Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ghosts

We are in a landscape of ghosts in the Khumbu Valley and some of these are ghosts of my own making.

As a boy I read and dreamed of the great heroics of men who conquered all the extremes that nature could throw at them. The Edwardian gentlemen who set out to be the first men at the South Pole, failed but remained stoical to the last. The idea that you could ‘conquer’ the highest mountain in the world wearing the sort of clothes that the Duke of Argyle ceremonially dons when bagging the first pheasant of the season on a windblown Scottish estate is somehow irrepressible heroic; daft but heroic.
Towards Thokla Pass. Not exactly good pheasant country.

My latter day heroes were (and indeed remain) Bonnington, Brown, Haston, Tasker, Whilans; all of whom were forging new routes and undertaking grand Alpine and Himalayan endeavours as I was tentatively rock climbing in England and Wales on the Roaches, Ilkley Moor and Llanberis Pass and dreaming of far greater technical alpine adventures. Those ghosts are here now with me – in the Himalayas; and among them are the spirits of Mallory and Irving. Great inter-war adventurers who may – or may not have summited Everest in 1924. The great Everest mystery; the stuff of true heroism.

But here there are also modern ghosts. At Thokla Pass (4,830masl) at the end of a long climb from the toe of the Khumbu Glacier there is a collection of memorials. Rock pillars, shrines, and Chorpa.  This must be the highest memorial park in the world – and because it does seem to be unplanned it has a particular poignancy. There are memorials here to many dead. I hesitate to say victims because there is no one whose life and death is thus commemorated who has not chosen to be here.


"Rock pillars, shrines and Chorpa." This one is for Scott
Fischer who died during the May 1996 Everest disaster.

They are all sad, but one stands out –

Babu Chiri Sherpa had by the age of 35 summited Everest 10 times. Two of those summits had been achieved in the space of a fortnight. In 1999 this extraordinary man spent 21 hours on the summit without oxygen. As if this were not enough he achieved the fastest ever climb of Everest by summiting in 16 hours and 56 minutes. Clearly in order to achieve such heights Babu Chiri must have exhibited particular care and attention to his own survival, yet, on his 11th ascent, he succumbed to a fall of 200m into a crevasse while taking photographs. This accident occurred at camp II, a mere 6,500 masl.
.
"Are you all right?" "Yes, I'm just trying to take it all in." A
moment of contemplation at the highest memorial park in the
world.
I sit on a rock high above a flat floored valley. The valley floor is brown with isolated patches of green. Waist high walls of loose rock form a tracery of fields protected from grazing Yaks. Towards the head of the valley the sandy grey of a terminal moraine at the toe of a glacier is piled up, softer and rounded in contrast with the rest of the landscape. The far wall of the valley is steep and hung with frozen waterfalls of impossible colours which squeeze between bleak, black rock. The ice is an impossible translucent blue-green with the freshness of pure peppermint. 


Frozen waterfall of pure peppermint
As the wall of the valley rises the snow becomes more visible covering all but the steepest rock surfaces and because the mountains are so steep there is more rock than snow. The mountains are gigantic broken teeth, cracked and chiselled and magnificent in their height and distance. Here, in this valley, and beyond, and in the sentinel mountains there are ghosts and spirits that tell stories of beings and ideas that have only been partially written. The enormity makes me shiver.

" . . . . gigantic broken teeth, cracked and chiselled . . . . ." 
Then there is an entirely unexpected vision from a past time.

The elevation is high and the road steep, toiling up to Thokla Pass where, although we do not yet know it, we will see the sad memorials to past ghosts. It is cold and we can feel the wind chill factor in the air. We are spread out and mixed up with porters, Yak trains and the one other trekking party on the path.

I look up and see an imposing Gentleman descending towards us. He is a large figure, even in this landscape. I realise with an exquisite shudder that this presence is so striking because he is so incongruous. Amongst trekkers and porters who are colourfully clad in the finest reds, yellows and blues that mountain equipment shops can sell, and alternative Chinese manufacturers can provide, this fellow is dressed in worsted cloth of what I must assume is the finest that can be had, is the colour of burnt umber and suggests ‘Burberry’ rather than ‘First Ascent’ ‘North face’ or ‘Hi Tec’. His boots are battered brown leather that have beaten many pathways. In contrast to a light aluminium retractable trekking pole he wields a wooden walking stick that must be of cherry, or hickory, or beech, or some other romantic European Edwardian hardwood. I wish that I could remember what his headgear was – I know it was not a deerstalker – although it should have been. Perhaps he was bareheaded.

This vision offers in a dark brown resonant voice entirely in keeping with his stature the friendly information that it is a lot colder “up there” gesturing from whence he has descended. I so much want to ask him his name, but my throat has suddenly dried. I want to say to him – “Sir, are you by any chance named Irving or perhaps even Mallory? And if by any chance you are either of these two gentlemen I wonder could we have a little chat because there are a couple of questions I would love to ask you.” I don’t, I can’t, but nod breathlessly to him as he stands to one side to let us pass. “Namaste” and “Dhanebhat” is all I can manage.

"It's a lot colder up there"

A few metres further on I turn to look down on this large shambling tweeded figure descending the steep broken path. I can’t help thinking that perhaps there really does go the temporal spirit of Irving – or Mallory; released by Sagarmatha after ninety years of incarceration. Whichever one it is has finally scraped together all the necessary molecules and scraps of DNA to re-construct himself and return from the ultimate mountain. And if it is Irving, is Mallory just behind? Or did Mallory make it out a couple of days, months, years or decades earlier?

I truly hope that it was one or the other, and I am happy that I will never meet the kindly avuncular man again because I would be duty bound to ask the question I did not have the courage to ask this time and do not want to be disabused about him. And as a matter of interest, much later, when questioned about this fleeting incident Lavern remembered thinking that the man had a familiar face but could not place this feeling of familiarity, or for that matter whether he was wearing a hat . . .

Just another ghost.

"Just another ghost". Although this is a real very high flying
White Necked Raven flying like Iccarus into the sun above
Lhotse





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