Free extract - One Day as a Tiger by John Porter
- Thursday 16 April 2020
Described by Chris Bonington as ‘a vivid and perceptive biography’, John Porter’s award-winning memoir of his friend Alex McIntryre shows mountaineering at its extraordinary best and tragic worst. At just twenty years old, Alex was already of one of the leading figures of British climbing’s most successful era. But in the autumn if 1982, tragedy struck when a single stone fell from high on the south face of Annapurna and killed him instantly, robbing the climbing world of one if its greatest talents. In this extract from the book, a team of mountaineering elite including John, Alex, Voytek Kurtyka and Pete Boardman, traverse the main peaks of the Polish Tatra, a time which John describes as some of the best ‘camaraderie and climbing … any of us had experienced’.
Warsaw was grey and freezing when we landed. Soldiers with semiautomatic machine guns stood next to the aircraft as we descended to the tarmac. We had arrived in the Western clich. of the grey, crumbling communist bloc. This first impression was dispelled immediately as Suzi Quatro’s Devil’s Gate Drive blared out from the terminal’s speakers.
‘Hey, they’ve got taste in music here. That’s a good start.’ Alan had a way of snarling and laughing at the same time. When asked how you could tell the twins apart, the answer was simple: Alan leered and Adrian blinked when they were weighing up a situation. At that moment, the Burgesses were eyeing up the women among the small delegation there to meet us which included Wanda Rutkiewicz. The final member of our party was the wiry Mick Geddes, a highly talented Scottish friend who had completed all the Munros by the time he was sixteen. Mick almost always had a fag in his mouth and we were all a bit wary of his penchant for midnight winter epics on the Ben.
It was early March 1976 and for four days we stayed at the homes of Warsaw-based climbers. Meals were offered at every house we visited and at first we assumed there was plenty of food. Slowly it dawned on us we were eating a week’s ration of eggs and meat at every sitting. We walked for miles through Warsaw and its parks, visiting the amazing palaces and museums. Best of all, we were entertained by lively discussions about the nature of freedom and comparisons between life in the East and West. These took place away from public places, when we went bouldering on wartime fortifications in the woods around the city and had lunch in small dachas hidden among the trees.
Warsaw fascinated us. I noted in my diary the resilience of the Polish spirit captured temporarily in a vacuum of booming socialism. Andrez Zawada was with us at some point every day, taking us with self-evident pride to the old city that had been completely rebuilt after it was flattened during the extended Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in the summer of 1944.
Young architectural students had sketched the buildings and captured the style of the medieval centre before it was reduced to a pile of rubble; it was from these drawings that the old city emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.
We were itching to get to the Tatra and go climbing but at the same time we realised we were being educated in the ways of a nation that had faith in itself and the future. There may not have been many luxuries in Poland, but the greatest was the daily diet of friendship and intelligent conversation that contrasted sharply with our own easy lifestyles in the West.
Before we could go to the Tatra, we had one big state occasion to attend. It was planned for the evening that Peter Boardman arrived. The BMC’s new national officer, Pete was a formidable climber, with some excellent alpine-style ascents in the Hindu Kush. The year before he had reached the summit of Everest with Pertemba on Bonington’s Everest expedition. Yet it was his official status as national officer that seemed to catch the attention of the authorities and media. While we were fortunate to be staying in the flats of climbers, Pete was immediately put up in the best hotel. It struck me that Pete’s position was something the officials could understand. The rest of us were long-haired climbers with rather dodgy records of employment. While Pete was seen in Britain as one of a new breed of professional climbers, in Poland he was immediately recognised as someone with official status. That is what mattered most to the authorities, but the climbers treated us all as equals. Although Peter Boardman and Alex MacIntyre were very much in separate camps at the time, Pete would become something of an exemplar for Alex in the years that followed.
That evening, the ambassador at the British Embassy hosted a grand reception attended by a number of high-ranking Polish government officials. There were speeches about the world coming together through sporting endeavour. We toasted the Queen, the president of Poland and international co-operation – as illustrated by our motley crew. Next morning with sore heads we set off by train to Krakow on the way to the Tatra mountains.
Voytek Kurtyka had been assigned to show us around Krakow and it was then that I met him for the first time. Voytek has classic Slavic good looks, as though his face had been sculpted. Asked how he had created his marble statue of David, Michelangelo replied that he had simply chipped away everything that was not David. Voytek was a Slavic equivalent to this story. He seemed to have recreated his own character, shaking off all the detritus of the repressed Polish nation under communism to leave an intelligent, spiritual and powerful individual who would become one of the climbing superstars of his era. He had a hyperactive nature that remained hidden most of the time, but could suddenly flare up with intense questioning of a decision or an idea. Voytek sought new experiences and ideas wherever he went. He tried hard to learn new languages and usually picked up enough to be an effective haggler. But he never really understood British sarcasm, taking many of our jokes and comments literally.
Despite the freezing conditions, Voytek took us to climb at the local limestone crags. His strength of character and ability as a climber were immediately obvious. We threw ourselves into discussions about climbing and politics as we followed him up polished faces and cracks in the subzero temperatures. He was one of the few Polish climbers with an extensive record of hard new routes both in the Tatra and beyond. He was the first to establish grade VII rock routes in Poland, and had some formidable winter firsts. In 1972 he climbed two new routes on 7,000-metre peaks in the Hindu Kush, including Akher Chogh’s north-west face with Jacek Rusiecki, Marek Kowalczyk and Piotr Jasinski. Marek and Piotr had taken part in the Polish trip to Wales the summer before. Jacek Rusiecki and I would soon get to know each other in the weeks that followed.
Perhaps the most revealing conversation with Voytek was about the winter expedition that Zawada led to Lhotse in late 1974. He stated frankly that he did not very much enjoy large autocratic expeditions. His last would take place that same year on an unsuccessful attempt on the east ridge of K2 that failed just two-hundred metres below the summit.
Voytek could not spare any time from work so I did a few routes with the Burgesses while Pete climbed with Mick. Then the five of us decided to attempt a winter traverse of the main peaks of the Polish Tatra. Conditions on the faces were unstable. It snowed continuously for a week after we arrived in Morskie Oko. Six young Poles were killed in avalanches while we were there, but the ridge itself was relatively safe, if very exposed. Once the snow stopped, we waited two days. It seemed to me much like a hard winter in New England with lots of deep unconsolidated snow and very different from Scotland where regular thaws leads to better ice conditions.
The five of us set out at two in the morning and had reached the main ridge by dawn up steep and unstable snow. For the first hour or two, we all climbed unroped with Pete leading much of the way. As we entered more complex and technical ground, the Burgesses roped up. I set off after Pete, half thinking I would soon catch him and get a rope on as well. Mick carried on soloing after me.
After another hour, I stopped at the bottom of a tower with a big drop down both sides. There was no sign of Pete, but small hand and footholds had been cleared of snow on a wall that led across the right side of the tower. Peter clearly had continued on alone. I attempted to follow but gravity immediately tried to suck me off the tiny edges where my twelvepoint crampons barely found any purchase. A thousand-foot fall seemed a likely outcome if I continued so I heaved myself back up, removed my sack, got out a rope and waited for Mick. He arrived a couple of minutes later, long hair matted with Rastafarian-like beads of snow, a woeful expression on his pale, thoughtful face.
‘Somewhere ahead. He was out of sight well before I got here. He’s really travelling.’
We looked down into the beckoning void and then along the white towers shining ahead of us in the morning sunlight. With no sign of Pete, Mick took off his sack and lit a fag.
‘What’s got into him?’
This came from one of the leading mixed climbers on the Scottish scene. If Mick wasn’t happy soloing ground like this then no one should be. His question required a careful and diplomatic response. Adrian appeared behind and climbed over to join us.
‘I’ve been wondering that myself Mick. You know, I think maybe he’s still coming down from the summit of Everest.’
I was referring to Pete and Pertemba’s near miss descending to the top of the fixed ropes on the south-west face in the previous post-monsoon season. Having reached the summit late in deteriorating weather, they just managed to find their way back to the top of the ropes in a blizzard at dusk. It had been a seminal experience for Pete, something all high-altitude climbers dread but inevitably almost all experience, the feeling of being a zombie, the walking dead, caught in an inescapable situation. Even when you think all is lost, you draw on an inner strength, a life force that wakens strength and skill that lie so deep they only emerge in the most desperate circumstances. Afterwards, the experience can create a false sense of immortality and invincibility. Pete had survived that descent from Everest and it seemed to me he was still motoring on that experience. He was, after all, the foremost young star in Britain, national officer of the British Mountaineering Council and a member of the professional climbers’ front rank.
Mick finished his fag and tied on to a proffered end of rope I had dug from my rucksack.
‘That’s it, you’re right. He’s still a mad bastard in his head. He’s climbing like a demon.’ With that, I set off on the traverse. We remained roped for the next two hours and finally caught Pete at the base of another vertical tower, stopped at last and looking a bit cold after his long wait.
‘You mad bastard,’ Mick grinned at him. The three of us continued roped together, enjoying the exhilarating mixed climbing on snow-plastered gendarmes and knife-edged crests. The camaraderie and climbing were some of the best any of us had experienced, sharing leads and stories. Al and Ade caught us as dusk dimmed the sky and ominous snow clouds gathered on the highest summits. Neither Al nor Mick fancied a bivouac in a storm and scurried off down toward Morskie Oko from the highest peak, Rysy, via the easy summer route. Ade, Pete and I decided to take our chances with the weather, two privateers and one professional working together.
The storm blew past and next day was another fine day of climbing in a mixture of sunshine and cloud. We stopped for a comfortable bivouac just on the Czech side of the ridge looking down less steep ground toward the ski areas near Poprad. Ade and I cleared snow and made a luxurious flat surface while Pete got the stove on and cooked. I walked a few paces from the bivvy to relieve myself over the other side. The lake of Morskie Oko was a black eye in the rapidly darkening valley beneath. The bite of winter night was wrapping itself around the spires of the ridge. I involuntarily shuddered before slipping back into the comfort of my sleeping bag. Rocks plastered with snow probed my right side while the reassuring hulk of Adrian Burgess brought some warmth to my left. His deep steady breathing spoke of a man of the mountains at home and nearly asleep.
A full moon shouldered its way above the mountains of the Czechoslovakian Tatra. On the other side of Ade, Peter Boardman’s voice greeted it with the poetry of T. S. Eliot:
‘Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table.’
I carried on: ‘Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,/ The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.’
‘And sawdust restaurants filled with oyster shells … ’
‘Can’t get any hotels cheaper than this, aye Pete? Wouldn’t mind a sawdust restaurant though.’
We lay silent for a moment looking up, wrapped in darkness but floating among stars. A near absolute silence was broken only by the tinkle of cascading ice as it snapped from rock spires in the plummeting temperature. The marrow of our bones sensed the absolute zero of space. A sudden breeze whipped ice particles around our bivouac. I switched to A. A. Milne:
‘And nobody knows, (Tiddely-pom)/how cold my toes (Tiddely-pom)/how cold my toes (Tiddely-pom)/are growing.’
Pete responded with Robert Frost: ‘Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village though;/He will not see me stopping here/To watch his woods fill up with snow … The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep /And miles to go before I sleep, /And miles to go before I sleep.’
That was enough for Ade. The rugged blond kraken that lay between us suddenly sat bolt upright, his arms emerged from the cocoon of his sleeping bag and flayed about threateningly in the moonlight.
‘And if you two bastards don’t shut up and go to sleep, I’ll bloody thump you until you’re bloody dark and deep. I mean it. I’ve never heard so much crap. Let’s get some sleep so we can get off this bloody ridge tomorrow!’
Peter and I lay in our sleeping bags stifling laughter. I shut my eyes and let the words scroll through my mind: ‘Because I do not hope to turn again/Because I do not hope/Because I do not hope to turn/Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things.’ Then sleep came, and with it overnight snow.
At dawn, we were woken by a patrol of armed Czech mountain troops who had been sent up in the night to investigate lights on the ridge. They spoke no English. We smiled and offered them tea, explaining as best we could that we were the guests of the Polish government and were heading back down to Poland. We packed up and scurried off along the ridge before the sergeant had made up his mind whether these dangerous foreigners who had camped illegally in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic should be escorted down to the police station on the Czech side of the mountains. A long and dangerous day eventually saw us safely off the ridge and back to warm bunks in Morskie Oko. The Poles said we could have been in trouble if the Czechs had followed their laws and regaled us with stories of Polish climbers’ encounters with authorities. Solidarity and Lech Walesa were still four years in the future.