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Book of the month: My Father, Frank

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Everest candidates traversing the Lyskamm westwards from Monte Rosa. © Tony Smythe

In light of the fantastic news we received last week that The Bond by Simon McCartney and Wild Country by Mark Vallance have been shortlisted for the 2016 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, this month we thought we'd share an extract with you from My Father, Frank, by Tony Smythe, which was shortlisted for the 2014 prize. 

Frank Smythe’s mountaineering achievements in the decade before the Second World War had made him a household name. His intensive Alpine climbing, followed by two Himalayan expeditions – to Kangchenjunga in 1930 and success the following year on Kamet, the highest summit then reached – became the prelude to Everest. And in 1933 on that great mountain, climbing alone and without supplementary oxygen he got to within 820 feet of the top, a record height before efforts were resumed post-war and Everest was climbed in 1953. And as a superb Himalayan finale, in 1937 he returned to the Indian Garhwal to climb difficult peaks up to 24,000 feet in a rapid lightweight style.

In this extract, Tony reveals how his father – among a party led by Professor Gunter Dyhrenfurth – was thwarted in his attempt to climb the north-west face of Kangchenjunga by a deadly avalanche in 1930. 

On 6 May Schneider arrived, and a day later Hoerlin too. Success would normally depend on this powerful pair, on Schneider particularly. He had a record of hard climbs in the eastern Alps and he had been to the Pamir where he had polished off eight 6,000-metre peaks plus a first ascent of Pik Lenin, 7,135 metres — and he was still aged only 24. Frank and Wieland took a day’s rest, and a day after that the route had been pushed nearly to the top of the ice wall. It was expected that next day all the porters would go up with loads and establish a camp on the terrace above. It was midnight before Frank finished writing his diary and a report for The Times and blew out the candle, but sleep would not come.

The night was curiously warm, in fact, the warmest night we had had since we arrived at the Base Camp. Now and again came the long-drawn-out thunder of avalanches. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, or maybe some trick of the imagination, but the sound of the avalanches seemed dull and muffled. It was as though Kangchenjunga was choking with suppressed wrath. My body was ready for sleep, but my mind was not. It was troubled and restless, groping in a catacomb of doubt and fear. I have known fear before on a mountain, but that was fear of a different nature, sharp and sudden in the face of an immediate danger, but I have never known what it was to lie awake before a climb, tortured by the devils of misgiving.

When he slept at last he was troubled with terrible dreams in which the porters were always getting into an impossible position and appealing to him for help that he was unable to give. He put his fears down to brooding about the risks to the detriment of his nerves, which had become ‘temporarily unstrung.’ It was, he wrote, ‘a more logical explanation than the acceptance of the premonition theory, which is dependent upon a belief in psychical phenomena.’ However in letters to Slingsby, Roberts and Young some months later he appeared to know that there would be a catastrophe. To Slingsby he had a ‘foreboding on the day of the accident,’ to Roberts he was ‘certain — a premonition practically — that there was going to be a smash,’ and to Young he had ‘a conviction that there was bound to be a disaster.’ In his book The Kangchenjunga Adventure Frank puts his fears down to gut feeling, not psychic capacity, in spite of earlier incidents in the Bradford foundry and during the walk to the Falls of Glomach in Scotland. But those events and the disaster about to occur on Kangchenjunga all pre-dated an episode in 1934 during a struggle for health after a car crash which seemed to prove beyond doubt that he had ability for what can only be described as extra-sensory perception. I prefer to wait until I get to this point in his life before I tell the story of it. It’s worth mentioning now though, that apart from this one episode, which he revealed privately and only because he thought he could help another person in trouble, he never admitted outside his immediate family that he’d had any psychic experiences. Confronted with strange phenomena he would look for a scientific explanation, and if there wasn’t one he preferred to put it down to something prosaic he hadn’t thought of. He was wary of being ridiculed.

THE VALLEY OF FLOWERS: In 1937 Frank travelled to the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya to climb and botanise, initially on his own with a few experienced men from Darjeeling. Piictured: An outpost pine on the Kuari Pass en route to a base in the Bhyundar Valley, later to become known famously as the Valley of Flowers. © Tony Smythe

The morning of 9 May was warm and they sat outside for breakfast. But Frank felt tired and unfit to climb. Eventually everyone except him and the cook left, plodding up the track leading to the ice wall — Schneider and Chettan, the sirdar who was a man of great strength and experience, then Duvanel with three porters carrying cine gear, finally Hoerlin, Wieland and eight porters carrying large loads.

Frank returned to his tent to write letters but an hour later was startled by the roar of a large avalanche. With a terrible realisation he knew at once that it came, not from the usual direction of the north-west face but from much closer at hand — the cliffs where they had been working. He dashed outside and never forgot the horrifying sight:

An enormous portion of the ice wall had collapsed. Huge masses of ice as high as cathedrals, were still toppling to destruction; billowing clouds of snow spray were rushing upwards and outwards in the van of a huge avalanche. On the slope below was the party, mere black dots, strung out in a straggling line. They were not moving. For an instant, during which I suppose my brain must have been stunned, the scene was stamped on my mind like a still photograph, or perhaps a more apt comparison would be a ciné film that has jammed for a fraction of a second. Then everything jerked on again. I remember feeling no surprise, it was almost like a fantastic solution to something that had been puzzling me.

Now the dots were moving, moving to the left; they were running, but how slowly, how uselessly before the reeling clouds of death that had already far out-flanked them; they were engulfed and blotted out like insects beneath a tidal wave.

Realising that the avalanche could reach the camp Frank yelled to the cook to run for it, but they only managed 20 yards before heart and lungs gave out. The avalanche came to a halt 200 yards away. They grabbed ice axes and set off upwards, finding that the track vanished under the debris of ice blocks piled several feet high. They skirted the edge, not expecting to find anyone alive, but through the thinning veil of snow cloud to their huge relief they eventually saw figures. Nima Tendrup was among them, poking about among the ice blocks with an ice axe. When Frank asked him whether there was a man buried there, he replied, ‘Load, sahib, I look for load.’ In running to escape the avalanche he had dropped the load entrusted to him, and this mattered to him despite the horror. Soon the survivors gathered; only Schneider and Chettan were missing. Then a hand was seen protruding from the blocks and Chettan was dug out. He was dead, having been carried down several hundred feet and crushed. Artificial respiration was administered for an hour in the forlorn hope of reviving him. During this Schneider appeared, having had an incredible escape. ‘I heard a crack,’ he said, ‘then down it came, huge masses of ice from hundreds of feet above. I thought I was dead, but I ran to the left, and the avalanche missed me by five metres.’ Chettan had been too far behind Schneider to save himself.

The rest of the party had extraordinary luck. The track they were following had been entirely obliterated except at one point where it took a zigzag to the left out of the path of the avalanche, and they had happened to be at that place. Their escape had been so close that several porters had been bruised by ice blocks. Part of the route on the ice wall had disappeared, and the area of snow slopes covered by debris was estimated to have been nearly a mile square, with the avalanche weighing ‘scarcely less than a million tons.’ The ice wall now appeared more unstable than before, new cracks had appeared, an even greater avalanche could occur. They buried Chettan’s body after a short but moving ceremony, and the whole party in deep despair retreated to Camp 1. Years later Schneider wrote that during their descent from the ice wall the evening before the avalanche Chettan had stopped him, pointed to the cliff and said: ‘Sahib, no good!’ then attempted by signs to indicate how dangerous he thought it was.

Dyhrenfurth, Kurz and Richter came up the following day and a discussion was held. Frank wrote that those who had been at base camp were in favour of renewing the attempt on the ice wall, but ‘this was very properly rejected by all those who had shared in the attack.’ Eventually Dyhrenfurth decided to attempt the mountain by the north-west ridge. This was bristling with difficulty and if anything, even more ambitious than the route they had failed on. And there was almost no chance of reaching Kangchenjunga’s main summit, which was at the far end of a line of intermediate peaks. Frank told Dyhrenfurth that he believed the north-west ridge was hopeless and later overheard conversations in nearby tents, in which he was referred to as ‘the English coward.’ He was naturally disgusted, but the feelings of the others are perhaps understandable. His outspokenness about the dangers was resented. They had a job to do; they were all in the same boat. But the north-west ridge was nevertheless abandoned quickly. By way of consolation Schneider and Frank made a mainly ski ascent of the Ramthang Peak, 7,105 metres, a shapely but easy summit adjacent to the Wedge Peak.

With his team in the Valley. Left to right: Nurbu, Tewang, FS, Wangdi, Pasang. © Tony Smythe

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