'Years of Desperation & Charm' - Alex MacIntyre Obituary (1983)
Forty years ago, in October 1982, Alex MacIntyre died while attempting a new route on Annapurna. MacIntyre was one of the foremost alpinists of his era and a devout proponent of the 'Fast and Light' ethos. In the following year's Alpine Journal John Porter, who had been on the expedition when Alex was killed, paid tribute to his friend. With unflinching honesty, he recounts their shared journey; from young climbers blaring music across British crags, to the Alps, their diverging life paths and, eventually, to Alex's tragic demise in the Himalaya.
'The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing. The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realisation - absolute and unconditional - of its own particular law.' - Carl Jung
In the first years that I knew Alex, there were always battered Ford Escort vans parked out in front of the hovels we inhabited in Leeds 6, or parked as near as possible to the bottom of the crag so we could hear the music, turned to maximum volume, always loud music wherever we went, and we spent a lot of time in those vans, adding new dents as the weekends went by. Hair was long in those days and our selection of clothes minimal, but Alex's was always the longest and his clothes the dirtiest. I was doing post grad while he was struggling to start, first Economics and, after a year off, Law. It was during the year off that Alex discovered what he wanted to do. He wanted to go climbing.
We were incredibly incompetent at everything we did, bankrupting the climbing club, getting ourselves and the few women who hung around with the Leeds scene into outrageous and hilarious situations, but always getting out of real trouble and managing somehow to make it seem we'd done well in the end, producing The Journal with Bernard, flogging vans in France to get back to university after a season in the Alps, scraping through to get good degrees. On our first Alpine route together, Alex climbed in boots of two different sizes. We created our own epic, complete with horrendous storm, Alex dropping all his gear like a moulting shaggy dog, our worst bivi ever, and endless descent in a white-out, but managing to get back to the Nash to the realisation that we'd learned something. They were years of desperation and charm.
In 1977, Alex had just completed his exams and had a summer in the Alps ahead of him when I phoned to ask him to go to Afghanistan with the Poles. It had been a couple of years since we'd climbed together seriously. He'd done some major Alpine routes by then; the Bonatti Zapelli, the Droites, the Jorasses, and had definitely made his mark in Scotland. In two weeks, he found the money and then we were off by train across the Soviet Union into a series of adventures culminating in 6 major new routes and 7 peaks of more than 6,000m climbed between the eleven of us. When Voytek asked in broken English in the train, 'Would you like Bandaka?', Alex answered, 'Sure, do we eat it hot or cold.' But instead, we discovered a 2,400m, NE face, a real monstrosity up crumbling walls and steep ice to a summit as peaceful as the Ben on a good day. Despite the dangers of the face, everything fell into place, the vibes were good, and as a team, we were in love with each other's company. I remember Alex on the final pitch, tunnelling through the massive cornice, whispering down to us, "I think it's talking to me."
The next year was Changabang, again with Voytek and joined by Krystof Zurek. We spent 8 wonderful days on a superbly steep wall, following the only possible route up the centre of the face, like solving a logics problem - the way had been created just for us. We were more adept than in our early years, and Alex's inventiveness was beginning to show in the nature of the gear; his hammock design, lightweight sleeping bags, modified ruck-sacks, and a just adequate amount of food. But we were also learning the anomaly of the lightweight concept, hauling huge sacks of gear, having to abandon spare ropes and pegs on the summit, knowing the formula could be improved. And once, Alex fell a long way, abseiling on the wrong end of the rope in a blizzard and falling the full distance until the rope came onto the peg. I thought for a while we'd lost him, but when I abseiled down, he was waiting, shrouded in snow, a bit shaken, and he smiled, "I don't want to play this game just to have a rucksack named after me."
1979 in South America, Alex and I got in wrong in more ways than one. Some spark had gone from our banter. We made some big mistakes, underestimating the seriousness of routes, going ultra light without sleeping bags or stoves, suffering, muddling through somehow, but feeling the dangers of the sport too close. We argued about stupid things, politics, the ways of the world, the things we would never be able to change. We even got our nights in the bars out of sync so that one or the other of us would be suffering when we set out on the next climb. Looking back, our first unhappy trip together I put down to me getting older and following a more conventional path while Alex by this time was totally committed to the world he could make for himself climbing. While I became more conservative, he was becoming ever more deeply involved in his radical approach to climbing and life.
Apart from the occasional weekend climbing or boozing, I saw little of Alex for the next 3 years. He invited me on both the Makalu and Dhaulagiri trips, but they did not fit in with my plans or my job. He tried to talk me out of the winter Everest trip, and nearly succeeded, but I went, while he went off to experiment with new ideas on bigger faces. I began to admire him not only for his big climbs but also for his lucid life style. Unconventional and trimmed of pretence, he lived as he felt was best for him, and knew that in the end, that was also best for everyone else, being himself. It was take him or leave him, but he did not necessarily judge people on their reaction to him. Most took to him, accepting his honesty of character. Diplomacy was no replacement for the truth in Alex's eyes. For this reason he made an effective National Officer during his years with the BMC. Yet he admired people who stuck to their own arguments, as long as their thinking was clear and their case recognizable as an alternative. On the other hand, he hated banding together or acceptance of ideas without mental conviction.
We had talked about Annapurna for some time. For Alex, it was another date in his calendar of big climbs, a filler-in between Xixabangma pre-monsoon '82 and his plans for four 8000'ers in 1983. Neither of us were able to spend much time organising the trip. He was writing his book while I was scrambling at work to get everything in some sort of order before I left. We had an inevitable last minute rush to sort out details, wondering if René would ever contact us from France with news of the equipment he was slated to provide. We booked a flight only 3 days before departure. We were in our element, confusion followed by laughter, knowing it didn't matter how you got there as long as you did. We had a theory that plans are made only to be unmade. That way, we always felt immune to Murphy's law, fate was not for us. As we settled back with a drink somewhere over Turkey, Alex brought out his folder on Annapurna and we studied the innocuous looking ramp that cut through the vertical lower half of the face and left us focused at half height beneath a tiny dollop of rock, the only major problem before the massive ice slopes beneath the East Peak.
"We should be able to climb the route in 3 or 4 days, and we'll leave Base Camp not later than the 13th of October, after we acclimatize." Alex knew the face as if he had climbed all over it in his dreams. He knew the weather, the walk in, what to expect at Base Camp, and the peaks we would climb to acclimatize. He explained it carefully and in detail. As I looked and listened, I knew that I was merely an apprentice of the kid I had once looked after like a younger brother. I made a note in my diary, and felt sad for reasons I could not explain.
Alex died on 17 October. I was not with him. I watched through binoculars from Base Camp as two tiny dots appeared at the bottom of that innocuous ramp that in September had been like Niagara Falls with boulders tumbling down instead of barrels. We'd prepared well for the face, 14 days of climbing in the first 18 in Base Camp. Alex consoled me in my exhaustion and sickness with the words: "Well, it was a heavy duty acclimatization programme". I was more than sick when they set off for the face on the 13th. I watched them reach that insignificant dollop of rock and fail to get through, the way to the summit only a few feet above them. I followed their thoughts through my binoculars as they descended that night to a bivouac at the top of the ramp. In a break in the clouds, the lens suddenly seemed to fill with blood. I looked closer in disbelief and realised I had only witnessed the bright red bivi sack being pulled from the sack, shaken out and hung up.
On that morning of the 17th, I lowered the binoculars to clean them and when I looked back, there was only one climber. I instinctively knew it was René. Alex had fallen. I searched for another 10 minutes, then hastily filled two rucksacks with medical and emergency equipment and set off for the face with our sirdar. We met René coming down alone at about 5000m. He stopped 30m above us and waved his iceaxe above his head, then stumbled down to where we stood frozen to our souls. Alex had been killed by a single stone falling from unknown heights. His time had come and had rushed him upward to meet his fate. Little was said as we returned to Base. René had lost his closest climbing partner. I had lost a friend who was also my link to the freedom of years gone by. "We must not think about it but we must not forget" said René, "If we do either, we may not climb again".