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First in the Himalaya

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Doug Scott, broken-legged, crawls a half-rope length in front of his climbing team, leading the way across heavily glaciated terrain during the retreat from the summit of the Ogre. In his current condition, he is the most dispensable and so, quite logically, he is the one out in front, finding a safe route across the glacier – or not, if the current run of bad luck continues!

So began the introductory lecture at the First in The Himalaya event at the Royal Geographical Society.

The event was a unique international gathering of elite climbers who have starred in landmark ascents and exploration in the Himalaya over the last 60 years. The array of speakers held the audience enthralled as we were transported from first ascents of the 8000-metres-plus Broad Peak and Dhaulagiri in the 1950s and 1960s, to the recent first traverse of the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat in 2012.

John Porter, himself no stranger to hard mountaineering in the greater ranges, introduced each speaker, and one spellbinding talk followed another. Mick Fowler was brilliantly entertaining, respectable and dependable. His organised and efficient summer trips to make Himalayan first ascents, he revealed, are quite the opposite of where it all started. He talked about early expeditions, failures, ineptitude, brushes with the law, rescues from the coast guard and some quite unnecessary photos of him diving into the north Atlantic naked.

There were further hard climbing antics from Robert Schauer, the Austrian climber who has summited five 8000-metre peaks and made the ground breaking first ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV in 1985. Next up, Sandy Allan who, with Rick Allen, made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat via the unclimbed 13-kilometre Mazeno Ridge. A marathon climb which took 18 days was summarised in a few minutes, but left no one in any doubt of its difficulty or significance.

Amongst all the tales of frostbite, tragedy, thin ice and high altitude from the succession of famous names the mood was lightened and the audience relaxed. First by Hildegard Diemberger and her thesis on the cultural and spiritual importance of the Himalaya and then by the tale of Gerda Maria Pauler – the German travel writer who made one of the early traverses of the 1,700-kilometre Great Himalaya Trail. Hildegard had a subtle and lasting effect on not only the audience but her fellow speakers. She had a lovely way of pronouncing Himalaya, ‘highmila’, which was then copied by all, even by the soft Scottish-accented Sandy Allan. Gerda, meanwhile, talked of her trek along the length of the Great Himalaya Trail, from east to west. She revealed more about the people, wildlife, culture and landscape than I felt possible and so inspiring was her talk that most of the audience were clutching a copy of her new book by the close.

It was, however, undoubtedly the colossal Kurt Diemberger that stole the show, entirely mesmerising the audience with his brief ‘life and times’ talk that concluded the afternoon session. Austrian Kurt Diemberger is the only living person to have made two first ascents of 8000-metre peaks, Broad Peak with Herman Buhl in 1957 and Dhaulagiri in 1960. His brief afternoon presentation was beautifully composed. He talked about his childhood and his first fascinations with the mountains; anecdotes illustrated at one moment with a doodle from his school scrapbook, and the next with a photo of a virgin Himalayan summit. He described how his desire to climb everything developed and then, in a well-timed contradiction (or reflection), he showed us mountain faces too beautiful to climb. He paused, caught the audience’s full attention, and introduced us to the great Herman Buhl. Finally the seated Kurt stood up, and with his confident whisper closed the afternoon show where he had begun, with an image of K2. The audience were going nowhere, the evening show would be all about Broad Peak with Buhl and his ascent in 1986 of K2.

Walking back up Exhibition Road into the Kensington night, a packed tube back to St Pancreas station was some anti-climax from the summits of the great Himalaya. The event was brilliantly conceived, and while each individual’s story was engaging, it was Kurt Diemberger’s The Endless Knot that I began reading as the train pulled out of the station and took me back home to Sheffield.


The event was held to raise money for the work of Community Action Nepal. Doug Scott spoke about the health posts, schools, hostels and porter lodges so ably built by the charity. You can find out more about them here.

Gerda Maria Pauler’s excellent, The Great Himalaya Trail is available in paperback or as an ebook. You can buy a Kindle version here.

Mick Fowler has two books out: Vertical Pleasure on ebook (Kindle version) and On Thin Ice, available in hardback or ebook.

Kurt Diemberger’s The Endless Knot, a first hand on-the-mountain-account of the 1986 K2 disaster is one of three books in the Kurt Diemberger Omnibus.




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