22 February 2016

overland to everest recalled

In 1977 I decided to get away from an apparently terminal domestic situation and a frustrating design job, together with a friend (DH) who found himself in not dissimilar circumstances, — to take off, leave it all behind, and go to find the highest mountain in the world: jobs terminated, marriages dissolved. I decided straight away that I would travel as light as possible, dispensing with any notion of trying to record the adventure  in photographs. That is why there are no snaps, but instead, drawings, made afterwards. 

Scraping as much money together as I could, I hoped to be able to survive for several months away, keeping in reserve enough dollars to be able to fly back when the mission was accomplished or if self preservation recommended it.

So we set off for Asia in August by bus, (Budget Bus, £89 one way) on what was then sometimes called The Hippy Trail. It was quite a journey, with 35 or so passengers of different nationalities, shapes and sizes, on a decrepit bus that broke down with tedious regularity and sometimes in inconvenient places. We travelled through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, stuck for a while in Afghanistan, then Pakistan and finally India, about six weeks after setting out from the UK. As you might expect we had quite a few bizarre adventures en route, the numerous breakdowns giving us the odd opportunity to see something more of the country along the way, notably in Afghanistan where a number of us hired two minibuses to go and see the 1000 year old Bamiyan rock-carved Buddhas, subsequently destroyed by the Taliban. 

From New Delhi DH and I took another long bus journey to Katmandu in Nepal and eventually set off on our epic big walk, backpacking up and down amazing country all the way to Khumbu. We could not employ porters to carry our stuff, as was the norm for western trekkers, we discovered later, not rich enough. We camped out (we had a small tent) or stayed in lodges or houses. After leaving the road out of the capital we did not see another road or any form of road vehicle; our routeways were now footpaths or droveways, often busy with local people. The pack animal was homo sapiens until we got deep into Sherpa territory where we met with yaks as load carriers. It took us fifteen days to walk to the Sherpa capital at Namche Bazar, about 125 miles I think.

We encountered rough, steep and bewildering mountain country, high passes and deep gorges, leaches and flies, some challenging weather, intriguing local people, basic but mostly wholesome food, exotic wildlife, terrifying bridges over swollen rivers, — and partially as a result of our fading map, got lost amidst trackless bear-populated forests and gorges for a number of days. But we made it without major mishap and after further trekking in the higher Himalaya, camped across the way from the bulk of Everest, well above the last habitation.  Bitterly cold at night, thin air, avalanches, sleeping on the edge of a frozen lake, snow blindness to avoid by day. From there we did our own thing: I climbed as far as my worn out boots would allow on Kala Patar and the south ridge of Pumo Ri one day (to peep into the Western Cym) and then trekked up the Khumbu Glacier to Everest base camp the next . . . It was good to be alone with one's own thoughts up there: I saw hardly a soul; for a while at least we were amongst a handful of folk on top of the world. It is not like that these days.

Anyway. I kept a sort of diary, a log of our trek/climb/walk. Not the bus journey, although I started to: opportunity was often absent on the road and I decided it would be a tedious repetition of suffering, discomfort and grumbling! The Himalayan journey was my objective so in the absence of a camera I wrote it up. My take on the walk to Everest was eventually typed up for me by a good friend (BG) and I think I have placed a link to that below for anyone who would care to dip into it. It's not of a very high order of literacy, but it gives the gist. 

Subsequently back in the UK I tracked down and acquired reasonably accurate but expensive maps of pre-war German origin (1:50000 and 1:25000). Then National Geographic undertook a new arial photographic survey of the Everest region for their new 1988 centennial map. On this extract of the map, I've marked our high camp site and an approximation of where I went from there in red.

1:50 000 map showing our final camp and my various explorations
It was this last map that I decided to show my son, when he was visiting us recently.  He took some digital pictures of the maps I have and dipped into my original diary, took out my only momento from the trek, two crumpled prayer flags I had picked up from expedition detritus left at Everest Base Camp. The day after Adam returned to where he lives I receive his e-mail with a link. As is the way with our digital generation we seek our info on the internet. But it had never occurred to me that there would be anything out there about the August 77 Budget Bus trip. As far as I was concerned the only images of that life changing journey were in my head! But the son-and-heir found the diary of a fellow passenger on a blog and that led to images and a group snap taken in Kabul, on the day we left Afghanistan and went down the Khyber Pass! For the first time, thirty-nine years after the event, I see Colin Clews' picture. And then he has others too, thankfully without featuring me. I hope Colin does not mind me reproducing that group picture he took, here. I am the only guy in shorts, crouched down seemingly praying for deliverance!

Heading for the Khyber Pass, Budget Bus, 4 September 1977, photograph by Colin Clews

I have only occasionally regretted not taking a camera on that trip. It would have been difficult and expensive: no 32GB SD cards then, no whopping digital zooms and long life lithium batteries, but instead expensive delicate film in canisters, processing and storage complications and costs . . . indifferent cameras to carry and keep safe, seeing things through the meaness of a view finder . . . I made the right decision.  Now however, it would be a different story . . .

Everest: east face to south col route illustration
The only people from Budget Bus I subsequently had anything to do with were DH (with whom I eventually shared a house for some years) and  Stephen Venables who I bumped into in Blackwells Record Shop, Oxford. Stephen, with Lindsey Griffin used the Budget Bus to transport climbing kit out to Kabul for an expedition in the Hindu Kush. As a result of our re-acquaintance in Oxford I subsequently designed and illustrated a number of fund raising identities for expeditions he was involved with to various parts of the world. Stephen was the first climber to conquer Everest via a new east route (Kangshung Face), first UK climber to summit without bottled oxygen, surviving the highest ever bivouac, alone.  I illustrated his account of this singular climb with a annotated drawing of the east face of the mountain, for Pan Books (left). In those days there were no queues for the summit, and there still are none for this most difficult way up.

So! I think I am grateful to my son for finding my likeness in Kabul after all these years. And I am intrigued to refresh my memory of the bus bit of the adventure through Colin's blog and his Flickr Album. Trouble is,  I can't as yet recall Colin at all (although I reckon he was one of the back-of-the-bus-boys).  And that goes for most of the passengers on that jaunt, just can't remember who was who. Like him I did not form any particular bond with anyone although there were definitely a smallish number of folk I would have happily met up with again. I would have liked to have been able to put names to faces but I can't!

Click on this line if you would like to dip into my Everest Trek Diary

I was pleased to find good drawn renditions of Ama Dablam on the back of some of the rather classy Nepalese paper money of the time.  This distinctive and unclimbed sacred mountain lies south of the Everest group and overlooked the last high villages on our route to the Khumbu Glacier. The King of Nepal (Birendra) depicted on these notes met an untimely end in the Royal Family Massacre of 2001, and the temples shown were decimated in the recent earthquake. This currency probably cost more to produce than the face value of the smallest value note: at that time a Nepalese rupee (the grey one) was worth about 5p!