Lectures from mountaineering’s years gone by are like a breath of fresh air.
Many of the slides shown at the auditorium of South Mumbai’s K.C. College were from the 1960’s and 70’s. The story teller was visible in some of the frames, long haired and sporting a head band, reminiscent of the counter culture of the period. Likely, streaks of the same counter culture that fueled big wall climbing in California’s Yosemite Valley; a legacy that survived in climbing even as counter culture lay smothered by a blanket of conformism. In his days in climbing, British mountaineer Doug Scott was associated with big walls and the desire to transpose that on the Himalaya. He was also a fan of climbing alpine style, favoring small teams as opposed to the siege tactics of large expeditions. Scott’s tenure on stage – he was the winner of the 10th Kekoo Naoroji Book Award from the Himalayan Club – consisted of an acceptance speech (mostly about why he hesitated to write his autobiography) and two slide shows. The tenor of his presentation may be summed up in a quote he resorted to, just ahead of reading out the prepared text of his acceptance speech to no accompanying slides or PowerPoint: you are not going to be spoon fed. He added in jest for good measure, “ you have to use your imagination. It is a good thing to read books.’’
The other main speaker – here to deliver the Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture – was Leo Houlding. At 36, Leo was roughly 40 years junior to Doug, as much apart in age as the last hurrah of book shops from PowerPoint and world by Instagram. He was similar to the veteran in the essence of his pursuits yet dissimilar in tenor for in the decades that separate them, technology evolved sufficiently to leave nothing to the imagination. Both climbers have a penchant for big walls but while Doug became known as a mountaineer, Leo, despite an Everest ascent in the company of Conrad Anker, said he isn’t a great fan of snow, ice and altitude. What attracts him is world stacked vertical; big rock faces – from Greenland to the Americas and Antarctica – that run uninterrupted for up to a mile vertically. The monasticism that graced the suffering of climbers from Doug’s period in climbing, you found in the technologically superb visuals of Leo’s climbs. What you once saw imprinted in the soul of man as the aftermath of a climb, you now see in the pixels of a camera sensor as it brings home to you what it was like to be out there. From the world’s still remote areas came visuals of vast snowfields with orange-brown rock thrusting up from them like teeth in a crocodile’s jaw. “ Those fangs – that’s what I like to climb,’’ Leo said. Intended or otherwise, Doug and Leo were an engaging mix at the club’s annual function for the transition by 40 years, they represented in climbing.
In 1975 Doug and Dougal Haston had essayed the first successful ascent of the south west face of Everest. The climb included a bivouac on the south summit at 8760 m (28,908 ft). The much climbed peak is still trampled by many adding it to their bag of conquests, by the tamer, well used south east-ridge route. In climbing season, this route features a line of people making their way up Everest. Speaking of the predicament on Everest and other mountains, Doug said, “ if only you go around the corner, there will be nobody there. There is plenty of scope to commune with the mountain; just that nobody goes there.’’ In his life, one trip to the mountains led to another, all the way to Everest and beyond. “ Beyond?’’ he asked, adding in praise of alpine style climbing, “ Yes, I discovered that less is more. Less people, less equipment, less cost; it’s just you, your friend and a rope in between. Alpine style is simply wonderful.’’ He said that the problem with large, siege type expeditions “ is that only two people make it to the summit and everybody else is left wondering what it may have been for them.’’ Doug wrapped up his presentations with a slide show backed-account of his descent from Baintha Brakk aka The Ogre (23,901 ft) in Pakistan, an epic multi-day crawl of a descent given he broke both his ankles during an abseil. Accident notwithstanding, that trip in 1977 produced the first ascent of the peak. Thanks to Leo, the audience were treated to a film in the wake of George Mallory’s body discovered on the slopes of Everest, in which Conrad Anker and Leo follow in the footsteps of Mallory and Andrew Irvine. It showed a very rare instance of the Second Step (a rock face below the summit) being free climbed to test whether Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit with what climbing techniques they possessed, long before a ladder came to be stationed there. Leo’s own take on whether the British duo may have reached the summit before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: possible but not probable.
The annual seminar also featured a film by a team from the Himalayan Club about an expedition in Ladakh and a presentation by Nungshi and Tashi Malik, famous for being twin sisters climbing some of the world’s well known mountains.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)