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Postage Stamp Day 2022: Stamps, Covers & Cachets from Mount Everest

Postage Stamp Day 2022: Stamps, Covers & Cachets from Mount Everest

 

The 1 July is National Postage Stamp Day in the United States. To mark this occasion, we have re-published Colin Hepper's 1979 Alpine Journal article which details the stamps, covers and cachets used by various Everest expeditions from the 1920s onwards. These tokens were frequently used for the correspondance sent from basecamp, bearing mountaineering news to the wider world and have become collector's items in the decades since. Colin's piece also looks at the other occasions when Everest has featured on stamps, whether as a method of commemorating ascents or as a symbol of Nepali national identity.

 

Nepal has held a fascination for me for many years now. Not for its challenge to the mountaineers, but for its stamps and postal history. In the search for items for my collection I have occasionally come across souvenir covers and cards associated with the many climbing expeditions that have visited there. These souvenirs are usually organised to help to raise funds towards the expedition's expenses and often carry the signatures of the climbing teams and various cachets are stamped on them. In isolated cases special stamps or labels are also used, but neither the stamps nor cachets in general have any valid postal use.

When letters and cards are posted they have to be taken to the nearest Nepalese Post Office, where Nepalese stamps are added. Many expeditions have visited Mount Everest since the first one in 1921, and most have had their own posting facilities. The first to have postal arrangements was in 1924, when a special stamp (fig l) showing the Rongbuk Glacier and Everest was printed in blue and white and this stamp had local status when used between the Base Camp and the official Post Offices in India. There are 4 cancellations used for this particular expedition. The most common is the Mount Everest Expedition Rongbuk Glacier Base Camp (type l) which is found used in both red and black. The majority of these were used on special cards advertising a forthcoming film of the expedition and posted from either Darjeeling or Calcutta after the expedition returned (fig 2). The other 2 (type 3 and type 4) are much scarcer and are only in black. Also used on this expedition was another special 'tractor party' cachet (type 2) which was used on covers from Sikkim, where the tractor party was abandoned.

 

 

The next expedition in 1933, led by Hugh Ruttledge had a Base Camp cachet (type 5) which was used to authorize the carriage of mail to the nearest Post Office. This cachet struck in violet was used by expedition members, which told the Gantok postal authorities that they should affix the necessary stamps thereon and charge accordingly. A Tibetan postal agent Lobsang Tsering was in charge of organizing a relay of postal runners from the expedition to the Post Office in Gantok. The oblong cachet (type 6) was a rectangle inscribed 'Everest 1936' and underneath a line of dots. The dotted line was for the insertion of the place name and the date from where the cover was sent. It was on this expedition that much of the mail was stolen. The last mail to arrive safely was sent from Tengke Dzong on April 10th and from that date until the beginning of June, no mail reached its destination without a long delay.

 

 

When mail was finally recovered buried in a tin in the Sikkim Forest each piece of mail was endorsed by a typewritten slip worded as follows: 'Suffered detention in Gantok Post Office owing to the postmaster's failure to affix postage stamps, and to forward them in time. The postmaster has been sent to jail for his offence.'

The last expedition before the Second World War was in 1938, and although there were no special cachets with the word 'Mount Everest' used, they did in fact use an 'Under Certificate of Posting' cachet (type 7), which was used for mail between the Base Camp and Gantok where stamps were put on and cancelled in the normal way. These cachets are known in both violet and purple. After 1950 Nepal allowed climbing expeditions into what had been previously a prohibited area, and so in 1953 we had the first successful attempt on Everest led by Colonel John Hunt from the Nepalese side. The expedition arrived at Khumbu Glacier on 22 April and Mr A. Gregory organized native runners to carry the mail to and from Kathmandu. The mail was delivered to the British Embassy from where it was handed over to the Indian Post Office for forward transmission. All letters sent by members of the expedition were stamped with a small rectangular rubber stamp (type 8) which was applied to the bottom left hand corner of the letter cover. Whilst climbers were up on the mountain at higher camps, Sherpas and climbers carried the mail up. To commemorate the success of the expedition, the Indian Post Office issued two stamps in denomination of 2 annas and 14 annas showing a view of the Himalayas and Mount Everest (fig 3). The American expedition in 1963, which succeeded in placing 6 men on the summit followed the example of the 1924 party by producing a special stamp or label. Unlike the 1924 stamps this had no valid postal use. It was printed in blue and red and shows Mount Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. This was placed on the bottom left-hand corner of the envelopes, but was not cancelled. (fig 4).

 

 

 

Two cachets, one from the Khumbu Glacier Base Camp and one carried by runner (types 9 and 9a) were used on specially printed envelopes, and were in black. Nepalese stamps were applied and cancelled at Kathmandu GPO.

1965 was the year when India—a country without any mountaineering tradition—had 9 men reach the summit. I have not seen any souvenir cards for this expedition, but a special stamp was issued to commemorate their success, which depicts 2 climbers standing on the summit of Everest (fig 5).

Souvenir cards used by an international team in 1971, attempting to climb Everest by the difficult South Face West Ridge Route, contained the signatures of the climbers, and the Everest 71/South Face/West Ridge/Base Camp cachet (type 10) in purple, and was sent from the Base Camp at 17,000ft (fig 6).

A British expedition led by Chris Bonington unsuccessfully tried the same route in 1972. Cards are known with the climbers' signatures, but I have seen no cachets associated with this climb. The same year, which was also Olympic year, saw a big multinational expedition led by Dr Karl M. Herrligkoffer visiting the mountain and a large cachet (type 11) was used on special souvenir cards, which were signed by the clirnbers.

 

 

It was the turn of the Italians in 1973 and they used a rubber handstamp (type 12) on special souvenir cards posted by members of the expedition. Although the British had organized many expeditions to Everest, it was not until 1975 that the first Britons, Haston and Scott, reached the summit. Chris Bonington led this successful expedition and the official cards carried the Base Camp cachet (type 13).

The British and Nepalese armies have had a long and close military association, and in 1976 they combined together to form a climbing team for an expedition to Everest. Souvenir covers carried a picture of Everest, the Base Camp, advance base, South Col and the summit marked. Three cachets were used by the expedition 'Base Camp established 24th March 1976', a triangular 'South Col reached 5th May 1976' and 'Summit Reached 16th May 1976' (types 14a, 14b, 14c). All letters were cancelled at Kathmandu GPO.

In the same year in August, the Americans took the place of a French team that cancelled its expedition to attempt to climb Everest in the American bi-centennial year. Three cachets were used on the souvenir cards. Two based on different designs of mountaineering equipment, 'the Base Camp' being in the shape of a tent, the 'Carried by Runner' cachet incorporated in a haversack and the 'Summit Reached' in the shape of a mountain (types 15a, 15b, 15c).

The 1977 expedition came from Korea, and 2 climbers Sang Dong Po and Pemba Norbu reached the summit on 15 September. There were no cachets for this, but a souvenir expedition card was organized by the Nepal Philatelic Society of Kathmandu which was signed by the 2 summiters and the leader Kim Young Do and cancelled at Kathmandu GPO 30 September 1977 (fig 7).

 

 

Everest on Stamps

Everest is found regularly on the stamps of Nepal. The first Perkins Bacon printed stamp issued in 1907 showed the figure of a god seated in the midst of mountain peaks. The deity represented Siva Madheva. The Nepalese believe that the throne is Mount Everest; thus the design represents not only the god but Everest as well as his residence (fig 8). In the pictorial issue of 1949 the 20p value shows Kathmandu Valley with Mount Everest in the background (fig 9) and the 4p value in the 1959 issue (fig 10) shows what must be presumed to be the Khumbu Glacier. More recent issues have been made in 1960 and 1971 specifically showing the mountain (fig 11) and the King's birthday issue on 11 June 1970 also included a view of the mountain (fig 12). On 15 May 1973 India issued a commemorative stamp for the 15th anniversary of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation showing the mountain (fig 13). The current 10p and 25 aerogrammes have a mountain shown on the stamp design and although not named it must be presumed to represent Everest. The 25th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest was celebrated on 29 May 1978 with Nepal issuing 2 commemorative stamps (fig 14) showing views of Everest and a new postcard of 20p denomination which has the date 29 May 78 printed on it (fig 15).

First day cancellations were made at Kathmandu, Pokhara and for the first time Namchebazar at the foot of Everest; at a function held at the General Post Office the Minister of Communications, Mr Hari Bahadur Basnyat initialled some of the First Day covers. This particular issue saw a great deal of philatelic activity with a special helicopter flight to the Base Camp of Mount Everest—Namchebazar to have stamps and covers cancelled at the local Post Office. For the first time 15,000 medallic first day covers prepared by the Franklin Philatelic Society of the USA were issued. These medallic covers can be regarded as the first of its type prepared in Nepal that served both a philatelic and numismatic purpose. The foreign exchange earned for this issue exceeded the total amount of foreign exchange earned in a single year to date.

 

 

 

The First Winter Ascent of Nanga Parbat | Alpine Journal Extract

The First Winter Ascent of Nanga Parbat - Journal Extract

On 26 February 2016, Simone Moro, Alex Txicon and Ali Sadpara reached the summit of Nanga Parbat via the Kinshofer route to make the first winter ascent. Nanga Parbat was first attempted in winter in 1988-89 by a Polish team and more than 30 expeditions have tried since. Moro reflected on both the historic and his personal journey to the first winter ascent in a piece for the 2016 Alpine Journal.

The Diamir face of Nanga Parbat. Moro switched from the Messner route to the Kinshofer due to unusually risky conditions on his favoured line.
(All photos courtesy of Simone Moro)

It was a cold dream, one almost 30 years in the making, on an epic mountain, the biggest in the world even if it isn’t the highest. In the course of those three decades I spent a whole year either under or on the slopes of Nanga Parbat before finally realising my ambition of climbing to the summit in winter, and with a unique group of people. To realise big dreams you have to accept long waits and numerous defeats; rework strategies, teams and tactics. In a nutshell, you have to be willing to be mentally very strong as well as physically.

A winter expedition to an 8,000er is not the cold version of a spring or summer expedition. It’s another world, a way of doing alpinism that’s completely different; one that has to be learned, understood and experienced. Cold is certainly one of the elements with which you have to cope, but there is also the constant wind, freezing and damn loud, a wind that can force you to stay in your tent at base camp even if the sky is clear and the sun is shining. Good weather windows are very rare and brief so acclimatisation phases are often irregular and incomplete; staying on the mountain for gradually increasing periods is incredibly difficult. Days are also very short and so the potential period for active climbing is reduced.

The times you leave and reach camps or for a summit bid are very different from those in summer. You can’t be out in the dark, out of your tent and sleeping bag. Gas cans used to melt snow and provide water often freeze and must be kept warm. You never leave high camps up; tents are taken down and packed every time you leave them to return to the valley. There are so many technical details and protocols that must be respected when climbing an 8,000er in winter. Our climb of Nanga Parbat this winter was all this, but with a human drama and a sequence of events spread over nearly three months, which eventually focused on six days and five nights spent on the mountain in late February, days that were unforgettable and ultimately historic.

There were so many of us this year dreaming of the first ascent of the penultimate winter summit of an 8,000er. These dreamers formed six expeditions, four on the Diamir side, totalling nine climbers, and two on the Rupal side, with 10. Routes chosen were the Messner-Eisendle-Tomaseth and Kinshofer for the Diamir side and the Schell for the Rupal. These were the three lines along which our dreams ran last winter; all had been attempted before in the years since the first winter attempt in 1988-89, when a Polish team led by that brilliant expedition leader Andrzej Zawada made the first winter attempt on Nanga Parbat, on that occasion via the Kinshofer.

Jumaring a fixed line on the summit bid.

But there was something different this year to all my previous winter expeditions. I felt something in my soul, in my heart and mind. I’ve never wanted a mountain like I did this year and this desire was sweet: it was love. I didn’t think about defeating the mountain, I never thought like that; I wanted instead to have a good relationship with her, I wanted to court her, to take things gently. I was already prepared to accept a third failure in winter following those of 2012 and 2014, but this time I was sure, really strongly confident that Nanga Parbat would be granted me after so many years.

I had learned a bit about the Himalayan giants; I had the experience of 15 winter expeditions. Although I had already climbed three 8,000ers in winter, both in the Himalaya and the Karakoram and always with several companions, I realised that for a special dream like Nanga we wanted a special team and a special atmosphere. For this reason I chose Tamara Lunger: we had shared some mountaineering projects since 2009, but only recently, in the last year, had we become climbing partners, following my long association with Denis Urubko. In 2015 Tamara and I attempted Manaslu together in winter, and although we didn’t make the summit, we climbed two smaller peaks via two new routes alpine style, and I realised that Tamara was the right one, even for an adventure in winter. She is strong at altitude [Editor’s note: Lunger was the second Italian woman to climb K2 without oxygen and is a highly regarded ski mountaineer], stronger than most I’ve met in my 25-year career, she is always in a good mood, and most of all she was also in love with Nanga Parbat and high altitude.

As a team of two people of different sexes, taking a different approach from usual made sense; we decided not to communicate with the outside world for the whole of the expedition. We weren’t in a hurry, we had more than three and a half months, all of the winter season, and we knew we wouldn’t be back home until 21 March. We chose not to report anything, not to update websites or have a dedicated blog; that was the second surprise, and I knew this decision was at odds with others on the mountain.

It was 6 December when we flew from Milan to Islamabad and as always happens on any expedition, especially winter, things did not go as expected. We wanted to acclimatise on the 7,000m peak Spantik, before going to Nanga Parbat, but our local agent did not respect our agreement, and tried to quadruple our fee; we knew there would probably be further increases when we got back from base camp, and that we had no other option but to accept. So we cancelled the first part of the expedition and headed to Nanga Parbat base camp, which we reached on 27 December.

Two months passed, intense, beautiful and fascinating months, before the day arrived when all our waiting and efforts paid off. Before that, however, Tamara and I tried for a month to climb the Messner route, more dangerous this year than usual. That month was spent going backwards and forwards up the Diama glacier, always briskly, and then going as high as possible on Ganalo Peak while still getting down during the day to the base of our route. It was nearly 15km to base camp from that quiet and wild place. The Pole Tomek Mackiewicz and his expedition partner Elisabeth Revol had the same goal but with different methods and strategies from our own, although with the same belief in the beauty and appeal of the Messner route.

In the course of a month Tamara and I weren’t able to get beyond 6,000m and spent just two nights at 5,800m. That was too little gain in altitude for any valuable acclimatisation and any realistic hope of success in winter on that route. Constant serac collapses and a dangerous maze to work through the initial part of the route made us realise we had to change. Tomek added weight to our decision; his last desperate attempt ended at 7,400m. He and Elisabeth decided to return home.

At camp 2 the four climbers discovered that two of their sleeping mats had blown away. They were forced to share for the next five nights.

It was a similar story with the Poles Adam Bielicki and Jacek Czech, who returned home, the first after a fall and the other for health problems. Time was moving on; the large Polish expedition attempting the Rupal Face stopped hoping and fighting and went home, as well as the Brazilian-born American Cleo Weidlich and her team of Sherpas. Of the original expeditions, there remained just me and Tamara and the team of Alex Txicon from Spain, who had invited us to join him and his group on the Kinshofer at the start of the expedition.

After we gave up on the Messner, we accepted his offer and were both happy and excited; I was always convinced that this was the year. I kept repeating to Tamara and later also to Alex and his climbing partner, the Pakistani Muhammad Ali Sadpara: this year we would go to the top. However, Alex’s invitation caused a strange reaction from his expedition partner Daniele Nardi. For complex reasons and personal relationships, we split them apart, and Daniele took the decision to abandon base camp.

So it was a case of those who were left, those who were stranded on Nanga Parbat to carry on to the summit in the teeth of the winter cold. Despite this, we were for sure the most resilient and optimistic team I’d ever experienced, able to move every day over the course of two months, even in cold weather, keeping fit and active. True, we were also the least acclimatised we had ever been; although Tamara and I were very fast, we hadn’t once slept high in almost three months of the climb. Finally, having switched to the Kinshofer, we had an opportunity to spend a night at camp two. With Alex and Ali, we tested our engines, going in less than 10 hours from base camp, around 4,300m on Nanga Parbat, to camp two at 6,100m; we passed a good night and worked beautifully with our two new fellow adventurers.

We had made the most of a single sunny day to make that flying visit to altitude and now prepared to wait for the right window, a period of good weather sufficiently long and stable to allow us a try. There was a little less than a month to go before the end of winter but I kept repeating like a mantra that this was the year I would get to the top, we will go to the top, the top… It was not an obsession, but a clear conviction. I felt it. I knew it.

The four climbers back at base camp: left to right Alex Txicon, Tamara Lunger, Simone Moro and Muhammad Ali Sadpara.

It was a cold and frosty morning when Tamara, Alex, Ali and I set off on 22 February 2016 on snowshoes to the base of the Kinshofer route. The window of good weather had arrived, and with it the clear intention of attempting the summit even though I knew that on paper both Tamara and I had insufficient acclimatisation for a big jump of more than 4,000m in altitude.

We reached camp two in about nine hours, fast, smiling, happy, despite the bitter cold and the shady steep gully we climbed. But when we arrived we had a nasty surprise that would cost us for the next five nights. Two sleeping mats had been blown away by the wind in the preceding few days; the four of us would have to share the remaining mats in the incredible cold of winter nights high on Nanga Parbat. We spent two nights in the tent at camp two because of strong winds that arrived next day. Four sleeping on two mattresses wasn’t very comfortable, but at least we found a solution to this setback that would see us through the attempt.

The weather remained stable, albeit with wind and cold, and we climbed first to camp three at 6,750m and then camp four at 7,150m, striking and packing the tent each morning with all the other gear. The last camp we deliberately located lower than usual, 1,000m below the summit. We could feel our obvious failure to acclimatise and so had to come up with a new strategy as well as being determined. Tamara and I were already 1,000m higher than the maximum altitude we had reached in the previous three months, and now we had to climb another 1,000m.

We had divided the work with Alex and Ali, but now we needed to decide how best to deal with the summit day. We left the tent at different times, to allow everyone to get ready comfortably and not all four of us at the same time. I wasn’t using battery-heated insoles like the others, so I left the tent last. First were Ali and Alex, at 6am on 26 February; half an hour later it was Tamara’s turn to leave the haven of the tent. I got myself ready, warming my feet over the stove and then left at 7.45am. I kept up a strong and steady pace, with regular breaks, and reached first Tamara and then my companions. It was cold, very cold, minus 34°C with a strong wind of 45km/h, so it felt more like minus 58°C.

It was only at around 10.30am that we saw the first rays of the sun transform the mountain’s harsh appearance and lift our mood, even though the unceasing wind seemed now to spread everywhere as we gained altitude and became more exposed to its exhausting effects. Our hypoxia was becoming more pronounced; I could manage only around five steps, sometimes ten. It was past 2pm when we passed the 8,000m mark, spread out but in visual contact. Ali, in that last stretch, climbed a little to the right of the usual line of ascent, while Alex, Tamara and I stuck to the regular route, becoming increasingly fatigued as we strove towards a summit that seemed never to arrive.

In the morning, just after she left the tent, Tamara had been sick, vomiting the little breakfast she had managed to eat. She continued to vomit every time I offered her liquid or food. It was also the start of her menstrual cycle, adding to her fatigue. Clear-headed and rational, she took the decision to abandon the summit at around 8,040m, only 80m or so in altitude from the top. The decision probably saved her life. The three of us, a little ahead, took the last few steps to the summit at 8,126m. It had taken 27 years since the first attempt in winter, generations of alpinists passing on the baton to keep alive a project that seemed almost impossible.

Moro had to persuade his two fellow summit climbers Alex Txicon and Muhammad Ali Sadpara to pose for a photograph in the face of intense cold.

We hugged on top, exhausted, incredulous but sharing an ecstatic joy. It was already 3.30pm. Now in the last hours of daylight and coping with the obvious exhaustion, we hurried to start our descent. Not seeing Tamara, we realised that something had happened and she was already on her way down. Ali had seen her from the summit and waved a few minutes before. I insisted that we stop to take a photograph on the top; Ali and Alex weren’t fussed because of the cold, but I managed to capture this historic moment not only for us.

I wanted to look once again to the Rupal side. I imagined it was almost 50 years ago, and those two lads from the South Tyrol, Reinhold and Günther Messner, were climbing up towards me. As a child they had made me dream. Reading about them, realising that their strength was in the co-operation and understanding they shared, I developed the ambition to one day become a man capable of climbing mountains, to try to do it my way, finding my own path with a close companion as they did. With Tamara I found that connection again, and with Ali and Alex we established a unique and almost unrepeatable bond. If the dedication of my fourth first winter ascent was to Günther Messner, I must also acknowledge the team with whom I lived for five nights and six days on Nanga Parbat, as well as all those who for 30 years kept the flame of this dream alight.

 

 

 

Christmas at Camp II - Holiday Tales from the Mountains

Christmas at Camp II - Holiday Tales from the Mountains

Christmas is a time of year traditionally associated with family and with the process of returning home to warmth and comfort. It is a festival that alleviates the loneliness and the darkness of the cold winter months. What then should we make of those who choose to spend their Christmases away from home in the world’s wild places, where the days may be even shorter and colder than they were at home?

To get an idea of the motivations for heading to the mountains in the holiday season and to discover how mountaineers have marked the festival when far from home, we dug into the Alpine Journal Archive to bring you a series of extracts from Christmas expeditions past. We eat Christmas cake from a helmet, share marzipan on summits and deal with a common Christmas problem; unwanted gifts.


Deciding to Go

Finding partners to join you over Christmas can be challenging. Particularly when you decide to go last minute. This was certainly the case for Michael Binnie when, at the end of December 1990, he made the sudden decision to climb Chimborazo:

“None of my old climbing friends could make it ('if only you'd thought of it earlier'), but nothing was going to stop me - dammit, I would solo Chimborazo if need be - and then I thought of Will Gault. He is 20 years my junior, a City man and, crucially, a bachelor. I rang him at work.
'Doing anything at Christmas?'
'Not really. Anything on?'
'Want to climb a mountain in Ecuador?'
And, after a very short pause, 'Yes, OK.'

Michael was not only successful in securing a partner, but he and Will also made a successful ascent of Chimborazo via the Whymper route. You can read a full account of that trip, including their search for fuel so as to avoid a cold Christmas dinner, here.

And speaking of Christmas dinner…

 

Vittles

The weight of equipment and supplies on expeditions is often a matter of great concern. In a 1991 piece, Stephen Venables recalls how an expedition to the island of South Georgia was hampered by its lack of robust equipment:

“Our strategy was to establish a secure base at the Ross pass and from there eventually attempt some climbing. If we had had sufficient sea or air back-up, we would have done better to use heavy pyramid tents and sledges, enabling us to move as a self-contained unit over the glaciers. However, because of limited funds and uncertain transport arrangements, we had opted for a compromise, carrying only lightweight tents and no sledges.”

But this poverty of supplies apparently did not extend to Christmas dinner, for which they appear to have been better supplied than some restaurants:

“We now had to build a new cave, higher up the wall of the wind-scoop. First, down at Royal Bay, we had a late Christmas dinner on 28 December. Marks and Spencer provisions, supplemented by some supplies from Fortnum and Mason, ensured a decent meal of stuffed eggs with caviar, Parma ham and champagne; game soup; goose quenelles with a passable Cabernet Sauvignon; Christmas pudding and whisky butter; port, brandy and Dutch cigars.”

Well-fueled by this, Stephen and team went on to make an ascent of Mount Carse where, appropriately for the Christmas season, they shared a block of marzipan on the summit. You can read the full account of their time on the ‘Islands at the edge of the World’ here.

 

But a full Christmas dinner is not always so easy to come by, particularly when you are on the mountain, as Paul Fatti and Richard Smithers discovered during their ascent of the East Face of the Central Tower of Paine:

“Bumping across the corner in their cocoons, Paul and Richard were cold, disconsolate and too tired and cramped to cook. It was Christmas Eve and Paul munched Christmas dinner - cold mouthfuls of a squashed pudding. He then plopped it into his crash helmet which he lowered on a piece of string to Richard, hanging below him. The radio call that night from base to the 2 climbers got an understandably poor-humoured response to all the cheery, bleary and well-fed good wishes!”

Happily, Paul and Richard’s suffering was not in vain, and their team were successful in making the first ascent of the face.

 

 

Gifts

Those who travel over the holidays don’t necessarily plan for gift giving, and Dennis Gray had most certainly not planned for the gift he received from two Berber men he met in Morocco who were determined to see him celebrate Christmas "properly":

“When I came out they were still waiting and insisted I went with them to their father's hotel, which was the barest and cheapest I have yet seen in North Africa. After many glasses of mint tea I was allowed to depart, but only after promising that I would return later that night for a special dinner that they would prepare for me, for they knew the importance to us Christians, us Nazarenes, of Christmas Eve.

Surprisingly, despite the Spartan nature of the hotel, the meal was delicious. Conspiratorially, my young Berber acquaintances insisted at its end that I accompany them upstairs. There, waiting for us in the corridor, was the most evil-looking fellow I have yet set eyes on, one-eyed, unshaven and wearing a turban and djbella. It transpired that he was a Kif dealer from the north of the country. My young Berbers wanted to give me a Christmas present, and from the man they obtained a carrier-bag full of the stuff and handed it over. I had not understood their whispers in French, Arabic and Berber, but now I felt in great danger. I had been told how the Kif dealers set tourists up: they unload a pile of the stuff on to you, then go off and warn the police who jump you. If you are caught in possession, you might be fined a large sum, the drug dealers get a reward and it is rumoured that they get the Kif back to start all over again. 'Je ne fume pas', I stammered as I returned the gift. The two young Berbers looked amazed, then a hurt expression came into their faces and they tried to make me take it, but I refused again. They then became agitated and annoyed and ran off down the stairs, leaving me blocked in the corridor with old one-eye. In a few minutes they were back, this time clutching a much smaller bag; evidently they thought I had refused the Kif because there was too much for me to smoke all on my own! Travelling alone can be quite a trial, and I now realized that they were genuine and that I was not being set up. I accepted their gift with trepidation, thanking them from the bottom of my sinking heart, praying they would not insist that we all start smoking the stuff there and then in the corridor, but even they obviously felt that this was too dangerous for me and let me go back to my hotel where, I assured them, I would get liberally 'stoned' behind locked doors."

Dennis’s travels in Morocco make for wonderful reading and you can find out how, after a few close calls, he eventually managed to disposed of the gift in the full article.

 

 

Celebrations

Over-indulgence (of legal substances) is a time-honoured Christmas tradition, even for those spending their Christmas in the mountains. Peter Crew was unlucky to miss out on this aspect of the festivities during his expedition to Cerro Torre:

“Christmas was only a few days away, so Fonrouge decided to use the Shell lorry to spend the holiday in Rio Gallegos in a civilised manner, with one of his numerous girl friends. I walked down to the valley with him, to try and buy a sheep for a change of diet. After spending most of Christmas Eve getting hold of the sheep, I eventually arrived back at Base late at night in the pouring rain, to find that the lads had assumed that I had foregone the expedition for the delights of civilisation with Fonrouge - they had eaten our stock of Christmas goodies and drunk all the remaining spirits. At least I had the satisfaction of enjoying a fresh leg of mutton while they were all feeling ill.”

Nick Kekus fared somewhat better during his winter attempt on Nanga Parbat with an Anglo-Polish team, though the limited supply of alcohol on this expedition was more of an issue for some expedition members than others:

“With Camp 2 finally established just before Christmas, some of us thought we would be justified in taking a break from the mountain to celebrate the festive season; others felt we should stay on the mountain, Christmas or not. In the end the weather decided for us. On 24 December, having improved the tent accommodation and fixed a short section of rope above the camp, we retreated back to Base Camp, with the weather deteriorating as rapidly as we were descending. Christmas was a cheerful and high-spirited occasion, though the small quantities of alcohol available were sadly short of the Poles' capacity. However, a visit from our friend Mohammed Ali Chengasi on Christmas Day renewed our interest in the festivities, as the two aid workers he had in tow produced some more booze and Mohammed himself contributed a wonderful array of fruit, sweetmeats and other delicacies.”

 

A Final Thought

At first glance, the traditions of Christmas and mountaineering may seem antithetical to one another, isolation and privation contrasting with community and comfort. But this is not so. There is a communal heart to both traditions; the act of sharing time, space and experiences with loved ones. This is not just a Christmas experience, but a mountaineering one; as Andrzej Zawada noted when discussing the first winter ascent of Cho Oyu:

“If someone were to ask me which were the most enjoyable moments to remember in the whole expedition, I would answer without hesitation: the wonderful comradeship at Base Camp and on the wall, and on Christmas Eve round our table.”

 

 

 

Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites | Review

In a review from the 2021 Alpine Journal, (on sale now via Cordee), Ed Douglas examines the 2021 Boardman Tasker winner; 'Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites' by David Smart. He discovers not only a well-researched and considered portrait of Comici, a man whose identity was bound up in the muscularity of Italian nationalism, but also a book with a contemporary resonance and huge value for an English-speaking audience who have rarely been given much insight into this period of Italian climbing. 

Emilio Comici
Angel of the Dolomites
David Smart
RMB, 2020, pp248, £31

On 7 August 1915, as the summer sun bleached the fields of northern Italy, the poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio arrived over the port of Trieste in a flimsy biplane piloted by his friend Giuseppe Miraglia. The white city, D’Annunzio noted, shone against the backdrop of the Carso, the limestone plateau that traditionally divided Italians from Slovenes and offered Triestino climbers a training ground for the challenges of the Dolomites.

From his cockpit, D’Annunzio, then in his early fifties, released bombs on Austrian submarines floating in the harbour and also threw packets of messages – garnished with green, white and red ribbons bought from a Venetian haberdashery – to the people below who were watching the air raid from Trieste’s main piazza. Written in D’Annunzio’s florid style, they promised that soon the Italian tricolour would fly over the castle of San Giusto, the city’s heart. Irredentists, desperate to be free of Austrian rule and part of a reunified Italy, stood in the streets and cheered during later bombing raids, despite the risks.

There’s no evidence that Emilio Comici watched this first air sortie over his city, but it’s safe to say that if he didn’t then he would have heard all about it, and would have revelled in its daring. In this fascinating biography, improbably the first for such a titan of 1930s climbing, David Smart makes it clear that news of Italian success left Comici exhilarated. How could it not? Italians in the city had chafed for centuries under rule from Vienna, whose brutality they blamed for the war. Plus, he was 14 years old and already vulnerable to the romance of adventure. Italian boys’ clubs were shut down by the authorities so they had more time on their hands to dream of freedom. Always a bit of a mammone, a mummy’s boy, he would strum the family’s mandolin as she made his dinner and sing about their beloved city, and how it fretted under the Austrian heel.

Among the names that would have thrilled the teenage Comici was Napoleone Cozzi, a brilliant pre-war climber who made the Val Rosandra just outside Trieste a training ground, a palestra, where a young alpinist could perfect the skills required for the hard new climbs being put up in the Dolomites by such great names as Paul Preuss, Angelo Dibona and Tita Piaz, the so-called ‘devil of the Dolomites’. And it was in the Val Rosandra that Comici would start on his path to fame, if not fortune. But as Smart makes clear, Cozzi was also an irredentist, famous for his arrest in 1904 and subsequent trial in Vienna after Austrian secret police discovered what are now called IEDs hidden under the floorboards of the Trieste Gymnastics Society. Years later, during the war, when Comici walked those same floorboards, notions of climbing and adventure were inextricably fused in his mind with the nationalist, irredentist cause that so inspired him.

Emilio Comici in his signature climbing jacket and basketball shoes at Val Rosandra outside Trieste.
With journalist and occasional benefactor Severino Casara and good friend Emmy Hartwich-Brioschi, who had been Paul Preuss’ lover, at Lake Misurina in 1935

Politics, however, was moving on rapidly. The colourful, ludicrous extravagance of Gabriele D’Annunzio had morphed into something new and darker. In October 1922, while Comici was doing his national service, Mussolini’s fascists levered their way to power. Already a member of the Associazione XXX Ottobre, the date news of Austria’s defeat reached Trieste, Comici joined Mussolini’s party and became one of the squadristi, a black shirt. Something in the fascist aesthetic appealed to Comici, a climber who would have understood very well how to use Instagram: it was modern, clean and seemingly progressive, and well dressed, like he was: so unlike the well-heeled romanticism of Mitteleuropan alpinists like Julius Klugy, long a mentor to successive generations of alpinists in Trieste, including Cozzi. For a working-class climber like Comici, the future seemed elsewhere. After he climbed his eponymous route on the Cima Grande, one of the most striking landmarks in the history of alpinism, he wrote in the hut book: ‘By the same light that illuminates the value and tenacity of the Italians of Mussolini, we have opened the path to the north face of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.’

There is a great deal to recommend this book, not least David Smart’s ability to paint a broad canvas without exhausting the reader’s attention. All this historical perspective is not only fascinating and rich with detail, but also necessary, because of the equivocal place Comici holds in the climbing firmament, the glamorous risk-taker adding sheen to Mussolini’s project. At times, Smart strains a little too hard to excuse Comici’s political allegiances, although I think mostly he gets it right. I would like to have heard more from Comici’s near-contemporaries on this; Fosco Maraini famously tore up his fascist party membership card when his father enrolled him. Comici, on the other hand, averted his gaze. Towards the end of the book, Smart writes:

Even after the Trieste section of the CAI hung signs forbidding Jews in its huts, Emilio had fretted over the predicament of his Jewish friends, not as if racism was a core program of his beloved party (which, after 1938, it was), but as if it was some kind of unintended oversight by a regime he saw as benevolent.

For much of this book, until its poignant and fatal conclusion, I wondered whether Smart’s considerable talents would have been better deployed writing a history of the whole sixth-grade scene, which for English readers is woefully underexplored and yet forms the basis for the explosion of big-wall climbing in Yosemite and elsewhere after the war. Because Emilio Comici did seem to bob around on the surface of his own unusually interesting era, like a cork on a storm-tossed ocean. The portrayal of his childhood is, presumably through necessity, somewhat hurried. The poor leave little trace. But it’s clear he had little meaningful education. That left him with a sense of inferiority, especially around some of his intellectual clients, and a lack of traction in the wider world.

Music was a comfort and a pleasure throughout his life and there is a wonderful scene towards the end of the book when, now living in the Dolomites, he takes up the piano under the instruction of one of his clients, Rita Palmquist, a Dane who had performed concerts all over Europe. Mussolini had tried to suppress folk songs and mandolin playing because they led to unmanly display of emotion. But Il Duce approved of the piano, which he could play himself. Comici had some natural talent and persevered, but learning the piano in his late thirties was understandably frustrating. After one lesson ended badly, Comici stood up and closed the lid, telling his teacher:

You have witnessed the most splendid symbol of my spiritual life. A closed door. You see, I have worked hard to develop my body, my muscles. I managed to do so, but at the detriment to my inner life. A few years ago, I thought I would be a writer, but it was an illusion. In the spiritual realm, there is a closed door for me.

Palmquist, understandably, was deeply moved at this declaration, the austere man of the mountains revealing briefly the torment beneath the surface, a man ‘who some accused of turning climbing into a mechanical thing, was, in fact, deeply sensitive.’ And the rest. Smart paints a convincing portrait of a man who was if anything hypersensitive, particularly to criticism. Like his beloved home city Trieste, Smart writes, Comici had a certain distacco, an aloofness from the world, and a self-sufficiency, or lontananza, that added to the impression that he was somewhere on a higher plane. ‘There have been few more haunted alpinists,’ Smart writes at one point. He’s speaking of ghosts, but it stands for his character too.

This self-absorption, from an Alpine outsider like Comici, must have come across as arrogance to some, and petulant arrogance when the Dimai brothers were rude about him after the Cima Grande climb. Comici appealed to the fascist authorities for resolution, but they just shrugged and suggested he stand up for himself. Even when he took the initiative and soloed the north face to counter the Dimais’ sniping, he had to spoil the effect by having another sulk. You want to shout at him across the decades: you made your point, Emilio, let it go! Enamoured of press attention but reluctant to engage through a natural shyness, Comici certainly suffered for his art. He wanted to be taken seriously as a man but often ended up as a symbol of something, of a legend that became a trap that slowly compressed him.

Perhaps that was what the piano playing was all about. It was also to please his ageing mother, a kindness the fascists would have frowned on as effeminate. One of the most striking aspects of this book is the ubiquity of women. They’re everywhere in this story, a reminder that women have more often been excluded from the story of climbing, not the actual climbing. There’s the Slovenian Mira ‘Marko’ Pibernik, as Smart calls her, although she preferred her maiden name Debelak, since her first marriage was arranged and soon discarded. A woman familiar to students of Ben Nevis history, she was on the first ascent of Slav Route. She’d also swung leads on the first ascent of the 900m north face of Jôf di Montasio. There’s Riccardo Cassin’s climbing partner Mary Varale, who brought Comici to Lecco to teach them pegging and later quit the CAI because of its blatant misogyny. Comici would take her on another truly great Tre Cime climb, the Spigolo Giallo. Anna Escher, one of his richest and most regular clients. And Emmy Hartwich-Brioschi, Paul Preuss’ lover at the time of his death, introduced to Comici by their mutual friend, the rather flaky journalist Severino Casara. Paula Wiesinger is there, the first woman to climb grade VI in the Dolomites. Trieste itself was home to more women climbing grade VI than anywhere else in the world, in particular Bruna Bernadini, who rarely followed. Finally there was the celebrated poet Antonia Pozzi, another of Comici’s clients, a brilliant young woman who faced her own demons. She took a long cool look at Comici and saw him high on his lonely perch among the mountains where ‘ … you will only see/your rope/encased in ice/and your hard heart/among the pale spires.’ She committed suicide aged 26 but Comici, the ‘sullen, poor, uneducated kid from the docklands of Trieste’, seems not to have noticed.

Towards the end of his short life, Emilio Comici began to grasp more fully his place in the world, how the populism of men like Gabriele D’Annunzio had twisted the urge of all Italians to be free. Comici had gone to the Dolomites so that an Italian might, in his own country, surpass the achievements of the Germans there. Naïve perhaps, even self-regarding, but not I think necessarily malign. The only new route he climbed in the war, during which he served as a minor fascist functionary, was dedicated to Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s great rival who had opposed Italy’s Nazi-style race laws. Smart offers this as an indication that Comici’s fascist ardour was cooling. I’m not so sure. Either way, we shall never know whether Comici would have joined Cassin, who’d had his own flirtation with fascism, in fighting with the partisans against the Nazis. Because shortly after the Angel of the Dolomites was dead.

‘They will only get me in the end,’ Comici wrote of the mountains even as his passion for climbing waned. Ironically, it was the palestra he created in Vallunga that did for him, a place where he could teach but also perform for an audience, a banal accident caused by a rotten rope. Having fallen 30m and struck his head, he stood up again, blood streaming down his face, the broken ends still clutched in his fist, before dropping dead on the ground. David Smart has done the English-speaking climbing world an immense service with this book, capturing all the grandeur and vanity of our sport and the politics that informs it, all trapped in the amber of the 1930s, that turbulent era that looks so much like our own.

 

 

 

IMD: Seeing Beauty in Roughness

International Mountain Day: Seeing Beauty in Roughness

The geological processes that shape mountain ranges are staggeringly complex, but understanding them can add a whole new dimension to our appreciation of the mountain environment.

In this article, Chair of the Alpine Club Library Council Philip Meredith and Librarian Beth Hodgett explore how a fresh perspective on geometry can help us think about mountains in a whole new way.

Sgurr Alasdair from Sgurr Dearg by Charles Pilkington

People have been drawn to mountains for centuries, and a large part of their appeal lies in the breathtaking aesthetic qualities of mountain ranges. The Alpine Club holds a globally important collection of paintings and drawings dating back to the earliest days of mountaineering which document this obsession. Many prominent mountaineers have also been notable artists, and this is certainly the case for one of the most famous climbers of the ‘Golden Age’ of Alpinism, Edward Whymper (1840-1911).

While Whymper is most well known for his controversial first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, he also had a promising career as a wood engraver. Whymper came from a family of artists, his father Josiah (1813-1903) was a watercolour painter, and Whymper himself began his artistic apprenticeship at the age of fourteen. Numerous examples of Whymper’s wood engravings can be found in early issues of the Alpine Journal, as well as in his famous publication 'Scrambles Amongst the Alps'.

 

Further Reading: Whymper's London Diary, January-June 1858 | British History Online ----- Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 | Google Books

 

As climbers and alpinists we are used to examining rock faces and mountain ridges in detail, inspecting them to assess potential lines and the likelihood of protection. As Whymper himself put it, “None but blunderers fail to do so”. The process of preparing a wood engraving requires many of the same techniques of close observation, in order to understand and accurately represent the form and proportions of a mountain. It was this attention to detail that led Whymper to make an astute geological observation. On 25th June 1864 Whymper was part of a party that made the first ascent of the Barre des Écrins. In his account of the climb Whymper wrote:

"According to my custom I bagged a piece from off the highest rock (chlorite slate), and I found afterwards that it had a striking similarity to the final peak of the Ecrins. I have noticed the same thing on other occasions, and it is worthy of remark that not only do fragments of such rock as limestone often present the characteristic forms of the cliffs from which they have been broken, but that morsels of mica slate will represent, in a wonderful manner, the identical shape of the peaks of which they have formed a part. Why should it not be so, if the mountain’s mass is more or less homogeneous? The same causes which produce the small forms fashion the large ones; the same influences are at work; the same frost and rain give shape to the mass as well as to its parts."

 

Whymper's rock sample from the Barre des Écrins
The Barre des Écrins, photographed by Sue Hare

Whymper’s interest in this more unusual kind of summit bagging is also evident in his account of his infamous first ascent of the Matterhorn, which is illustrated in Scrambles… by an engraving of a rock taken from the summit of the Matterhorn. Once again, the similarity between the fragment and the overall form of the peak is striking. We can see another example of this in the Alpine Club’s collection.

 

The Matterhorn
A sample of rock from the Matterhorn

Compare this picture of the Matterhorn with the fragment of rock taken from near the Matterhorn’s summit and gifted to the Alpine Club as part of the celebrations commemorating the club’s 150th anniversary, and you can very clearly see Whymper’s point. In fact, recognising that tiny rock fragments and far larger rock structures can look identical in form has led to the universal practice of including a scale-bar in geological photographs. Without the scale it is essentially not possible to tell the size of the object, as demonstrated in the pair of photographs below.

 

Is this a close-up shot of a rock fragment?
Or a much larger formation?

But is it possible to prove that the piece of rock from the Matterhorn summit doesn’t just look qualitatively similar to the whole mountain but is actually quantitatively identical in structure?

The mathematical theory to describe such structures was developed by the Polish-French-American mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot. In 1975 Mandelbrot coined the term 'fractal geometry'; drawing on the latin root of the word for ‘fractional’ to describe shapes that maintain their ‘roughness’ or complexity regardless of the level of detail they are examined at. A classic example of this is the Romanesco Broccoli.

If you look closely at the photograph, you can see that each segment of the broccoli is made up of a number of smaller segments whose shape mimics that of the larger structure. No matter how closely you zoom in, the structure of each segment appears the same. This similarity of structure across different scales is called self-similarity.

One way to prove that a small rock fragment and a mountain are mathematically self-similar rather than merely looking alike is to compare how they both take up space. However this is easier said than done. While some shapes are relatively straightforward to measure, others are much more challenging. We are all used to thinking in one, two and three dimensions; that is dimensions of whole integers. For example we know that a cube fills a three dimensional volume, but how do we measure the volume of something more complex like a tree or an alpine ridge, which only partially fills its surrounding volume?

The tree will not perfectly fill the surrounding space, but we can measure what fraction of the space it fills. 

Mandelbrot’s great insight was the theory of fractal geometry. Within this concept, the tree is less than three-dimensional but more than two-dimensional; it has a fractal (or fractional) dimension between 2 and 3. This occurs because natural forms like rock fragments or mountains are not made up of smooth planes, but of complex, rough surfaces that are much harder to measure.

Mandelbrot demonstrated this in a 1967 article in which he posed the question: ‘How Long is the Coastline of Britain?’ The problem with solving such questions, Mandelbrot argued, is that when trying to measure a ‘rough’ shape like a coastline, you get a different answer depending on the unit of measurement that you use. Much like the example of the Romanesco Broccoli, the more you zoom in to look at the coastline, the more complex the shape becomes, with ever-decreasing wrinkles in the rock continuously adding to the overall length to the extent that the problem becomes intractable and an accurate measurement simply cannot be made.

One of the main insights of Mandelbrot’s theories of fractal geometry was his proposal of mathematical ways of measuring this roughness. Using these methods, we can determine the fractal geometry of a mountain ridge and of a piece of rock that comes from it and see that commonly they are quantitatively the same.

Over 100 years after Whymper first observed the relationship between the fragments of rock he collected and the peaks he climbed, Mandelbrot’s theories enable us to move from Whymper’s qualitative observation about the aesthetic similarity between rock samples and peaks, to being able to describe and quantify the relationship between rock samples. In doing so, it is possible to show that Whymper was right, small rock fragments really do fracture in ways that are self similar to the shape of the peaks that they come from! 

Glacial structure
A map displaying the distribution of mountain ridges

Being able to measure variations in roughness opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for understanding the formation of mountains. For example, being able to measure and quantify the microstructural geometry of a rock at the crystallographic scale can help us to understand the mechanics of where, when and how it might fracture. Understanding details like this can help us work backwards from the form that mountains take in the present to reconstruct the processes that formed the mountain many millions of years ago. The mathematics of fractal geometry can also explain the distribution of crevasses in a glacier, the arrangement of mountain ridges, or even the distribution of boulders on a scree slope.

The beauty of Mandlebrot’s work is that it helps us understand and describe the patterns that underlie the seeming chaos of the natural world, giving us new ways to appreciate not only the complexity of the natural world, but the skilled perception of artists like Whymper who study it.

So next time you're on the hill and you notice a loose piece of rock, take a longer look. There's a whole mountain hidden in its geometry.

 

 

 

Everest 1975 | Alpine Journal Extract

Everest 1975 - Journal Extract

On the 24th of September 1975, a British expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonington was successful in making the first ascent of Everest’s South-West Face.

In total, four individuals reached the summit as part of this expedition; the first party of Doug Scott and Dougal Haston which summited on the 24th and another of Pete Boardman and Pertemba Sherpa, which summited on the 26th. During this second summit bid, Mick Burke was lost on the mountain.

The 1976 write-up of the expedition in the Alpine Journal by Pete Boardman and Ronnie Richards makes for an engrossing read, with a particularly vivid re-telling of Haston and Scott’s summit bid as told from the perspective of the observers lower down the mountain. It also contains an honest appraisal of the expedition’s methods and costs – contrasting them with the increasing popularity of alpine-style pushes.

An extract is presented below.


The upper part of Everest SW face.

Each day exact checks on what food and equipment were in each camp had to be matched against the number of Sherpas available for carrying and what was required for upward progress and maintenance of present positions with safety margins. Radio messages, regarded somewhat ambivalently at first, were prolonged when the chain became extended and front progress almost too fast, especially when oxygen and an alarming number of faulty regulators had to be juggled into the calculations. This operation depended of course on our Sherpas, whose particularly high morale and enthusiasm were key factors in the whole expedition; the unprecedented quantities, so quickly built up at Camp 5, were an indicator of the support coming right through from Base Camp and the organisational efforts of Chris Bonington, Mike Cheney, Adrian Gordon, Dave Clarke and our Sirdars Pertemba and Ang Phu.

Yet, in the midst of the apparently inexorable machine-like activity, the mountain was large enough for one to realise that it would not require much to reverse the tide of circumstances carrying us forward so well. A few days out in front could emphasise the contrasts. Early morning outside Camp 5, the eye would be greeted by a glow suffusing across the horizon, Cho Oyu tipped with rosy orange, Pumori, now a pimple, emerging out of the dark stillness below and the fringe of Gosainthan and its Tibetan neighbours in the distance. Conscious of fiddling with freezing crampons and oxygen apparatus in the half-light and then, cocooned in a semi-somnolent shell, the rhythmical shuffle, pull, plod and gasp up the ropes to the previous day's high point. Fix a few more rope lengths until no more was left and then easily slide down in the bright light to excavate a snow platform and erect the next box, so more rope instead of box platforms could come up from Camp 2.

By the time we reached the Rock Band on 19 September, progress was well in advance of that on previous attempts and even the most optimistic computer estimate on Chris's multicoloured graphs. From below and from air photos it was not possible to see whether the left-hand gully provided a route through the Rock Band, as it was so deep and well concealed. The break­through came on 20 September when Tut Braithwaite and Nick Estcourt cramponed into the bowels of the Rock Band. They encountered some difficult mixed pitches whilst entering and climbing up the gully, including an ice-clad chockstone that succumbed to a few pitons for aid. In the curling mists of the afternoon it had the haunting atmosphere of a Scottish gully with dark looming walls soaring upwards from a narrow snow bed. Then Nick and Tut dumped their empty oxygen cylinders and climbed across a remarkable ramp, loose and difficult, that led out from the gully rightwards to the top of the Band.


Braithwaite climbing the ramp to the top of the Rock Band

Down in Camp 2 awaiting developments, an anxious call came from Camp 1 that it was collapsing; Hamish strode off to a Canute-like investigation. A bunting-like bird hopped about outside the mess tent whilst those within disposed of roast yak with relish. When Tut and Nick eventually arrived back off the Face, the crowded superbox felt like the Padarn Lake Hotel as they talked and gesticulated about their high-altitude acrobatics. Temporary feelings of anti-climax at lack of news and non-involvement with action above soon dissolved into euphoria. In only one day, the crux of the route and stumbling block of 5 earlier expeditions had at last been climbed and success seemed near.

On one long relentless day Mike Thompson, Mick Burke, Chris Bonington, Ang Phurba and Pertemba carrying vital ropes, fuel and oxygen, supported Doug Scott and Dougal Haston in establishing Camp 6 on a slim crest on the snow-slope above the Rock Band. At last it was possible to look across that much dreamed-about great traverse, and up the gully to the S Summit of Everest. Above, the wind was blowing ice particles off the summit ridge, shimmering in the sunlight. The support team took a long look from their 8320 m eyrie and then, with supreme altruism, turned back down to Camp 5 as the sun declined behind towering anvil clouds over Nepal. Doug and Dougal were left excavating a perch for their tiny green box. After spending a day fixing 400 m of rope that wavered around spurs and over steep rock steps, they were back again and were poised for their final attempt, the Alpine commitment of leaving the end of the safety line and forging for the summit. And at the back of their minds, they were aware of the other teams moving up the face below them, snapping at their heels, eager for their chance.

The next morning the BBC cameraman Ian Stewart, plodded dedicatedly up the W Cwm. He pointed his telephoto lens at two figures 1800 m above him moving steadily across the top of the Rock Band. Occasionally a dead man on one of their waists flashed a sense of immediacy down into the Cwm.


Haston on the traverse above the Rock Band

Back in the boxes on the face everyone was relying for information as to their progress on radio reports from down in the Cwm. At Camp 5, Mick Burke, Martin Boysen and Pete Boardman and Pertemba were listening in every half-hour to progress reports. Mick peered out of the box doorway and up at the dark looming Rock Band 'Well, if they don't make it, they should have their first bounce around here'. Meanwhile, 600 m lower down Dave Clarke and Ronnie Richards crouched over their radio in the main street of Camp 4.

During the traverse, the watchers saw a large powder snow avalanche sweep down from the summit - it plummeted past the two figures now just visible to the naked eye from Camp 2. Then Doug and Dougal disappeared into the S Summit Gully. Hours later, at 3pm they reappeared briefly on the S Summit, only to move from view over the ridge into China. Occasionally a puff of snow appeared in the wind over the summit ridge. Soon the surmise was made by the watchers at Camp 2, Doug and Dougal were going for the summit. In the late afternoon light, 2 figures could just be seen moving, amazingly, unbelievably, up along the ridge. The light was failing and Chris crackled through the radio to the next summit bid team to prepare for a rescue and to load up with pain killers for potential frost-bite. How would Doug and Dougal survive a bivouac at 8,750m?

Next morning the second team found them inside the box at Camp 6, their minds still numb and speech slurred after a night without sleep and without much oxygen. But their imaginations were full of a lifetime sight - sunset from the summit - the interminable brown and silver rivers of Tibet, and a myriad of sunsets, sun shifting behind the plumed storm clouds of Nepal. They told of their near failure when at the foot of the gully Dougal's mask had frozen solid, blocking his oxygen supply and for an hour they had struggled to repair it. They told of the deep time-consuming powder snow in the gully, of the wind slab and the cornices, and of the Chinese maypole on the summit. They told of hallucinations in the snow-hole, of Doug holding a conversation with his feet, and of Dougal's conviction that Dave Clarke was with them, but without his usual issue of warm, life preserving down! However, unlike Doug, Dougal was wearing a down suit. In the heat of the afternoon Doug and Dougal were back at Camp 2, after 1,800m of sliding down the face on the ropes, involving a disciplined concentration on the ritual of clipping and unclipping their friction brakes with sensitive rewarmed fingers. Soon they were in the tender care of Dr Charles Clarke who, clad in a suit of red silk, swept around them with a bowl of warm water. In one bold and daring push Doug and Dougal had maintained the upward momentum of the whole expedition by reaching the summit within 33 days of Base Camp being established.

Despite the jubilation and the sense of personal success he must have felt at having co-ordinated and planned the ascent of the route, Chris now felt an added responsibility for the expedition. He intended to recognise the personal ambitions of the other team members and planned for 3 subsequent summit bids. And he was worried about Mick, who by mid afternoon still had not arrived at Camp 6 to join Martin, Pete and Pertemba.

But when Mick arrived at 4pm many fears were allayed. He was his usual chirpy self. He had been carrying extra camera equipment, had been readjusting the fixed line, had been helping Lakpa Dorje Sherpa whose oxygen apparatus had failed and his own oxygen had run out when he was 60 m below the Camp. He could see the hardworn line of Doug and Dougal's steps stretching beckoningly upwards. With the summit of the highest mountain on earth so accessible, what mountaineer would deny himself at least a try?

By dawn the following morning a chain of circumstances had been set in motion. Pete and Pertemba had reached the end of the fixed ropes and were convinced that oxygen difficulties had forced Martin and Mick to retreat. There was no-one in sight. They kicked away the spindrift from the tracks and moved unroped away from the end of the fixed ropes across the 300m traverse to the S Summit Gully. There they jumared gratefully up a fixed line hanging over a rock step in the gully. Looking down they could see a solitary sitting figure far back across the traverse and presumed it was Martin watching their progress before he turned back disappointedly to Camp 6. Meanwhile for those back at Camp 2 the view lacked the sunlit immediacy of 2 days before. The weather was changing and the cloud level was down to 8,200m.

At 10am Pete and Pertemba were standing on the S Summit but Pertemba's wayward oxygen set was re-enacting Dougal's ice block and it was 1 ½ hours and several cold fingers later before they began, roped now, to move along the summit ridge. They were not to be greeted on the summit by the shifting light patterns of a great panorama. Instead, visibility was down to 50 m and the sun was shining through the clouds above them. Pertemba attached a Nepalese flag to the maypole.


Haston on the Hillary step

On their descent they were amazed to see Mick through the mist. He was sitting on the snow only a few hundred metres down an easy angled snow­slope from the summit. He seemed cheerful, congratulated them and asked them to go back to the summit with him so he could do some filming. They declined thinking that since they were moving roped and he was so near the summit, that he would soon catch them up again as they pitched the descent. He asked them to wait for him by the big rock of the S Summit. Pete said 'See you soon' and they moved back down the ridge to the S Summit. Shortly after they had left him, the weather began to deteriorate. The sky and cornices and whirling snow merged together, visibility was reduced to 3 metres and all tracks were obliterated.

They waited nearly 1 ½ hours before deciding to go down. They very nearly did not get back. They had difficulty in finding the top of the gully, found the top of the fixed rope over the rock step in the dark and were covered by 2 powder snow avalanches whilst moving blindly down and across the traverse. It was dark when they found the end of the fixed ropes. Moving across the fixed rope, Pertemba lost a crampon and Pete fell down a rock step to be held on the rope. One of the sections of fixed rope had been swept away. Martin was waiting for them at Camp 6. He had turned back when his oxygen equipment had failed and his crampon had fallen off. Pete and Pertemba arrived back at 7:30 at night and the 3 of them were pinned down at the camp for a whole day and 2 nights whilst the storm continued unabated. Pertemba was snow-blind and Pete could not feel his feet. Martin suffered frost-bite in his fingers whilst clearing the snow that was burying the boxes as avalanches poured past and over the edge of the Rock Band.

When the storm finally cleared on the morning of 28 September there was no chance of Mick having survived. Camp 4 had been evacuated and half the tents at Camp 2 had been destroyed by the blast from an avalanche from Nuptse. Bonington ordered the mountain to be cleared. The climbers remaining on the Face began painfully to descend. Within 2 days the entire ex­pedition was back at Base Camp.

What had happened to Mick? Perhaps the cornices on the Tibetan side of the ridge or the fragile one-foot wind slab on the Nepal side had collapsed, the fixed line over the Hillary Step had failed, or perhaps Mick, wearing glasses, blinded by the spindrift, had lost his way on the summit dome. He had taken a decision which any of the climbers on the expedition would have made, to try for the summit alone. To us, the question was - was the climb worth Mick's death? But back home, in the mountaineering press, other debates continue. Did Everest, its success, adventure and tragedy, transcend the ethical debates? Was a big, costly logistical pyramid of men and supplies justified in 1975 when so much was achieved elsewhere in the Himalaya that year by bold lightweight expeditions on Gasherbrum 1 and Dunagiri? Do the sherpas and their country suffer from the impact of involvement with such an onslaught of capitalist commercial risk-takers? Was it more than a 'vertically integrated crowd control?'


The summit ridge with the S summit and Lhotse

The expedition owed much of its success to good weather high up (that only broke just when the expedition was at its most extended). It owed its success to Chris's leadership, to Bob Stoodley and Ronnie Richards getting the gear out, to Dave Clarke organising the equipment, to Mike Thompson organising the food, to Tut and Nick climbing the Rock Band, to the cool panache of Doug and Dougal's summit push, to hundreds of helpers and well-wishers in Britain and Nepal, and to Barclays Bank. It owed its success to climbers working together and trusting each other as friends. And it owed its success to the Sherpas whose involvement with the expedition and its success was total and euphoric - no Sherpas had been killed on the mountain, a Sherpa had reached the summit, they had been paid well and given fine equipment, the climb was over early and there was still good money to be made in the trekking season. The effect on us of their inherent happiness and reliability was more powerful than the impact of any of our misguided Western values on them. The Sherpas had been treated as equals and mutual respect and co-operation resulted. Their success was our success and ours was theirs.

And the mountain? The great drifting snows of winter soon erase the marks of man's ant-like scratchings. Everest's beauty leaves a picturehouse of memories that last a lifetime. Yet, Everest is a big mountain and the SW Face in 1975 required heavyweight tactics. Access to its secrets is only achieved after a 600 m ice-fall and a 2-mile walk up the W Cwm at 6,400m. And high on its slopes there is only a narrow boundary between a controlled and an uncontrolled situation that can be crossed irreversibly within minutes. Beyond the fixed ropes there is total Alpine commitment.

And the publicity? No climbing of Everest can ever be a private affair. Everest, the myth, with its magic and history fills the corners of the minds of many people - as the sunset from the summit filled the minds of Doug and Dougal and as at the end of the expedition, the experience of Everest was a mixture of awe, relief, happiness and sadness for the long lines of climbers who toiled back across the freshly fallen snow, back down the W Cwm. Occasionally stopping and glancing back.

The full report can be read via the Digital Alpine Journal.