One of the great things about being back in London again is that I get to attend some of the many mountaineering lectures at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). This commendable social mobility scheme enables ordinary folk like me, who are neither wealthy, aristocratic nor very good climbers to spend an evening among the world’s climbing elite in an atmosphere that resembles an Eton Old Boys reunion.
Few lectures have exemplified this better than one a couple of weeks ago by Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders. These two legends of the Himalayan mountaineering scene climbed a lot together in the 80s, completing several first ascents, before going their separate ways for 29 years. They reunited in 2016 to climb Sersank in India. This was their very first lecture together.
The lecture was sponsored by the Mount Everest Foundation (MEF), a body who support first ascents in the Himalayas by awarding grants for expeditions. A distinguished gentleman came on stage to introduce the lecture with some delightful anecdotes. One of these concerned a similar lecture a few years ago.
‘All the boys were there,’ he said. ‘Ed Hillary, Johnny Hunt, Georgie Band. These chaps had all spent umpteen nights under canvas or bivouacs on the side of a mountain. At the end of the lecture, as we were moving on to the club, a tramp approached Johnny to ask for some money. “‘Ere guv’nor, you don’t know what it’s like to spend a night wivout a roof over yer’ ead.” Johnny looked around him at all those chaps from the 1953 Everest expedition. “My dear boy,” he said to the tramp, “it’s really not your night, is it!”‘
There were hoots of laughter. The distinguished gentleman went on to say that events such as this lecture were an opportunity to promote the Mount Everest Foundation and its grants to a younger generation of climbers. There didn’t appear to be many of them in the audience that night, so he encouraged those of us who were to ‘get the word out among the university climbing clubs’ (by which I think he meant Oxford and Cambridge) that these grants are available.
If you’re thinking of applying, it wasn’t clear whether you need to roll up your trouser leg or shake hands in a certain way when you meet the Foundation to discuss your grant. In any case, I expect it wouldn’t do any harm if you can persuade one of the old boys to endorse your application with a letter of recommendation. In a spirit of inclusion, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is usually willing to do this for pretty much anybody, so you might care to write to him first.
It was time for Mick and Vic to take over. Of the two, Vic seemed to fit in better with the chaps in the audience, but Mick was the more confident speaker. As a former tax inspector who rose to become President of the Alpine Club, he is living proof that it’s possible for those of exceptional climbing ability and the right stuff to penetrate the intimate circle of such an eminent group of fellows (so to speak).
By coincidence, I read one of Mick’s books, Vertical Pleasure, a couple of months ago. I know what you’re thinking; it’s not an adult title. Then it would be called Horizontal Pleasure. Because I’d read it recently, some of the incidents he described in the first part of the lecture were familiar to me.
Mick and Vic took it in turns. Each spoke for 5 or 10 minutes about a climb, then the other took over and described the same climb from their own perspective. These perspectives were often contrasting. In the tradition of great comedy double acts, each played a particular role. Mick was the crazy one, selecting ridiculous objectives for them to tackle, and Vic was the more conservative, sensible one, getting drawn in to doing stupid things against his will and at Mick’s instigation.
These ridiculous things were not what you might expect. They included climbing the crumbly chalk of the White Cliffs of Dover using ice axes and crampons, like it was an ice climb. Another was a sea stack off the coast of Hoy. This wasn’t the Old Man of Hoy, which Sir Chris Bonington famously climbed for a live BBC broadcast. That was an easy one, said Mick, because it was attached to the coast and you didn’t have to swim across to it. Of course, Sir Chris happened to be sitting in the audience.
Then there was a drainpipe on the side of St Pancras station, which had become encrusted with ice one winter after a pipe burst. Mick climbed that one evening after work, and attracted the media with cameras. The following day the police chopped away the ice “in the interests of safety”. Vic, who was intending to climb it after work the following day, missed out.
Vic took over and described some more of the unusual things in the UK that Mick had encouraged him to climb. These included a sea cliff in north Cornwall, where he had to secure his pitch using the leg of a park bench, while hikers on the South-West Coast Path wandered by.
They skipped over some of their climbs in the Alps (including the North Face of the Eiger) and moved onto the Pakistan Karakoram. Here the tables were turned, and Vic encouraged Mick to do something that he didn’t enjoy. This is because the peak they selected, Bojahagur in Hunza, was a typical Himalayan snow plod that some of us prefer, rather than the hard technical climb that is Mick’s preference. They were shamed by what Mick called the ‘Seoul Walking Club’ who completed an ascent siege-style at the same time, by establishing a network of camps and laying fixed ropes to the summit. Meanwhile Mick and Vic’s team of expert climbers, tried to do it in a lightweight alpine style and struggled with the snow conditions.
Despite Mick’s contempt for that particular expedition, Vic encouraged him to return to Pakistan and climb the Golden Pillar of Spantik. This was a ludicrous 2,200m wall of rock and ice. Obviously Mick found this type of objective a piece of cake, and they completed an impressive first ascent.
After these two climbs in Pakistan, they went their separate ways. Vic gave up his job as an architect and became a guide on 8000m peaks. He described a couple of particularly harrowing expeditions. One of these was an expedition to Everest, when a client was suffering from cerebral edema and lost her sight while they were standing on the summit. He managed to get her safely down to the South Col, but the following morning she complained that her vision was yellow. Vic was worried that she had damaged her eyesight, but luckily she stuck her head outside and realised it was only yellow because the tent was yellow.
Vic took a step back, and the next slide was of Mick sitting at a desk behind a stack of files. While Vic was busy guiding 8000m peaks, Mick kept working at his job as a tax inspector at the Inland Revenue. Obviously these were the days before you could do it online.
Mick used his annual holiday entitlement to climb in the Himalayas. He outlined his strict criteria for choosing a peak. These included:
- It was an unclimbed peak
- It was in a remote area
- It was an interesting ascent route
- You could go down by a different route than the one you went up
- It could be climbed during a 3 to 4 week holiday from work
In addition to taking many photographs of his climbs, Mick now takes a lot more video footage, but he expressed dismay that his most popular video on YouTube isn’t one that features an amazing bit of climbing, but this one of a bus driving along a dodgy road in India, which we watched in its entirety.
I’m sure Mick wouldn’t want me to say this, but it was actually my favourite part of the whole lecture, not because there was anything wrong with the lecture, but because the video is hilarious.
After 29 years of going their separate ways, Mick and Vic were reunited when a climbing editor in France asked them for permission to produce a French translation of their writing. Mick thought it was a stupid idea, but agreed to go ahead with it. He was pleasantly surprised when the book won a literary award. This was considered a success (though he didn’t say whether it shifted many copies).
More importantly, the publication of the book encouraged Mick and Vic to reunite for another climb. In 2016 they made the first ascent of the North Face of Sersank in India. The final part of the lecture covered this ascent. Mick was on his best comedic form for this section, and it seemed that Vic provided him with plenty of material.
Vic was suffering from a bad case of diarrhoea, lost control of his bowels high on the face, and had to cut off his underpants with a Swiss Army Knife. I probably wasn’t the only member of the audience confused by this one, but I’m guessing the cold conditions caused something to be frozen.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Vic peed in the Nalgene bottle that was their designated drinking bottle, and Mick ended up taking a swig from it. Then Vic cut his finger with a knife and left a trail of blood on the rope. Vic was having a tough time, but despite these setbacks he never considered giving up. Mick paid tribute to his perseverance. There was a heartwarming video of Vic arriving on the summit. He was clearly exhausted, but he had a huge smile on his face and he enthused into camera that these had been six of the best days he’d had in a long time.
And that, I believe, is one of the things that sets the great mountaineers apart from ordinary folk like us. It’s not just that they are very talented climbers. That’s a minor part. It’s their great mental strength and ability to cope with suffering. There can’t be many people who can chop off their undies after shitting themselves and still regard it as one of the best days they’ve had.
The lecture was at an end, but there was still one interesting moment to come in the question and answer session that followed it. These Q&As are usually pretty bland. Members of the audience tend to ask the same old polite questions such as what are you doing next (yes, somebody asked that one this time too).
This Q&A was made more memorable, however, by a South African lady who asked a difficult question, and then wouldn’t let it go when Mick provided an unsatisfying answer.
Her question was about the Piolets d’Or, mountaineering’s equivalent of the Oscars, which are awarded to climbers for the best bold new routes on remote and difficult peaks. Despite only happening once a year, Mick has won this particular award three times.
‘Why do you keep winning it?’ she asked. ‘Aren’t there any young climbers doing new climbs any more?’
‘Yes, those climbers are out there,’ Mick said, ‘and they’re making those climbs. We’re just not hearing about them.’
‘So why aren’t they winning the awards?’ the lady replied. ‘Why do you keep winning them?‘
I have to take my hat off to this lady. It was a ballsy question to ask in the first place. It took some guts to keep pushing for a decent answer in a room full of climbing grandees. Paxman would have been proud of her.
‘They will come through and win,’ Mick said. ‘But as with any award of this nature, it’s a question of judgement. There must have been something about our climbs that the judges liked.’
I don’t know whether Mick was acknowledging that he keeps winning the awards partly because of who he is, as much as the climbs themselves. Most awards that rely on someone’s opinion, whether climbing, literary or anything else, tend to become dominated by cliques and elites. This tendency is arguably even more true of the most prestigious awards.
We were definitely among a clique tonight. The lecture was poorly attended, given that these were two of Britain’s more celebrated climbing legends. In the audience were two more of them: Doug Scott and Chris Bonington. On this evidence it would be fair to say that the Mount Everest Committee, an organisation which emerged from a privileged elite (the 1953 British Everest expedition), is failing to reach out to a younger audience.
Sadly this has often been the case with mountaineering lectures I’ve attended at the RGS. Highly respected mountaineers have attracted disappointing audiences. The only person I’ve seen fill the place was Ueli Steck, who did so not once but twice, though a different generation of climbers such as Kenton Cool and Leo Houlding have attracted larger audiences than tonight.
There’s a long way to go here, though. To give you an idea what we’re up against on the issue of attracting a broader audience, I’m yet to attend a lecture at the RGS by a woman mountaineer, and I don’t think I’ve even seen one advertised.
Anyway, that’s just an observation, and I wouldn’t want you to think that I didn’t enjoy the lecture. Vic and Bob isn’t the best comparison for these two (except that one of them is Vic). Fry and Laurie might be a better one. They were nearly as funny as the two old Cambridge University Footlights, if not quite as popular. If you get a chance to see their double act again, then I recommend you seize it. Just don’t ask about the Piolets d’Or.