Friday 27 September 2013

Trikes on the roof of the world: Tibet Story


Honeymoon in Tibet

Fumbling with the tent fly I escape into a freezing, cavernous, deep space night. My eyes wander up and I contemplate the constellations of the northern hemisphere. Then I track down to the Pang La, the mountain pass which tackles the unsealed mountain of switchbacks on the rutted road to Everest. The pass seems to go on for ever. It is clearly discernible in the starlight.

We had been told often enough that we would never be able to pedal our trikes up this pass. In fact, Samdrup, our Tibetan guide just shook his head saying, “how can two disabled people tackle one hundred and seventeen switchbacks at 5200m?” I had a twenty Yuan bet with Samdrup that we could do this hill, but his lack of faith in us shook me up. Sharyn, our camera- woman, who had done the pass several times before, in a truck, had faith in us, but even she recalled grown men weeping on the side of the road amidst thick clouds of dust.

The ʻPang Laʼ was clearly going to be the crux of the whole Lhasa to Kathmandu journey. I stifled a shiver... And we were going to attempt to ride over this mountain of dirt at dawn.

Carol Hurst and I were making a honeymoon tour of China. We were to go birdwatching and golfing, take in the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta warriors. It was to be dream trip... At least that is what we were telling the Chinese immigration department. However, in reality we were making a tricycle journey of over 1100km from Lhasa in Tibet - via Mount Everest - to Kathmandu in Nepal. If you so much as mention Tibet on your visa application it will be found screwed up in some consular officeʼs wastepaper basket. And filming in Tibet... God forbid.

Our ploy seemed to work and Carol and I find ourselves on a Lhasa-bound train on the highest railway in the world. Climbing up onto a high plateau the train groans train like a monster and people are left reaching for the piped oxygen. Ibex, yak and wild ass dot the plains. On disembarking three people are stretchered off suffering altitude sickness.

In Lhasa we party down at a legendary Nangma nightclub, where every self respecting patron until recently carried a sword! We also ride out to Sera Monastery where a monk thrusts my head into a hole with a ʻhorse headed Buddhaʼ. My nose is painted black, and a Khata (a ceremonial scarf) is blessed and draped over my head.

We pose for photographs below the Potala Palace. A seemingly pre-pubescent soldier, finger on trigger of rifle, approaches us lets us know the wind-horse on the prayer flags festooning our trikes is a highly dangerous symbol and is banned in the square. Uniformed snipers positioned on the roof-tops surrounding the Jokhang Temple (stark reminder of the 2008 riots) study us as we depart on our long journey.

We pass the huge golden Yak and stop at a ten meter tall Buddha that ʻmagicallyʼ appeared in the rock face. At camp that evening I wallow in the peaceful waters of the Kyi Chu oblivious to the thundering trucks passing close to our camp. The women are playing badminton with Samdrup and invite me to play but I fall heavily. A dangerous game, badminton.

It is a requirement of the Chinese government that all independent foreign travelers in Tibet have a guide. The guide then requires feeding and transport so we have a cook, Dawa, and a driver, Mota. At first the whole ʻkitchen sinkʼ approach didnʼt sit easily with me. But now I am disabled having a truck seems rather useful.

Tibetans are notoriously stubborn with regards to client service, though our Tibetan crew get the idea that we are on pilgrimage. Just like thousands of others we have seen, we are heading slowly towards our respective goals. It was Carolʼs aim to make it all the way to Kathmandu, whereas my interest always lay in Mount Everest. After all I was a mountaineer and climbing
mountains had been my life. I had forsaken a ʻrealʼ job at an early age and had summited mountains in the Himalaya, Patagonia and Baffin Island.

Then in 1998 on a climbing trip to Tasmania my life unravelled before my very eyes. A boulder fell on my head whilst climbing the Totem Pole on Cape Hauy. The rescue took a day during which I lost half my blood through a gaping hole in my skull. I ended up in hospital for a year with paralysis down my right side and had to learn how to walk again, talk again, feed and dress myself.

At Chusul we meet the Yarling Sangpo, tributary to the great Brahmaputra. As we ride up the river the scenery gets grander and more serene. I often cannot see Carol for dust. We ride fifty-three kilometers, seventeen kilometers further than she has ridden before: a marvelous achievement.

We enter a narrow gorge where there are objective dangers a plenty: yaks precariously perched on cliffs, loose boulders overhanging the road, and big concrete trucks thundering past. On one down hill stretch we pass by a bus load of monks stopped by the side of the road. With a fervor normally reserved for rockstars they wave, dance and cheer us. So much attention do our trikes command, at one point on the road to Everest we cause a traffic jam as Chinese tourists queue for a photo with us.

On exiting the gorge a huge Tibetan mastiff begins to chase me. I try to speed up, but at close to 4000 meters I only end up gasping like a landed fish. Soon I was face to face with the vicious creature as it slobbered on my chest. All I could do was present my spastic arm to it as one would a rubber chicken. I was cycling hard, and moving along at a brisk jog. Just as the monster is about to gnaw on my arm Sharyn comes to my rescue and charges the dog down with a fierce growl.

After a week of riding our first rest day is at the 'Braille Without Borders' vocational farm near Xigatse. Paul Kronenberg, one of the founders, tells stories of how some blind kids are locked away through shame on the part of their parents. In Tibetan culture blind kids had to have done something terrible in a previous life. I consider peopleʼs reaction to me whilst limping around Lhasaʼs streets: one person even spat at me. Any kind of disability is viewed in such a way. Paul and his team were challenging such ignorance and, by cycling across Tibet, so are we. Disabled people can do everything that the abled bodied can do. And that needs celebrating.

Shortly after leaving Xigatse rain begins to pour, which, when lying prostrate is a special kind of treat. We get soaked, and darkness is falling. Just as our band are beginning to contemplate spending the night out, Samdrup finds a monastery to sleep in. After a breakfast with young monks we tackle the Tra La, which at 3975m is only a baby pass. We set up camp in a quintessentially Tibetan landscape - flat plains with yaks and distant mountains. The setting sun is beautiful even with the silhouetted power poles which Tibet seems to grow so well.

On the day when Carol and I are supposed to be golfing at Shenzen Mission Hills, we find ourselves grinding painfully up the Gyatso La. At 5220m this is the highest pass of our journey. We climb it over two days. The second day of ascent begins ruthlessly cold. We pass nomads living in yak hair tents like they have done for thousands of years and, in two interminable hours, we surface into sunlight. My lungs silently scream as I try to keep up with Mel, our physiotherapist and unintended pace-setter. Carol has to stop every kilometer to massage her deadened feet.

Carol was a keen adventurer when, in her twenties, she developed osteoarthritis in her hips. When avenues for outdoor activity narrowed Carol took to white-water paddling with determination, becoming six times Classic Wild-water Australian Champion. Now, a specially customised trike is allowing her to crank up passes in Western Tibet.

Our first view of Everest comes a full week before we reach it. Huge Chinese slogans on mountainsides inform us of I donʼt know what. As the sun sets a silhouette of a dzong, a fortress built on a high outcrop of rock, dominates against the broadening night.

 We begin climbing the Pang La, or ʻPain Laʼ as it is known to cyclists, at first light. The hot water we put into our bottles freezes. By mid morning we are at hairpin nineteen when a woman stops her car and force feeds me hard-boiled eggs. As we are nearing the top of the pass, which has only forty-six hairpins (a hundred and seventeen was to be for our descent, thankfully), snow flurries begin.

Carol and I summit the Pang La (5150m) in cloud together, through the usual tunnel of prayer flags. Passengers of cars scatter paper 'wind horses' printed with Buddhist prayers. After a brief rest we descend endless switchbacks on a Dr Suess road, straight out of Green Eggs and Ham. Pedalling to Everest Base Camp is a gruelling exercise: uphill and on dirt all the way. At itʼs zenith the sun blazes down.

Personally, I was realising a lifetime dream in seeing the goddess mountain up close. For thirteen years since the accident, I've spent every day learning to walk and talk again. From my first day back climbing and the first ride on my trike; everything I've done has been to get me here, today. When I was first recovering I never thought I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to Everest Base Camp. It's been a long and tortuous road getting here.

On the return from Everest we reach the Nam La (5100m), a sandy single track were I have to weigh my panniers down with rocks to prevent the rear wheel spinning. As we ride below Choy Oyu, the worlds sixth highest peak, I sheer a quick release pin so rough is the road. Mel lashes the seat back to the frame with a tyre inner-tube. On the way down to the sealed road a kid throws a pebble at Sharynʼs head with remarkable accuracy. After eight days of pot-holes I kiss the metalled road surface.

The last pass, the Lung La, is into a headwind. The back of my knee hurts. Mel comes to the rescue again and feeds me anti-inflammatories and ʻEmergen-Cʼ. I try all the tricks in the book to take my mind off the job in hand.

A three kilometer uphill straight - mantras, headphones, bead counting, you name it. I finally make it through the arch of prayer-flags miles behind Carol and am faced with Shishapangma, Phola Ganchen, and Melung Tse, all giants in their wedding gowns.

Now begins the deepest road descent on Earth. We scream down from the ice and frost of a Tibetan morning to the tropical lushness of a Nepali afternoon. The quality of the road deteriorates from brand spanking Chinese bitumen to dirt, landslides and Nepali mayhem.

On day twenty-six we enter Kathmandu. We ride through a convoluted matrix of villages and back streets, past monkeys and metal workshops, bakeries and brick works, temples and shrines, and everywhere a jam of cars and motorbikes.

After much struggle and hardship we had finally made it. We had ridden 1158 kilometers over the Himalayas. For me it affirmed once again that life is an incredible gift that should not be squandered.

This tricycle trip across the roof of the world had certainly been no

Paul Pritchard:2013. Photographs PP Collection

Friday 20 September 2013

Everest-The First

With the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest just a few months behind us, it’s a pleasure to have come across one of the most revealing and well researched books that I have yet read on that auspicious event. All the more remarkable is the fact that this is a daughter writing about her father's contribution to the expedition and his fascinating life and times, in a such a quiet, dispassionate way.

Everest-The First Ascent: the untold story of the man who made it possible, is a biography of one of mountaineering’s’ great unknowns-Griffith Pugh; scientist, doctor and physiologist whose contribution to the cause was-as the book painstakingly reveals- absolutely crucial in its successful outcome, yet cruelly under-played by climbing historians and fellow mountaineers. Not least, expedition leader, John Hunt. Author Harriet Tuckey’s work-ten years in the making-could not be described as a labour of love exactly with regard to her subject. In his lifetime, she loathed him at times and felt betrayed and rejected by a man for whom the description ‘socially dysfunctional’ was invented.

Born into a fairly privileged background, Pugh’s father was a career diplomat, his upbringing was predictably chaotic. Not least when his parents returned to a diplomatic station in India leaving 5 year old Pugh and his younger sister in the care of a young nanny and living in a remote rambling country house in the Mid Wales hills. Left to his own devices, the young Pugh developed into the self contained, free spirited loner that  defined his character for the rest of his life. After the torture of boarding school, Pugh went on to study law at Oxford before switching to medicine. After qualifying he eventually found a career which complimented his love of sking and mountaineering; becoming an instructor at the army school of mountain warfare in Lebanon.

It was while serving at The Ceders Mountain School amongst the snow capped mountains of the Lebanon, that his career as an expert in high altitude physiology took off. By the time the Everest expedition was going through the recruitment process, Griffith Pugh was already a strong candidate to take on the role as scientific adviser. He had made a great contribution in the field of research during a preparatory expedition to Cho Oyo in 1952, where, despite the non cooperation of climbers like Hillary- who viewed Pugh’s physiological experiments as a needless distraction-he still managed to gain valuable information regarding the effects of altitude on the human body. Particularly the importance of supplementary oxygen and its impact on performance .  Many climbers at the time were not convinced that carrying heavy oxygen apparatus was anything other than a self defeating burden. Pugh’s experiments with different types of apparatus proved to the contrary.

Subject and author

Apart from his work with Oxygen, he was instrumental in highlighting the importance of hydration when undertaking extreme exercise at altitude and his research and designs of effective clothing and footwear to counteract the worst excesses of extreme sub zero temperatures was a crucial factor in the ultimate success of the 53 Everest  expedition. 

The Everest story is told quite early in the book, leaving the reader to discover the complexity of a man who was part eccentric absent minded professor, part playboy, part husband and father and part establishment gadfly. Characteristics fused with an aloofness, disdain for mere mortals and a detachment from colleagues which certainly went a long way towards explaining why his achievements were swept under the carpet by those who chronicled the expedition. Not least, John Hunt in his best selling account The Ascent Of Everest. In the book, Pugh plays Trotsky to Hunt’s Stalin and is effectively erased from history.  Just after Hunt's book came out, Tom Stobart’s documentary film, The Conquest of Everest, further irritated Pugh by presenting him as a fringe figure. The mad scientist conducting his irritating experiments on men who just want to be out there on the big hill. In fact Pugh was an experienced climber and skier who had represented Britain in the winter Olympics and his skills as a mountaineer compared with many in the party.

 John Hunt’s qualities as a leader and flaws as a mountaineer and human being have been detailed elsewhere. However, suffice it to say, Harriet Tuckey’s book doesn’t exactly diplomatically dance around his failings. Hunt is portrayed as an egotist and like so many British heroes, from Scott to Franklin, a bit of a buffoon at times. Fiercely religious, Hunt wanted the conquest of Everest to be seen as a victory for the human spirit guided by a higher force; most definitely not achieved through the cold application of rational scientific logic. If John Hunt is not covered in glory then a bigger surprise comes with the revelation that good old Edmund Hillary, the genial New Zealand beekeeper and intrepid mountaineer who went on to become a tireless charity worker in the field of Nepalese education, was something of a climbing journeyman who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

In fact ,when the Everest team was chosen, Hillary had no real experience of climbing in the Greater Ranges and his mountaineering had largely been confined to his native peaks. Everest was always going to be the highpoint of his mountaineering career, however, the author describes how he never over came serious health problems performing at altitude and never established himself at the cutting edge. A real body blow to someone so competitive and egotistical. A trip he organised with Pugh to Makalu some years later saw Hillary suffering from altitude sickness and persuaded to come down off the mountain. Later events went from bad to worse when several climbers and Sherpas  had to be rescued and evacuated thanks to the incredible efforts of a non climbing member of the group, John West. Pugh himself was conducting experiments at ‘The Silver Hut’, the teams scientific base lower down the mountain at the time.As with Hunt's Everest book, Hillary's original account practically erased Pugh's contribution from the records with Hillary even taking the credit for the scientific contributions.

 Back home, Pugh’s wife, the former society debutant- Josephine (Doey)- was tiring of her husbands’ lifestyle. The amount of time he spent away from his family, the times when he did come home and he would lock himself away in his study-his penchant for expensive cigars, fast cars and fast women. Predating The Beatles by several years, Doey took herself off to India to hang out with the Maharishi Yogi and study transcendental meditation. When she did return she effectively had to fund and bring up her family virtually single handed. With Doey looking after their four children-one of whom was disabled- Pugh continued to do his own thing. Living high on the hog with millionaire friends while diverting his scientific energies into other fields of research.

His research into performance at altitude did continue however, and he was appointed as a chief scientific adviser to the British Olympic team competing at the high altitude games held in Mexico City in 1968. After retirement, his long suffering wife found him a role running a family farm and garage in which he applied the same intense scientific approach to these contrasting roles. With his health deteriorating, he was left to live out his days, a disillusioned and disappointed man who never felt he received his due desserts for the pioneering work in his field. It was only after she heard Michael Ward speak at an Everest lecture in 1993-a year before Pugh's death- organised by the RGS, that Harriet Tuckey began her journey to discover the truth behind the unknown person with whom she had shared so much of her life. Ward’s words of tribute lit the blue touchpaper and sent her on something of a magical mystery tour. Revealing sides to his character and life experiences of which she had never been aware of. Her bestow- albeit belatedly-a degree of respect and recognition that the achievements and breakthroughs he had made in his field so richly deserved. In Everest-The First ascent the author’s quest has been well and truly achieved.

John Appleby:2013 

Friday 13 September 2013

One Man's Way

Once every week for two years and on every day of every holiday a quiet,middle  aged Kendal man has been out and about on the eastern fells of the Lake District – almost always alone – exploring, writing, sketching and photographing and collecting the results in a bulky pocket book. Two or three days ago this long labour of love, together with hundreds of hours of patient, painstaking work in the quiet of his study at night, came to splendid fruition with the publication of what I sincerely believe to be the most remarkable book of its kind about the Lake District ever printed. 
The book is remarkable first of all because every page – the text, the lovely drawings, the accurate maps, the revealing diagrams –have all been penned by the author and then printed from 300 engravings. It is further remarkable in that each of the 300 illustra­tions – drawings, diagrams and maps are correct  to the smallest detail.

No book about the Lake District has ever carried this tremendous wealth of detail before. Perhaps no greater example of one man's patience in the sphere of a book production has been seen since the days of those beautifully illuminated books done by the monks of years ago.  

Even if you have no interest whatever in the Lake District you will be staggered by this book, by the care and effort that have gone into its production and also by the remarkable fact that the book is only the first of a series of seven. Let me tell you more about the modest author and this latest addition to Lakeland literature. He is forty-eight-year-old Mr Alfred Wainwright, for the last seven years borough treasurer of Kendal, and his book is the first volume, The Eastern Fells, of A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells (Henry Marshall, Low Bridge, Kentmere, Westmorland, 12s 6d).
Mr Wainwright, a Lancashire man, has been exploring the Lake District fells for twenty years, but something over two years ago he decided to examine them minutely and to record his impressions in notebook form. He had no thought of publication. He divided the whole area into seven parts and decided to make a start with the area most easily accessible by bus from Kendal. This is the area, covering about 50 square miles of territory, bounded on the west by the deep trough of Dunmail Raise and Thirlmere, to the east by the trench of Kirkstone Pass and Ullswater, and to the north by the broad Keswick to Penrith gap. This is the area covered by his first book. His second, on which he is now working, will be called The Far Eastern Fells, and, all being well, five others dealing with the whole of Lakeland will follow in their turn.

Mr Wainwright is not greatly concerned about valleys, lakes and villages. His great interest is the fells, and in his book he deals, in the very greatest detail, with thirty-five of them, from lordly Helvellyn and its satellites to little-visited Great Mell Fell, from mighty Fairfield and its fine precipices to Nab Scar, which the Lakes poets knew so well. It makes little difference – except in length of description – whether the fell is a fine mountain or a humble hillock; each one receives the same complete and careful treatment.

Each fell is illustrated by lovely line drawings – accurate, often dramatic and always artistic – by carefully drawn maps showing all possible routes, by diagrams indicating special points of interest, by smaller drawings of crags, cairns, waterfalls and so on, and by most detailed indications of the views from the summits. We are shown full panoramas in the form of outline drawings of the views from eight points of the compass or in other ways, such as concentric circles with the distant mountains accurately plotted. The text is detailed, informative, even amusing at times.

Mr Wainwright, as I have said, had no intention at first of publishing his notebook. He was persuaded to do so later by friends who realised that nothing so painstakingly complete, so beautifully finished, had ever been done before. Incidentally, although the author is the most unassuming of men, it is pleasant to discover in the Clough Head section a self-portrait – typically, a back view.

It would be niggardly of me to criticise a book that is going to give a great deal of pleasure to thousands of people, but I have already told the author that he runs the risk of taking all the adventure, all the joy of discovery, out of the fells by the very completeness of his work. His answer to this is that publication of his own discoveries – many of them never before mentioned in print – will encourage other fell-walkers to rediscover them for themselves.
He also poses many questions – 'Who cut this strange path across the fells and with what purpose?' – and deliberately leaves them unanswered. People purchasing the book will have to decide for themselves whether to use it as a guide, treasure it as an inspiring reference book or browse through it as a work of art.

Mr Wainwright made, on an average, six visits to each fell to collect his information and get the material for his illustrations and diagrams, but he went up Raise eight times before he had a view from the summit. On his trips he has taken many hundreds of photographs – not for publication but to help him with his illustrations, which in each case have been checked and elaborated on the spot.
His panoramas to show the hundreds of summit views have also been drawn from photographs and checked and double-checked both on the spot and at home, on the map, with compass and protractor. All the maps have been accurately reproduced by hand – in most cases to the scale of 2 inches to the mile – from the 2/2 inch map, and the book is charmingly dedicated to 'the men of the Ordnance Survey'.

The hand-printing of the text is a work of art in itself – delight­fully readable and attractive. Each page had to be done at least twice, and each line is carefully planned. You will notice, for instance, that each line finishes exactly on the margin with no parts of words carried onto the line below. Not one piece of type has been used, even for the embossing of the cover. All had been done by hand, for it was originally intended as a personal notebook only.

Mr Wainwright is now hard at work on his second book, and he tells me that the whole project, the seven books, will take him perhaps ten years. 'One man's way,' as he says in his introduction, `of expressing his devotion to Lakeland's friendly hills.' May I wish him many happy days in his further journeyings in the Lakeland he loves so well.

 AH (Harry) Griffin: First published in the Lancashire Evening Post-27th May,1955.