Tuesday 23 June 2020

Tibet's Secret Mountain: 2020 republication...reviewed

Tibet’s Secret Mountain: Sepu Kangri. Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke. 228 pages, including 16 black/white photographs. Perfect Bound Paperback. £12.99. Vertebrate Publishing.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree’  Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Originally published as a hard back book by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1999, this has now been republished as a paperback by Vertebrate. Sepu Kangri 6,956metres is a peak in the eastern section of a mountain range, the Nyenchen Tanglha which lies to the east of Lhasa in Tibet. When Bonington and Clarke first visited the area to undertake a reconnaissance in 1996 it could truthfully be described as a little known region, but the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006 has opened up this region to tourists and trekkers in a manner thought unlikely a decade earlier. The two authors had first sight of Sepu Kangri, flying from Chengdu to Lhasa in 1982 on the way to take part in an attempt on the North East Ridge of Mount Everest. 

The route taken by such flights vary due to weather conditions in the Himalaya regions, but whichever is followed it crosses areas dominated by impressive, unclimbed peaks. The flight path in 1982 was over the Nyenchen Tangla and standing above the surrounding summits was Sepu Kangri, excitedly noted by Bonington and Clarke who vowed to visit this mountain at some time in the future. This turned out to be fourteen years later, but before setting out to reconnoitre the approaches to this, they were able to delve into historic accounts of previous travellers to that region, to find that the claim that this was somewhere that ‘no man had gone before’ was rather specious for the trade route from Lhasa east to Peking was well trod by merchants following a route, a road?, known as the Gya Lam.

By way of introduction, the lead in by Bonington explains his interest and how plans developed to explore the Sepu Kangri area, followed by an informative history about explorers, travellers and missionaries who journeyed in Tibet over a period of almost a thousand years. This by Clarke is a basic primer, but for those wishing to follow this up further there is a bibliography included in the end papers of ‘Tibet’s Secret Mountain’ to which I would add Freddy Spencer Chapman’s ‘Lhasa the Holy City’, gleaned from his service as Secretary to the ‘Diplomatic Mission’ to that country in 1936/7, and ‘Duel in the Snows’ by Charles Allen, this the story of the Younghusband 1904 incursion into Tibet noted by Clarke in his review. Both Charlie and Chris were relieved to find that despite photographers, acting for the Chinese Mountaineering Association had produced prints of Sepu Kangri and its environs, no attempts had been made to climb the mountain.

Dealing with officials in both China and Tibet can be bureaucratic, and are not helped by there being two bodies with mountaineering briefs, for besides the Chinese, there is also a Tibetan Mountaineering Association. And in any journey planned in that country one must be aware of the politics pertaining between Beijing and Lhasa, plus India and the situation of the Dalai Lama and his entourage in sanctuary in the north of that country. But in August 1996, Bonington and Clarke travelling via Kathmandu reached Lhasa and using a local, Mr Fix It, Pasang Choephel they were soon under away on their reconnaissance. This must have been an enjoyable outing; it hardly warrants the term ‘expedition’ but they managed to reach Sepu Kangri, glean enough about its climbing prospects to return in 1997 with a full complement of participants that could definitely be termed ‘an expedition!’ Five climbers, a Base aid, a cameraman, the ‘fixer’ Pasang , a cook and three Sherpas. How things have moved on, for one could imagine Nick Bullock and Paul Ramsden turning up in 2020 at Sepu Kangri, with no other support and attempting the mountain ‘Alpine style’. 

This is not to denigrate the efforts of Fotheringham, Lowther, Porter and Bonington in their attempts to climb the mountain in 1997, but it just was not to be. The weather did not play ball, conditions were dangerous with avalanche threat, and days of heavy snow meant retreat and the abandonment of the climb. The photographs of Sepu Kangri reveal a complex mountain, its northern aspect reminding me of the Rakhiot flank of Nanga Parbat. There is however much to enjoy in this book, and as the story progresses it develops into a travel odyssey, which I found more interesting than the attempts to climb Sepu Kangri. For instance the details of the relations with the local people of the area, many of whom still follow the animist Bon religion, which held sway before the arrival of Buddhism into Tibet in the 8th century and a Chapter by Dr Clarke on Mountain Medicine. And interestingly like him I have been surprised how Tibetan doctors by just feeling the wrist pulse can make an impressive diagnosis. One did this to me and I was to find some time later I had the cancer that she warned me was developing.
Rarely has a group of modern British climbers invested so much into climbing a single Himalayan peak, but in 1998 Chris and Charlie were back for their third trip to Sepu Kangri. Before the main climbing team arrived Clarke with a younger tyro Elliot Robertson and Pasang as their interpreter made a month long trek through the Tangla range visiting monasteries, crossing passes, and the environs around Chamdo and its historic sites. I have also been to Chamdo for the Xining-Lhasa train stops there. As an aside the train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa must be one of the most impressive rides anywhere, to summit the Tanggula Mountain Pass it climbs over 5,231meters, and Chris and his team could have reached Nagqu on this if they had been a decade later; for this was their original start town to enter the Nyenchen Tanglha, known simply to the locals as the Tangla. 

It may read as a dull occupation visiting monasteries, but in Tibet if you wish to understand its history and culture you really need to allow time to do this. I spent many days at the Labrang Si on the Gansu/Tibet border where I became friends with two of the monks. Labrang is a stronghold of the Gelugpa sect, the Yellow hats and I have also visited Tashilunpo Si* near Shigatse, the home of the Panchen Lama. He is the teacher to the Dalai Lama, and if you are interested in knowing more about this I recommend reading ‘Peaks and Lamas’ by Marco Pallis. From Liverpool; an Alpinist, Himalayan explorer, composer and musician who climbed with Kirkus, Edwards, Hargreaves, Hicks, Warren etc and who was inducted at Tashilunpo into the Buddhist faith in the late 1940’s, and became one of its foremost interpreters in the West.
*Si means temple, and there are four sects in Tibetan Lamaistic Buddhism. Gelugpa is one of these, and it is the sect headed by the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.

Back to climbing and a team sponsored by National Express assembled by Bonington in 1998 was even larger than the previous year. Maybe stronger with Saunders, Little, Muir, Robertson besides Chris as the mountaineers, and Charlie as Doctor, plus a three man film team, the ‘fixer’ Pasang, a Liaison officer, a cook, and a couple of Sherpas. I do not think today’s Green movement would be happy with such a group reaching this then remote area. The film team was partly made up of ITN personnel, sending out direct contact reports from the mountain.

This needed two generators, computers and mobile connections (they had these latter the previous year), and members could speak directly to the UK, to their families and contacts, answer e-mails and make requests for weather forecasts. These seemed unusually inaccurate. I think Paul Theroux has the better philosophy when travelling; no mobile phones, no e-mails, wishing a break from such 20th century demands and living conditions.

Once again, despite changing the dates for their attempt from Spring- to the Autumn- the second expedition had no better luck than the first with conditions on the mountain. To be fair if they had received just two more days of fine weather, they would I am sure have been successful. But once again from high on their route the lead climbers, Saunders, Little and Muir were forced down by extreme bad weather and dangerous snow conditions. Intending to return once settled conditions arrived, but they never did. It is surprising that the Sepu Kangri region receives so much precipitation. Studying the weather charts for that region the early Spring-March into April and the Autumn-October into November might have been the best seasons to make such a climb. Tibet is famed for its dry arid climate but that does not seem to be the case in the Tangla range. 
Tibet’s Secret Mountain’ is I believe best judged to buy as a travel book set in one of the most interesting regions of the Himalaya. Its Appendices I recommend to study by anyone planning an expedition to remote ranges, especially its medical information. I agreed to read this book for review because it was set in Tibet, where my own experiences, the friends and the contacts made have given me a different view of that country than the popular western one, mainly held by those who have never been there. Change is happening and to educated Tibetans, the first generation to be University graduates, they welcome this. They have no wish to return to the situation endured by their grandparents, who lived a life in medieval conditions working as cuvee labour for Noble families or the Lamas, subject to their laws and cruel punishments for any perceived transgressions. They are mindful of Tibet’s history and culture, but the genie is out of the bottle, they are happy to embrace modern living with all of its challenges. 

Image: Dennis Jarvis
Sepu Kangri was climbed by Americans Mark Newcomb and Carlos Buhler in October 2002. They followed the route pioneered by the British, and almost at the point where Saunders and Muir turned back, only about 150m from easy ground leading to the summit, they also were hit by bad weather. They pressed on reached the top but then experienced serious difficulties on the descent. The Tangla range is now well visited and there are commercial operators offering climbs and treks in that massif.

Dennis Gray: 2020 

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Seven Climbs....Reviewed

Seven Climbs by Charles Sherwood. With 192 pages, including 2x16 pages of colour plates plus black/white photographs. A Perfect bound paper-back, £14.95.

The whole thing is little more than a delightful ruse for having a very good time’ The Author.

The quote above is I found on reading this book, the real raison d’etre of the quest it follows, an attempt to find the best climb on each Continent, eschewing the traditional seven summits challenge which is to simply reach the highest point on every one of them. This round was first completed by the American mountaineers, Dick Bass and Frank Wells in April 1985. But ever since, climbers being climbers there is some dispute about which are actually the ‘real?’ seven highest peaks, particularly in Australasia/Oceania. Books have been written about this quest, starting with its originators, and one by Reinhold Messner, and there is a comprehensive web site with companies queuing up to help you make your travel and climbing/guiding arrangements to carry this out, but you might need access to big bucks to take this on !

The author is having nothing to do with that list which includes of course Mount Everest and tramps up such as Kilimanjaro and Elbrus and the very difficult to reach, Mount Vinson(16, 050ft) in Antarctica. No; Charles Sherwood decided to put his own stamp on summit collecting, beginning with the North Face of the Eiger by the 1938 route. It was on that ascent he decided to undertake his particular seven summits challenge, which he somehow achieved in a five star way, and in keeping with having a good time throughout.

The author began to climb as a student at Cambridge, including the traditional night ascents of its buildings. He has subsequently climbed widely in the UK, the Alps and Himalaya, ski-toured avidly and participated in a range of other outdoor adventure sports, including paragliding, diving (he is a qualified PADI dive master) and cave diving which in view of his responsibilities, with a wife, three children and as a senior executive in a City finance house he has now retired from. Somehow he has combined a thirty year career in the risk capital industry, becoming over qualified with Master’s degrees from Cambridge, Harvard and the LSE with taking part in some high risk activities. Later in this review I will try to return to that subject.
His first ‘fine’ climb was as previously noted the 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger. This took two attempts to be successful for him, and ten such for his guide Mark Seaton, who has lived and worked out of Chamonix for over two decades, and who is also a Children’s author, writing as ‘Mark the Guide’.

Traverse of the Gods
Their first attempt ended somewhat embarrassingly when Mark, desperate for a pee relieved himself but in oncoming bad weather and caught in a spindrift avalanche did not replace his privates and suffered frost nip in this most sensitive region. It was an education to me that Charles and his guide could keep in contact with each other by way of a two way radio, and how easy it was to summon a helicopter rescue, simply with a mobile call. It was however with typical British reserve that once deposited safely in Alpiglen, and confronted with a charming young Swiss female paramedic, Mark opted to be flown directly on to hospital in Interlaken rather than an on the spot examination of his frost bitten parts. A year later they were back (September 2007) and on this occasion with four days of struggle, and hard but stable conditions they completed the route. But I guess few who have done this spent a night in a bivouac high on the face, discussing Sartre and existentialism, moving onto Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. To be fair to the author he does put into context the history of the climb, and we ascend with them up the Difficult Crack, across the Hinsterstoisser traverse, up the first and second ice fields and on upwards to success. 
His second climb, the south-west ridge of Ama Dablam (6856 metres) reads as a client on a well organised commercial ascent, embracing all the cultural wonder of Nepal; Sherpas, Tibetan Buddhism, Om Mani Padme Hum etc. In the 1990’s I led three commercial trips in the Karakoram Himalaya, and I had previously climbed and trekked in Nepal and India, but never experienced on these outings such luxuries as warm showers at Base Camp, wifi and mobile connections. Ama Dablam is a beautiful mountain but remains for me the resting place of two climbers that Joe Smith and I met and climbed with in Britain, the weekend before they set out for that then unclimbed peak in 1959, George Fraser and Mike Harris who disappeared high on that peak.
Number three of his climbs, The Nose of El Capitan is so well known, with the Stoveleg Crack, The King Swing, The Great Roof etc so written about that maybe it is best for me to remember some of the characters that are a part of its story as does Sherwood. 

Warren Harding who pioneered the first ascent I did know and even climbed with on Yorkshire Gritstone, Royal Robbins likewise, and its first British ascent was by Mick Burke and Rob Wood, the latter from Leeds and another old rope mate. In ‘Seven Climbs’ the leader on the route is Andy Kirkpatrick who perhaps we might refer to as ‘Mr El Cap’ for he has made so many ascents of that Big Wall he might be worthy of such a pseudonym? Surprisingly though this climb was his first of The Nose. Andy is from Hull and there must be something in the water there for producing iconoclasts? Joe Tasker was also born there and John Redhead, whilst the poet Philip Larkin might not have been born there but his creative life was mostly spent there, and certainly he does seem to have caught the local’s lingua franca with ‘They fuck you up your mum and dad’.

Leaning Tower
Sherwood’s fourth climb is set in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, via the south-west face of Alpamayo, once voted in a 1966 poll of readers of the German climber’s magazine Alpinismus , ‘The Most Beautiful Mountain in the World’. He describes the mountains history and of how it was first climbed in 1957 from the south by a German party led by Gunter Hauser, who wrote a fine book ‘White Mountain Tawny Plain’ about this ascent. And also attempts to climb the mountain from the north and how a British party finally succeeded in 1966; a party of which I was the leader. Our film of this climb won at Trento in 1967. But back to the south-west face, this had seemed to us to be impregnable in 1966 but an Italian team proved us wrong in 1975 and now it is a classic ascent, on the itineraries of many of the commercial operators. And the one the author joined, led by qualified American guides, seems to have been well led, but something that is another surprise for me is the range of participants now taking part in such enterprises, for on Sherwood’s trip the youngest was 16 years old, whilst he was the senior at 54.

Besides his group there were others on roughly the same route from similar commercial organisations. It seems the hills are alive with well heeled clients, who wish for low level risk, home comforts and to be fair, obviously love the experience. The whole scene as described by the author is so changed from 1966 and it is as Lao Tzu advised ‘the only certain thing in life is change’.
The author’s fifth climb is the traverse of Nelion (5,188m) and Batian (5,199m) Mount Kenya, again in the company of Mark Seaton as his guide. The author is intrigued by its unique flora, and as someone who once lived in that country, and a former member of its mountain club, so many of the names now associated with that mountain highlighted by Sherwood; Ian Howell, Rusty Baillie, and Phil Snyder who first ascended the Diamond Couloir (alas no more with global warming) were once my rope mates. We would have been amazed by someone turning up on the mountain, setting up a Base Camp, with a cook and bearers. We used to drive up to Naro Moru after finishing work on a Friday night, sleep there and go up through the Forest at first light. I was on the mountain once with my wife, and met two Germans at the end of the day who insisted on going down through the forest that evening. Dangerous in the dark to do that and they were trampled to death by elephants; if you get in between them and their young they can be terminal. To return to the author and his guide traversing Mount Kenya, this is a tremendous outing which to be honest reading Sherwood’s account was carried out in exemplary fashion over a long day. 

Half Dome
His sixth climb is Aoraki/ Mount Cook (3,754m), set in the Southern Island of New Zealand. Initially he was not certain whether to climb Titea/Mount Aspiring or the former for it boasts via its south west ridge a classic ice climb. So he decided to ascend them both, and Aoraki /Mount Cook by its equally classic Linda Glacier route. For the first he teamed up with a Canadian guide Erich Ostopkevich, from the Bugaboos and the latter local guide Dean Staples, a veteran of more than twenty expeditions to peaks over 6,000 metres and including nine ascents of Mount Everest. The author explains the naming that is now prevalent in the South Island mountains- in that from 1998 Maori names must be placed alongside Europeanised one’s. The Linda Glacier route is the original route up Aoraki achieved in 1894, and two important factors about the ascents made by Sherwood are the geographic situation of the Southern Alps, mean they are exposed to highly variable weather conditions, and that the approaches to such routes are now made by helicopter lifts.

One may ponder with global warming what will be the attitude to such in the days ahead. The reader may also wonder if they have never climbed with guides, how easy it is to contact such and how to recognise their status; most now hold the carnet, issued by the UIAGM (the international body of mountain guides), but in the UK there is beside the guides, holders of the MIC qualification, Mountaineering Instructor. Most professionals have their own web sites.
The author’s final pick was to travel to Antarctica to take part in a sea voyage and coast-to-coast traverse of the Salveson Range in South Georgia. This on a trip organised by Skip Novack and Stephen Venables in 2018, and one that must be put into the historical context of travelling so far to the south, and the famed names of previous explorers; Cook, Weddell, Ross, Admundsen, Scott, and Shackleton etc. This seventh choice was more about adventuring than peak bagging and although I have never been to South Georgia, I heard from friends such as Tom Price, and George Spenceley who had what an amazing island it is.

Its wildlife, its mountains, and its demanding weather conditions. On Sherwood’s journey, a couple of easy mountains were climbed, but it was the twelve day journey across the island, which made it so memorable as to be his final choice; number seven of the world’s finest climbs.Throughout the book’s emphasis it is always on having a good time, but however one approaches rock climbs and mountains there is always the risk to be calculated. In 1979 I was invited by UMIST, Manchester University to give a public lecture on ‘Risk Taking’, a subject that academics in the Psychological disciplines are forever investigating? The driving of cars and accidents, investing money, Space Exploration etc. 

It seems to me reading Sherwood’s book that those who take part in commercial, organised climbs and journeys do not wish to escalate the risk beyond a level where they will be in any real danger of being injured or dying? In order to keep risk below this level they are prepared to engage expertise, which can now shepherd them up climbs that were once ‘cutting edge’. When we climbed Alpamayo in 1966 the idea that some years down the road, many clients would be taken up its south west face each year, we would not have believed it. But as with those still out in front, pioneering the hardest new routes, with ever improving new equipment, perhaps the level of risk taking will always stays the same?
Seven Climbs is well ordered; it is illustrated by some outstanding colour, and black white pictures plus some topos to orientate the reader. It is a fun read, but maybe it will start a new craze for others to seek out their seven favourite routes, one on each continent? If mountaineers can ever travel freely again, hemmed in by the coronavirus and from here onwards the need to meet and overcome the challenges posted by global warming.

Andy Descending From Leaning Tower
The book is once again of the standard we have come to expect from its publishers, Vertebrate and it should be noted that the author’s gross proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Himalayan Trust UK, supporting the mountain people of Nepal. So if you have ever climbed and trekked in Nepal, or intend to do so in the future dig deep, lash out and purchase this book to aid the deserving poor in the mountains of that country. 

Dennis Gray: 2020.
Images supplied by Vertebrate

Tuesday 9 June 2020

The Final Pitch

Paul Williams classic shot of Trevor Hodgson on The Rainbow of Recalcitrance
I’m writing this on the other side of the world from that Welsh mining village. The sun is rising up over the Bridgewater Jerry - a curious temperature inversion that follows the river out of the mountains at dawn around these parts. Carlos, did you know the only time you can look straight into the sun is when it’s on the horizon. That’s got to be an allegory for something. Sunrise is the best time to study the sun.

I had never met you, Carlos. (Your real name was Trevor but it never suited you. So, we called you Carlos).

You were the reason I travelled to that god forsaken valley. There you were - a Paul Williams photo in a magazine. At the end of that fabulous runout on The Rainbow of Recalcitrance… Miles out… Not a runner in sight… Mantle-tipping on matchstick edges in your blue dancers’ tights… Attempting to put your feet were your fingernails were. Legend had it that you fell from that stance into the land that time forgot. Jules Verne wouldn’t have known what to make of you in your getup, but he would have found inspiration in the holes of Dinorwic I am sure.

Rain doused the smoke-filled Pete’s, rivuletting down the windows. We watched the dark quarry holes through clearing mist from the sanctuary of the cafe. Forsaken by God. Forsaken by government. We were left to our own fearful devices. Petty crime and petty sponsorship were the order of the day. Days of fearful hangovers and fearful overhangs. Nothing a few pints of tea wouldn’t sort out.

The same sun glowing on my face like an ember will glow for you. In about twelve hours the same sun will be rising on Flying Buttress.

We were lucky to live through those days. I don’t mean because of all the adventures we had that made us smile. No, I mean survive. It wasn’t a normal youth. Young lads like to gamble, I know that. That’s why insurance premiums are so high for the under 25s. And, without having lived through a war I had better not draw that comparison. But,day in, day out, taking untold risks above tiny fragments of brass, jokingly called ‘protection’. Loose blocks… Shelling sea caves… bombarding echos… strafing hillsides like bullets. Heads filled with drugs… Huge falls onto shit gear… Heinous lockins… Unprotected climbs… Unprotected sex… Partying ’til dawn… Break in and enter.

Do you remember Flying Buttress? ‘Course you do! My dad was dying in Lancashire. I took a break and came down to Llanberis. We climbed Flying Buttress on the Cromlech on Menlove’s 100th birthday. 18th June 2010. It must have been a loose and scary solo in 1931. He took cyanide a couple of years after the war. But why am I telling you this? Now you have left us.

1. 60ft/18m
Climb the crest of the ridge on large holds.

You came from the same town as me and had my mother’s maiden name, Hodgson. At the base of the climb we laughed at how we could have been related. Well, I feel like I’ve lost a brother.

I was on postal signing and sleeping in the women’s toilets in Vivian Quarry carpark. The ‘Merched’ had a hand dryer that you could tape over the button on cold nights, and the floor was not swimming in piss. You were toing and froing between Prestatyn and Llanberis, only returning home to sign on.

We started climbing together. You had this animal power about you that not many could match. However, it soon became clear that you were not interested in making a name for yourself as a climber, as were many of our tight group, myself included. Your passions went far beyond the insular world of rock climbing. And that was one of the things that was so special about you. You never gave a toss what anyone thought.

You laughed that infectious Kookaburra laugh as you put your rock shoes on. You wandered onto the heather-filled ledge and then up a wall past some vivid green holly. Then it was my turn to follow. I was always following - you or others I looked up to. Trev, you didnt feel the need to be the best at this or that, though you clearly could have been. You didnt feel the need to be recognised. You just concentrated on making others feel great about themselves and lifting them up with you.

2. 60ft/18m
Continue up to the pinnacles top of the ridge. Belay.

We found a house with The Lentil (he came from Tydyn Sian, The Lentil Farm), Gwion and The Harms. Together we held the infamous Ty Du Road parties and made a hell of a lot of mischief: some of it more legal than others. I remember it like the house off the 80s TV show The Young Ones, semi-derelict and always a riot going on… All rejects together.

You were troubled and would oftentimes go into a dark place. Then you would push your friends away. But we could all see the hurt. The wounds. You littered the steep streets of Llanber’ with the fragments of shattered hearts… Like broken teacups. But, given time, all those you loved with a passion, and rejected with a passion, still believed in you.

In the absence of a climbing helmet I was wearing a bike helmet. It wasn’t ideal headwear, but at least my head was well ventilated on that scorching June day. We were never ones for following blanket rules eh?

3. 20ft/6m
Climb down over the pinnacles to belay on the L wall of the gully - Castle Gully.

Climbing rocks began to interest you less and you established a string of businesses - mostly on the ropes. All great ideas. But with each venture you seemed to find yourself on the ropes, for one reason or another. Yet, after each failure you just rebounded. After each fall you would brush yourself off and climb out of that particular hole. We both moved on… You to the North Sea, I escaped to Australia. We saw less of each other, but when we did I found myself laughing around you like in past-times.

4. 50ft/15m
Climb the large rock steps on the L wall, then step around the corner crossing a little groove (or reach this point from below) to a traverse line. Take this easily L-wards to an exposed stance by a large flake.

You could climb this blind-folded Trev, I say. “Oh wait, you’re nearly blind so you might as well be blind-folded!”

Hey, you, watch it.”

You reach the stance. 'OK Paul'.
I traverse towards you as you collect the rope in neat loops over your feet. I keep seeing your mustachio’d chops, even though you haven’t worn that style for more than two decades.

You started a family with Emma. Leo and Eira, you are so lucky to have had such a remarkable dad. Whenever I want to remember you Trevor I just have to visit Ty Du road again in my head and there you are, raucous behavior …Cheeky downturned smile.

I am studying the sun as it rises. It is as if I am watching you being reborn.

5. 65ft/20m
Climb the steep wall behind the flake to gain a gangway. Follow this R-wards past a ledge to belay below a chimney.

As you led up the lovely sculpted pockmarked slab, you remarked on how incredible it was to be grasping the same holds as Menlove did in 1931.
This route is like living museum piece.” Not like other museums were everything’s behind glass… Don’t touch the exhibits. Here you are invited to climb all over the artefacts.'
"I’m making the very same moves as Menlove… Look.”
The whole of the Pass is a museum and each creator of a new climb donates that climb to the gallery of the Pass.

See, the Eckenstein Boulder where Oscar taught Archer-Thomson the art of bouldering. Just out of sight is Cenotaph Corner were Brown placed the Chock Stone which is still used. Over to the left is Nea where Menlove went second to Nea Morin. Over the other side you can see Kirkus’s Direct Route on The Mot. And Boysen’s spacewalking Skull… Evans, Ingle, Whillans, Birtwistle, Livesey, Banner... Names of legend.

But king of all of The Pass in his day was Menlove Edwards.

And don’t forget Marlene On The Wall by Trevor Hodgson.” You cast back a downturned grin.

Then you cakewalked up the rising traverse and out of sight to a belay…

And now you’re gone.

The rope comes tight. We forgo all the usual rope commands “Safe,” “On Belay,” “Climb When You’re Ready.” We instinctually know what the other is up to. Even though we haven’t climbed together for years. As I climb I look down through my legs. The road is right below my heels. I continue to a huge loose block. I could have reefed it off but there were people everywhere down below. And, besides it might have bounced all the way down to the road, a thousand feet below, just like the Cromlech boulders had thousands of years ago. They are now sat in the car parking bay.

I am having the time of my life. Thank you Carlos. As I round the arête. I ponder on the word. Arête does’t just mean ‘edge’. It also means the realisation of one’s potential, or living up to yourself in true existential style. Sartre would have been proud of us. We were certainly fulfilling our purpose on this earth that day.

As I scupper round the arête you come back into view. There, at the belay, you snap a pic with your phone. I teeter up the ramp traversing over ‘the polish of thousands of passing climbers’. I unclip the one solitary runner. I couldn’t contemplate a fall now. I would have taken a massive pendulum. But, you knew instinctively what ground I was likely to fall off. What I would find difficult, or easy. This ramp was easy. I was with you in no time.

6. 50ft/15m
Enter the chimney, crux, and continue more easily to the top.

This climb saves the biggest challenge for high up. The crux is at the end. But you faced the final pitch with grace and bravery I’m told.

Do you recall, you led the chimney without putting in a single piece.
So you won’t have the added stress of taking runners out.”
I didn’t mind as there was no way I could swing with you holding the rope.

I had to have a tight rope here, on entering the final leg.
You were playing the opening rift from “Why Dya Do It? by Marianne Faithful on the rope (it was so tight).
Do you remember I played this all the time in Ty Du Road?”
You were laughing and singing, “Why did ya spit on my snatch.”
And you were just about keeping it together.
Are we out of luck now, or is it just a bad patch.”
I came to you. I collapsed on my back, arms out in the sheep nibbled meadow.

After, on the descent you spotted me every few metres of that loose gully. And by the time we got down to your heap of a car, I was well and truly shagged.

That night at the party you were enthusiastically telling Johnny, Emily and Ann of our day climbing together. I was in no state for conversation. My leg was shaking violently, and Johnny was attempting to ride it (we all dissolved into laughter).

And that was the final climb we ever did together.

What do you think Trevor? (funny how that name suits you now).


You are gone.

Route descriptions from Paul Williams’s Rock climbing in Snowdonia 1990.

Paul Pritchard: 2020 

Wednesday 3 June 2020

The Hendersons

Rungneet tea plantation in Darjeeling: Photo Streather Family Collection

Over the years, in expedition accounts from the 1940s and 50s, I’ve come across frequent references to the Rungneet tea plantation in Darjeeling and the couple who owned it, Jack and Jill Henderson. They hosted several major expedition in the early 1950s and Jill Henderson played a small but intriguing role in Himalayan history. I have never seen any photographs of her until I found this transparency in the late Tony Streather’s collection a few months ago. It’s an image taken at Rungneet on the day that Tony and the other members of Charles Evans’s expedition set off for Kangchenjunga in 1955. Foreground right there are cars and lorries loaded with porters and Sherpas, foreground left in the light blue twin-set there’s Jill Henderson. Her husband may be the man in the background in the linen jacket but I’m not quite sure?

Jill Henderson was the Honorary Secretary of the Himalayan Club between 1951- 1955, and in this role she organised the Sherpa teams for several expeditions. The club had been set up in 1928 as a kind of Indian version of the Alpine Club.  Initially it arranged talks and events and maintained a library and a journal but as Himalayan climbing developed, the club took on another role, helping to organise Sherpas and porters. Its officers liaised with foreign and local expeditions, agreed rates of pay and organised logbooks for Sherpas to record their expeditions and their achievements. 

It is unclear why she got involved in the Himalayan club but Jill Henderson, née Enid Newman, was born in Essex in 1905; her husband Jack was born in China, nine years earlier. When they married, Enid became known as Jill. By the late forties they were well established at the Rungneet plantation. After  the first expeditions to Kangchenjunga and the Tibetan side of Everest, Darjeeling had become the jumping off point for Himalayan expeditions and it remained so for anyone heading for the Eastern Himalayas. In 1949 the Hendersons hosted Frank Smythe on his final trip to India which ended in his death from suspected cerebral malaria. They looked after John Kempe’s Kangchenjunga reconnaissance team in 1954, and in the following year hosted Evans’ team at the beginning and end of the expedition. While they were on the hill, the Hendersons organised their mail and sent them bottles of Veuve Cliquot to celebrate their success. At the end they came out to greet them with crates of beer and sandwiches and organised a party with the French Makalu team. 

It wasn't just a question of being a generous host. Jill Henderson also played a small but crucial part in the 1953 Everest expedition, persuading Tenzing Norgay that he should join the British team. In the spring of 1952, he had taken part in the first of two Swiss expeditions to Everest and had formed a very strong bond with the Swiss team and Raymond Lambert in particular. When in early September, Jill invited him to join the British 1953 team, initially under Eric Shipton’s leadership, he told her that he was unlikely to say yes because “he feels that he will have had enough of Everest for a time”. 

Frank Smythe
Later that autumn Tenzing took part in a second Swiss Everest expedition. It was unsuccessful and Tenzing returned to Darjeeling exhausted and ill and 16 lbs lighter. He had however enjoyed himself tremendously and told friends that he enjoyed working with the Swiss more than the British and hoped to return with them in 1955 for a third crack at Everest. When Jill Henderson approached him for a second time in January 1953, he repeated his reservations and his wife Ang Lhamu added that she did not want him to go anywhere before he had fully recovered. As Jill Henderson wrote to John Hunt:

He is looking extremely pulled down at the moment. He is ready to go as far as Camp 3, this means that he will arrange porterage, logs for bridging etc but not to climb

Eventually, after plying him with sweet words, milk and Ovaltine for several weeks, Tenzing was persuaded to sign up and to help recruit a strong party of Sherpas, but only as he insisted if he could also be made a full member of the climbing team. The rest as they say is history. 
When on May 29th he and Ed Hillary reached the summit, Tenzing was wearing a jumper given to him by Jill Henderson. On his triumphant return to Darjeeling, he in turn presented her with a Lhasa Apso, probably the dog in the picture, which she later entered into Crufts.
By the mid-fifties, the Himalayan climbing scene was changing as the centre of gravity moved from Darjeeling to Kathmandu. All or almost all of the high altitude Sherpas in the photo above were recruited by Dawa Tenzing in the the Solu Khumbu, though the general porters did come from Darjeeling and its vicinity.  More and more expeditions started off from Nepal rather than India and Darjeeling’s climbing Sherpa community gradually contracted. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where Tenzing once taught, remains magnet for Indian climbers and there is still a small Sherpa community at Tungsung Basti on the edge of Darjeeling, but today most of the Sherpa owned trekking and climbing business are based in Kathmandu. 

Jill Henderson left India in 1958 for Africa and later America. She died in Stanger in South Africa in 1991 and is buried there.  In 2002 Rungneet was renamed ‘The Kanchaan View Tea Estate’ and taken over by a much larger company. As for the Himalayan Club, it remains a vibrant hub for mountain culture but its focus is now on publishing the Himalayan Journal and hosting events, not on recruiting Sherpas.

Mick Conefrey: 2020

Details of Mick's latest book, 'The Last Great Mountain' can be found on his website Mick Conefrey