Friday 24 September 2010

Aleister Crowley....mountains and other goats.

Though this be madness-yet there is method in it

The self proclaimed 'Great Beast 666" whose infamy and permissive excesses in the first half of the century provoked the newspaper editors of the day to dub him 'the wickedest man in the world', has seen in star wane in recent years, to the extent that most people under a certain age have not even heard of the man whose edict was -Do what that wilt.  In the sixties when Aleister Crowley was briefly ressurrected as a cult figure and precursor of the new libertarianism,those who praised Crowley as a sage born out of his time conveniently overlooked that part of  Crowley's "Do what they wilt' edict which proclaimed " Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.'

With this in mind, it must have been disconcerting to say the least, to find yourself at 22.000 ft on K2 and staring into the barrel of  Crowley's revolver!  This surreal experience was the fate of Guy Knowles, a 22 year old Cambridge undergraduate who with Crowley had been a member of the first ever expedition to attempt to summit K2 in 1902. Knowles' crime had been to challenge Crowley on aspects of his leadership. A role which history suggests Crowley was manifestly unsuited.

Crowley may have been passionate in his interests, however, amongst those passions was a zealous desire to climb mountains. Largely forgotten amongst the satanic hyperbole is the plain fact that Aleister Crowley was an outstanding mountaineer in his day whose achievements include the first ever attempts to scale K2 and Kanchenjunga in 1902 and 1905  respectively. However his skills as a mountaineer and his self promoted leadership skills appear to have been-as we shall see- poles apart.

As a young man Crowley had made some climbs at Beachy Head of which he had corresponded with legendary Alpinist A F Mummery. Furthermore, he had climbed extensively in Britain and the Alps and became a regular habitue of  Wasdale Head and respected member of its attendent climbing fraternity. Climbing with such legendary figures as J W Robinson; Norman Collie; Geoffrey Hastings and 0 G Jones. Not surprisingly Crowley took delight in playing the maverick role to the full and poking fun at the climbing establishment.However his skills on the rock were recognized by his peers even if they chose not to pursue a social relationship with this enfant terrible of the climbing world.One highly regarded figure who did get on reasonably well with Crowley was Oscar Eckenstein, ingenious rock technician who was to join Crowley on the 1902 K2 expedition.

Oscar Eckenstein

Two years before, Eckenstein and Crowley had formulated their plan to climb K2 whilst attempted to climb two 17.000 ft peaks in Mexico; Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihautl. After reaching 14.000 ft on Ixtaccihautl - which is Aztec for sleeping woman - they bizarrely then attempted to climb an active volcano- Colima-where,not surprisingly they were beaten back by the smouldering heat. However,during the same period they did manage to ascend Popocatepetl and a neighbouring unnamed peak of Colima. In March 1902, Crowley and Eckenstein met up in Delhi to begin their assault on K2.

They had put together a strong team which apart from themselves consisted of Guy Knowles,Jacot Guillarmod a 33 year old Swiss Army doctor and two 31 year old Austrian guides,H Pfannl and V Wesseley.

In late March the party left Delhi by train on route to the largely unexplored mountainous region of northern India. They alighted at Rawalpindi in the Punjab province with three tons of food and equipment and had quickly engaged a large team of porters who would carry their gear through the increasingly mountainous terrain. It was at this stage, as the party set of from Rawelpindi for Srinagar, capital of Kashmir that another extraordinary incident took place. Eckenstein,as leader of the expedition, was arrested by the local police inspector on the orders of the Viceroy of India himself.The Viceroy had given instructions that on no account was the expedition to K2 to continue. Unsurprisingly,Crowley, who was never a man to Kowtow to figures of authority, assumed leadership of the expedition and pressed on for Srinagar.

Three weeks later,Eckenstein,released from custody, joined his companions in Srinagar. Eckenstein had confronted Lord Curzon,Viceroy of India and demanded to know why he had been arrested and the expedition banned.Without explanation Eckenstein was released and the expedition allowed to continue. On the 28th April the party left Srinagar with 170 porters to enter a harsher, brutal environment of steep mountain passes,plunging ravines and primitive rope bridges slung over foaming rivers of mud. Entering Baltistan from Kashmir- Crowley was forthright in describing his dislike of the changing terrain

"Hideous heaps of shapeless drab.There is hardly one noble contour; there is no rest for the eye; there is no inspiration,no interest - nothing but a gnawing desire to be done with the days weary dragging.'

The party's last link with civilisation was the village of Askhole where Eckenstein and Crowley disputed the proposed weight of the packs. To Eckensteins dismay,Crowley insisted on taking a large collection of poetry books with him. Needless to say,Crowley's wishes prevailed, later remarking."  I could not have stood on the Baltoro Glacier in the absence of Milton'!

By now the party had swelled to 230 men and a large travelling herd of sheep and goats with a few dozen chickens packed for good measure. By the 8th of June an advance party of 20 porters led by Crowley reached the Baltoro Glacier.After reaching 15.500ft on the Glacier, a clearing in the weather allowed the party their first uninterrupted view of of K2. Despite his romanticism,Crowley observed the mountain with a practical eye. Using a telescope to ascertain the most promising line to the summit. He concluded that their best hope of success was by the South East ridge; a line taken by the 1938/39 United States expeditions.

If Crowley was practical and matter of fact in his appraisal of the mountain and its potential difficulties,the staid and down to earth doctor,Jacot Guillarmod, was dumbstruck.He recorded in his diary his feelings on being confronted for the first time by the terrible vision  of K2.  "At first the fascination that it exercised on our minds was so great that, in spite of being accustomed to appreciate peaks at a glance.we were overwhelmed and paralysed. We stared dumbly , not being able to find a word to express the impression it made on us."

Undaunted they set up camp 9 at 17000ft beneath massive overhanging ice walls from where Crowley based his attempt on the mountain; eventually establishing camp 10 at just under 19000'. From camp 10 Pfannl and Guillarmod launched their attempt to establish camp 11 but were beaten back by a sudden deterioration in the weather.At the same time Eckenstein and Knowles succumbed to a virulent bout of influenza and Crowley suffered the torments of snow blindness. For a time it seemed as if the weather and illness had beaten them before their assault had begun. However,a favourable change in the weather and an improvement in health and spirits enabled the party to set their sights on the north east ridge although this was against Crowley's advice. Nonetheless, Eckenstein as party leader sanctioned the change of plan and after a reconnaissance by Pfannl and Wesseley had confirmed the north east ridge to be 'definitely climbable' A new camp was established at 20.000ft.

"I could not have stood on the Baltoro Glacier in the absence of Milton'

On the 10th July, Guillarmod and Wesseley reached 22.000ft on the mountain.It was to prove the highest point reached and concluded their audacious attempt on 'Chogo Ri '. Crowley had now developed malaria; Pfannl was showing signs of altitude sickness and the weather had broken. Nevertheless, they had reached a point which was  200ft higher than that reached by the Duke of Abruzzi seven years later, and often erroneously regarded as the first attempt on K2. Furthermore, they had survived for longer at high altitude than any other human beings. In all, something of a glorious failure.

If K2 was a glorious failure, Crowley attempt on Kanchenjunga three years later.was to prove an unmitigated disaster. He had been persuaded to join a team attempting the first ascent of Kanchenjunga by his K2 colleague the Swiss doctor, Jacot Guillarmod.

Crowley insisted that the expedition would be led by himself. A condition agreed to by Guillarmod but fiercely opposed by Eckenstein and Knowles who both pulled out of the team. Although Eckenstein was one of the few people to get on with Crowley, he had serious reservations regarding his unstable temperament..With the stabilizing force of Eckenstein removed from the equation Crowley felt free to draw up a contract which he insisted his colleagues sign,conferring full and absolute control to himself.

Crowley's Kangchenjunga team consisted of Guillarmod,two Swiss army officers- Alexis Pache and Charles Reymond-who were both experienced Alpinists and an Italian- Alcesti De Rigo de Righi who had no mountaineering experience but was recruited for his organizational skills.

The expedition finally got under way on the 8th August when the climbing team with their entourage of 230 porters and 3 personal servants left Darjeeling with 7 tons of equipment and provisions. By the 22nd they had reached the Yalung Glacier where clear skies and the relatively trouble free walk in had Crowley in wildly optimistic mood. In his diary he noted " Already at a height of 15000ft, I was in excellent physical condition.Not an ounce of my reserves had been used up. A completely clear path led to the summit in front of me. The mountain was hardly five miles away, the weather was improving and of the extreme temperatures which had been so terrible on Chogo Ri (K2) there was no trace.

In short there was not a single dark spot on the horizon." Contrast Crowley's diary notes with Guillarmod whose first views of the mountain prompted him to write ; " The western ridge of Kanchenjunga stood out against a cloudless sky of intense blue. Precipices swept incessantly by avalanches left us no hope of the possibility of direct access.' With two such sharply contrasting impressions from the two main players in the Kanchenjunga drama, it was little wonder that the protagonists saw a marked deterioration in their relationship from here on in.

It was at this stage that most of the porters drew to a halt refusing to go any further" as for them, Kanchenjunga was a sacred mountain. To compound their distress, many of them did not have footwear and were forced to trek up the glacier in bare feet.Guillarmod was outraged by this failure on Crowley"s part to provide his porters with adequate footwear and he fully supported their refusal to continue.

The further up the Yalung Glacier they travelled the more futile Guillarmod felt the expedition to be.On the 27th August one of the porters fell to his death and more porters deserted in the night. By the 29th Crowley had fallen out with every one and had resorted to using threats and physical intimidation to force the porters to continue. Guillarmod, disgusted at Crowley's violent conduct towards the porters decided that the time had come to depose Crowley as party leader. On  September 1st, Guillarmod had been elected party leader by the remaining team members.

Crowley not surprisingly refused to give up the leadership and effectively placed himself beyond the pale as far as the rest of the team were concerned.Although the expedition had degenerated into a tragic farce,they had managed to force their way on and established camp five at 21.000ft. However, Guillarmod's hopes of salvaging some semblance of order from the jaws of disaster were to prove ill founded.That night Guillarmod with Pache and De Righi set off for camp four with four porters sharing a single rope. Crowley remained at camp five with Reymond.As they descended one of the porters slipped dragging Pache with him.Guillarmod and De Righi attempted to hold them but were themselves torn from their belays.Soon the entire party were plunging down the mountain.triggering an avalanche in the process.

When their fall was finally arrested, Guillarmod found himself suspended in a large crevasse.De Righi was just above him,apparently unconscious. Guillarmod struggled out and managed to revive De Righi.Together they set about searching for the rest of the party now buried under the avalanche.Their shouts and screams had alerted Reymond who joined them from camp five in an  obviously futile attempt to locate Pache and the three porters. Crowley remained at camp five throughout the proceedings,later claiming that he was unaware of the incident.

It appears that Crowley upon hearing the commotion further on down the mountain had sent Reymond out to investigate.He then went back to sleep to descend down the mountain the following morning. Incredibly, Crowley ignored the party members still searching for the bodies of the victims and carried on down the mountain by himself.To compound the felony in the eyes of his comrades he later issued highly contentious newspaper accounts of the expedition and the accident which blamed Guillarmod"s "skill at producing accidents.' He also castigated the party for not following his plans or listening to his advice which had.. " warned the rebels that they would certainly meet their deaths if they tried to go down that night.'

An ill judged report in 'the Daily Mail' expressed disgust at the indiscipline of the party and hoped for " success in another year with a properly equipped and disciplined expedition.' Although Crowley was not directly involved in the tragedy the Alpine Club was quick to disassociate itself from Crowley and his Kanchenjunga expedition pointing out that Crowley had never been accepted as a member of the AC.

The final sordid page in the ill conceived Kangehenjungan drama was an action which saw Guillarmod threatening to take Crowley to court for embezzling expedition funds. Guillarmod was finally dissuaded from this course by the expense of such action.

Thus,Crowley"s great Kanchenjunga adventure had founded on the rocks of his unbridled romanticism and his absolute contempt for those 'hypocrites and pious materialists' who did not share his free spirit. Forty years later, a dying Crowley described his heroin induced fears and hallucinations as 'Kanchenjunga phobia.......It seems the spirits of the sacred mountain had followed him to the grave.

John Appleby©