938, was a winter ascent of the Aiguilles Diables, which are as fearsome as their name suggests. A vicious February storm caught the party on the culminating summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Lambert was only able to seek rescue after three days sheltering in a crevasse. All his severely frostbitten toes were subsequently amputated.

There is a persisting myth that human beings need toes to operate effectively. Lambert, a mountain guide and ski instructor by profession, defied the myth and within a year he was climbing again. His mountaineering career continued through the Second World War and in 1952 he was an obvious choice for Ed Wyss-Dunant's Genevois expedition to Everest. Tibet was now closed to foreigners but Nepal had just opened up. The previous year Eric Shipton's British-New Zealand reconnaissance had climbed the Khumbu Icefall and reached the elusive Western Cwm, proving that Everest could be climbed from Nepal. Unfortunately for the British, who had enjoyed exclusive access to the mountain for 21 years, the Nepal government gave the 1952 permit to the Swiss.

Building on Shipton's experience, the Genevans reached the head of the Western Cwm and climbed the huge face above to the desolate, wind-swept plateau of the South Col. Three Swiss climbers and Sherpa Tenzing continued towards the summit, pitching a tent at 8,400m. Two returned, leaving Tenzing and Lambert, who had become firm friends, to make a summit attempt. High altitude mountaineering in 1952 was still in its infancy. Even Swiss organisation and technology were not up to the job and, apart from Tenzing, the Sherpas had little experience. Despite the best plans, Tenzing and Lambert now had to spend a night at 8,400m with no sleeping bags and no stove, producing a trickle of drinking water by melting snow over a candle. The oxygen sets were barely operable and when the two men continued in the morning, they were effectively climbing without oxygen. They struggled heroically, at times crawling on all fours, hindered by the dead weight of malfunctioning oxygen sets, finally grinding to a halt at over 8,600m, less than 250m short of the summit. Assuming that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the summit in 1924, this was higher then anyone had ever been.

Lambert's extraordinary determination was further confirmed that autumn when, alone out of the spring team, he returned for the second Swiss attempt on Everest. This time he and Tenzing were driven back from the South Col by the November jet stream winds and, to the immense relief of the British team, preparing for 1953, the Swiss admitted defeat.

Lambert returned to Nepal in 1954, trespassing across the Tibetan frontier to attempt Gaurisankar, and in 1955 to make the first ascent with Eric Gauchat and Claude Kogan of Ganesh I (7,429m). Subsequent expeditions took him to Pakistan and South America.

Then in 1959 he embarked on a completely new career and by 1963, now married with two children, he was a fully qualified glacier pilot, flying to remote and inaccessible icy areas - a vocation which brought him considerable fame until he finally stopped flying ten years ago at the age of 72.

Lord Hunt recalls meeting Raymond Lambert in 1953 to learn as much as he could about the Swiss attempt on Everest: "Despite their disappointment, the Swiss were most helpful. However, Raymond told me tactfully, `Monsieur Colonel, vous aurez gros problemes', meaning, I think, that we hadn't a hope in hell." On 26 May 1953, exactly a year after Lambert's attempt, Hunt himself photographed the skeletal remains of the tent at 8,400m. "It brought home the significance of their performance and made me force myself 50m higher up the ridge, to deposit the supplies for our final camp." Three days later Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit. On the way home, the team stopped off at Zurich airport and met the Swiss trail- blazers again. Lord Hunt recalls that, this time, "they offered us unreserved applause. In later years Raymond and I became close friends. He was not a demonstrative person, but the warmth of personality, once bestowed, was very precious to me."

Raymond Jules Eugene Lambert, mountaineer and pilot: born 18 October 1914; married (one son, one daughter); died Geneva 25 February 1997.