Sunday, 29 December 2013

Hold the front page

Gently does it...The Temptation of Saint Julitta:Llynau Mymbyr, North Wales

Apologies if you dropped in expecting a regular Friday feature. Like millions of other people, I'm otherwise engaged in family affairs over the holiday period although I do have a new, previously unpublished article ready to slot in in the new year.So...thank you if you've been catching the site regularly and be aware, I'm always looking out for new material so perhaps you may have an essay or two gathering dust in the bottom of a drawer or buried in your computer files that you think would be of interest. Please get in touch via the email address on this page. Material does not have to be entirely related to the great outdoors as the site does on occasion publish art and environmental features. You can also keep in touch with what's going down through the Footless Crow Facebook and Twitter pages. All the best for 2014.

Friday, 20 December 2013

A little low practice on the peaks

For most people "the Alps" are an image of ice-white teeth rearing stupendously against the sky. An alp with a small "a", the original core of the word, is a steeply sloping meadow in the mountains. I have walked or driven past many of these on the way to climbing the fantastical limestone towers of the Dolomites, where families were raking hay on slopes dotted with heavy-timbered barns like arks.
The Alps show their tectonic origins beautifully as you fly across eastern France and western Switzerland on the way to Italy - a sea of rock thrust up as the Earth's crust buckled. Snowfields drape their eastern sides, bleached herbage tries to grow on their western slopes, and the huge culminating massif of Mont Blanc merges its linen whites with those of the clouds.

So the Alps were made by the Earth, not by "the English". What the first modern (ie 18th-century) travellers from France, Italy, Switzerland and Britain found among these highest lands in Europe was a dream-like wilderness of pinnacles, glaciers and cliffs, seamed by valleys which peasants inhabited with their flocks. These farmers lived on milk and months-old bread, and made cheese for distant markets. In their houses, and in some of the inns, living room was shared with the animals.

The wine was bitter, the mutton stank, the straw beds were rife with fleas. In remote valleys people were plagued with goitre and cretinism because of an iodine deficiency. When the first women climbers omitted to put skirts on over their breeches on returning to the villages at night, they were stoned. The super-civilised Alpine Club was little better: an early woman climbing writer had to publish in its journal under a male pen-name and gentleman climbers cut the ladies dead in the streets of Zermatt.

So the climbers came, professional guides and men of private means, scientists and academics, doctors and priests and lawyers, carrying barometers, thermometers and crates of wine (on porters' backs) to the highest summits and over storm-blown passes. By 1815, the tracks round Chamonix were so crowded that tourists were advised to avoid peak hours.

The inns and roads and bridges improved. Railways were built up extraordinary gradients and through the roots of the mountains - the St Gotthard tunnel runs 6,000 feet below the ridge. The "white leprosy" (Ruskin's phrase) of the hotels transformed peasant villages into international resorts. Today there are 2,000 cable-cars and ski-lifts in Austria alone (25 in 1939), Zermatt has beds for 17,000 visitors, St Anton 300 ski instructors. In the Alps as a whole there are 600 resorts and 41,000 ski runs, able to handle 1.5 million visitors an hour.

I was dismayed, as much as anything, at the physical suffering, the desperation, and the bad blood that plagued so many people as they took part in what was supposed to be either a high-minded quest or an exhilarating pastime. I am happiest among the high lands myself, and find low lands a come-down with their sticky earths and sluggish waters. The trouble with the extreme high ground is that it is almost too much for human nature.

Edward Whymper, first person to climb the Matterhorn, was a man of extraordinary grit and purpose, a brilliant way-finder, a most incisive writer, and a draughtsman so good that his drawings leave you with no pressing need for photographs. When he got back to base after a 200-foot fall on the Matterhorn and a 4,800-foot down-climb in pitch darkness, he "slunk past the first cow sheds, utterly ashamed of the state to which I had been brought by my imbecility", and was then treated by having vinegar and salt rubbed into his many head-wounds. When his great rival in the "race" for the Matterhorn, John Tyndall, just failed to climb it, Whymper venomously disputed the exact high-point Tyndall had reached and Tyndall responded by virtually accusing Whymper of lying about who said what to whom when the climbing parties were organised.

When Whymper reached the summit in 1865 and saw a rival Italian party far below, he and his mates trundled rocks down the mountainside: "The Italians turned and fled". Then came the famous fall, which killed four of Whymper's party. When three of the dead were found, the guide among them, Michel Croz, "was missing the top half of his head and was identified only by his beard and by a rosary cross which the Reverend Robertson dug out of his jaw with a penknife".

Is this really the activity which was supposed to do so much for the inner self? Leslie Stephen, excellent scholar-critic and Alpine pioneer, wrote that that "If I were to invent a new idolatry... I should prostrate myself, not before a beast, or ocean, or sun, but before one of those gigantic masses to which, in spite of all reason, it is impossible not to attribute some shadowy personality. Their voice... speaks in tones at once more tender and more awe- inspiring than any mortal teacher. The loftiest and sweetest strains of Milton or Wordsworth may be more articulate but do not lay so forcible a grasp upon my imagination."

 I almost endorse that, although "personality" is rather fanciful. The fact remains that grappling with the ice, the often rotten rock, and the violent weather of the highest ranges, and handling the fierce egotism of the people competing to get up them, makes a record at least as ugly as it is inspiring.
David Craig: An extract from an article which appeared in The Independent.Dec 30th 2000

Friday, 13 December 2013

New Age Grade Slip

As a teenager I climbed HVS at pretty much my top grade. The legends soloed Vector down at Tremadoc and Ed Ward Drummond put up Great Wall on Cloggy. They were legends and god like in their fearlessness and we were mere mortals bumbling around the lower order higher grades.We bumbled around so much that I used to say that “if I could lead it, it was HVS, and if I fell off it was Extreme”.

The only bolt in the UK at that time as I recall, was somewhere on Cloggy- someone correct me if this wasn't the case- and there were no climbs on Malham Cove because there was not any pro that worked there at all. In fact, cams had not yet been invented and a well placed Moac was something that you could moor the QE2 up to.

Time shifts; I move to hot Australia and the decades pass. On doctors orders I return to rock climbing and buy a new pair of climbing slippers- high tops are no longer cool- and a new rack of hexcentrics and cams. Wearing a helmet that doesn’t protect the nape of my neck (what happens if I get hit on the head by a rock when looking down?) I venture forth to the cliffs and begin stumbling upwards again.

Several years and many hundreds of dollars in gym fees later, I stagger gloriously up a ring bolted Ewbank graded 21 and then look at the grade comparison - E2? Blimey dandy, that’s two grades harder than my best at the age of nineteen.Is the 5.10 rubber on my resoled, low cut climbing slippers that much stickier? Are my resin hardened and white chalked fingers that much stronger than my brick wall trained teenage fingers?

Somehow my geriatric free teeth, wigs, glasses and bus pass mind will not accept this. There can only be one answer - New Age Grade Slip. Now there are lots of grading systems around- USA - 5.11 and all that,  Ozzie numeric and the extended British E system- but none of them really compute for me because they don’t reflect the personal reality of my distant climbing past.

In my youth the legitimate ascents of climbs were achieved in a number of ways. Sometimes by combining several of the methods detailed below.....

The Sewing Machine - (Now largely renamed as Elvis Leg) this technique is self explanatory and is typically the result of either fear, malconditioning, prior over indulgence or a combination of all of the above.

Shagging The Rock - As the name implies, much grunting and pelvic thrusting was involved in this technique as verticality rather than horizontality was slowly and very inelegantly achieved.

Upward Cycling - A method of ascending that saw legs and feet being used in a panicked, scrabbling fashion that gradually propelled the leader towards the top of the pitch.

Falling Upwards - Yup, similar to the above but including arms desperately windmilling towards the next safe ledge.

Steadily Ascending- Cumulative Terror - Fear, gradually increasing in direct proportion to the distance from the last stance and / or the last piece of decent trad pro that was inserted into the pitch.

Sometimes Steadily Ascending Cumulative Terror often switched into the next condition of the leader’s mental state:

Ledge Amnesia - On arrival on a stance there occurs a sudden realization that the previous pitch had been climbed with absolutely zero recollection of what was included in the pitch due to the active mind blanking out the awful terror that it had just encountered during the preceding minutes of leading the climb.

There may be more techniques that fall into to the above portfolio that have been lost as a consequence of the ravages of time,  but I think that you begin to see the general picture. Most of the time on bigger, harder climbs,my peers and I were in a heightened state of certainly fear, and sometimes terror during the act of ascending a climb. It’s different now, the pro is better, there are often bomb proof bolts everywhere and we delicately point our ballet dancer toes onto holds, cooly ascending our way upwards in a beautific and controlled manner.

In the past, my meager pocket money and wages enabled the purchase of just a set of four Chouinard Stoppers, two Clog Zero’s (one hand filed down) and a miniscule brass hex on a wire. I now carry perhaps 30 beautifully sculpted, anodized, drop tested and serial numbered wires that will fit just about anywhere, and a sequential rack of shiny cams that fit into previously hopeless parallel cracks with stunning geometric precision.

I guess the unprotected monster climbs are still out there waiting with dripping fangs festering in a gaping maw. (Has anyone done The Black Spring on Dinas Mot recently?) 

It’s perhaps just that a significant number of these horrors have probably been tamed by modern pro - or just plain vanilla glued and bolted-so, maybe you got conned into reading these words by the title of the article. But I leave you with just one simple thought:

Is there a place for a grading system that includes a narrative that highlights or brings to the attention of us mere mortals that there are still some climbs out there that are still truly “Trouser Filling”?....“HVS, 5b TF anyone?”
Michael Combley:2013 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Wilderness Works: Rock Paper

The mountain anthology has been around almost as long as people have been climbing mountains. Think of club journals from august mountaineering institutions like the CC, SMC and F&R, where editors have collected the writings of several authors, and published them in one annual publication. Over the years commercial publishers have got in on the act and used experienced outdoor writers to bring together works which were deemed inspiring and entertaining. The success of the anthology depends of course on the imagination of the editor and their choice of works. Several anthologies I’ve read, appear to have been thrown together with quantity rather than quality in mind, while other seemingly slight volumes, have nevertheless worked by virtue of the quality within.

The last mountain anthology I actually enjoyed was one of these latter slim
publications, a small volume of works by mainly Scottish writers,edited by  Alec Finlay called ‘The Way to Cold Mountain’.  This quirky little book  which included writers like David Craig and Andrew Greig was light years removed from the 700 page blockbusters which seem to be aimed at readers who enjoy Bear Grylls books.

However, I’m delighted to have discovered an anthology which whilst not fitting into Cold mountain territory, is nevertheless rather a humdinger within the genre. Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome's edited Rock Paper Fire which is described as being ‘the best of mountain and wilderness writing’, and I certainly can’t argue with this qualitative element of the subtitle. Brought together through the Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness writing programme, Rock Paper Fire offers 24 essays from 23 different writers including our own Niall Grimes and Andy Kirkpatrick. From the opening chapter where Canadian mountaineer Barry Blanchard offers a poignant essay on love and loss, through to skier, Ian Brown’s closing essay on winding down in later middle age which philosophically ends  with the lines- ‘We can still make our own trails instead of following someone elses’- all essays shoehorned between,succeed in capturing the readers imagination, despite being drawn from disciplines as diverse as sailing and hunting.

As you will have gathered, this is not a pure mountaineering anthology. The clue is in the ‘wilderness writing’ element of the sub title, although with pieces from the aforementioned Mr Kirkpatrick, Boardman-Tasker winner Bernadette McDonald, Steve Swenson and Alpinist editor Katie Ives, there is no shortage of climbing essays.No surprise to find many of the non climbing articles particularly fascinating and enjoyable. Christian Beamish chasing for shelter as a Pacific squall batters his tiny craft; the perfectly named Wayne Sawchuck’s  historical wilderness essay which took its title from cabin graffiti- Tough living -oh boy!, and even Masa Takei’s eulogistic hunting essay-Hunting and Killing- managed to capture the essence of the activity, although sceptics like me will remain unconvinced that game shooting is a ‘sport’ as such,though Takei gives it his best pun intended.

The mountaineering essays are, as you would expect given the pedigree of the writers, absolutely top drawer. Andy Kirkpatrick strung out on Troll Wall, Steve Swenson describing a catastrophic early doors episode on McKinley, Bernadette Macdonald described the madness of King Tomaz -(Humar). He of an oceanic ego and massive talent who lived by Neil Young’s edict-It’s better to burn out than fade away.

It’s all fascinating stuff where the writers pack a lot into their allotted pages.

Rock Paper Fire is to be sure, a veritable potpourri of top notch writing, brought to you by the Banff Centre Press. A nice little number to drop on an outdoor loving friend or family member this Christmas perhaps?

Friday, 29 November 2013

He who fell to earth ........A Climber's tale

In a time long ago, during the reign of Thatcher- the she-man- there lived a tribe of men whose sole purpose was to climb rocks. In this time, known in legend as The Golden Age, a being of such superior qualities and prowess existed and was known to all simply as Him. Brought forth from Gaia herself, Him understood the essence of climbing and practiced the fine art of abseiling, spreading doubt, using innuendo and creating naughty names. His hands were never idle and when not invoking forearm endurance, he strove to create masterpieces on rock that set him apart from his brother men. And despite much interest from would be suitors, he bore no mark of the corporate Devil; nay branded cloth did swathe him.  For he was no clown, his track record was formidable. One only had to look to the North Wall of the great sea kingdom, where a mixture of Him, spunk, metal and abseil had given birth to truly extraordinary things.

Abseiling down one of the great mountain kingdoms the Rock said unto Him: “Oh thee of great greatness, penetrate me with thy channel of steel and I shall give thee a climb of great significance and a grade to match.  For thou art of the true spirit and knoweth I hate top roping, but abseiling nay tis the proudest of arts”

He did as the rock told him and through earth, fire, and much cursing at his disciple Dave, Margin was born.  And indeed Margin was a pristine manifestation of his mind for all to see,  but few paid much attention. Bells did peel in triumph, but nobody except Him could hear them. Although, one mortal, fond of high places and chapattis, was party to the occasion and looked down upon the scene and knew the world would never be the same again.

Although the rock had given him Margin and big numbers of such cosmic significance as E7 and E8 no less, and although Him climbed not for big numbers, adoration or the devil, but for peace, nature,and divine worship, he was un-sated. His eyes scanned his vast Black Kingdom and the expanses of rock yielded a vision of such divine beauty he began to cry. Only He in his greatness could see this and behold the central challenge of the world lay itself there naked before him; prostrate and beckoning.  So, after much worship by abseil inspection, wire brushing and many prayers, Him heard the voice from the rock say:

“Give me a go and I will yield to you the greatest prizes. And, if Andy your publicist, abseils  to the right, he will capture some lovely pictures of you erect in all your lycra glory amongst my folds”  Bravely he set off onto the well cleaned and inspected wall. Pulling above the overlap he climbed to halfway up the climb, where he encountered the first hard moves. At this point, he realised that the relationship he had with the rock was at best tenuous and was not wholly formed.  As fear crept into his veins he heard laughter and a voice that at first was unfamiliar to him. But then he realised its source; it was not the divine rock speaking, but the Dark One and the darkness said unto him;
 “Thy routes to the North in the Great Sea Kingdom are considerably easier than this. You have no pink Anasazi’s and tis nothing like your training board in Nant. My soon to be son, you are in way over your head. Enjoy the ride…ha, ha, ha”

Him felt much terror as the friction did fail him, his intimacy with the rock ceased and he took flight. Thankfully, he came to a halt before the Netherworld engulfed him. He was alive and the only mortal to test that fall. He breathed deeply and savoured the moment and thought that he alone had experienced the greatest spiritual journey known to mankind. Returning to the Black Kingdom soon after his near end, he marked his monumental high point with a metal ‘flag’ and painted a tormented scene on the rock in remembrance of his super human effort.

Alas, the times they were a changing and a brave and extremely bouncy dwarf came forth. The Dwarf embraced techniques beyond normal abseil, but which were logically an extension thereof. Having rehearsed and memorized the route to be, the Dwarf set off up the prize face and succeeded where Him had failed.  By climbing the tormenting wall the Dwarf established the first definitive E9 and popularized the cult of the headpoint. This all greatly maddened Him and caused him to utter: “ Doth the dwarf not knoweth that checking moves by abseil is noble and braver than the dark arts he practises?”

What ensued became entrenched in folklore and from that day forth Him disliked much about the emerging fashions and practises in climbing. In particularly he abhorred climbers of short stature and questionable upbringing, and he set a trap in an attempt to impale the Dwarf and his followers at the base of a reachy and dangerous route on a slab nearby in the fiefdom of Mordor. But the Dwarf took it all in his stride and went on to establish many more phenomenal climbs of great beauty.

It came to pass that Him did leave these fair shores destined for crusades anew in a land far away. For many years he did wander, spreading the gospel of abseil and naughty names. But, he grew home sick and did return to take stock of his homeland kingdom and to promote his writings. Alas, the supreme being looked down upon modern British climbing and sighed in despair. Much badness had transpired during his absence; there were women climbing, tribes who only bouldered, open competitions, people being paid to wear the marks of the devil, outdoor centres promoting climbing, evil clip sticks, Britain’s Got Talent and designer Patagonia.

His eye rove and found ill everywhere. Him looked upon the modern stage extremely ill contented for these women folk, with exposed flesh in climbing magazines knew little of his dangerous routes. How disrespectful that they warm up on his hardest boulder problems?  Do they not know how much he had trained to bring them forth? Looking through his Samsung Nexus smart phone Him smote and wrote his thoughts on competitions as if waging a Holy war.

Flicking through a climbing magazine he came across an article that mentioned some of his routes from the Golden Age, and although not driven by grades and difficulty but by divine love and was angered that they didn’t mention how significant he was in establishing the first E7 and E8. Did they not realize of the greatness of his achievements? All were abseil inspected, but they still involved a huge amount of spunk and soul? And to top it all, the great prize that had escaped him, had just been climbed by three lads albeit using very flawed means.

His anger was all consuming and his response was swift: “Blow up DMM for encouraging such behaviour, despite the fact that they are a good natured small company employing friendly locals, have a low carbon footprint and make quality products”. Then again, he thought, it would be a bit of a shame to also blow up the photographer who worked at DMM, given that it was he who took the photographs of Him abseiled into place on his routes to get good pictures to help spread the word about his new book. Just in press and available from a good book store near you. That’s if you can manage to find one that is still in business.

Him sighed, declared Holy Jihad on contemporary climbing and proclaimed that all was lost for the Golden Age was a fading memory. But then a flash of divine light struck and a saviour stepped forth. It was no other than the brave knight Pitchfork. Previously, Him had singled Pitchfork out as a possible disciple and was hoping to use Pitchfork to help spread the gospel. But Pitchfork had grown uneasy about Him’s views and how they might upset advertisers, disrupt revenue and offend female readers. Thus, ensued an electronic battle between Him and Pitchfork consisting of a million emails combined with a social networking shit storm that ended something like this:

Him... “Thy magazine is brazen, bland and reeks of the Daily Mail....”

Pitchfork... “Thou knoweth not of competitions, publishing, nor even of fine English. Thou reminduth me of Ackmed”

So it came to pass that Him fondly remembered Lord Dougloss, Lady Kant and OTE. And he conveniently forgot about just how extremely lucky he had been to have such amazing opportunities during the Golden age. As for the folk who practice and love climbing today, they smiled from the warmth of their designer fleeces and sort comfort in the fact that Him was now just an old man from a time long ago. Ignorant to what climbing is about today. This and the fact that he was from Yorkshire so should have never been trusted in the first place.

Caff and The Cosmic Moondog:2013
Cragrat Image:JA

Friday, 22 November 2013

Army Dreamer....... A Portrait of Tony Streather

Dead Man walking: Jillott and Amery before the fateful avalanche on Haramosh.

For those who are interested in compiling it, the list of postwar British mountaineers who have achieved major success in the Himalaya would be predictable: Brown, Bonington, Scott, Rouse Haston,Whillans,Boardman, Tasker,Fowler,Saunders... The chances of Harry Reginald Antony Streather being included would be remote. Yet in the 1950s, Tony Streather's track record was second to none. The first ascent of Tirich Mir; a pivotal role in the K2 tragedy of 1953; the sec­ond ascent of Kangchenjunga (only a day after Joe Brown and George Band); a terrific epic on Haramosh; the first ascent of Malubitang East..

I assumed, quite wrongly, that he came from a long-standing army family, not so: "My father was a builder and before the war we lived in various parts of North London and Hertford­shire. Towards the end of the war I went straight to India because someone came to my school to give a talk about the Indian Army. This set off an accidental train of events that led to my climb­ing because we trained for Burma in the jungle.

Then the bomb was dropped and that was that. So the regiment was sent to the North West Frontier which I found fascinating — Kipling and the Great Game, that sort of thing." Streather stayed on after the Partition of In­dia and Pakistan and joined the Chitral Scouts. By 1950 he was the last British Officer, serving under a Pakistani CO, when a Norwegian Expe­dition came to attempt Tirich Mir, 7,700m: "I joined the expedition and was appointed Trans­port Officer. I'd literally never tied on a rope before but of course I'd spent months crossing passes, living in the mountains at reasonable alti­tudes — I was very fit indeed. I had no major ambitions initially, I was there to organize the porters. I think the Norwegians had this idea of 4e British Colonial exploiting the porters and expected me to go round beating the locals. They couldn't understand why when they would ask them to do something, they would take abso­lutely no notice at all and I would chat to them and say 'now come on' and it worked."

Speaking fluent Urdu, Streather managed to persuade the porters ever higher but only by accompanying them himself. Rather to his sur­prise — "it really was a pure accident" — he ended up on top. The ascent of Tirich Mir would have made a far greater impact had not Annapurna been climbed by the French the same year, the first 8,000m peak to fall and under epic circumstances: "all those toes being cut off in the train" as Streather succinctly put it.

But his ascent had not gone unnoticed and on his return to Britain he was first invited to join the Alpine Club ("I thought it was some sort of Social Club"), and then selected for trials in Switzerland for the Everest team in 1953.

Despite being by far the best acclimatized and in the view of the expedition doctor, Michael Ward: "he should really have been a member of our Everest team." his lack of Alpine climbing and tech­nical experience counted against him and he was rejected. It is one of the more delicious ironies in the annals of Himalayan climbing that at the same time as the let­ter giving the bad news arrived, so did another from Dr Charles Houston inviting him to join the 1953 American K2 Expedition. He had been turned down for the South Col route of Everest while simultaneously being included in the team to attempt the far harder and steeper mixed ground of the Abruzzi Spur.

The expedition still remains a highpoint of Himalayan expeditioning despite its tragic outcome when Art Gilkey was stricken with phlebitis in a pro­longed storm high on the moun­tain just below the infamous Shoulder of K2. With a unity of spirit and purpose, an heroic attempt was made to rescue Gilkey, an attempt that ended with a multiple fall and, soon afterwards, the death of Gilkey who was swept away in an avalanche. Streather, who had integrated well with the Americans, has no illu­sions about the futility of the task they set them­selves but thinks it was out of the question not to do their utmost to save Art's life. Though di­rect comparisons are unfair and the circum­stances similar but not exactly the same, Streather remains unimpressed by some of the actions during the 1986 tragedy on the Shoulder of K2 when five out of seven climbers from three separate expeditions died, including All Rouse and Julie Tullis, in a similarly prolonged storm: "We were extremely close, working together as a team, and here we are 40 years later, still alive and having done all sorts of things since. They (referring to 1986) were a hotchpotch of indi­viduals some of them you might say prima donnas, thinking only of getting to the top at all costs. We were trapped up there for 10 days and it must have been very close to where Julie and Alan both died."

Despite the emotional trauma of K2, Tony Streather had no qualms two years later when he was invited out of the blue by Charles Evans to go to Kangchenjunga: "Charles was a terrific leader in a very quiet sort of way and, like K2, we all became great chums and a close team.) was going better higher than almost anybody, though of course I lacked the technical skill of Joe. I often tried not to use oxygen because I found the extra weight of carrying the stuff off­set any good it was doing me. I was selected for the second summit bid with Norman Hardie af­ter Joe Brown and George Band. We went to the top camp and as it was getting dark they returned very tired. They explained that at the very last there was this bit of climbing up a chim­ney. Up until then Joe had found the whole thing a bore, plodding about in the snow, but now he used a sling and hand jams. Joe said 'have a go but you probably won't get up the final bit' be­cause he knew that neither of us were great rock-climbers.

Tony at K2 base camp in 1953

Well, off we went, and we had a drama on the way up. Norman who was leading had the misfortune of seeing one of his oxygen cylinders slip out of the carrying frame. I gave him one of mine and followed using the remaining one very sparingly, about a litre a minute. Anyway we got to the famous place that Joe talked about, still had crampons on, didn't like the look of it so just went round a bit and there was a nice little snow gully going straight to the top. It was a lovely, very clear day and we hung around just below the summit for some time. (The team had undertaken not to tread the summit snows out of respect for local beliefs who believed that the summit of Kangchenjunga was the home of the mountain gods.) On the way down the little oxy­gen I had ran out. Coming down was a very te­dious business."

The first ascent of Kangchenjunga by a long and complex route that had only been briefly recced was a major achievement though, per­haps naturally, unlike the first ascent of Everest two years previously it remained a low key af­fair. None of the expedition members became public figures except Joe Brown, for very differ­ent reasons.It was whilst lecturing about K2 at Oxford University that Tony Streather became involved in what would prove to be one of the most har­rowing epics of all time. Had it happened today in a far more media conscious world it would have rivalled both the K2 dramas in 1986 and the self-rescue epic of Joe Simpson on Siula Grande.

In 1957 Streather was persuaded to lead a small team from Oxford to reconnoitre the unclimbed Haramosh, a complex 7,400m peak overlooking Gilgit. The University Club desper­ately needed someone of Tony Streather's stand­ing to give the expedition the clout to justify a Mount Everest Foundation Grant, then, as now,- seen as a considerable boost to expedition fi­nances. At the time Streather was an instructor at Sandhurst and working for a Staff College exam. He was also newly married with a young child. It was, he said: "absolute nonsense from my military career point of view to go" but Ber­nard Jillott, the organizer and driving force be­hind the expedition, persuaded him.

What happened on Haramosh is the subject of one of the great climbing books The Lost Blue Mountain which though written by Ralph Barker, a non-climber, gives a vivid, accurate and per­ceptive picture of the complete series of 'knock-on' events leading to the final tragedy. What fol­lows here is, of necessity, largely simplified. After several weeks on the mountain, mak­ing slow progress in indifferent weather, the small team reached a vantage point where the whole of the final pyramid with still 100m of height to be gained, was laid out before them. There was no realistic chance of reaching the top but the prime aim of the expedition, to reconnoitre a feasible route, had been achieved. Just along the ridge stood a minor summit which they named `The Cardinal's Hat'. Jillott wanted to climb it as a consolation prize. Streather, one suspects not wholeheartedly, agreed that Jillott and John Em­ery should go for it Streather was worried about cornice danger and warned them to keep well back from the break line. But it was the slopes that Jillott and Emery were climbing that sud­denly avalanched. Streather and Rae Culbert watched in horror and incomprehension as the two figures jerked about like puppets before being swept past them, apparently to oblivion.

As the cloud of snow settled, Streather peered down into a snow basin over 300m be­low. To his relief and amazement he saw a figure moving, apparently uninjured. Then the other appeared. Both climbers had survived the ava­lanche but both had lost their ice-axes and worse still Emery had dislocated his hip and lost both his pairs of gloves. The fall had taken them clean over some ice cliffs and, without axes, it looked impossible to climb back up to the ridge. By a stroke of good fortune Emery involuntarily man­aged to get his hip relocated and the two tried to traverse across to a point where they could avoid the ice cliffs. But without axes they both slipped and narrowly avoided falling into a cre­vasse. Late in the day they faced up to a cold bivouac. In the middle of the night they saw a bright light above them and decided to try again to climb up but almost immediately Emery fell over a small ice cliff and the two resigned them­selves to spending the rest of the night in the basin.

On the ridge above, Streather and Culbert had already tried to alleviate their plight. They had deliberately dropped a rucksack containing spare gloves, a bottle of water and some sweets and chocolate, but to their horror the 'sack veered off and disappeared down a crevasse. They decided to descend to their camp (Camp IV) and organize a proper rescue.

Before midnight they returned to the ava­lanche site and helping each other carefully they started down. By dawn they were above the ice cliffs that they hadn't been aware of in the dark and had to start cutting steps along the top slopes to try and circumvent them. It took hours. Be­low, the tired and apathetic Jillott and Emery watched as their rescuers inched their way to­wards them. It took the whole day before all four were reunited. One of two Thermos flasks of soup had broken, the other barely started to revive the two. Darkness and the second night out approached. Streather roped everyone to­gether and hoped that even without axes Jillott and Emery would be able to climb the line of steps.

Somehow Culbert had lost a crampon on the descent and after a good start he slipped and pulled the other three off. All four slid in a tan­gled mass back into the basin. Streather losing his axe in the process. He borrowed Culbert's and they started again. This time they madesteady progress and had nearly reached a ledge that he and Culbert had stamped out earlier in the day. Then far below, Jillott, exhausted fell asleep and pulled off the other three and down 80m back into the snow basin again. During the fall Streather lost the remaining ice-axe.

The four spent a miserable night in a cre­vasse, Culbert already troubled by a frostbitten foot, Emery's hands giving trouble and Jillott be­ginning to ramble incoherently. Streather seemed to be the only one relatively unaffected. He knew all too clearly that the next attempt to escape had to succeed. 

But now they had no ice-axes and in the circumstances he decided that the rope was more of a hindrance than a help. Just short of the stamped out platform they had a major stroke of luck and found an ice-axe stick­ing out of the snow. Slowly, painfully slowly, Streather cleared and enlarged the step and the others followed. But Rae Culbert was desper­ately handicapped by the loss of his crampon and called for a rope to help him over a particularly awkward section. Streather dropped him one and made an ice-axe belay. But when Culbert slipped the strain was too great and Streather was cata­pulted down the slope. Yet again they both ended up in the snow basin.

With dreadful irony their desperate situation was now reversed. High above, Jillott and Emerson were on their way to escape while their rescuers faced yet another grim night in the open. Above them, Jillott and Emery finally managed to extricate themselves and emerged on to the ridge where Emery promptly fell through the cornice on the other side. Mercifully he only fell 10m and though his hip jarred out again once more he managed to get it back. Jillott went ahead now obsessed with the need to get back to Camp IV and strengthen themselves with food and drink so that they could return and help Streather and Culbert.

Emery followed him slowly down into the darkness. Surely now their troubles would ease. But suddenly he found himself falling again, this time into a crevasse, and knocked himself out. When he awoke it was night and dragging him­self back to consciousness he managed to find a way out. Then he fell asleep again. When he'awoke it was about midday. Emery followed Jillott's track, more dead than alive, until just above Camp IV they disappeared over the edge of a colossal drop. Uncomprehending, Emery peered over. There was no doubt about it. Bernard Jillott had walked over the edge to his death. Shocked and exhausted Emery regained Camp IV at last after three days, lit a Primus stove and made himself a drink. He was terribly frostbitten and later lost all his fingers.

Meanwhile back in the snow basin Culbert and Streather had survived the night. Culbert though was nearing total collapse. In the end he fell off twice more, but by now he was unroped and Streather knew his only hope was to get out on his own and alert the others. With his strength ebbing Streather managed at last to regain the Ridge and by now frostbitten and ex­hausted he descended to Camp IV where he found Emery who broke the news of Jillott's death to him. They knew in their hearts that by now there was no way they could possibly rescue Culbert, who would be most unlikely to survive the night, and next day with heavy hearts and appalling injuries they managed to get off the mountain.

Joe Brown-with his head in the clouds- and Tony Streather at a Community Action Nepal Kangchenjunga anniversary gathering. Photo CAN

Based on an interview conducted by the author in the mid nineties and published in High-July 96.

Jim Curran