Friday, 29 April 2016

Mountain Characters: Spirits in the Sky

 John Porter and Alex MacIntyre in Peru: Photo John Porter

‘Your young men shall see visions’    The Bible

Recently I read an article by Nick Bullock bemoaning the fact that the present day climbing world is no longer as replete with ‘characters’ as it once was. He blamed this shallowness on such as the majority of the younger generation being spoon fed, with climbing wall introductions to the sport, consumerism and an-unwillingness to seek out new experiences in relatively unknown (unpopular) climbing areas and wilderness destinations.

I think it is only from a distance in time that we can appreciate the true worth of such character in our own climbing friends and acquaintances, but three mountaineers who worked alongside me at the BMC, would I believe pass Bullock’s designation as ‘characters’, namely Peter Boardman, Alex MacIntyre and Andy Fanshawe. However they were much more than their climbing record suggests, for all three became published authors, each had an academic record, and they had a major influence on their contemporaries and in the subsequent future direction of Himalayan exploration; and no three people in my experience exhibited such a degree of difference in their personalities. However, they each had enjoyed a similar introduction to climbing whilst schoolboys, one that demanded enterprise and keenness with no spoon feeding.

I first met Peter Boardman when I gave a lecture to the Nottingham University Mountaineering Club in 1970; he was studying English and had already made some impressive ascents in the Pennine Alps and the Mont Blanc Range (e.g The Bonatti Pillar of the Petit Dru). I got to know him better when he assisted during the BMC’s first ever International meet in North Wales in 1973, giving a lecture on the Nottingham clubs expedition to the Hindu Kush the previous year, and climbing with the brilliant Russian, Aleksandr Gubanov on Llech Ddu,  ascending routes like The Groove and The Great Corner. By that date Peter was a post graduate at Bangor and typical of him he also studied Welsh in his spare time. He had also begun writing about his climbing experiences, including an outstanding article in Mountain No 36, ‘Long Necks in the Hindu Kush.’ On this his first expedition, they had made some spectacular ascents, including the North Face, of Koh-i-Kaak (5,860m). What made this even more interesting was they had driven overland to Afghanistan and inevitably experienced some hair-raising adventures en route.

Peter was appointed the BMC’s National Officer in November 1974, and although then only 24 years old, he exhibited a maturity which impressed all who met him at that time. He was above medium height, physically powerful, dark haired and quietly spoken. But he quickly adapted to a role of attending and steering meetings the length and breadth of the UK and abroad. But he was not all serious, and he was a member of the Mynydd climbing club, which he had joined as a schoolboy in Cheshire, and he was a keen member of their folk group, led by a climber known as ‘leather lungs’ and complimented by Pete’s fine baritone voice, whose party piece was ‘The Rawtenstall Annual Fair!’.

In September 1975 Peter was to achieve national recognition by summiting Mount Everest on the South West Face expedition along with Sherpa Pertemba, following on   Doug Scott and Dougal  Haston who had climbed the mountain shortly before him. He was the last person to see Mick Burke alive just below the summit, and Peter awaited his return in deteriorating conditions whilst he also summited, but he was never  to be seen again. Post Everest Peter  was in demand to write articles and give lectures, but once back in the BMC office he was nose to the grindstone, answering phone calls and letters, attending meetings, whilst observing with some justification  by what has occurred subsequently,  that ‘we are creating  a monster!’. But also whilst arguing between us  about the merits of our favourite poets; myself being a fan of such moderns as Gary Snyder, and Pete condemning them in comparison to his own classical favourites such as  Spenser. He was also a great fan of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories.

Joe Tasker was then based in Manchester, and he was a frequent visitor into the BMC office, so much so that I invited him to attend the staff Christmas party in 1975/6. He had also been away that summer in the Indian Himalaya and with Dick Renshaw had made the first ascent of Dunagiri (7066m). A brilliant achievement for they had driven overland to India in an old Ford van, but unfortunately Dick had contacted frost bite in a storm during the descent, and thus was unable to return with Joe to attempt an even more impressive objective for the autumn of 1976, which they had observed from Dunagiri, the West Wall of Changabang(6,864m).  Joe started enthusing Pete about this, but there was a snag, for he had been away for many weeks in 1975 on Everest, and I was none too keen on being once more left to hold the fort for another long absence. However before he had started to climb as a 20 year old Joe had studied at a Catholic seminary,training to be a priest, and he had become a persistent debater. At the Christmas party after a meal, lubricated by alcohol he started on me, and I found myself some while later agreeing  to Pete taking part with him in apparently what might be the most important ascent in the history of British Himalayan endeavour?

Joe and Pete had at that point in time never climbed together and so they came along one weekend in January 1976 to a weekend in the Peak District, with me and my family staying at the Oread hut near Baslow. The weather was dire, cold and wet, but we still did go climbing, and impressively Pete led the Right Eliminate on Curbar, for he was an outstanding free rock climber and both Joe and I needed an extremely tight rope in following. Later that year they trained together mid-week by spending evenings hanging off meat hooks in a cold storage in Manchester, so by the time they left for Changabang in early September 1976 they were well attuned to each other’s likes and dislikes!

Their successful ascent of Changabang’s West Wall over 25 days, was without doubt one of the outstanding breakthrough’s in modern Himalayan climbing history. And Pete’s award winning book of their climb ‘The Shining Mountain’ was agreed to be a classic of mountain literature and it is still in print.   

Peter left the BMC at the end of 1977 to take over as the Director of The International School of Mountaineering in Leysin at the death of Dougal Haston in a skiing accident.  His life from thereon was dominated by mountaineering, he had passed his guides carnet earlier that year, and eventually he became President of The Association of British Mountain Guides in 1979. He  married in August 1980, and his wife Hilary Collins, a keen climber had previously taken part with him in making  the first ascent of the South Face of the Carstentz Pyramid in New  Guinea in December 1978.

Peter’s life over the next immediate years was to be a round of expeditions in between his guiding commitments. A tragic expedition to K2 in 1978 was abandoned when Nick Escourt was killed in an avalanche, a successful new route was achieved, on Kanchenjunga by its North Ridge in 1979 with Doug Scott and Joe Tasker, and the first ascent of Gauri Sankar’s south summit (7071m) was made in November of that same year. Attempts were made on the West Ridge of K2 in 1980, and success was recorded on the remote Xinjiang peak of Kongur (7,719m) with Joe Tasker, Chris Bonington and Al Rouse in 1981. Joe and Peter by that date must have been one of the strongest high altitude partnerships of their era, but it all came to a tragic end in 1982, when attempting the unclimbed North Ridge of Everest on the Tibetan side of the mountain during which Joe Tasker and Peter were last spotted on the 17th May at the foot of the second pinnacle (8,250m). A decade later, a Japanese-Kazakh expedition found Peter’s body around this altitude, but Joe’s has never yet been discovered despite other expeditions subsequently following this same route.

When Peter left the BMC I was so sorry to see him depart. Over the three years he worked with me, we had become close friends, and I did go out to Leysin in the summer of 1981 and undertook some guiding of clients for him. His loss was equably sad for all who were involved at the BMC at that time, both the staff and volunteers, for he had taken on the role of a Vice President in 1979 and he was still very much involved in shaping the organisations policies. Both Joe Tasker and Peter were fine writers, and each had published two books, Joe ‘The Savage Arena 1982’ and ‘Everest the Cruel Way 1980’ and Peter, besides ‘The Shining Mountain 1978’ , ‘Sacred Summits  in 1982’, they had also contributed numerous articles to magazines and journals. And so we, who were their friends and most importantly including their families, set up the Boardman/Tasker prize for mountain literature in 1983. This is now the leading such award in the UK, and has gone from strength to strength in recent  years,  with over 80 entries from around the English speaking world in the last two years; the winner last year being a Canadian, Barry Blanchard. Whilst Peter’s old school; Stockport Grammar, has erected The Peter Boardman climbing wall as their way to keep his memory and example alive for their students.

Alex  MacIntyre succeeded Peter Boardman as National Officer of the BMC at the end of 1977, he was 23 years old at that date, and a graduate in law from Leeds University. Although he had a very Scottish name he was born in Yorkshire, however his parents were from Caledonia, and the family moved south to Letchmore Heath when Alex was young, from where he attended Watford Grammar School. He started climbing whilst at school and joined the London Mountaineering Club, with whom he attended club meets in Wales, but which did not seem to affect his studies as so often happens to young climbers, for in 1972 he managed four Grade A’s at A level. Leading on to entry at Leeds University originally to study geography and economics, but later he switched to read law. He joined the University climbing club, which at that date was a dynamic force in the land and he began to hone his climbing skills alongside such as John Syrett, Brian Hall, John Porter, Roger Baxter-Jones and John Powell.

It was during that time I first met him, at the then famous Leeds University Wall. He was a striking figure in appearance (one of the wags at the wall, comparing him to the young Shirley Temple), of medium height, lithe, dark and with a shock of thick curly hair crowning his head. He looked like a rock star, a doppelganger for Marc Bolan. He was however no wall expert, in fact although he developed into an outstanding mountaineer, he was never a premier division rock jock, preferring to excel in the mountains.

Besides the University club being, at the cutting edge of disciplines from outcrop to alpine climbing in that era, it was also a part of a vibrant social scene of partying, clubbing and youthful exuberance. Alex was no shrinking violet and I once observed him at a club disco head-banging with the rest, and sometime into his studies at Leeds he took on a bet to wear the same clothes for a term, earning him the soubriquet of ‘Dirty Alex’, which took some little time to become inappropriate for in his later years, he became a wearer and a designer of some ‘smart’ outdoor equipment. Whilst at Leeds he started to travel (sometimes hitch-hiking) to winter climb in Scotland, and it was there he found out what he was outstandingly good at ice and mixed climbing.

In March 1975 he made solo ascents in a day of both the Zero and Point Five gullies on Ben Nevis, and soon he was transferring these skills to the Alps.  After the usual early alpine bumble ascents, he really began to motor, and by the time he joined the BMC he had taken part in pioneering two new routes on the North Face of the Grandes  Jorasses (including the now classic Colton-MacIntyre in 1976), ascended  the Shroud  also on that face, and the Eiger Direct:  the Harlin route on that mountains north wall.

Alex once in post at the BMC was so different to his predecessor, he was more ‘up front’, more argumentative in stressing his views, and more aggressive. But if it seemed in expressing his own stance so strongly he had over stepped the mark, he was sensitive to other opinions, and good at regressing and allowing others to make their case. His background of being a law graduate was good at helping to form direction and policies, and he had a very sharp intellect  and was actually easy to work with, and many of the younger generation of activists appeared to agree ‘if someone like Alex  MacIntyre could work for the BMC, it was a body worth supporting!’

 An event that occurred before Alex joined the BMC   was to have great meaning for his own future development as a Himalayan mountaineer, this was a visit, organised by the Council of Polish climbers to the UK in September 1975. Peter Boardman was away on Everest at that time, and normally the hosting arrangements would have been his task as National Officer but in his absence I had to take on this role. To do this I needed to invoke the voluntary help of my own friends, one of whom was John Porter, and he joined the party to help during the stay of the Poles in North Wales.

He struck a strong rapport with our guests and subsequently he accepted an invitation from them to climb in the Tatra Mountains.  It is worth recording that Eastern European mountaineers had by that date begun to establish a formidable record in Himalayan exploration, this despite having a much reduced standard of living compared to their western counterparts, and their initiative in overcoming travel and funding difficulties being one of an incredible ability at ducking and diving, all within their then pervasive communist-system of governance.

John was invited in 1977 to take part in an expedition to the Hindu Kush by the Poles, and in order to make this into a joint endeavour, he invited Alex MacIntyre to join him. They had met each other whilst studying at Leeds, and were close friends. This trip was to energise Alex and set his future direction, attempting lightweight attempts on the highest peaks. On this his first such expedition just reaching the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan was an adventure, travelling overland by train, and public transport as cheaply as possible all master minded by their Polish team members, one of whom Woytek Kurtyka would go on to be one of the most outstanding climbers of his generation. They enjoyed some spectacular successes on this expedition, including a major new route on Kohe Bandaka 6868m. The following year they were to repeat the exercise, a joint Polish-British expedition to the Indian Himalaya, with success in the ascent of the south buttress of Changabang 6864m, a highly technical route which took 11 days, climbing in Alpine style.

By 1978 and the Changabang climb, Alex-was deeply into his role as National Officer at the BMC. He had been given leave of absence to take part in that expedition, but we could not keep on doing this. The Executive Committee discussed what to do about such requests for absence in future and agreed that from there on any of the professional officers making an application for leave to take part in an expedition this could only be granted once in every five years of service. I realised that this would not suit Alex, but the work load was increasing exponentially at that time with a massive increase in participation occurring within the sport, and expedition membership forty years ago meant being away for many weeks. In the time it took for Alex and John to reach the Hindu Kush in 1977, most modern teams have been to their mountain/s and come back.

Once again as with Peter it was not all serious. On some of the International Meets one of our regular venues in the Peak District, after a day’s climbing was the Swan in New Mills, run by old friends Bob and Elsie Upton, members of Manchester’s Karabiner Club, so they were well attuned to visits by such a clientele. Usually our visitors enjoyed a pub meal, a lecture and afterwards a social when lots of local Peak District enthusiasts turned up in order to meet with our visitors. On one of these occasions, Alex raided his girl friend’s make up box and appeared late in the evening made up in highlights. This invoked from all present much laughter but things did get a little out of hand subsequently, when one of our guests began a simulated strip to the music of The Stripper! It was all done in the best possible taste, but next day back at my desk in the BMC Office I was stunned when a reporter from The News of the World phoned demanding details of who and what had been involved in such an organised orgy! It took me some time to convince the reporter that it was just a case of youthful high jinks, commonplace at such climber’s gatherings.

I had guessed that with his developing ambitions Alex would not stay too long at the BMC now we had instituted a five year rule on expedition leave. He wanted to develop and test his skills, climbing alpine style in the highest mountains. He decided to leave in 1980, and once again as with Peter Boardman I was so sorry to see him go. By that date I was almost old enough to have been his father, and I was worried where his drive for adventurous style ascents would lead him, and I feared for his long term future safety. Over the next two years his none stop activity was impressive, with ascents and trips to Dhaulagiri, Makalu and Shisha Pangma.  This latter yielded an impressive new route on the mountain in 1981 by its south west face in the company of Doug Scott and Roger Baxter Jones. The book of the expedition, written jointly by Doug and Alex was an early joint winner of the Boardman/Tasker prize in 1984.

Like Peter, Alex’s demise happened at the frontier of what was then possible in Himalayan climbing, an attempt in autumn 1982 on a new route with French climber, Rene Ghilini on the South Face of Annapurna. John Porter had joined them, but was laid low at base with illness but watching their ascent via a scope. After some very difficult climbing they were descending to re-group at base, to rest ready to return to the face, when a single stone falling from high on the mountain scored a direct hit on Alex’s head killing him instantly. I was in Nepal when this happened for I had been speaking at a UNESCO/UIAA ‘Future of the Himalaya’ conference, and then subsequently out trekking finishing in the Rolwaling. I was awakened in my tent with a message about the accident to Alex, carried by a runner from Mike Cheyney in Kathmandu and so I immediately rushed back to there- where I met a distraught John Porter, who filled me in with the detail of what had happened.

John after many years of struggle with the subject matter has now managed an outstanding   biography of Alex. ‘One Day as a Tiger’. A winner of the Grand Jury prize at Banff and short listed for last year’s Boardman/Tasker Award. And we who were Alex friends, in a similar move to what had happened at Peter and Joe’s sad deaths, wished to set up an appropriate memorial to him. He had been keen on Scottish winter climbing, and by an act of serendipity I had attended a meeting of outdoor organisations in Manchester at the headquarters of the Co-operative Holidays Association some time before Alex’s death. I found out they owned a property at Onich and they offered to let us rent a large cottage in the grounds which was surplus to their requirements. Initially we did do this, but subsequently we managed to persuade the CHA to sell and we purchased the property for £28,000 and it now stands as The Alex MacIntyre Memorial Hut of the BMC/MC of S, a suitable recognition of its named climber, which over the last twenty years or more, has been used by hundreds of climbers from the length and breadth of the UK and overseas.

Andy Fanshawe:Photo Fanshawe Trust

Andy Fanshawe was as different in character from Alex has he had been from Peter. Tall and angular, he exuded enthusiasm and caring, with a measured approach to problem solving, and he was universally popular. He had started rock climbing as a schoolboy at Wilmslow Grammar School from where he gained entrance to Imperial College to study mining geology.  Whilst at University he organised an expedition to Ecuador and Peru, and during the summer before he was appointed BMC National Officer, as a 23year old in the autumn of 1986, he had taken part in the first successful traverse of Chogolisa 7665m in the Karakoram Himalaya.  Like Peter and Alex before him, prior to taking on his role at the BMC he had completed some major alpine ascents, including the South West Pillar of the Petit Dru and the North Ridge Direct on Les Droites.   The reader might wonder what was the role of The National Officer within the BMC?

It was one that demanded almost 24 hours a day, attending Area and other meetings, acting as Secretary to the Technical Committee, which had a major role in setting standards and equipment testing, dealing with queries and phone calls mainly in the safety and technical areas, and acting as liaison with the hundreds of clubs and organisations and individuals in membership of the Council; and organising a programme of International meets, expedition grants and advice. It required driving thousands of miles a year to meet the requirements of the job. In retrospect I am impressed with how well Peter, Alex and Andy carried out their work demands whilst managing to continue being active in the hills. During the period Andy was at the BMC we had a very cohesive working together staff, I have worked in many organisations in different parts of the world; in China, East Africa and Europe but none where the staff were so close as the BMC in that period. This was highlighted when Andy had a terrible accident during the New Year of 1986/7 on Ben Nevis.

After a successful climb he and John Taylor were descending off the mountain in bad weather. From the summit plateau they had descended too far east and found themselves at the head of the Five Finger Gully, a notorious accident black spot. Realising their mistake they started traversing, back the way they had come, when the slope they were on avalanched, carrying them along its wake. They were buried by this and though Andy survived despite his injuries, John Taylor died. Obviously this was a terrible event for John was one of Andy’s oldest and closest friends. I know he was deeply affected by meeting John’s parents who he visited as he slowly recovered. Back in Manchester my secretary, Leslie Smithson took Andy into her home and helped him to rehabilitate and get back to work within a surprising short time, taking into account the seriousness of the accident. In fact within four months he led his first E5 rock climb in Wales.

The next few years were full of incident, for there were always crisis looming at the BMC, especially in relation to access and safety problems, and combating threats to the integrity of our sport. However using the five year rule Andy applied for leave of absence to join an expedition, led by Chris Bonington to Menlungste West 7023m in 1988. An impressive peak in the Rolwaling Himalaya of Nepal, and along with Alan Hinkes he was successful in reaching its summit on this mountain which some refer to as The Matterhorn of Nepal.

I left the BMC in mid 1989, and I was heartened by both Lesley Smithson and Andy Fanshawe pleading with me not to leave, suggesting that after 18 years I should take a sabbatical. However I had given 8 months notice and wanted to do other things with my life. We all stayed good friends and I attended Andy’s marriage in 1990 to Caroline, a keen outdoor enthusiast herself, at which he also decided to leave the Council’s employ moving to live in the Eden Valley of Cumbia. In that same year he published a climbing autobiography, with a rather unusual title ‘Coming Through’.

He then worked as a fund raiser for the Barrow Hospital Trust, aiming to purchase a 1.5million pound scanner for that body, but taking time off to visit the Alps and climbing the North Face of the Eiger and the Croz Spur in winter on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses with Ulrich Jessop, a climbing companion from his University days.

Like Alex and Peter before him, tragedy was awaiting and on the 14th March 1992, whilst leading on the Eagle Ridge Direct on Lochnagar, he fell and though his second held his fall, badly injured his life ebbed away before he could be rescued shortly before his 29th birthday. Peter, Alex and Andy three incomparable characters who, were, to leave a void in the memory of all who knew them. Before his death Andy had started work on a coffee table book with Stephen Venables, ‘Himalaya Alpine Style’ and this was eventually finished by his co-author and published in 1995.

Once again friends wished that the memory of such an outstanding figure should be continued in a suitable form, and one thing that made Andy stand out was his social awareness, he appreciated that he had been fortunate in his mountain activities life style. And so The Andy Fanshawe Memorial Trust was brought into being, its purpose ‘To fund projects that give disadvantaged young people the opportunity to develop an existing interest in the Great Outdoors’. Since its inception hundreds of young candidates have been helped into meeting these objectives.

To return to the original hypothesis, namely the opinion held by some that we are no longer producing characters with the initiative and approach of the previous climbing generations in this country, but I am not sure that this is true? I am gob smacked by the levels of difficulty now reached by the present generation of rock climbers and mountaineers, but I will agree that they do not seem to have as much fun as hitherto. There is an awful lot of emphasis on achievement and not much humour?  

Pete Boardman and Dennis Gray: Photo DG.

However whilst we do have the example of Peter Boardman, Alex MacIntyre and Andy Fanshawe so embedded in our sport via their memorials, I hope climbers will emerge wishing to emulate and climb/live in such an adventurous style.

Dennis Gray:2016