The twenty-eighth of March, 2011: this climb is totally impossible

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This page has been flooded with visitors today (October 3). Hello, all of you. Who or what sent you here? Please leave a comment at the bottom…

My favourite mountaineering anecdote (everyone has a favourite mountaineering anecdote, don’t they?):

My friend George Mallory,… who later disappeared close to the summit of Mount Everest, once did an inexplicable climb on Snowdon. He had left his pipe on a ledge, half-way down one of the Lliwedd precipices, and scrambled back by a short-cut to retrieve it, then up again by the same route. No-one saw what route he took, but when they came to examine it the next day for the official record, they found an overhang nearly all the way.

By a rule of the Climbers’ Club climbs are never named in honour of their inventors, but only describe natural features. An exception was made here. The climb was recorded as follows: ‘Mallory’s Pipe: a variation on Route 2… This climb is totally impossible. It has been performed once, in failing light, by Mr GHL Mallory.’

That’s from Robert Graves’s unforgettable memoir Goodbye To All That (Penguin, 1965). I was put in mind of it when I touched on Mallory’s demise in a new thing I’m working on (it might end up being a novel, but it isn’t one yet). Here’s an excerpt:

Our father wore a black armband over the sleeve of his tweed coat on the day we read that Mallory and Irvine had been lost on Everest. Win and I were still seated at the breakfast table; Father was leaving for the library, and paused selfconsciously at the dining-room door to straighten a crease in the black crêpe. As he took up his briefcase he looked first at Win and then at me, nodded, and said: ‘Brave men. England’s lost two of its best.’

We watched him go. The front door banged and we saw him pass the window. Win, chewing on a mouthful of toast, looked at me sardonically.

‘Balls,’ he said, on swallowing. ‘Mallory was a bloody good climber I suppose but it doesn’t take a bloody hero to die on Everest. A bloody idiot can die on Everest.’

He took another bite out of his slice of toast. I sipped at my copper-coloured tea. I wanted to follow Win’s lead (I always did); but the thing was that I was sad about Mallory. Irvine, too, though less so. Of course neither of us had ever met either of them but we knew them through the newspapers. I say that you can know a person through the newspapers and know them well enough to grieve for them.

‘Hard on their people, though,’ I suggested diffidently.

‘Life is hard,’ Win said. He was finished with his breakfast, now. He had pushed back his chair and was standing up, pulling on his blazer. I didn’t say anything – I just watched him gather up his watch, notebook, the keys to the groundsman’s hut. His cricket bag was packed and ready by the door.

He paused before he headed out. He looked annoyed. He put one hand on the back of a chair and the other on his hip.

‘I know I must sound like I don’t give a damn,’ he said, rather fiercely. ‘I see that. It isn’t true, of course – it is hard for their people, isn’t it?’

I nodded mutely, and Win, encouraged, nodded back.

‘Of course it is. But all the same life is hard, and terrible things will happen – and to put it quite simply we haven’t got time to cry and wear black armbands, Ben, because we’ve got things to do ourselves.’ He seized the straps of his bag and straightened up. ‘Back by six – tell Mother.’

And, to finish, here’s my second-favourite mountaineering anecdote (everyone has a second-favourite mountaineering anecdote, don’t they?). It’s somewhat grim. The background is the deaths of a team of Indian climbers on Everest, and the successful climb to the summit of a Japanese team, who passed the dying Indians on their ascent.

[The actor] Brian Blessed… was making his third unsuccessful attempt to climb the mountain… He claimed that when the Japanese team held a victory party, he went into their tent, ripped down their national flag, threw it to the ground, and pissed on it. If this is true, then good for him.

From Joe Simpson’s Dark Shadows Falling (Vintage, 1998).

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