Michael Bronco Lane

Michael Bronco Lane Interview taken in 2009

Michael ‘Bronco’ Lane reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 16th May 1976 with fellow partner John ‘Brummie’ Stokes while on a Joint British Army and Royal Nepalese Army Everest Expedition. Bronco then went on to be the leader of the 1983 Special Air Service Regiment Everest Expedition.

You joined the Army Mountaineering Association while in the Special Air Service. Do you think you would have started climbing if it wasn’t for the Army?

I joined the Army aged 16 as a Junior Leader in November 1961 after being introduced to basic mountaineering whilst participating on an Ullswater Outward Bound Course. ‘Topper Brown’ my first Troop Sergeant had been an instructor at Tywyn Army Outward Bound School and he continued to nurture an interest in general. However it was not until I joined 22 SAS Regiment in 1967 and found myself in a Mountain Troop that I really developed my involvement.

It has been 33 years since you were on the Summit of Mount Everest. Do you still remember your time up there? 

Yes I do have a series of selected memories, probably nurtured by my still giving the odd slide presentation. Besides the obvious ones of isolation, cold and effects of altitude the single over-riding aspect is one of a total focus to just keep going -eight to ten steps at a time – then a long pause to recover and move on again, for as long as it takes.

You left your top camp at 6am for the summit and had agreed with Brummie Stokes that if you were not on the summit by midday you would turn around and head back. You both reached the summit at 3.15, what happened to your turn around time? 

We paused on reaching the South Summit at 1pm, when a short break in the clouds gave us a tantalizing view of the Hillary Step and the final summit slopes.  I remember looking at my watch, noting the time and turning to Brum gave him a ‘thumbs up’! He replied with an affirmative ‘thumbs up’ and I continued to traverse the cornice ridge across to the Step. In a similar situation I very much doubt if any mountaineer anywhere near the summit of Everest would have reacted differently.

On the descent you and Brummie Stokes were forced to bivouac because of the bad weather. During that night did you ever imagine that you would survive to see the morning? 

We left the summit at about 15:40 in poor visibility and with very little oxygen left. We had cached a spare bottle at 28,000 feet and our over-whelming need was to find this. We safely abseiled back down the Hillary Step and somehow reached the South Summit, after which a combination of thick cloud, total lack of trail and no oxygen had us stumbling onwards, in a pretty bad state. Then, just at last light and without any illumination, we arrived at our upright orange bottle stuffed in a snow bank.

Totally exhausted in the darkness we huddled facing each other sitting on our sacks with the bottle between us. Brum had the first go at connecting and could not get a secure join and slumped. In total desperation, I took off my outer mitt and wearing just my thin contact glove was able to get a sound coupling. We swapped over the mask every few minutes through-out the long night. Both of us experienced hallucinations and rubbed each others backs and legs to stimulate circulation, as we slipped in and out of unconsciousness. Fortunately never both of us together.

Around about midnight, the storm died down and it became a cold, clear but luckily a windless night, which was our salvation.

I do not recall ever thinking “I’m not going to make it”. Possibly soldiers have that part of their psyche removed early in basic training, as there will be lots of times on active operational service when all that goes through the mind is “Stick It! Stick It! Stick!” to keep you alive.

Due to the cold you lost 5 fingers and 10 toes. How long did it take you to recover from this ordeal?

Three months later during a very hot summer, we had the frost bitten digits surgically removed by Mr Charles Renton, a well respected surgeon at Hereford County Hospital. It would take a further six months for the stumps to heal sufficiently for our return to active service with the unit.

Is it true that you gave the National Army Museum your 5 fingers and 10 toes for them to exhibit in the museum? 

Yes. They had originally been donated to the London Wellcome Museum for their medical exhibition and following a re-organization were returned and I kept them in my garage. Some years later whilst giving a lecture at the National Army Museum Chelsea, to promote my book Military Mountaineering, I was asked if I had anything suitable for a permanent loan. So the digits found another useful home, from where they have made special ‘guest’ appearances here and there.

What is your view on the many commercial expeditions that are on Everest every year? 

Amongst the many negative aspects, to my mind the one major plus factor is that a good percentage of the wealth generated today on Everest remains with the Sherpa peoples of the Solu Khumbu.

Of all the mountains you have climbed on around the world which is your favorite? 

In the summer of 1972 I was a member of the 12 strong AMA Axel Heiburg Expedition in the Canadian Arctic. We split into teams of four and ours spent six weeks in the field climbing virgin peaks accessed by glaciers. We climbed over 30 and I named one ‘Kneecap’ in recognition of Brum who was absent having his shattered kneecap removed, following an incident in the Dhofar War when he’d tried to stop an AK47 round.

Today, most items used on Everest are lighter, smaller and of better quality. Which item used today would you of liked back in 1976? 

Double Plastic High Altitude Boots so I could still walk around barefooted!

Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step? 

Yes I most certainly do!