The Last Blue Mountain: Ralph Barker. 232 pages Paperback
Perfect Bound £12.99. Re-Published by Vertebrate, Original in Hard Back by Chatto and Windus 1959.
‘I must go where the fleet of Stars is anchored and the young Star Captains glow’ James Elroy Flecker.
When the first edition of this work was published I like most others of the then climbing world were wondering who Ralph Barker was? There was a great antipathy in that era about non-climbers writing about mountaineering, even more so its tragedies, and Haramosh is one of the most poignant such events in our sports history. We were surprised to learn that Barker was a none climber, but had to admit he had written this daunting story in detail and with an accuracy of a kind rarely matched by someone who had not actually witnessed the events described. He had access to the personal diaries of the participants, and was able to interview the two survivors of the accident, the medical student John Emery and the soldier, expedition leader Tony Streather. ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ has remained for climbers of my generation the most gripping survival story of its genre, and also a most readable one when compared to the many formulaic ‘Expedition’ books that had appeared prior to its publication.
The story begins with an Oxford University student Bernard Jillot, the President of that bodies mountaineering club proposing that they organise an expedition to the Himalaya. In 1957 that was a much more difficult proposition than it would be today, although the OUMC, founded in 1909 had many members over its years of existence who had taken part in major exploratory mountaineering ventures, and for instance Sandy Irvine of Everest fame was a member, but what Jillot was proposing was an Oxford University Expedition to reconnoitre and possibly to ascend ‘Haramosh’ a 24,270ft mountain in the Karakoram Himalaya. He recruited three other members of the OUMC to join him, his regular climbing partner John Emery, a New Zealander Rae Culbert and an American Scott Hamilton.
Left to Right..Tony Streather,Scott Hamilton,John Emery, Bernard Jillot.
Readers may be surprised at this International representation, but it is typical of the OUMC which even in recent times when I have attended at their gatherings the membership was made up of several different nationalities. Jillot was to soon find that organising such an expedition was no sine cure, and doubt about both the experience and strength of the party emerged once he started applying for support and permission. He was recommended to seek an older person to be the leader, someone with a good previous Himalayan climbing record, and he decided to invite Tony Streather to take this on. The latter had summited Tirich Mir in 1950 with a Norwegian Expedition, been a member of the American attempt to K2 in 1953 and had gone to the top of Kanchenjunga in 1955 as a member of Charles Evans (another OUMC member) British Expedition to that mountain. Streather a Professional soldier who had stayed on in Pakistan post independence had good contacts in that country that would smooth permission and travel arrangements, and though he had then only recently married and fathered a son, he could not resist the invitation to lead such a party into his favourite part of the mountain world.
Barker makes a good job of introducing into the narrative the character and personality of each of the expedition members as the story unfolds. We learn Jillot is a somewhat driven character, having gained entrance into Oxford’s dreaming spires from a working class background in Huddersfield, and that at 23 years old his life was dominated by climbing, especially ascending hard rock routes in Britain. John Emery also 23 years old was from an entirely different background to Jillot, his schooling being via a high grade Public School, but with other keen interests besides mountaineering; fencing (he was Captain of his College’s team), medicine, literature etc. Rae Culbert the Kiwi was studying Forestry and at 25 years old he was perhaps the most mature of the four OUMC members; he had good mountain experience in his home country working for its Forest Service, whilst the American Scott Hamilton at 29 though the oldest of the four had not had as much experience of wilderness as Culbert, but he had good climbing skills gleaned in the USA. And he gelled well with Jillot whose rock climbing ability he admired, but found John Emery the person he most liked and enjoyed being with.
In retrospect although one could imagine Jillot and Streather on occasion having disagreements over strategy on the mountain, they were as a well together team as one might expect for a party who apart from the leader had no Himalayan experience.
Haramosh even in 1957 was easily approachable from Gilgit, in fact you can see the mountain from that viewpoint, and a few days of travel and walking, led to the team setting up their base in the Kutwal valley, under the mountain, well aided by some local porters, including some Hunzas who were to help establish their lower camps. Unfortunately they were extremely unlucky with the weather, and delay followed delay due to this. But finally in mid-September they had established a Camp lV high on the mountain circa 20,000ft under Haramosh ll. The delays now meant there was little hope of summiting the main Peak, the best they could do was reconnoitre the route for the future as their planned for time was running out.
15th September found Jillot, Emery, Streather and Culbert all at Camp lV deciding how best to proceed, up or down. But Jillot and Emery with the agreement of Streather decided to climb further up the North East Ridge they were set below to scope the difficulty of the route from there on, and get some pictures of this. Watching from Camp lV Streather and Culbert were horrified to watch as suddenly the slope that their friends were mounting, started to move, welled up into a huge avalanche taking them with it up and then down the other side of the ridge. Climbing up onto the ridge Streather was amazed to see a 1000 ft below him, in a sort of basin set in the surrounding cliffs, a figure emerge out of the avalanche debris and stand up, and realised it was Jillot, who then moved across the snowy mass to pull Emery out of the icy blocks that were holding him fast. Unfortunately they had lost their ice axes, and other equipment and Emery his gloves.
There was nothing that Streather and Culbert could do that day, but they prepared a rucksack, put in their down equipment and other warm clothing and pushed it off down the slope towards their stricken companions, but they watched helplessly as it landed into a deep crevasse, which was unreachable by its intended recipients who were now faced with a night in the open with no warm outer clothing. This was the start of this terrible tragedy, for the next day Streather and Culbert tried to climb down to them, but Culbert lost a crampon and they also fell into the basin. And like their companions they also had lost their axes.
Trying to climb out on the 16th September the whole party fell, twice more, this ascent being complicated by it being necessary to make a long exposed traverse from right to left, to avoid a set of steep cliffs. Finally on the 17th September Jillot and Emery managed to climb out but it took them so long they arrived in darkness at the top of the ice slope whilst still seeking Camp lV. Moving around without lights and unroped; first Jillot fell over the ridge again not realising he was on a cornice that gave way, and on this occasion this led to his certain death and this was followed so terribly by Emery falling down a crevasse.
|Nearing the north-east ridge. The track bends to the left over the snow bridge crossing the crevasse in the foreground and then winds up towards the ice cliffs to the right of the Cardinal’s hat.Nearing the north-east ridge. The track bends to the left over the snow bridge crossing the crevasse in the foreground and then winds up towards the ice cliffs to the right of the Cardinal’s hat.|
Meanwhile Streather and Culbert following on behind fell again for Culbert could not climb the icy slopes on a single crampon.
Streather then decided to climb out on his own, thinking Jillot and Emery would be safely at Camp lV and ready to return for Culbert having refreshed on food and most importantly liquid. This latter is so important at high altitude, and they had not managed such for two days. Emery with a last desperate effort managed to get out of the crevasse he had fallen into, and subsequently found the tents at Camp lV. But his hands were so badly frostbitten he could not make a drink, light a primus or get his boots and crampons off and he collapsed unconscious in the tent doorway and it was there that Streather was to find him.
In their enfeebled condition there was no way they could go back for Culbert, for Emery could not stand on his own and it took them two days in recovery before they could begin to descend. Fortunately Scott Hamilton had stayed on at Camp 3 guessing something must have gone wrong, but in helping Emery and Streather off the mountain, he too was involved in a forced bivouac with them above the ice fall, and they were not safe until the Hunzas came up to their Camp l to help assist Emery and Streather descend to their Base Camp.
So ends this heart-rending story? But not really for just imagine the thought of having to leave one of your friends behind, just because of a faulty crampon strap, how that must have ranged on the survivors minds? And John Emery’s rehabilitation and recovery from his terrible frostbite injuries was just beginning once back in Britain, for eventually he lost all his toes, and finished with a flap of flesh and a stub for fingers and a thumb. He still managed to qualify as a Doctor in 1959 and married that same year to Sara. I later became friends with Emery when I was the Secretary of The Alpine Climbing Group, and he was our Treasurer. I spent some hours in various pubs in the climbing areas of this country with John at our meetings, but I soon learnt not to waste time feeling sorry for him for he was always so cheerful, though I never, much to my regret dared to ask him his feelings about the Haramosh Expedition; but a good memory is of him telling at one of our gatherings of his joy in climbing ‘Longland’s’ on Cloggy a previous weekend.
Diagram of the routes from base camp
John returned to Alpine climbing in 1960 and over the next few seasons climbing with an American friend David Sowles he ascended many classic routes such as the Ferpecle Arete on the Dent Blanche and the Cresta Rey on Monte Rosa. Unfortunately in 1963 having successfully climbed the Schalligrat- Nordgrat traverse of the Weisshorn; on the descent they were caught in a Lightning storm, causing a fall from which both perished. John’s death affected me deeply and I wrote a tearful condolence letter to Sara at this event, and I am sure all my colleagues in the ACG felt the same. A wonderful tribute is included in this new edition of ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ by including at the end of the story, John’s article, ‘The Runcible Cat’ about his passion for climbing and his return to the sport after Haramosh although like Edward Lear’s cat he also had no toes!
Tony Streather made a remarkable recovery and continued with his military career, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He led the successful Army Mountaineering Association 1976 Expedition to Everest, and he was President of The Alpine Club 1990-1992, he died in 2018 at the age of ninety-two. Haramosh was climbed in 1958 by a strong Austrian party; the long ridge from the scene of the accident took them eight days to overcome. They paid tribute to the help the OUMC reconnaissance had made in their success.
‘The Last Blue Mountain’ phrase comes from a poem by James Elroy Flecker, who it might seem has the right words to impart to any group setting out on a dangerous enterprise, including the SAS from this country and those same kind of units from India and Israel. That is why I precluded this review by another quote by him. Because I was privileged to know John Emery, this book holds a special place in my psyche, but it is an epic tale of friendship and tragedy and one I believe deserves to be on every climber’s book list.
Dennis Gray: 2020.
Photographs Provided courtesy of the Streather Family.