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At last! Something interesting to report

Dear Charles:

Your last words to me before you died were “Call the instant anything exciting should happen!”. Unfortunately for the world, your friends and me, you departed to Valhalla before anything of sufficient merit occurred. Now I am pleased to report that something of interest has occurred, twenty years after your departure.

A 12-foot tall steel monolith has been spotted in the desert of southern Utah by a passing helicopter that had been intent of counting bighorn sheep. Investigation has not revealed whether it is an art project or an alien artifact. Naturally we should not call it a monolith because it is not made of stone, but let us not quibble, dear Charles, for this is actually interesting.

The report is here.

Charles Fisher (1914-2006) was always a poet and at various points in his life a soldier (Welsh Guards), spy (MI6) and stenographer in the Canadian House of Commons. Friend of many, mentor to the selected few. He died at 91 in Bangkok on vacation. I would like to think he was bedding a young lady at the time. He was famous for having people over for dinner and disappearing. “Where’s Charles?” someone would ask. Through the kitchen pass-through someone called back from the liviing room: “he’s gone to Cambodia”. “What do you mean he’s gone to Cambodia?” “He has gone to Cambodia” was the reply. He left the guests and acolytes to clean up.

I feel I have fulfilled my obligation, Charles, to report anything exciting, even if fourteen years late. You will have ways of getting the message. Of this I am sure.

His obituary in the Guardian is here.

His funeral was the only one I have ever attended where the mourners left the church walking an inch of the ground, so elated were they by the many recollections of this extraordinary force of life.

Now would someone please tell us what the monolith is?

What was wrong with the English?

If you have never read Wade Davis, it is time to begin. He is a great writer of exploration, including some personal voyages of discovery, such as One River and The Serpent and the Rainbow. His research is meticulous and his style is deft.

I have been reading his magnificent history of the first British expeditions to Everest in 1922-24, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest .

The Everest book begins with a long exploration of the meaning of the slaughter on the western front in World War I, which is worth the price of the book, and leads easily into the organization of the first exploration and reconnaissance in 1921 of the area around Everest. The British had to come in from the north, the Tibet side, as Nepal was out of bounds.

Davis’ research and writing will take you to the high places of the world with some tough and intrepid young men. You will be able to feel the heights, not only the summits, but the high plateaux of Tibet, the intense religiosity of the Tibetans, the glaciers, and the endless difficulties of finding one’s way among vast mountains, where the base camps are at higher elevations than the highest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly. Yet I cannot fail to grasp something that Davis has many occasions to allude to: the condescension reserved for the Canadian surveyor on the first expedition, who found the best way to the base of Everest, and the Australian medical doctor on the second, who single-handedly ensured that oxygen breathing apparatus was available and made to work.

The surveyor was Oliver Wheeler, a superb athlete and mathematician, a graduate of Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario, who would rise to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army, head of the Survey of India, and knighted in 1943. Of him Wade writes:

“His work as surveyor general resulted in the publication, during the Second World War, of 20 million maps a year, a vital contribution to the Allied war effort. As much as any single man, Wheeler was responsible for foiling Japanese plans to invade India after Japan’s conquest of Burma in 1942.”

In the 1921 reconnaissance around Everest, it was Oliver Wheeler who discovered an access on to the east Rongbuk glacier, which became the path through which all future expeditions from the Tibet side would use to get to the base of Everest, a pass which the lead climber, Mallory, had previously missed or discounted.

“Wheeler’s map, which Mallory went at some length to disparage, may in fact have been the very first indication that he or Bullock had of the East Rongbuk Glacier, an embarrassing oversight that Mallory went out of his way in the official expedition account to obscure. One thing is certain: it was not Mallory or amy of his English compatriots who first discovered the key to the mountain. It was the canadian Oliver Wheeler, working alone in the solitude of the Rongbuk Valley.” (at page 330)

Wheeler also mapped the region for the first time using trigonometric methods, adding tens of thousands of miles to the knowledge of man. Each observation involved carting heavy equipment to the nearest summit, with enormous labour, sometimes having to repeat the process days in row while bad weather obscured the peaks being surveyed.

The Australian was George Ingle Finch, who was a doctor and who maintained and adapted the then-totally novel oxygen equipment on the second expedition in 1922. Incidentally he was the inventor of the down-filled coat, by which he kept warm as others were freezing in their woollens. (page 386)

Finch tried his best to inform the climbing party on the use of oxygen by having them drill with the equipment, for which he earned only the contempt of several members of the party.

The leadership of the 1922 expedition had always intended that the first team would attempt the climb in its final stages without oxygen. Because of an attack of dysentery, Finch was left without a climbing partner of experience and strength. The experienced climbing party went ahead without oxygen, and failed to make the summit.

“Finch, to his credit, did not view Strutt’s decision [to go ahead with all of the experienced climbers without oxygen] as anything more than the what it was: a lapse in judgment and leadership that squandered an opportunity and severely compromized their chances of achieving the ultimate goal.” This left Finch with 48 hours to transform a lesser climber into an accomplished one, and to take off for the top with him. In the end, Finch reached higher -27,300 feet – than did Mallory and his team of three better climbers.”

As Wade Davis writes: “Finch, pilloried from the start as an Australian, dismissed as a scientific eccentric, marginalized as a colonial irritant, had done the impossible, and in doing so had changed mountaineering history”.

Finch was not included in the 1924 expedition. He had offended the leadership by giving lectures for money in Germany, which was felt to be outside the bounds of his agreement with the organizing committee. Lawyers for each side did not share the committee’s interpretation of the loose contract that each member had signed with it. “George Finch was the finest ice and snow climber in Britain and the world’s leading scientific authority on the use of oxygen in mountaineering.”

I have selected these two examples because they struck me as symptomatic of a culture which was not learning. The Brits appear to have had great difficulty in accepting the value of fellow “anglo-saxons” – as the lingo would then have described them. If they had such trouble recognizing the contributions of a Canadian and an Australian, try to imagine the difficulty they had in dealing with Americans on the plane of equality, let alone coloured people.

More than this, the account given by Wade Davis shows the many occasions where the Brits were inappropriately dressed, and did not seem to think that equipment mattered more than ‘pluck’.

As a man who ventures outside to snowshoe for hours, I am contemptuous of those who are under-equipped for cold. Cold is not to be endured; it is to be equipped against. Wrapping a scarf around your neck, and buttoning up the tweed jacket at freezing point makes sense, even if it is inadequate. Imagining that is sufficient at minus 20 or minus 30 is insane, dangerous, and stupid.

These are the kinds of attitudes that killed Robert Scott on his expedition to the South Pole, and which left Roald Amundsen and his team alive and well to tell the tale. Amundsen engaged in meticulous planning, lived with the Inuit for several years, and learned how to live with cold. Scott did not, and died of cold in consequence.

I urge you to read Wade Davis. His book on Everest is a masterpiece. I apologize for singling out this relatively unimportant aspect of the book. Yet the difference between a learning culture and one that is not learning is of great significance to me. The people being portrayed in Into the Silence show every sign of not being inclined to learn anything. Bravery becomes so much more necessary when you do not learn new skills, or rise to new challenges, or to see the limits of one’s point of view. In my way of thinking, one wants to use foresight, cunning and innovation to obviate the need for stubborn bravery.