We try to steer away from controversy here on the Footsteps on the Mountain blog, but sometimes difficult subjects have to be tackled.
It’s been a while since we did our last interview. You may remember that some time ago we interviewed champion rock climber Bill Scheidt on the use of sun cream in mountaineering. That interview proved so explosive that we had to close the comments for fear it might provoke all-out war within the climbing community.
It’s partly for this reason we have avoided interviews, but we promise you this one has been worth waiting for. Earlier this week the Footsteps on the Mountain team caught up with Frank N. Furter, a striking new face in the 8,000m peak guiding scene. Frank raised a few eyebrows recently when he announced a new one-week guided expedition to 8,888m Tum Teedle (*) in the Draconian Himalayas, cutting down dramatically on the standard expedition length of three months. Furthermore, at $250,000 his Tum Teedle Zip Expedition is four times more expensive than most others.
It was previously assumed that anyone attempting Tum Teedle would need to spend at least two months on the mountain acclimatising and a further month waiting for a weather window. But Frank believes almost all this time can be removed with appropriate training before even setting off for the climb.
So how does he do it?
FM: Frank, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed? Tell us about the Zip Expedition. First of all, why on earth is it called the Zip Expedition? That reminds me of doing up my trousers.
FNF: That’s absolutely right. You will remember the old days, when pants used to come with button flies. The whole process took an age. Nobody wants to spend that long going to the bathroom. They want to get it over with as quickly as possible and move on with their lives. So what happened? Somebody invented the zipper, zzzzzz. Suddenly instead of taking ten minutes, it only took a few seconds. Nobody could believe it, but it really happened. It was innovative, and it marked a revolution in urination. I’d like to think our expeditions are like that.
FM: What, like going to the bathroom?
FNF: Like the transition from buttons to zippers. They are innovative, revolutionary in fact. People have been climbing Tum Teedle the same way for generations, and they assume it’s the only way Tum Teedle can be climbed. But that’s not true, and we’re out to prove them wrong.
FM: So how will you do it?
FNF: Well, first of all, we have a sophisticated training programme that we expect our clients to complete before they even leave home. I don’t want to give you all the details, or people will try to copy us, but some of these techniques are widely known and we’re just taking them a stage further. For example, a few operators have been providing their clients with altitude tents to sleep in during the night. We’re issuing them with altitude bags to put over their heads. They can wear these anywhere: when they drive to work, sit on the train, or sit at their desks when they’re at work. They can even attend meetings.
FM: Attend meetings – with a bag over their heads?
FNF: This means they’re acclimating 24-seven, every day of the week, every week of the year. They arrive at TTBC [Tum Teedle Base Camp] super-acclimated. They can launch straight away into their summit dash. Here’s another example. In the 1970s many of the world’s top climbers were chain smokers. They would sit in their tents at high altitude in a fug of cigarette smoke. The theory was that their lungs had become so used to poor quality air that oxygen deprivation at high altitude was no problem for them. So we’ll be asking our clients to train for their climb by inhaling helium.
FM: But won’t that just give them squeaky voices?
FNF: We’ll be issuing them with trumpets, and videos of Dizzy Gillespie playing the trumpet in his heyday. If they can learn to play the trumpet like Diz, they will be able to use their oxygen masks more efficiently. And this is where we get onto the next part. Most operators provide their clients with only six bottles of oxygen, and expect them to climb with their oxygen turned to a flow rate of two litres of oxygen per minute. This is normal, but we predict that in the future, it will only be the cheap, low-budget operators who will be doing this. Instead, we will be providing our clients with sixty bottles of oxygen. They will be climbing with an oxygen flow rate of sixteen litres per minute.
FM: Right, and this is what I wanted to ask you about. This is one of the things about your expedition that has been generating controversy. Leaving aside the fact that some people – including the legendary Bill Scheidt – would regard this as cheating. I want to talk about the safety aspect. Ever since Pugh Barley-McGrew did his pioneering research into oxygen at high altitude in the 1950s, it’s been generally accepted that four litres of oxygen per minute is the optimum flow rate. But you say you will be feeding your clients oxygen at rates of up to sixteen litres per minute. Has this ever been done before at that altitude – is it even safe? Isn’t there a risk your clients will explode?
FNF: The 1950s? It’s true, there are many companies operating on Tum Teedle who still use methods from the Golden Age of Exploration, but we are better than them. This is a cutting-edge expedition which uses all the latest data. Recent research published in the Journal of Advanced Chemistry, Kinematics And Sport Science (JACKASS) concluded that humans can safely consume flow rates of up to fourteen litres per minute …
FM: But you’re using sixteen …
FNF: Humans can safely consume fourteen litres per minute, but our Zip clients will, as you say, be consuming sixteen litres per minute. So what happens to those extra two litres? This is the truly innovative thing. Scientists have discovered that instead of exploding, as you suggest, the excess oxygen is released by another mechanism.
[I shift uncomfortably in my chair.]
FNF: The remaining oxygen is expelled through the rectum.
FM: You mean they fart it out – your clients will be farting their way up Tum Teedle?
FNF: And this has some truly exceptional benefits, because it provides additional propulsion, an extra little push from behind, so to speak. In a recent training climb up the Krumhorn, I managed to shave an extra two hours off my personal best. Now this may not sound like very much, but if we extrapolate the figures and translate it to the significantly higher altitudes we can expect on Tum Teedle, I have calculated that it will reduce total expedition length by a week.
FM: Yes, let’s talk about that instead. The expedition length, and the price of a cool quarter of a million dollars. Lots of people have been saying that you’re targeting businessmen – busy executives who don’t have much time, who want to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible, tick the bucket list, get back to work and brag about it to their colleagues. Is that fair?
FNF: Yes, that’s exactly who I want to sign up.
FM: But isn’t that a problem? Isn’t climbing Tum Teedle supposed to be all about the experience, a chance to get away from all that, relax for a few weeks with nothing to worry about apart from the task of putting one foot in front of the other, a task that in itself requires patience. Isn’t it about doing something unique, that takes you away from the mundane grind of 9-to-5 living, office politics, and taking you – for a time at least – into another world that few people can even imagine, never mind experience. A world where the scenery is on a different scale, staggering in its beauty. Where you get to spend time with other people who, like you, yearn to break away from the mindless tedium of everyday existence and spend time in a divine world where their minds are pure, and …
[At this point the interview comes to abrupt pause. I have been gradually leaning forwards, scything the air with my right hand as I make my point, and haven’t noticed that I’ve been sliding forwards in my chair. My flow is interrupted when I fall off the edge and land on the floor with a loud bump. Frank behaves like a perfect gentleman. Instead of roaring with laughter, as I would have done, he helps me to my feet and allows me to sit back down again and continue with my question.]
FM: Well, anyway, the point I’m making is that these people don’t care about mountaineering. They just want to say they’ve climbed Tum Teedle. And if they don’t care about mountaineering then that means they are unlikely to have enough experience to tackle a mountain as serious as Tum Teedle … Well, that’s what the critics are saying about your expeditions, anyway.
FNF: All of our clients go through an intensive vetting process before being accepted onto the expedition. If they cannot strap on a pair of crampons, then we reject them. Furthermore, all our clients are required to provide a video of themselves inside their altitude tent, playing A Night in Tunisia on their trumpets. If their cheeks don’t puff out like Dizzy Gillespie’s then we give them their money back and tell them that they need more practice. I believe we are the only Tum Teedle operator who does this.
FM: Undoubtedly. One final question. On a lighter note, I can’t help noticing that you have exactly the same name as one of the main characters in the 1970s musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Will your clients be dancing the Time Warp at Tum Teedle Base Camp?
[I chuckle to myself, and wish I’d brought a snare drum and cymbal to the interview.]
FNF: It’s strange you should ask that, because we’ve actually been in contact with NASA with a view to purchasing a time warp for our clients to use at home prior to joining the expedition. With the use of a time warp, we believe we can reduce overall expedition length still further, potentially to a negative amount of time. This means clients on our expeditions will actually gain a week, and will therefore be able to spend even more time at work …
[The rest of this interview, which lasted a further three hours, will be available on PooTube at a later date. In next week’s post we’ll be examining the use of stairlifts in mountaineering.]