Earlier this year we featured Canadian writer, Lindsay Elm's '29/5/53...A short story; the first part of an intended trilogy surrounding the Everest activities of little known Canadian mountaineer- Earl Denham.The story continues...........
It’s crazy! I’m as nervous as when I was a teenager on my first date, but I’m not going on a date. I am meeting a fellow climber to chat about a mountain, albeit a mountain that had a secret buried under a rock on its snowy summit. A secret that I have had to keep concealed since my time on the summit - a secret that has the potential to change the course of mountaineering history.
Earl Denman greets me at the door. We are about the same age, but he is a little shorter and more muscular. His ruddy complexion is from time in the African sun, but his most striking feature is his eyes. They have that faraway look, the look of a dreamer. After our introductions Denman leads me into his study. The teak floor squeaks under my shoes and sounds like the crunching of cramponed boots on wind-packed ice. He asks me if I would like a coffee or a beer. I’m hot, my shirt is sticking to my back and my armpits are dripping like an icicle melting in the sun. A nice cold beer would hit the spot I tell him.
Denman disappears and while he is out I look around for some evidence of his climb: a photograph, a prayer flag, a piece of equipment or maybe even a rock, but there is no hint of Mount Everest in the entire room. After a minute he returns with two bottles of beer covered with a fine coating of frost. They remind me of the rime covering the inside of my tent on the mornings while on Everest. He opens the bottles and I salute him with ‘to Everest’ and we sit back in our chairs.
Denman tells me he hasn’t heard from Tenzing since his ascent of Everest and asks me how he is doing with all the hullabaloo the climb has created. Denman says that Tenzing always said he was just a humble Sherpa! He admits he is concerned that Tenzing might struggle with all the public excitement. I let Denman know Tenzing is coping fine and taking it all in stride. He then asks me a few questions about the climb genuinely interested in my experience on Mount Everest. Once I have finished my story Denman folds his arms, reaches up with his right hand and strokes his chin. The rasping effect on the stubble is the only sound infringing upon the silence. “I understand you would like to know a little bit more about my attempt with Tenzing and Ang Dawa in 1947.”
There is another pause as he takes a drink of his beer, the frosting now dripping down the side of the bottle and moistening his hand. “You must understand that there are two versions; the official version which I have written into a book that is at the publishers as we talk and the unofficial version. As you are probably aware my attempt was illegal and therefore the unofficial version has a different conclusion from the story being told in the book. The conclusion may or may not surprise you, although, if my judgment is correct, you have an inkling of the conclusion, an outcome most people wouldn’t believe.”
Denman pauses and looks me in the eye. Is he searching for a reaction? I look around the room and note the sparse surroundings. Denman is not a collector and appears to live a simple life. I can’t help but wonder what Denman’s motivation is for climbing Mount Everest. Obviously it is not for glory! Is it for spiritual reasons, or is it for the physical challenge? I think back to all the mountains that I have climbed and what is important to me. Getting to the summit was the ultimate end, but it only meant something to me. However, Mount Everest is different it is the highest bloody mountain on this planet. Some say it is the closest physical point to heaven! Since westerners first sighted the mountain many men have aspired to reach its summit. Whether Denman chooses to tell me his story or not is up to him. I shift my weight conscious of my unease. I reach over and grasp my beer enjoying the effects the cold ambrosia has on my parched throat - soothing and refreshing. I’m reminded of the sweetened lemon juice I had when Tenzing gave me his thermos on the descent to our high camp on Everest and the invigorating effect it had. With a slight nod of my head and a subtle flick of my eyelids I say, “An inkling, yes!”
Denman leans back in his chair and begins his story. “After the first attempt where we failed to reach the North Col all three of us came back down the mountain to the Buddhist Monastery at Rongbuk fully intent on packing up and heading back to India. The cold temperatures and the incessant wind were demoralizing and we had had enough. After a few days of rest and breathing thicker air at the Rongbuk Monastery, we began feeling better. We noticed that higher on the mountain the wind was diminishing and the plume of snow streaming off the summit had lessened considerably. Tenzing woke up the next morning announcing that the mountain gods had visited him in his dreams that night. They told him that the next week would be a good time to be on Mount Everest. It is a well-known fact that Buddhists believe in auspices years, weeks and days. I didn’t need much persuading and for Ang Dawa and Tenzing, who grew up in the shadow of Mount Everest, the pull was stronger than any force on earth. We decided to give the summit one more attempt. We spent the day re-packing and arranging our loads.”
“The next morning we moved back into the upper Rongbuk Valley. Rivulets that had previously been frozen during the day were now trickling as the temperatures increased. The nights were still cold but we had made some refinements to our sleeping bags to improve their efficiency. The next day we moved up onto the North Col to the site of the old Camp IV. I thought I might find some evidence of the previous camps from the 1920’s, but there was nothing to be seen. Everything was either blown away or buried under the snow.”
“We all slept well, however, Tenzing was starting to cough. It was a cough that sounded worse than the cough we all usually get at altitude. His lungs were making a rattling noise. My stoic companion was not going to let a little cough stop him so we packed up and moved on. We made steady progress reaching the old Camp V site faster than we had anticipated. There was still only a slight breeze and the temperature wasn’t as low as it had been 12 days ago. The next day Tenzing’s cough was a lot worse, but he was determined to continue so we moved up higher and found the site of the old Camp VI at 27,000 feet just below the yellow band. We had to spend an hour leveling the site to accommodate our tent and when we got the tent pitched we were absolutely exhausted. We lay in the tent for a long time before we had the energy to start melting snow. The wind had increased in its intensity, but was still not as bad as we had experienced previously at lower elevations. Although not religious, I thought if there are Gods who dwell on the mountain then I was going to pray to them to be kind to us for one more day.”
“That evening we discussed the route for tomorrow. Tenzing suggested we follow Edward Norton and Howard Somervell’s 1924 summit bid route across the face to the great couloir. Tenzing surmised that by staying off the ridge we would be sheltered from the wind and we would avoid the second rock step which was the great unknown. Although it had been looked at through a telescope, no one had reached it on any of the earlier attempts or knew whether it could be climbed. George Mallory had always advocated the ridge route. This would require climbing the second step, a feature that was considered to be the crux of the climb. Although it didn’t appear to be terribly high, we didn’t want to reach it and find we couldn’t climb it. Norton states in his expedition book, he was sure that given more time he could have reached the summit. He wrote that they lost time in the morning when the thermos of water, that they had melted the evening before, had leaked during the night so they had to fetch and melt more snow for breakfast delaying the start.”
“That night Ang Dawa and I slept fitfully, but poor Tenzing received no rest due to his constant coughing. When I awoke at 4:30 a.m. Tenzing announced that he was unfit to go on. I was devastated because I considered Tenzing’s knowledge and experience critical to our success. In true Sherpa spirit he told Ang Dawa and me to go on without him and he would stay at the camp and have a drink ready for us when we returned.”
This made me think about Tenzing on our summit day last year. At 4:30 a.m. he must have been silently remembering this same day six years earlier when he had sent Ang Dawa and Denman off towards the summit without him. I can only imagine how heart wrenching it was! This time he was healthy and there were no physical impediments stopping him from going to the summit. After being so close on several occasions, I now realized how important this climb was to him. Failure was not an option!
“It wasn’t easy leaving my friend behind. Tenzing gave me his outer jacket and another pair of gloves as he didn’t need them he said. He could stay warm in the tent by lying in our sleeping bags until we returned. He looked pale, but insisted.”
“We left the tent just as it was getting light. It was cold, but we were lucky there was hardly a breath of wind. Tenzing’s premonition appeared to be coming true. We started out and although rested, every little movement was a struggle. I am not going to go into details of the immense physical effort required to climb as you have fought those demons and know what it is like. Ang Dawa and I followed broad ledges as they traversed across the yellow band angling towards Norton’s couloir. Just before the couloir we came across two pronounced buttresses which ran down the face, one of which was the continuation of the second step on the ridge above. Here the ledges we followed tapered to just a few inches in width. Below, the slope dropped away very steeply. It was slow, slow going. We crossed the couloir and continued angling up the face of the final pyramid. Fortunately, snow conditions were perfect and only occasionally did we break through to the top of our boots. On and on we went until we reached the crest of the ridge. Ahead of us was the final steep slope leading towards the summit. It wasn’t far, but at the pace we were moving it felt like it was going to take an eternity. The rests became longer and it was all we could do the take two or three steps before stopping again.”
“Ang Dawa stopped a few feet from the summit and turned to me. He waved me forward indicating that he wanted me to step onto the summit first. I walked up to him, placed my arm around his shoulder and together we stepped onto the summit. Spiritually I felt we were one! Although I was exhausted, tears welled up in my eyes. I had been dreaming about this ever since I came up with the idea that if I managed to climb all eight summits of the Virunga Mountains in the Belgian Congo then I would climb Mount Everest. I turned to Ang Dawa and we both threw our arms around each other. I wanted to say something to him, but the words wouldn’t come out. Ang Dawa knelt down on his knees and touched the summit with his forehead to pay respect to the Gods and I followed his example. Although I was experiencing intense joy, my emotions were mixed as I was also sensing sadness. The summit represents the start of the trip drawing to a close. My dream had been fulfilled.”
Out of curiosity I interrupted, “So what was the date when you reached the summit?”
“Yes, I knew you would ask me that. It really is of no consequence! I don’t mean to belittle your ascent or anyone else’s ascent of other mountains, but this was my personal goal. I am truly delighted by your ascent, especially for Tenzing as the mountain is in his blood. He deserved to finally reach the summit.”
“Mountain climbing is a unique obsession because reaching the summit is not the end. The climber can’t let his guard down. The stumbling block is, as you know only too well, he still has to get down. This is what the public don’t usually think about. It is the summit that everyone focuses on. Upon returning home they want proof that you reached the top. Just getting back safely doesn’t mean you summited. If you can’t give the public evidence that you reached the summit, the skeptics and that includes fellow climbers, will forever disbelieve you. I don’t need or want that because I know what I did. Besides, I don’t have anything to offer as proof that I reached the summit as neither of us had a camera.”
I thought about the sardine tin I had found just below the summit and considered that this would be proof. Should I say something about it? Then I realized that possibly Ang Dawa had buried it under the rock and not Denman. Maybe Denman didn’t know anything about it. However, I had to know so I said: “I found a tin under a rock!”
Denman raised an eyebrow. He didn’t seem surprised by my comment in fact I got the feeling that he already knew I had found it. Why would I have called him in the first place!
“Ah, the sardine tin! I found that tin while we were walking up the Rongbuk Valley and I put it in my pocket. Clearly it was from one of the early expeditions of the 1920’s, but which one I don’t know. Oddly enough, I started to believe that it had been George Mallory or Andrew Irvine who had eaten the sardines out of this very tin! Later that day when in the tent, I took my knife and scratched the year onto its base and then put it back in my pocket. I had forgotten all about it until I was on the summit. I was going through my pocket for a piece of chocolate when I found the tin. I thought by burying it on the summit there would be a little of me left up there and possibly a little of Mallory and Irvine.”
There was a pregnant pause. My mind raced back to the afternoon when Tenzing and I returned to our tent at the high camp. I was faced with a dilemma about what to do with the tin. The decision I made was to throw the tin away. In my mind I believed this is what Denman would have wanted me to do. Now there was no proof of his ascent. Just my word!
“I threw the tin away!” I said regretfully as I looked over to the window. A warm summer breeze curled over the sill and the scent of the creamy-white flowers of the Cape Mahogany infused the room, a far cry from the cold, lifeless wind that was trying to suck the life from Tenzing and myself as we looked out of the tent door the morning of our climb.
“What happened to the tin doesn’t bother me and please don’t feel bad about what you did. It was an inanimate object that, in hindsight, I should not have left up there to desecrate the summit. Actually, I am thankful for what you did as it has bothered me all these years.”
There was a momentary pause while Denman thought about where he had left off the conversation.
“I don’t know how long Ang Dawa and I spent on the summit, but we had to leave. We still had to get down safely and before it got dark, before the Gods changed their minds. My thoughts flashed back to Tenzing laying in the tent waiting for us. How I dearly wished he could have been with us. We carefully retraced our steps down the steep snow slope aware of the dire consequences of a slip. We arrived at a small rock step that I thought the early expeditions called the third rock step when they saw it from below. Here we had a decision to make, return via our ascent route or continue down the ridge over the third and second rock steps. Ang Dawa suggested we follow the ridge down. From where we stood the route down the ridge looked easier and safer than what we had ascended. I valued his opinion and mountain sense! Without wasting any further time we scrambled down the rock and followed the low angled ridge towards the second step.”
“The crest of the ridge was easy, not like the treacherous traverse we had taken across the face in the morning where the rocks sloped like roof tiles. It wasn’t long before we were at the top of the second step. I looked over the edge and was surprised to see a piece of frayed climbing rope hanging down. It hung half way down the step and the end appeared to be broken. My eyes followed the rope back up to my right where I saw it looped over a horn of rock. Ang Dawa and I moved over to the horn and looked at the rope. It had been there a long time and was bleached by the high altitude effects of the sun. We untied from our rope and hooked it over the horn preparing to rappel the step ourselves. That’s when I saw, frozen onto the rocks beside the horn, a canvas over-glove, a woolen mitt and, strangely, a pencil. I couldn’t pry the glove free, but the pencil disintegrated when I tried to pick it up. The only people they could have belonged to were either George Mallory or Andrew Irvine. So they had managed to climb the step I thought, but did they get any further? Did they get to the top? My mind raced with more questions. What had happened to cause the rope to break? Did the rope break while one of them was rappelling? I couldn’t see a body lying on the rocks down below or one near where I was sitting, however, on either side of me the mountain dropped off steeply! I couldn’t concern myself with their plight right now as Ang Dawa and I had to get down the step and back to the tent.”
“Ang Dawa rappelled down and reached the bottom safely. I then prepared to do the same, but before stepping over the edge I stopped. I bent down and touched the glove imagining I could feel the hand that was once protected from the cold by it, a hand that might have once touched the summit. I looked around for the last time towards the summit of the mountain wondering if Mallory and Irvine’s boots had walked that ridge, if they had reached the summit. What happened to Mallory and Irvine?”
“We eventually reached the security of the tent where Tenzing had a hot drink ready for us. This was the most generous act someone has ever done for me. We were both absolutely exhausted and if Tenzing had not been at the tent I think we would have died. It had been a long day for Tenzing lying waiting in the tent for us, but he was okay. Tenzing was over-joyed at our success. There was no envy or jealousy. His generosity epitomizes the true spirit of mountaineering.”
“The rest of the story down the mountain and back to India is not worth retelling, but I’ll say it gave me time to think about what I was searching for. Just like David who in his day slew Goliath, I had proved to myself that modern David can slay modern Goliath. My childhood heroes – Livingstone, Speke and Burton – showed me that it is not necessary to be one of a team or one of an army. I do not like the new trend of Himalayan climbing. Everest has gone from being a tremendous ideal, to falling into the grips of nationalism. The individual no longer matters. I believe one day when the conquerors have come down from the mountains then we shall be able to go to them again, simply and quietly.”
I sat there silently comprehending what Denman had just told me. I thought about our military style expedition with hundreds of people, and what Denman had achieved as a party of three. Although all of our expedition climbers had aspirations of reaching the summit, not all of them would get the opportunity. The ultimate goal was to put a British climber on the summit for national prestige. Just as Nanga Parbat was considered a German mountain, Mount Everest was considered a British mountain. We had to reach the summit before some other team did, and to the delight of the whole team, Tenzing and I did. However, around the world people were holding their breath waiting for news of, hopefully, our success. When James Morris, the reporter for The Times newspaper, received word of our ascent while waiting at base camp, he sent a coded message back to London so that the announcement of our conquest of Mount Everest could be in the newspaper on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. A crowning gift for the new monarch! Denman on the other hand had to secretly sneak undetected back through Tibet into India.
When it was time to leave I couldn’t help but admire Earl Denman. His was an exceptional story and he was an extraordinary man. I knew that if his story was made public he would be hounded. I would have to respect his wishes to keep it to myself. As we reached the front door, Denman picked up a small parcel off a sideboard table and handed it to me. The content was wrapped in a Tibetan silk scarf. He said that he has kept this for seven years since his climb on Everest and that it was time for him to pass it on. The last thing he said to me was I should find this rather interesting, and then he said good bye. I walked out feeling bewildered by his unexpected remark and wondered what this could be that I was holding!
Later in the day my curiosity got the better of me. I picked up the package, unfolded the silk scarf and found an old leather shoulder satchel, like that of a schoolboy’s. It had obviously been outside for a long time. It was worn and bleached by the elements. Etched into the leather, on the front, were the initials ACI with a date – 1924. What the hell was I holding? I nervously opened the flap and reached in. I pulled out a book. More precisely a note book! I opened the pages and there was Andrew Comyn Irvine’s personal diary. My heart was hammering harder than it was those last few feet to the summit of Mount Everest. I flicked through the pages of writing and sketches. I knew exactly where I am going. I turned to the last entry - it was written, and dated, at 6:30 on the evening of June 8. I sensed a numbing cold on my fingertips as I held the book and in my mind I could see Irvine’s frozen hand holding the pencil, struggling to scrawl his last feelings. In a state of anxious anticipation I read his closing, almost illegible, words in hallowed silence.