I wish I could say that I gamboled up the slopes of Nepal like a mountain goat. Or begin this report with a sentence that reads: As we forded the Kali Gandaki River, my companions far behind.... Or better yet: Where was my Sherpa guide? Lost, no doubt.
Alas! The truth of the matter is I did not gambol, I limped. I did not ford the Kali Gandaki River, I fell in. And my Sherpa guide is thinking of early retirement. As I nurse sensation back into still-numb feet I now add trekking to the list of things at which I am inept, in a history of general ineptness.
Trekking, the current euphemism for walking, is the latest rage in holiday travel. It is antipathetic to motorized transport, television, home-cooked meals, electric lights, hot baths and beds with coil springs. Nevertheless, people wanting to get away from it all can and do trek—over Alp and through jungle, leaving footprints in the snows of Iceland, the dust of East Africa and the dank flora of New Guinea. Finally, if they are ultimists, they can even try the sine qua non of trekking, the Himalayas, via Nepal, that tiny mountain-studded kingdom between India and Tibet. Of the 12 highest mountains in the world seven are in Nepal. Its people, born on slopes inimical to the wheel, are a merry mixture of countless tribes. Superstitious, they are moved more by gods than politicians. They go barefoot up stony hillsides, breathing unpolluted air. They laugh a lot.
Ah, you are thinking, what joy, what peace, but you are thinking it as you sip a dry martini or snuggle down on your Beautyrest. Likewise, once upon a time, a sweet innocence or two ago, thought I.
It all started when I heard that Cooks Travel Service had scheduled a Himalayan trek from Pokhara to Annapurna. Cooks—The Greatest Name in Travel. Also the Oldest, the Wisest, the Most Economical. For a mere $1,000 I could rely on Cooks to transport me from London to Nepal and back. The price included food, tent and guidance every step of the way for 21 carefree days among picture-book mountains. There used to be a song, Follow the Man from Cooks. Had Cooks in the past not arranged for countless little old ladies to visit such exotic places as Paris, Venice and Cairo, met them at airports, tucked them into hotels and brought them back? Would a company with such a reputation offer to take me for a walk and lead me down the garden path? Vacation in the Himalayas? Why not? Good old Cooks.
My knowledge of mountains was minimal, though I had applauded the conquest of Everest with the rest of the world and had always admired Sir Edmund Hillary's first words as he and Tenzing Norgay descended from the summit of the highest mountain. "Well," he is reported to have said, "we knocked the bastard off." Prior to that, Maurice Herzog had climbed Annapurna, the first of the Great Himalayas to be scaled, but in the process left all of his fingers and toes behind. Mountains don't fool around. I had a mental vision of myself shaking a small, chapped fist at Annapurna, though trekking, in truth, has about the same relationship to mountain climbing as the Soap Box Derby has to the Indianapolis 500. This in no way diminished my enthusiasm. I am inordinately fond of my fingers and toes. I wrote to Cooks in London for further information.
By return mail came an application form, with a request that my doctor submit a letter attesting to my good health. Would my lungs, for example, hold up at an altitude of 18,000 feet? The application also asked that I list my previous walking or climbing experience. The distance we would trek, as best could be judged, would be roughly 250 miles. My personal record of a lifetime might have added up to a three-mile round trip, achieved during the New York bus and subway strike, when I labored along the flat, concrete sidewalks of Sixth Avenue to and from my office, drowned in self-pity. This would never do for Cooks. I wrote that I was an active member of the Sierra Club, which was true. I had paid my dues regularly. As an afterthought I tossed in that I had walked from the Italian Riviera to the French Riviera, which added a nice, Continental flavor and was inspired by a friend who had made such a trip. If I had not actually slogged the route myself, the two or three boring weekends I put in looking at his slides and homemade movies of the scenery made me eligible.
Harry J. Grant, the special promotions manager of Cooks, apparently took all this fiction to be fact and wrote back promptly that I had been accepted into an otherwise all-British group—nine women and 14 men. I tried to visualize the British citizens with whom I would be trekking to Annapurna, but it was no good. They all came out looking like Leslie Howard dragging Hermione Gingold up a hill.
When Harry Grant's first formal bulletin arrived, it left no doubt in my mind that I was not going to be sitting around Nepalese gardens sipping tea. "Intending members," he advised, "should appreciate that when trekking in Nepal they are for nearly all of the time away from 'civilised' centres, in a remote countryside with few forms of communication other than bearers. They will be camping in wild and sometimes quite difficult conditions, and although their basic provisions will be carried with them they must rely for meat on livestock in the countryside. The Annapurna area is said to be fairly well-endowed in this respect, and chicken, goat meat and possibly yak meat are likely to be available from time to time in variation of the basic tinned-meat diet and farinaceous foods such as rice and spaghetti."
While I was still trying to cope with farinaceous foods the itinerary arrived, and exotic names leapt out at me: Pokhara, Henja, Pamdur, Tatopani. A clothing list, covering two pages, accompanied the itinerary. "Bring a pair of sneakers for evening wear in camp," ran the most depressing line on the optional list. I was to be thrown on the collective bosom of 14 Leslie Howards, and all I would have to offer by way of charm was a pair of sneakers. Any notion I had been entertaining about looking sexy apr√®s-trek was now dismissed. Bulletins continued to flow across the Atlantic, and I sent one of my own to the prolific Grant.
"I cannot get a clear idea from the clothing list about ladies' underwear," I wrote, "and if this is not too delicate a question, how many sets should I bring or will there be some sort of Nepalese laundromat at the foot of Annapurna?" The special promotions manager of Cooks was not to be put off by so simple a question.
"As regards laundry," he replied quickly, "I am afraid you will find that what you have to do is to wash your 'smalls' in the many streams that you will follow and cross and recross.... You probably won't wash anything and maybe not even yourself for a day or two around High Camp, where it will be rather cold...."
The trek was to begin the first of November, with the group meeting in London. By September, Mr. Grant was fairly beating his typewriter to death, and my sheaf of bulletins and instructions was running a close second to the Sunday edition of The New York Times for bulk. There was one bulletin I did not like the sound of at all.
"An important and very worthwhile modification has been made in the intended itinerary to Annapurna; it is that all members will achieve a maximum of 12,500 feet on the eastern slopes of the Dhaulagiri Range, where they will camp for two nights and visit the Dhaulagiri Icefall. Those members then fit and able (italics his) to go higher may go from this camp to a higher viewpoint of approximately 17,000 feet." I read on with glazed eyes. "Some altitude stress will naturally be felt at 12,500 feet but should not seriously affect people in first-class condition. The stress above this altitude up to 17,000 feet can be quite severe and is unpredictable; indeed, some people may feel it very little or not at all, whereas others may be substantially affected."
I had to open Mr. Grant's next hair-raising communiqué with my teeth and one hand, having been immunized against smallpox, tetanus, typhoid, polio, typhus and cholera. My pockets jingled with vials of dysentery pills and malaria suppressants.
"It is just possible," I read gloomily, "that the further rise to 17,000 feet, mentioned in my last bulletin, may be achieved by those still fit and wanting to, but the question is under consideration because, although not 'climbing' in the technical sense, it would involve the use of ropes and picks. This higher viewpoint is known as White Peak." This bulletin was accompanied by yet another form to be signed that was bluntly headed "Assumption of Risk." As far as I could gather, the assumption was theirs, the risk was mine.
The next bulletin announced that our Group Leader was to be none other than Mountaineer Eric Shipton, who had led the 1951 expedition to Everest, an expedition that included Sir Edmund Hillary. It was that reconnaissance trip on which the successful southern route up Everest had been discovered, culminating two years later in the conquest itself. Shipton, I learned, had once climbed 26 peaks in excess of 20,000 feet on a single trip. My admiration for his courage and stamina was clouded only by the vague suspicion that he might be insane. I signed the "Assumption of Risk" and mailed it back to Harry Grant.
Then it was off to Bloomingdale's but that department store, it turned out, did not carry string underwear in Lingerie, had never stocked balaclava helmets in Millinery, failed to turn up chukka hiking boots in Shoes and did not handle Glacier Creme in Notions. But no matter, I could, one of my bulletins informed me, buy everything I needed in London, that city of historical renown, to which I was duly conveyed in a big, silver bird.
It was at the Excelsior Hotel, near London's Heathrow Airport, that I first met some of my fellow trekkers. Most of the men were considerably older than Leslie Howard, even adding on the years he's been dead. Eric Jarvis, who came to be called Old Eric, so as not to confuse him with Eric Shipton, was 66. A retired bank manager, he confided that he had indulged a passion for climbing most of his adult life, making many of his trips with Tom Littledale, a retired schoolteacher. Old Eric tended to be taciturn, while Tom, lean and ebullient, talked nonstop.
"By rough calculation," Tom told me, "Eric judges that we've been up about 60 mountains together, including the Zinalrothorn and the Wetterhorn. Most of our climbing has been done in the Alps. I did a small trek in Kashmir in 1946 to celebrate the end of the war, and some years ago Eric went off without me to do the Julian Alps in Yugoslavia, the Tatra in Czechoslovakia and Pt. Lenana in Kenya. Of course, we've climbed the Matterhorn. Anyone interested in climbing does the Matterhorn."
"Of course," I said. I saw no reason to mention Sixth Avenue during the transit strike.
In addition to the bank manager and three schoolteachers, the party included a nuclear physicist, three doctors, a genteel lady named Rosemary who worked in the British Foreign Office, a telephone operator, two housewives, a sociologist, a semiretired civil engineer, a hotelier, a stockbroker, a geologist, an economist and a policeman. Then there was Vi Tate, in her mid-60s, who had once been asked to choose between her fiancé and a trip around the world. Vi had chosen the world tour and had been traveling ever since. "Can't stand sitting around the house, never could," she declared to Rosamond Twistington-Higgins, an art teacher from Sussex. In her restlessness, Vi had once bossed a ranch in Wyoming, made two trips to the Antarctic and, while crossing the Sahara, had been thrown from a camel. Sixth Avenue she hadn't tried.
And there was Eric Shipton. He was sitting in a corner of the Excelsior lounge reading Edward Whymper's Travels Among the Great Andes of the Equator. An ice ax was beside his chair. Shorter than average but sturdily built, he had thinning white hair that emphasized a strong jaw. His complexion was ruddy, his eyes a bright, inquisitive blue. Occasionally he looked up from his book, his expression puzzled, as if he were trying to remember how he got where he was and what, if anything, he was supposed to be doing.
"He never talks much at low altitudes." explained Anthony Fox, our deputy leader. "Once we get above sea level he'll open up." Tony Fox was an impressive 28-year-old who stood 6'3". An administrative assistant at Britain's Ramblers' Association—the counterpart of America's Sierra Club—he had assisted Shipton on an Everest trek the previous year. "Now then," he said at one point, "we all understand that once we start trekking there will be no personal deviations from the approved route, and no one is to leave his tent at night without a torch. We don't want a repeat performance of the blighter who went over a cliff last year."
"Who did what?" I asked politely. I could not recall Mr. Grant mentioning this little incident in any of his bulletins. "Went out looking for a bush one night and tumbled off the edge." said Tony. "Fortunately he recovered after some months in a hospital. The ground is not always level, you understand, and occasionally our tents will be pitched on slopes." I thought about that a while. Then I thought it best to stop thinking.
Word came that our plane was colicky, which caused a delay of some hours, but finally we were off to faraway Nepal, where we were to spend a full day in Katmandu arranging for the trek. From there we would be conveyed by the Royal Nepal Airline to Pokhara, a 45-minute flight. In Pokhara we would be met by 10 Sherpas and 30 porters supplied by an organization called Mountain Travel, whose business is equipping climbing expeditions and treks right down to the last tin of farinaceous food.
The 14-hour flight was tedious, and I fell in briefly with Duncan McPherson, a Scot from Edinburgh who had served as a bridge engineer in Madras, India during the Second World War. Like Old Eric and Tom, he had a passion for traveling by foot.
"Familiar with Sikkim, are you?" he asked, as the plane droned on toward my doom.
"Not intimately," I said. He looked at me severely, his spectacles glinting. "Almost anyone interested in trekking has done Sikkim," he said. "It takes about four weeks. You leave Kalimpong, ac-chly, where there is a home for Anglo-Indians, then walk to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. From Gangtok you go up the Lachen Chu over the Serpo La, something over 18,000 feet, then down the Lachung valley and back to Gangtok. Then you can go along the Singalila ridge to Darjeeling—where exactly have you done your trekking?" I embarked on a falsehood about the Cats-kills.
"Molehills," said Duncan.
Katmandu. A city of dust, flies, sacred cows, pagoda-like temples and brightly painted rickshaws. The people, Newars, a slender, brown-skinned race with almond-shaped eyes and bright smiles. The rickshaws, attached to bicycles, waited hopefully for business outside the entrance to the Hotel Shanker, the converted Nepalese palace in which we stayed. A palace is not necessarily a castle. Tony described with relish a rat that was sharing his quarters. Room keys, by custom left dangling in keyholes, soundlessly disappeared and reappeared with unsettling regularity. An enormous room chart near the reception desk, to which one was waved, was a masterpiece of confusion, with almost no one occupying the room inscribed thereon. Lamps flickered on and off, necessitating a treasure hunt that led along exposed wires to an invisible plug lodged behind an immovable chest. Nepalese "runners," dressed in white cotton trousers and tunics that flared at the knees, sat patiently outside each room, anxious to follow instructions they could not understand.
Dr. Frank, an orthopedic surgeon, spent a sleepless night in a room he had shared with the geologist we called Red John. Our other two Johns had been designated Dr. John and Youngjohn. Red John, whose trekking costume, from socks to slouch hat, was of scarlet hue, looked like Alec Guinness made up for one of his roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
"Red John snores, I'm afraid," complained Dr. Frank, coming haggard to the breakfast table. "I can't share a tent with someone who makes such a frightful din." We all peered covertly at Red John, who appeared well-rested and was happily spooning up porridge a few tables away. "Do you suppose he wears that ludicrous outfit in London?" asked Eric Shipton.
Word came late that morning that Nepalese officials had refused to issue permits for "an assault" on White Peak because an early snowfall in the Dhaulagiri area made the project risky. This was a bitter disappointment to all but one member of the group, who managed nevertheless to put on a suitably long face when the announcement was made. Shipton and Fox went off to see what could be done. There was a possibility, said Shipton, of going by a different route to the Tilicho area, a region not far from the Tibetan frontier and still largely unexplored. If so, he knew of an unnamed 18,400-foot peak we might climb. (He would!) Dr. Jack, our official medical officer, referred to by the others as "our ready m.o.," said he thought the medical supplies and four canisters of oxygen we were carrying would be adequate for the slightly longer trip. Jean cried, "Oh, isn't it supah! supah! supah!" Jean was to be my tentmate. A pert 37-year-old schoolteacher who had moved seven years before from England to Whitehorse, Canada in the Yukon, she had a boundless enthusiasm for potential discomfort and the same nauseatingly solid background of trekking as the others.
Fox and Shipton returned to the hotel just before dinner, flushed with the triumphant news that our trekking permits had been revised and that we would trek to Tilicho Pass and the unnamed peak.
"Splendid!" said Francois, the stockbroker, who had once dealt with a friend's perforated ulcer at 14,000 feet.
"Smashing news," said Dr. Jack, who had once broken his leg in an avalanche. Dr. John loaned me Nepali Self-Taught, a book he had picked up outside the Temple of Holy Pornography in Katmandu.
Pokhara. A lush, green valley dominated by Macha Puchare (22,935 feet), which translates as Fishtail because of its twin-peaked summits separated by a recess in which, the natives believe, a goddess dwells. And here, right from the doorway of our airplane, the trek began. Hoisting my rucksack, I stumbled after the others as we set off, passing chickens, goats, cows and an occasional water buffalo splashing in a mud hole by the side of the road. Children tumbled everywhere, shouting namaste which means literally I salute the God in you, and serves as good morning, good evening, how are you and goodby. Orange and lemon trees dotted the landscape. Red poinsettias decorated rounded huts with thatched roofs, and prayer flags, small flowers or bright bits of rags tied to trees, fluttered overhead. Our porters, each carrying loads of 50 to 70 pounds, preceded us in single file, looking in the distance like hunchbacks on their way to Notre Dame. Vi Tate stopped frequently to photograph spider webs threading the bushes. Hugh, the nuclear physicist, silent and aloof, gathered specimens of fauna and flora, dropped bits and pieces into his camera case and stopped every so often to sweep the countryside with his binoculars.
"How goes it?" I asked, catching up. He didn't answer. Nuclear physicists trust no one. Duncan McPherson plodded past with Old Eric and Tom, tilted forward, hands clasped behind his back. I trotted along behind.
"From Srinagar," Duncan was saying, "I walked to Leh in Ladakh, about 200 miles...." I dropped back. Rosamond Twistington-Higgins walked with a peculiar shuffle, iron-gray hair clipped short, her tweed skirt and open-necked shirt neatly pressed. I was already sweating and rumpled.
Word came that 32-year-old David, the bobby, had fallen afoul of the local disease, known farther south as Delhi Belly, or the Katmandu Leap to the Loo. Tony called it "gutrot." "We'll all get it sooner or later," he said. An hour's stop at Phewa Lake for food and rest was refreshing or would have been had I arrived there in time to enjoy it. As I accepted a tin plate from Dana, the cook, on which reposed our morning "rumble tumble" (eggs), a cold pancake and what looked like a slab of Spam, the others, long finished, were leaving. "Press on!" cried Rosemary, galloping past.
I pressed on, up the scree (loose, sliding stones), hot and winded. My pace was that of a snail with malnutrition. By the time I reached our first mountain stream the others had crossed. Tony waited on the opposite side with a handful of Sherpas. It was a small stream but undoubtedly as wet as a big one. The idea was to cross by placing one foot at a time on the dry tops of rocks submerged in the water. Some of the rocks, unevenly distributed and barely above the surface, came to a point. All were slippery. A miss is as good as a mile. I floundered in, just short of the bank. The Sherpas rocked with laughter.
"You've made their day," said Tony. "Sherpas adore minor catastrophes. A leg full of leeches will have them rolling down the slopes." One of the Sherpas, no doubt taken with my performance, trailed after me the rest of the afternoon. His name, as far as I could make out, was Patooti.
"Oh, dear, dreadf'ly sorry," said Dr. Jack, when I arrived at the campsite an hour behind the others and showed him two blisters the size of walnuts. As he was applying Band-Aids, Jean stuck her head in the tent.
"Want to take a walk?"
"No thanks," I said. "I've just taken one." Chef Dana went by with two live chickens, one under each arm. A few minutes later an indignant squawk was followed by silence. The fowl deed, converted into shoe leather, was served for supper over rice. "Sherpas," said Shipton amiably, "are probably the worst cooks in the world."
There was even better news to come. From now on we would arise at five a.m. and after morning tea start off so as to get the better part of the walking done in the cool of the morning. Our next day's march would take us to Khare at 5,600 feet, a climb of 2,000 feet or roughly, I calculated forlornly, twice the height of the Empire State Building. We sat around the fire. Dumphreys McKettle, who owned a hotel in Weymouth, had bought a piece of muslin in the village of Henja and was stitching it into a butterfly net, an activity that most of us deplored, primarily because the Nepalese believe strongly in reincarnation and might adopt the view that McKettle was netting someone's grandfather. When the fire burned down we all went to bed. Red John, the nocturnal musician, had been assigned a single tent. I had trouble getting into my sleeping bag. "You're getting in backward," said Jean, laughing like a hyena. "The zipper faces the other side."
Under the bag was a mattress of sorts, filled with a material that, as I settled myself, I identified as bedrock. I was half asleep when two distinct sounds awoke me. One was the sound of Dr. Frank cursing softly. The other came from Dumphreys McKettle, who was snoring.
It was still pitch black when a Sherpa's whistle cut the stillness. By the time I emerged from my sleeping bag Jean was almost dressed. I rummaged dismally in my kit bag for a pair of clean socks, which turned up at the bottom, wedged between two chocolate bars that had melted the day before and had hardened to my socks during the night. As I contemplated this new calamity, a shattering lament from Red John arose in the tent behind us, appeals to the Almighty that would have wrung the heart of a yak.
"He's gone bonkers," said Jean placidly.
"Not only that," I said, standing in my chocolate socks to peer out of the rear flap of our tent, "he hasn't got any clothes on."
"You mean he's starkers?" said Jean, rushing to look. Whatever ailed Red John in the early-morning hours remained a mystery, but his predawn litany became a part of the trek.
By six o'clock the tents had come down, and the porters were loaded up. We turned west, guided by our sirdar (foreman), whose name seemed to be Gangway or Nosegay, I couldn't make it out. He was humming his morning prayers, the Buddhist's Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum. Hail to thee, jewel in the flower of the Lotus, hail to thee....
Three hours later, as we made ready to leave our breakfast site, Shipton came to me and said. "I think that you need a lesson in walking. You're expending far too much energy." I could not have agreed more. Now began our first steep, zigzag climb of more than 1,000 feet up a stone "staircase," slabs of cement wedged into the trail. The steps, which represented centuries of labor by the Nepalese, were by no means smoothly set or evenly separated. Some steps were only a few inches apart, others required a leap upward, still others had been washed away by monsoons.
"Interlock your fingers in mine," said Shipton, thrusting one hand out behind him. "and follow exactly in my footsteps. If you get winded, it means you're going too fast. Don't try to make it to a step beyond your reach, which will put you off-balance. The trick is to keep an even, steady pace, even if it means going out of your way off the path." I took his hand, and he moved upward steadily, never varying the length of his steps. As I moved with him I began to feel that I was not so much climbing as simply rising. My breathing became even and unlabored. Halfway up I was still not fatigued. There was actually a sense of exhilaration.
"Most climbers much prefer going uphill to downhill." he said. "Don't talk if it makes you lose your puff." We stopped to rest on a plateau that looked out over the valley.
"I suppose the reason mountain-climbers get a reputation for not talking is that they get used to saving their wind for climbing," I said, hazarding a guess. Shipton's eyes twinkled.
"Not necessarily," he said. "It's as much a matter of temperament. The appeal of mountain climbing, aside from the sense of achievement, is an appreciation of vast spaces and utter solitude. I've always thought Mallory's statement that men climb mountains "because they are there' rather supercilious."
We started off again. I was suddenly tired and couldn't recapture my rhythmic pace. "One of my best friends, a strong climber named Bill Tilman, can go for months without saying a word," Shipton went on. "He's rather a misogynist and a recluse. To this day he's never been inside a cinema. Another friend of mine, the late Dan Bryant, a strong climber from New Zealand, once spent two days alone with Bill in Darjeeling in complete silence. Bill is extremely shy. After years of climbing together, including one Himalaya expedition of seven months, we still referred to each other as Shipton and Tilman. Noel Odell, who is also quite reserved, and who climbed with Tilman to the top of Nanda Devi, India's highest mountain, wrote in his account of the conquest, 'When we reached the top we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands.' "
I'll never make it in this business, I thought. Too gabby. I craned my neck toward the as yet invisible top of the staircase. "Don't look up," said Shipton. "Just concentrate on the next step. Walking properly becomes automatic with a little practice, then you can think about something pleasant."
Tony passed us with his long-legged stride. "Keep going," he said, as I faltered. "Once you get to the top it will be downhill all the way." When we got to the top the path curved again, upward. "He lies," I said bitterly. Shipton laughed.
For the next three days I lived on that lie, which was taken up by some of the others. "Just a few more steps, luv, and then it's downhill all the way" or "Tomorrow will be an easy day, a brief climb and then it's downhill all the way."
Mountains, like some people, can't seem to make up their minds. First their trails go up, and just when you think you've got it made they go down. Wow, I thought, when we got to Ghorapani the fourth day out. T-minus 9,000 feet and still counting. The next day we started down, 5,000 feet to be exact. It took us another two days to climb back up to 8,000 feet at Sirkung. On the way there, via Ghasa (6,600 feet), the trail passed below a spectacular waterfall, and soon the Kali River itself was falling in a series of powerful cataracts. At Ghasa our permits were checked, a tedious business with interminable scrawling by Nepalese officials in enormous, fly-specked books. The operation apparently bored Gangway, who, when it was over, spat in a gutter and said, "Me no never not like this government, not never."
We arrived in Sirkung with six days gone and four to go to base camp. It was about now that I got rid of my rucksack to take weight off my feet, which were sprouting blisters faster than mushrooms pushing up in a pine forest. Dr. John shared his private porter, Purtemba, who was carrying his camera equipment. "Take care of memsahib," he instructed Purtemba whenever he wanted to rush up some impossible ridge to make movies, and a scrawny, brown hand would take a firm grip on my elbow. In addition, there was always Patooti, popping up unexpectedly from behind bushes and rocks.
"His name is Phudorje, pronounced Foo-door-jay," said Tony, "and our sirdar's name is Nawang, not Nosegay or Gangway." Phudorje gave me presents, stones and small rocks he picked up in the dry riverbed of the Kali Gandaki gorge, a river festooned with tributaries into which I fell with monotonous regularity. Phudorje, grinning self-consciously, would lead me into camp holding my hand.
"It's your utter helplessness, plunging into all those icy mountain streams and tottering off ledges, that gets his wind up," said Tony. "Your Patooti has something of a crush. Keep it up and you may find yourself bringing yaks down to pasture at his village of Kunmunjong."
"Oh, do leave her alone, for pity's sake," said Alison. "I think Pooh is sweet."
Steadily my endurance improved, which was both encouraging and necessary, since to reach base camp at 13,500 feet on the 10th day, as planned, we were going to have to double our regular distance.
Phudorje saw me through our first long day from Sirkung to Jhomosom (8,900 feet), loading my pockets with stones and taking me away from the trail the others followed to show me a rock monument inscribed to five Americans and two Sherpas who lost their lives last year while attempting to climb the southeast ridge of Dhaulagiri. Phudorje had been their sirdar. Snow-blind, he had been confined to base camp. "I tell them not to go, to wait one day. I smell bad weather. But they go. Then I hear avalanche and see them no more."
We were now in Alpine country. The terrain was rocky and arid, but spectacular. The mountains in the distance peeped over the ranges like white-capped nuns. It was doubtful that we would see yaks, said Shipton, since they rarely descend below 14,000 feet. But we saw plenty of dzo, a cross between a cow and a yak.
I woke before the others the next morning and went outside. The sky, a mass of bright stars, stretched overhead like a jeweled canopy. The air was crisp and cold. The subtropical vegetation of the lower altitudes had given way to juniper thickets, the Hindu shrines to Buddhist chortens. Ahead of me that day was our highest single climb of 4,400 feet which, according to Tony, would be "downhill all the way," a 15-mile trek involving steep ascents to a large grazing ground called the Nama Phu Yak Pastures, where base camp would be pitched. Our reward, said the itinerary, would be a fine view of Tilicho Peak, the Nilgiri mountains and, looking west across Kali Gandaki Valley, the highest peak (26,795 feet) of the Dhaulagiri range. I took an aspirin and crawled back into my sleeping bag.
"The Sherpas," said Shipton later, as I struggled up behind him on the way to our breakfast site, "have never understood why we do this. They must really be mystified when they see how much you're enjoying it. You've forgotten everything I taught you." He thrust his ice ax behind him and we did our me-and-my-shadow routine. Since there would be no water until we reached Nama Phu, the Sherpas had packed food for us. It was wrapped in sheets of soiled wax paper—a cold pancake, a slab of tinned meat poking out of a nest of grime and an orange. Shipton, oblivious to external appearances, munched happily. I settled for the orange and gave the rest to a gratified Purtemba, who crouched beside us. A minor headache that had plagued me at Jhomosom was getting progressively worse, and as we continued to climb, discomfort increased as I began to feel the first unpleasant sensations of nausea.
"You may be feeling the altitude a bit," said Shipton at about 12,500 feet, massaging my shoulders. Below us, Rosamond Twistington-Higgins slowly was making her way up the slope. Her usually steady shuffle had become a crawl, due to an inexplicably painful knee. We started up again, but I had another fit of nausea, and had to stop once more. Shipton, who speaks the language of the Sherpas, said a few words to Kanja, who was bringing up the rear. Kanja disappeared with long strides up the slope and over the ridge. I don't know how long we rested before I saw two horses emerge over the top of the hill. Phudorje was leading one, Kanja the other. We had met many mule trains along the trails, on their way to Mustang or Tibet with their loads of rice and yak pelts, but these were the first horses I had seen.
"Where did you get them?" I asked Phudorje.
"Dalai Lama's horses," he said. "I get them from Dalai Lama's policeman." The Dalai Lama has been living in seclusion in India since his flight over the mountains after the Chinese Communist take-over of Tibet, and a loyal little army is standing guard over the Nepalese frontier. Shipton helped me mount, while Kanja went down the slope to get Twistington-Higgins. Rosamond rode well. I did not, but I was grateful as I lurched along, perched on the Tibetan saddle of folded blankets. It isn't every day a trekker rides into camp on the Dalai Lama's horse. My tentmate put me to bed, and Tony angled his 6'3" into the tent to give me a shot of brandy. The temperature had taken a sharp, downward curve and my teeth started to chatter. A canteen filled with hot water was shoved into my sleeping bag. Jean covered me with two duvet jackets, but I could not stop shaking.
"Don't feel bad about not making it today," she said. "Almost everyone was in a state of collapse when we got here. And guess what? Tony has a blister." That was good news. Dr. Jack, who stopped in, had a "thundering" altitude headache. Joyce had fallen on a rock and bruised her hip. Dr. John had taken a spill crossing a stream and bruised his ribs. The altitude had given Muriel a nosebleed. Shipton thought he was coming down with Delhi Belly. Jean chattered on with news of our small, remote world, and I fell asleep.
Tony brought my supper to the tent and told me that because I was obviously feeling the altitude and because my progress through the hills made a turtle look like a rocket, I would not be allowed to go on to high camp at Tilicho Pass or up the unnamed peak. Rosamond Twistington-Higgins, her ailment diagnosed as a "stress fracture," would also stay behind, as would Dr. Jack and his wife Alison.
"Your Patooti is going to have to go on ahead with the other Sherpas and porters and help dig out a campsite," said Tony, "and he won't be able to look after you, which will be a blow to him, I daresay, but I'm sure he'll bring you some rocks with which to slow you down even more on the trek back."
The next morning all but three tents were packed up for the trip to high camp, and I moved in with Twistington-Higgins, who was now reduced to crawling about on her hands and knees.
Truth to tell, I was not exactly heartbroken to be left behind, except that I had brought along an American flag, hoping to plant it alongside whatever chauvinist emblem the British produced. It was not much of a flag, about an inch high, attached to a toothpick and had, as a matter of fact, come out of a Cracker Jack box. My headache was better, the sun was shining. I decided to climb a ridge behind the camp and leave my Cracker Jack pennant in some small niche. It took about an hour to get where I was going, inching my way around sun-browned shrubs and patches of scree. At the top I rested, then wedged the flag into a crack in a rock. The next monsoon will wash it away, but for a few months, somewhere in Nepal at 14,000 feet, a tiny emblem waves.
I got back in time for afternoon tea, and just after that Youngjohn came running down the slope with a scribbled note from Dr. John saying, "Red John collapsed. Send oxygen." Dr. Jack rushed off, followed by Alison, Youngjohn and a Sherpa carrying a tank. They were a long time gone, but looking through Rosamond's binoculars I finally saw them, first only a glimpse of Dr. Jack's umbrella, which, like a proper Englishman, he had taken along. Then came Red John, picking his way down the slope under his own steam.
"Just a touch of hypothermia, I believe," said Dr. Jack.
Only five of the group made it to the top of the peak, which was named—in honor of that master scribbler of bulletins from Cooks—Mt. Harry Grant. It occurred to me that I had forgotten to name my own peak, or ridge, or what McPherson would say, ach'chly, was just a rock on a hill. But what's in a name?
Two days later we started down, our caravan highlighted by the sight of Rosamond Twistington-Higgins, packed into a hamper and carried on the six-day trip all the way to Pokhara on the porters' backs, bobbing like a cork.
Whereas before we had gone down to go up, we now often went up to go down, which was all right with me. Shipton said, "I see you've found your pace," and so I had. We came much too fast to that last mountain stream. "If you can get across this without falling in." said Dr. John, "I'll know you've learned some—"
Then it was off to Pokhara, where Air India and Harry Grant, who had flown out from London, waited to welcome us back.
"Mt. Harry Grant has been conquered," we told him.
"I am never conquered." said the man from Cooks.
And finally came London, where at the airport Eric Shipton, his Whymper under one arm, his ice ax under the other, simply disappeared. No words. We were back at sea level.
"Will we see you again?" the trekkers asked me.
"Of course." said Tony. "She's going to be deputy leader next year."
I daresay, but first I'll do Sikkim, maybe, starting from Kalimpong and over the Serpo La and—forget it.