Christmas at Camp II - Holiday Tales from the Mountains
Christmas is a time of year traditionally associated with family and with the process of returning home to warmth and comfort. It is a festival that alleviates the loneliness and the darkness of the cold winter months. What then should we make of those who choose to spend their Christmases away from home in the world’s wild places, where the days may be even shorter and colder than they were at home?
To get an idea of the motivations for heading to the mountains in the holiday season and to discover how mountaineers have marked the festival when far from home, we dug into the Alpine Journal Archive to bring you a series of extracts from Christmas expeditions past. We eat Christmas cake from a helmet, share marzipan on summits and deal with a common Christmas problem; unwanted gifts.
Deciding to Go
Finding partners to join you over Christmas can be challenging. Particularly when you decide to go last minute. This was certainly the case for Michael Binnie when, at the end of December 1990, he made the sudden decision to climb Chimborazo:
“None of my old climbing friends could make it ('if only you'd thought of it earlier'), but nothing was going to stop me - dammit, I would solo Chimborazo if need be - and then I thought of Will Gault. He is 20 years my junior, a City man and, crucially, a bachelor. I rang him at work.
'Doing anything at Christmas?'
'Not really. Anything on?'
'Want to climb a mountain in Ecuador?'
And, after a very short pause, 'Yes, OK.'
Michael was not only successful in securing a partner, but he and Will also made a successful ascent of Chimborazo via the Whymper route. You can read a full account of that trip, including their search for fuel so as to avoid a cold Christmas dinner, here.
And speaking of Christmas dinner…
The weight of equipment and supplies on expeditions is often a matter of great concern. In a 1991 piece, Stephen Venables recalls how an expedition to the island of South Georgia was hampered by its lack of robust equipment:
“Our strategy was to establish a secure base at the Ross pass and from there eventually attempt some climbing. If we had had sufficient sea or air back-up, we would have done better to use heavy pyramid tents and sledges, enabling us to move as a self-contained unit over the glaciers. However, because of limited funds and uncertain transport arrangements, we had opted for a compromise, carrying only lightweight tents and no sledges.”
But this poverty of supplies apparently did not extend to Christmas dinner, for which they appear to have been better supplied than some restaurants:
“We now had to build a new cave, higher up the wall of the wind-scoop. First, down at Royal Bay, we had a late Christmas dinner on 28 December. Marks and Spencer provisions, supplemented by some supplies from Fortnum and Mason, ensured a decent meal of stuffed eggs with caviar, Parma ham and champagne; game soup; goose quenelles with a passable Cabernet Sauvignon; Christmas pudding and whisky butter; port, brandy and Dutch cigars.”
Well-fueled by this, Stephen and team went on to make an ascent of Mount Carse where, appropriately for the Christmas season, they shared a block of marzipan on the summit. You can read the full account of their time on the ‘Islands at the edge of the World’ here.
But a full Christmas dinner is not always so easy to come by, particularly when you are on the mountain, as Paul Fatti and Richard Smithers discovered during their ascent of the East Face of the Central Tower of Paine:
“Bumping across the corner in their cocoons, Paul and Richard were cold, disconsolate and too tired and cramped to cook. It was Christmas Eve and Paul munched Christmas dinner - cold mouthfuls of a squashed pudding. He then plopped it into his crash helmet which he lowered on a piece of string to Richard, hanging below him. The radio call that night from base to the 2 climbers got an understandably poor-humoured response to all the cheery, bleary and well-fed good wishes!”
Happily, Paul and Richard’s suffering was not in vain, and their team were successful in making the first ascent of the face.
Those who travel over the holidays don’t necessarily plan for gift giving, and Dennis Gray had most certainly not planned for the gift he received from two Berber men he met in Morocco who were determined to see him celebrate Christmas "properly":
“When I came out they were still waiting and insisted I went with them to their father's hotel, which was the barest and cheapest I have yet seen in North Africa. After many glasses of mint tea I was allowed to depart, but only after promising that I would return later that night for a special dinner that they would prepare for me, for they knew the importance to us Christians, us Nazarenes, of Christmas Eve.
Surprisingly, despite the Spartan nature of the hotel, the meal was delicious. Conspiratorially, my young Berber acquaintances insisted at its end that I accompany them upstairs. There, waiting for us in the corridor, was the most evil-looking fellow I have yet set eyes on, one-eyed, unshaven and wearing a turban and djbella. It transpired that he was a Kif dealer from the north of the country. My young Berbers wanted to give me a Christmas present, and from the man they obtained a carrier-bag full of the stuff and handed it over. I had not understood their whispers in French, Arabic and Berber, but now I felt in great danger. I had been told how the Kif dealers set tourists up: they unload a pile of the stuff on to you, then go off and warn the police who jump you. If you are caught in possession, you might be fined a large sum, the drug dealers get a reward and it is rumoured that they get the Kif back to start all over again. 'Je ne fume pas', I stammered as I returned the gift. The two young Berbers looked amazed, then a hurt expression came into their faces and they tried to make me take it, but I refused again. They then became agitated and annoyed and ran off down the stairs, leaving me blocked in the corridor with old one-eye. In a few minutes they were back, this time clutching a much smaller bag; evidently they thought I had refused the Kif because there was too much for me to smoke all on my own! Travelling alone can be quite a trial, and I now realized that they were genuine and that I was not being set up. I accepted their gift with trepidation, thanking them from the bottom of my sinking heart, praying they would not insist that we all start smoking the stuff there and then in the corridor, but even they obviously felt that this was too dangerous for me and let me go back to my hotel where, I assured them, I would get liberally 'stoned' behind locked doors."
Dennis’s travels in Morocco make for wonderful reading and you can find out how, after a few close calls, he eventually managed to disposed of the gift in the full article.
Over-indulgence (of legal substances) is a time-honoured Christmas tradition, even for those spending their Christmas in the mountains. Peter Crew was unlucky to miss out on this aspect of the festivities during his expedition to Cerro Torre:
“Christmas was only a few days away, so Fonrouge decided to use the Shell lorry to spend the holiday in Rio Gallegos in a civilised manner, with one of his numerous girl friends. I walked down to the valley with him, to try and buy a sheep for a change of diet. After spending most of Christmas Eve getting hold of the sheep, I eventually arrived back at Base late at night in the pouring rain, to find that the lads had assumed that I had foregone the expedition for the delights of civilisation with Fonrouge - they had eaten our stock of Christmas goodies and drunk all the remaining spirits. At least I had the satisfaction of enjoying a fresh leg of mutton while they were all feeling ill.”
Nick Kekus fared somewhat better during his winter attempt on Nanga Parbat with an Anglo-Polish team, though the limited supply of alcohol on this expedition was more of an issue for some expedition members than others:
“With Camp 2 finally established just before Christmas, some of us thought we would be justified in taking a break from the mountain to celebrate the festive season; others felt we should stay on the mountain, Christmas or not. In the end the weather decided for us. On 24 December, having improved the tent accommodation and fixed a short section of rope above the camp, we retreated back to Base Camp, with the weather deteriorating as rapidly as we were descending. Christmas was a cheerful and high-spirited occasion, though the small quantities of alcohol available were sadly short of the Poles' capacity. However, a visit from our friend Mohammed Ali Chengasi on Christmas Day renewed our interest in the festivities, as the two aid workers he had in tow produced some more booze and Mohammed himself contributed a wonderful array of fruit, sweetmeats and other delicacies.”
A Final Thought
At first glance, the traditions of Christmas and mountaineering may seem antithetical to one another, isolation and privation contrasting with community and comfort. But this is not so. There is a communal heart to both traditions; the act of sharing time, space and experiences with loved ones. This is not just a Christmas experience, but a mountaineering one; as Andrzej Zawada noted when discussing the first winter ascent of Cho Oyu:
“If someone were to ask me which were the most enjoyable moments to remember in the whole expedition, I would answer without hesitation: the wonderful comradeship at Base Camp and on the wall, and on Christmas Eve round our table.”