Please forgive the indulgence, but in this week’s post I would like to spend a few minutes remembering a mountaineering friend of mine who passed away last month. He is not someone you will have heard of, nor anyone especially accomplished in the mountains, but I believe that it’s important to remember such people just as much as those who are considered more exceptional – for these are the people most like ourselves.
In 2007 I quit my job and joined an expedition to Tibet that was to change the course of my life. The expedition, run by the UK mountaineering operator Jagged Globe, was a four-week trip to the North Col of Everest in the spring season. We trekked up the East Rongbuk Glacier to Advanced Base Camp, and climbed the fixed ropes of the North Col Wall up to 7,000m, ascending alongside more experienced climbers who would be reaching the summit of Everest a few days later.
I described the impact of this expedition in Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. It was a little taster of the Everest experience that convinced me that one day I would be able to climb Everest myself
I wasn’t the only one. What made that 2007 trip to the North Col so special was that I had the privilege of climbing with a team of exceptional people. All of the group were funny and entertaining in their own way, and 4 of us, all in our 30s and 40s, were inspired enough to attempt other 8,000m peaks with the ambition of one day climbing Everest.
I have talked a lot about two of the others. Mark Dickson, Ian Cartwright and I, shared a number of expeditions together. We met regularly in London, and we reached the summit of Everest together. I have hardly mentioned the fourth member, Jeremy “Bunter” Anson, at all, but his attempts on the 8,000ers ran parallel to our own, and at times our paths crossed.
Bunter was perhaps the funniest and most entertaining of all of us. He wasn’t the type to dominate the conversation, but he was perfectly relaxed in company, sitting quietly, then interjecting with his rapier-like wit. I can still remember some of his one-liners.
Even his name was entertaining. He introduced himself as Bunter, and we didn’t find out his real name until much later. He was obviously named after Billy Bunter, the main character in a series of comic strips of the early 20th century – a lazy, overweight, stupid and deceitful schoolboy who was always getting into scrapes. Our Bunter wasn’t any of these things, but it was funny to picture him as such.
One day at base camp he was persuaded to tell us the story of how he came by his nickname. He had worked for the Halifax Building Society for over 20 years. During his first week in the job he bought 4 Twixes from a chocolate vending machine because the machine didn’t provide change.
‘I see Billy Bunter’s joined the team,’ a colleague observed, and the name stuck with him for the rest of his career. He obviously didn’t mind too much or he wouldn’t have told us to call him by it.
After our North Col expedition we found ourselves in a kind of race to climb an 8,000m peak. Not that it was a race for Bunter. He was the least competitive of us, but he became the first of us to succeed.
He, Ian and I joined up for Jagged Globe’s expedition to Cho Oyu in 2008. A few days before the expedition was due to start, the Chinese government announced that they would not be issuing visas for Tibet. With dozens of clients booked onto their trips, expedition operators were left with a problem which they resolved by switching en masse to another 8,000m peak, Manaslu in Nepal.
Nowadays Manaslu is one of the most popular 8,000ers for commercial expeditions, but in 2008 it was completely untried as a commercial peak. Operators were unsure how difficult or safe it would be, but they had little choice but to try.
I would be quitting my job to join the 6-week expedition, and after a conversation with Jagged Globe’s managing director Simon Lowe, who was honest about the uncertain prospects, I decided to delay my 8,000m peak ambitions for another year.
Bunter and Ian decided to give it a go. For 6 weeks, Manaslu lived up to its reputation as a difficult peak that was not one for commercial teams. Heavy snowfall battered the mountain, they lost much of their equipment when Camp 2 was buried under deep snow; and the giant slope between Camps 2 and 3 became a massive avalanche risk.
After 6 weeks of inactivity, most of the team, including Ian, had to return home, but in the 7th week the weather improved, offering a short weather window. A week later, Bunter and several other members of the Jagged Globe team reached the fore-summit and planted their ice axes.
Hundreds of people have now reached the summit of Manaslu, but in 2008 they were among the first people to stand there. They looked along the winding ridge to the true summit and decided not to risk it without fixed ropes. They weren’t the last people to make this decision on Manaslu’s summit crown, but they may well have been the first. Manaslu has a confusion of summits, and this difficulty with reaching the main one has sometimes provoked controversy.
But for Jagged Globe this was a first: an impressive, pioneering success. For Bunter, it was a big surprise. We were impressed and a little jealous, but it was well deserved. He was not someone to brag about his achievements; nor was he someone who considered himself an athlete. He was understated – a slow plodder, but he kept going, and this time he had kept going all the way to 8,000m.
The expedition was memorable for Bunter in another way too. It was on this trip that he met his future wife Helen, with whom he completed many more treks and climbs in the Himalayas.
In 2009 all four of us from the North Col expedition decided to climb the Gasherbrums in Pakistan. Mark, Ian and I decided to give a new operator a try. Altitude Junkies were attempting both 8,000m peaks Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II and offered a more flexible climbing style. Bunter’s loyalties remained with Jagged Globe and he decided to join their expedition instead. They were camped a little down the glacier from us; we passed Bunter on the mountain frequently, and Ian and I joined him for tea from time to time. The weather was poor that year, and neither team got anywhere near the summit.
The following year, 2010, Bunter attempted Everest with Jagged Globe. He climbed as high as the Balcony at 8,400m, but he decided that he was climbing too slowly and turned around.
This was his last attempt on an 8,000m peak. He thought about others. We often exchanged emails and discussed climbing together. He was one of those people that I assumed I would meet again some time. He was a regular reader of this blog, and every once in a while he posted a comment out of the blue. We also exchanged messages when I was writing Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest; he very kindly dug out some old photos for me and he let me use one of them in my book.
It was a shock when I received an email from Helen last month to say that he had passed away. I didn’t know that he had been ill, but it was all very sudden. They had trekked the Khumbu together in November and crossed the Amphu Labtsa. There had been no sign that Bunter was ill, but the following month he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He battled away for several months, like the mountaineer that he was, but always the mountain has the final say.
His death hit home. I have posted a few tributes on this blog, to people I have met during my travels in the mountains. All of them were people who died tragically young with many more adventures left unfinished. But if I’m honest, I could also say that many of these were tributes to people who have lived life on the edge. Their deaths were terrible tragedies, but they were people searching for something; and somehow it makes their passing less surprising.
Bunter was not one of those people. As far as I know, he wasn’t searching for anything in particular. He had already found his path. He was just an ordinary guy living a happy life, who was taken away suddenly and much too soon.
There is no accounting for that, and it goes to show that it can happen to any of us.
RIP Bunter – gone, but never forgotten.
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