In the midsummer of 1962 newspapers carried a brief item from London: "Two British mountain climbers were killed last week descending Mount Garmo in the Pamirs, it was reported today. They had been part of an 18-man British-Soviet expedition. The two men were Wilfrid Noyce, one of the world's leading climbers and a member of the 1953 Everest expedition, and Robin Smith, a 23-year-old philosophy graduate from Edinburgh."
Thereafter the facts dissolved in mystery and speculation. No one knew what had happened. The report added that Sir John Hunt, the conqueror of Everest, who was leading the Pamir expedition, had cabled tersely: "Expedition continues," but Sir John and part of the British team then returned to England. The goal of the expedition was Pik Kommunizma, 24,590 feet, Russia's highest mountain. The fatal accident was on nearby Mount Garmo, during a preparatory toughening climb.
Despite bitter quarrels between the Russians and English as Sir John left, a part of the British team remained in the Pamirs. Red Peak, by Malcolm Slesser (Coward-McCann, $5.75), is a detailed factual report of what happened. The Russians and the remaining British climbers went on toward the summit of Pik Kommunizma according to their original plan, through nine days of an almost unbearable ordeal.
The British agreement with the Russians called for a 65-day expedition, with 12 English and Scottish climbers and six Russians. They were to be flown to Dushanbe (formerly Stalinabad), some 2,000 miles southeast of Moscow, where trucks would transport their equipment to the mountains. The British were experienced, and even world-famous, climbers, but they were amateurs: a teacher, a doctor, an insurance executive, a sales manager.
In innumerable small but subtle ways the Russians deviated from the terms of the agreement. The climbers were flown directly to the base camp, which left them panting and dizzy, especially in comparison with the superbly conditioned Russians. The site of the base camp was mysteriously changed: instead of being 18 miles from the peak and 13,000 feet below the summit, they were 25 miles away and 15,000 feet below it. There were no porters: the men lugged their own equipment.
On the conditioning climb of 21,800-foot Mount Garmo two British climbers, Derek Bull, an insurance executive, and Edward Wrangham, a dairy farmer, descended first. They prepared tea to greet the others as they arrived, and stepped out of the tent to see how the other climbers were doing. Noyce and Smith, moving together on one rope, were coming down a steep but not difficult slope. As one slipped, the other was pulled off his feet. Their ice axes got no grip in the wet snow above the ice. Yet they slid slowly, and nearly came to rest. Then a slight curvature gave added momentum. They shot forward over a band of rocks. They flashed by the tent a hundred yards away, and over a 4,000-foot rock wall.
They were buried where they fell, while stones came down from the cliff "with the peculiar half-whining, half-whirring, utterly lethal noise of a stone that has fallen several thousand feet." When Sir John announced that he was breaking off the climb, he was denounced to his face by a strident Soviet official as a deserter. Yet the six British climbers who remained to try the summit of Kommunizma were treated with no greater respect at the outset. And so the ascent of Kommunizma began. The climbers were divided along ideological lines and by savage personal hatreds. They were less like comrades united in a gallant effort than like deadly enemies waiting for each other to collapse. By day they moved in separate teams, Russians on one rope, the British climbers wobbling unsteadily after them, often far behind, sometimes out of sight. At night they usually camped together, huddled in separate groups, not speaking.
Political differences, personal feelings, national prejudices were gradually sloughed off, until nothing except an elemental humanity remained. They were skin-enclosed skeletons, gasping for breath, eyelids iced, feet lifeless, faces vaguely blue, going through strange cyclic losses of attention. They helped each other with clumsy, robot-like movements, pushing each other forward, even finding medicines and food for the weakest members, Communists and capitalists alike.
If Red Peak were no more than the story of how they kept going it would be a memorable addition to mountain literature. What makes it unforgettable is that they all somehow reached the summit—"Communists, capitalists, socialists, Tories, nationalists," Slesser wrote, "the dedicated, the decadent, the correctors, the castigators, the muckrakers, the unsophisticated, the fastidious and the skimmers. No one of us was pure. We were just a pretty ordinary, mixed bunch. To bring such vast differences in background and approach together at one time, at this elevated spot, was triumph enough." That unexpected end makes Red Peak belong with the great records of mountain ordeals, akin to Maurice Herzog's classic Annapurna or Jack Olsen's The Climb Up to Hell—not nearly so well-written as cither, but with a background of politics and tragedy that gives meaning to harrowing details.