Feature-length articles on mountaineering and mountain-related topics, including art, science and history.


'Years of Desperation & Charm' - Alex MacIntyre Obituary (1983)

'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".




The First British Ascent of the Eiger North Face | Alpine Journal Extract

The First British Ascent of the Eiger North Face | Alpine Journal Extract

60 years ago this year, Ian Clough and Sir Chris Bonington made the first British ascent of the north face of the Eiger. In the Alpine Journal of the following year, Clough recounted their ascent in gripping, evocative prose and reflected on how the route had become a flame, fanned by the press, whose light drew in a generation of climbers, some woefully under-prepared for such a challenge.

We arrived, panting and sweating, at a low, shallow cave with a sandy floor. It would be dark in an hour and we could both lie here comfortably so we settled ourselves in to bivouack below the Difficult Crack. The sudden decision, the rushing round trying to borrow money for the fare, the early morning train drawing out of Chamonix Station, all seemed a long way away now. The wall had looked black and dry as the train had rounded the last bend to Grindelwald and we had known that the journey had been worthwhile; conditions were very favourable. I remember the girl in the bookshop, where we had copied the description from the back of Heinrich Harrer's book, trying to dissuade us with stories of the most recent fatalities, the look in the blacksmith's eyes as he had sharpened our claws, the bloodstains on the lower rocks where the fall of a solitary Austrian climber had been halted, the moments of doubt and indecision. But we were here now, on the Eiger's North Wall happy and confident, with four days of fine weather ahead if the Zurich forecasters were correct.

Bonington on the Hinterstoisser Traverse, by Ian Clough

Two small figures had been scurrying up the wall behind us. Like ourselves they wore crash helmets and carried bulging rucksacks on their backs. Now the first climbed the old fixed rope to the ledge near us. He introduced himself as an Austrian - Moderegger. Then his companion arrived: "Hello" - we were surprised to hear English - "I'm Tom Carruthers". We talked for a while. Tom's Scottish friends hadn't wanted to come on the wall and he'd met the Austrian at Alpiglen, the little mountain hotel at the foot of the wall. "What has he done?" we asked cautiously. "He's been in the Caucasus" Tom replied. I pictured Moderegger on a Caucasian coach tour. We didn't like it: a chance companion, experience doubtful, barely able to make themselves understood! It seemed foolhardy in the extreme. Still, they weren't our responsibility. We agreed that, should we all move at the same speed, it would be pleasant to have company, it would be a mutual morale booster against the frightening, cruel vastness of this notorious wall. The other pair went to bivouack round the corner. We cooked and ate a huge meal. Our sacks were too heavy, they must have weighed forty pounds, but felt like eighty as we had staggered up the thousand feet of scree and broken walls that evening, but now they were much lighter. We dressed in our down clothing and were soon asleep on our little sandy ledge, reassured that we were well nailed on. It was already a long way down.

Chris was shaking me. He was impatient to get away for it was late - 5AM! A hasty breakfast, then away. Carruthers and the Austrian were just behind us as we scurried up the Difficult Crack but they didn't keep up with us. We moved quickly together, along a fault of ledges and easy pitches below a great yellow overhanging wall, to the Hinterstoisser. There were several ropes across this rubicon of the old days and we were soon over the traverse, past the overhang of the Swallow's Nest bivouac, and climbing up what should have been the First Icefield. But the ice had receded and we were able to climb the rock beside it. We reached a steep step, the Ice Hose. Now we really began to appreciate just how good conditions were, for the Hose was a straightforward rock climb. Above us, bands of rock were showing bare beneath the Second Ice-field. Using these, connecting them by little verglassed ribs sticking up out of the ice, we trended leftwards until we were under the great, glassy, smooth sweep of the main part of the Second Ice-field. "Whatever happens here, don't look up", Chris called, drawing on the experience of his previous attempts on the wall with Don Whillans. Over a thousand feet above us, above a great vertical wall, was the mouth of the White Spider which usually belches forth debris from the upper part of the face. We were now entering the most dangerous area on the face; the zone of heaviest bombardment. I tried to make myself as small a target as possible, receding into my crash helmet as a frightened tortoise does into his shell. But the Ogre was frozen into stillness this morning. Not a stone fell.

There was no snow overlying the ice and crampons tended to scart off the tough surface. We decided to go directly up the ice-field to its upper lip. If we went diagonally across, as one normally docs, we would have to cut countless steps in the hard blue ice. It would take hours and the mountain's artillery might have opened up before we were clear. By going straight up we could use our crampons to better advantage. We moved off; crampons crashing, pick and dagger thrashing, only a quarter of an inch into the ice; teetering in precarious balance until a great bucket was beaten out and a security spike hammered in. We kept pitches short because our straining calves tired quickly and also because it was safer. One couldn't hope to hold a long fall. Using ice-pegs and screws for belays, cutting small nicks to rest on between quick staccato crampon moves, leading alternately, we proceeded rapidly and in comparative safety. But security on ice is only make-believe, and nerves as well as muscles were taut as we stabbed our way upwards. The angle wasn't that steep, about the same as a house roof, but the way the smooth giant of the slope plunged away beneath us to the meadows was awe-inspiring. It was a relief to be nearing the upper rim.

The Second Ice-Field by Ian Clough

As I stood in the bucket step, protecting Chris's advance, I was able to look around me for the first time that day. From the foot of the wall a great dark pyramid, the shadow of the Eiger, reached out across the meadows to the tourist hotel of Kleine Scheidegg. The rubbernecks and pressmen would be enjoying their breakfasts. Later they would come to peer through the telescopes, to enjoy the free entertainment. Were we actors in some drama, gladiators in the arena ? A long, low, plaintive note rang clear over the meadows and echoed across the wall. An alpenhorn. The old man whose daily task it was to play it for the benefit of the tourists was in position on his hillock. At first the sound was comforting, but as the day wore on its repetitiveness became wearisome and irritating.

The upper rim went easily, sometimes providing a gangway to walk along, at other times giving a sharp edge for the hands. We tried to leave the ice-field too early but, quickly realising our error, abseiled back and continued the long traverse. A steep little rock buttress took us up onto the flank of the Flatiron, the ridge which separates the Second and Third Ice-fields. We were high on the face now, going well. It wouldn't be long before we were clear of stonefall danger, before we reached the safety of the Ramp.

Down below us was a ledge cut from the ice, scattered with equipment. It was a grim reminder that the Eiger was not always in such a benevolent mood as it was this morning. For Chris particularly, it conjured up bitter memories ... memories of the tragedy of the previous month when the Ogre had claimed his first British victim: the sickening sight of a body falling; the hours of cutting across an ice-field which, with a hail of stones falling, seemed more like a battleground; the weary, semi-delirious fellow countryman they had nursed back down the wall as the stones fell and the storm broke. It was an experience that he and Don Whillans would never forget.

Morbid thoughts were quickly dismissed; one's whole being had to be concentrated on the present. We reached the crest of the Flatiron and scrambled up to the overhang of the Death Bivouac. Glancing back over the Second Ice-field we saw two black dots, Tom Carruthers and Moderegger, hardly moving, at the foot of the ice-field and inching their way diagonally across it. We were worried by their mistake but they were too far away for us to shout advice and we had yet to get ourselves out of the danger zone.

The Third Ice-field is the steepest and has to be crossed more or less horizontally to the start of the Ramp, a steep gangway which provides the only break in a 500-ft. leaning yellow wall. We slashed big steps and at one point saved time by making a long tension traverse from an ice-peg. The Ramp itself gave steep climbing reminiscent of the Dolomites. The rock was comparatively sound. We were glad, for this was technically the most difficult part of the climb. We enjoyed being on rock again. This didn't seem at all like the ferocious Eigerwand we had read about, it was just another great climb. But, on some of the stances were tattered remnants of polythene, occasionally a rusty can; some of our predecessors had had a hard time.

The Upper Edge of the Second Ice-Field, by Ian Clough

Wispy clouds which had slowly been forming down at the base of the wall, drifted up over the face like a shroud, hiding us from the prying telescopes and baffling the sound of the alpenhorn.

We arrived at the Waterfall Pitch where the Ramp steepens to a shallow corner chimney. This is often, as its name implies, the most unpleasant pitch on the climb icy water gushing down one's neck and sleeves makes a poor prelude to a bivouac. Today there was no water pouring down the corner, but a thin veneer of verglas covered all the holds. It gave one of the hardest pitches on the climb; inch upwards, scratch the ice from the next tiny hold; inch, balance, scratch, reach carefully and clip into a rusty old peg. Once or twice a foot would skid off its slippery wrinkle giving a tense moment for the second man but the leader was too absorbed in the next move to worry. After another section of clean, dry rock " we came to the Ice Bulge. It was a short chimney with verglas on one wall and thick, bulging, blue ice on the other. We climbed it back-and-foot. Now we were in a funnel of ice which led up to an amphitheatre of steep buttresses which lost themselves in the mist. It was cold. Another rope move from an ice-peg saved time and laborious step-cutting and landed us on a gentle rock rib beside the ice-funnel. We climbed upwards, wondering where the start of the Traverse of the Gods was. We must be near it now. Then we heard muffled voices. The mists thinned for an instant and we saw on the precipitous skyline on our right, a horizontal step. On it we could distinguish two small figures. We cut steps across the upper edge of the amphitheatre, traversed a crumbling ledge and by a steep crack gained the ledge on the arête.

Sitting there were two grinning Swiss. They introduced themselves as Jenny and Hauser. Although it was now only five o'clock they were going to bivouack as one of them had been hit by a stone, but they didn't need any assistance. They were going slowly; they had spent the previous night, their second bivouac, in the Ramp. We decided to press on since we still felt quite fresh and there were a few hours of daylight remaining. With luck we might even make the summit that night.

The traverse of the Gods, a series of broad but outward sloping scree-covered ledges, was almost clear of snow and we followed it easily towards the centre of the face, towards the White Spider. As we moved along, the veil of mists fell away from the face and the huge walls rearing up around us, plunging away below, glowed pink in the late afternoon sun. We looked out over the billowing clouds which still filled the valleys. We felt elated standing on that splendid belvedere, isolated from the world; it was truly a situation worthy of the Gods.

Moving on to the Spider, by Ian Clough

At the end of the ledge system we were confronted with a broad ice gully leading up into another huge overhung rock amphitheatre. Chris had begun to cut the first steps towards the little ice-rib in the middle of the Spider when, suddenly, there was a tremendous crashing and roaring and an avalanche of rocks came thundering down the gully and screamed out into the void below. The sunshine which we were enjoying was loosening rocks from their icy clasps. Chris came back quickly and we looked at each other, shaken: "It'll probably freeze tonight. Let's bivvy here".

We sat on our ledge and watched the sun slowly sink below the cloud horizon. It was a cold night. We slept for a few hours, then sat talking and brewing hot beverages until it became light. Stiff and clumsy at first, but soon warming up with the strenuous work of cutting steps, we climbed the Spider. Jenny and Hauser, following up our steps, were just behind us as we reached the top of the ice-basin. The entrance to the Exit Cracks was a narrow gully of frozen rubble. The gully continued upwards until it became lost in a forest of overhangs. We consulted our description and decided that we had to climb a steep ice-filled chimney on the left. Chris climbed it slowly. It was vertical and fearfully loose, only the ice keeping the holds in place. It was by far the hardest pitch we had encountered. I followed with a struggle and we pulled the leading Swiss up to the stance to join us. I had run out half the rope again before I realised that we were directly above the Spider. Surely we should be going over to the left? There now seemed to be a way round the overhangs at the top of the gully line. We were annoyed at losing so much time as we abseiled back into the gully. It didn't help much when we had to teach one of the Swiss how to abseil and we weren't particularly sympathetic when he excused himself by saying he had only been climbing a year! But later, at Kleine Scheidegg, we were amused when we were told of the sensation we had created at the telescopes. Apparently there was tremendous excitement when it was announced, by an 'authority' on the climb, that the British party were attempting a new Direct Finish!

The gully line, the Exit Cracks, became easier and easier as we climbed upwards. Soon there was no snow or ice. We marvelled that these were the same Cracks that had presented such great difficulties to men like Hermann Buhl. But, on the Eiger, conditions can mean everything. We were lucky to have it so easy. We took off the ropes and soloed up to the final ice-field. Hard ice again; on with the ropes. We were on the summit in the early afternoon and our happiness was so complete that we ran most of the way down the easy West flank. In less than two hours we were at Kleine Scheidegg. Jenny
and Hauser reached the summit at about the sarne time as we entered the hotel.

In the hotel the joy of our success was taken from us. We were told that two bodies had been sighted near the foot of the wall that morning. Did we know who they were? It came like a vicious blow. We felt shattered, sick with pity. Tom Carruthers and his Austrian partner were dead.

*   *   *   *   *

As we had hoped, Chris Bonington and I had had a smooth, uneventful climb in perfect weather and conditions. For a few days the cruel Ogre had been in a benevolent mood...yet, even so, two people, one a Briton, had fallen to their deaths. Only a month earlier another Briton had been killed and his companion was fortunate to be rescued.

From the facts we picked up later, it seems reasonable to assume that either Carruthers or the Austrian was hit by a stone. Observers at Kleine Scheidegg informed us that we had taken two hours to cross the Second Ice-field. Mists had hidden the second pair before they were half-way across but, on average, it was estimated that they would have taken eight hours! This would probably have put them on the Flatiron, the most dangerous position on the face (since it is directly under the Spider), at the worst time of the day. Tom Carruthers' watch had stopped at 5:15 about the same time that we encountered the stones coming down the Spider.

The previous British accident happened in virtually the same place and the events leading up to it followed a very similar pattern. Brian Nally and Barry Brewster took most of the day to get from their bivouac (the Swallow's Nest) to the end of the Second Ice-field where the accident occurred. Brewster was hit by a falling stone.

The cause of both accidents was the same. It wasn't just bad luck. Both parties were slow, mainly on account of errors in route-finding and judgement. Neither of these parties had sufficient all-round experience of big mountains to justify an attempt on the Eiger. They were victims of the atmosphere of hysteria which has grown up round the wall.

The Eiger is a great climb. Vast and complex, probably a more rigorous test of judgement and skill than any other European climb, it is, for the alpinist, a logical progression - almost a sort of finishing school. But, situated as it is, overlooking the tourist hotel of Kleine Scheidegg where pressmen can sit in comfort watching progress - it is also an arena, a circus. By publicity, it has been blown up out of all proportion; for some people it has become the only climb in the Alps, a place to make a name for oneself. Each year more and more young men of every nationality, blinded by publicity, make their premature attempts on the wall. Some get up, but the roll of honour is long.




Postage Stamp Day 2022: Stamps, Covers & Cachets from Mount Everest

Postage Stamp Day 2022: Stamps, Covers & Cachets from Mount Everest


The 1 July is National Postage Stamp Day in the United States. To mark this occasion, we have re-published Colin Hepper's 1979 Alpine Journal article which details the stamps, covers and cachets used by various Everest expeditions from the 1920s onwards. These tokens were frequently used for the correspondance sent from basecamp, bearing mountaineering news to the wider world and have become collector's items in the decades since. Colin's piece also looks at the other occasions when Everest has featured on stamps, whether as a method of commemorating ascents or as a symbol of Nepali national identity.


Nepal has held a fascination for me for many years now. Not for its challenge to the mountaineers, but for its stamps and postal history. In the search for items for my collection I have occasionally come across souvenir covers and cards associated with the many climbing expeditions that have visited there. These souvenirs are usually organised to help to raise funds towards the expedition's expenses and often carry the signatures of the climbing teams and various cachets are stamped on them. In isolated cases special stamps or labels are also used, but neither the stamps nor cachets in general have any valid postal use.

When letters and cards are posted they have to be taken to the nearest Nepalese Post Office, where Nepalese stamps are added. Many expeditions have visited Mount Everest since the first one in 1921, and most have had their own posting facilities. The first to have postal arrangements was in 1924, when a special stamp (fig l) showing the Rongbuk Glacier and Everest was printed in blue and white and this stamp had local status when used between the Base Camp and the official Post Offices in India. There are 4 cancellations used for this particular expedition. The most common is the Mount Everest Expedition Rongbuk Glacier Base Camp (type l) which is found used in both red and black. The majority of these were used on special cards advertising a forthcoming film of the expedition and posted from either Darjeeling or Calcutta after the expedition returned (fig 2). The other 2 (type 3 and type 4) are much scarcer and are only in black. Also used on this expedition was another special 'tractor party' cachet (type 2) which was used on covers from Sikkim, where the tractor party was abandoned.



The next expedition in 1933, led by Hugh Ruttledge had a Base Camp cachet (type 5) which was used to authorize the carriage of mail to the nearest Post Office. This cachet struck in violet was used by expedition members, which told the Gantok postal authorities that they should affix the necessary stamps thereon and charge accordingly. A Tibetan postal agent Lobsang Tsering was in charge of organizing a relay of postal runners from the expedition to the Post Office in Gantok. The oblong cachet (type 6) was a rectangle inscribed 'Everest 1936' and underneath a line of dots. The dotted line was for the insertion of the place name and the date from where the cover was sent. It was on this expedition that much of the mail was stolen. The last mail to arrive safely was sent from Tengke Dzong on April 10th and from that date until the beginning of June, no mail reached its destination without a long delay.



When mail was finally recovered buried in a tin in the Sikkim Forest each piece of mail was endorsed by a typewritten slip worded as follows: 'Suffered detention in Gantok Post Office owing to the postmaster's failure to affix postage stamps, and to forward them in time. The postmaster has been sent to jail for his offence.'

The last expedition before the Second World War was in 1938, and although there were no special cachets with the word 'Mount Everest' used, they did in fact use an 'Under Certificate of Posting' cachet (type 7), which was used for mail between the Base Camp and Gantok where stamps were put on and cancelled in the normal way. These cachets are known in both violet and purple. After 1950 Nepal allowed climbing expeditions into what had been previously a prohibited area, and so in 1953 we had the first successful attempt on Everest led by Colonel John Hunt from the Nepalese side. The expedition arrived at Khumbu Glacier on 22 April and Mr A. Gregory organized native runners to carry the mail to and from Kathmandu. The mail was delivered to the British Embassy from where it was handed over to the Indian Post Office for forward transmission. All letters sent by members of the expedition were stamped with a small rectangular rubber stamp (type 8) which was applied to the bottom left hand corner of the letter cover. Whilst climbers were up on the mountain at higher camps, Sherpas and climbers carried the mail up. To commemorate the success of the expedition, the Indian Post Office issued two stamps in denomination of 2 annas and 14 annas showing a view of the Himalayas and Mount Everest (fig 3). The American expedition in 1963, which succeeded in placing 6 men on the summit followed the example of the 1924 party by producing a special stamp or label. Unlike the 1924 stamps this had no valid postal use. It was printed in blue and red and shows Mount Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. This was placed on the bottom left-hand corner of the envelopes, but was not cancelled. (fig 4).




Two cachets, one from the Khumbu Glacier Base Camp and one carried by runner (types 9 and 9a) were used on specially printed envelopes, and were in black. Nepalese stamps were applied and cancelled at Kathmandu GPO.

1965 was the year when India—a country without any mountaineering tradition—had 9 men reach the summit. I have not seen any souvenir cards for this expedition, but a special stamp was issued to commemorate their success, which depicts 2 climbers standing on the summit of Everest (fig 5).

Souvenir cards used by an international team in 1971, attempting to climb Everest by the difficult South Face West Ridge Route, contained the signatures of the climbers, and the Everest 71/South Face/West Ridge/Base Camp cachet (type 10) in purple, and was sent from the Base Camp at 17,000ft (fig 6).

A British expedition led by Chris Bonington unsuccessfully tried the same route in 1972. Cards are known with the climbers' signatures, but I have seen no cachets associated with this climb. The same year, which was also Olympic year, saw a big multinational expedition led by Dr Karl M. Herrligkoffer visiting the mountain and a large cachet (type 11) was used on special souvenir cards, which were signed by the clirnbers.



It was the turn of the Italians in 1973 and they used a rubber handstamp (type 12) on special souvenir cards posted by members of the expedition. Although the British had organized many expeditions to Everest, it was not until 1975 that the first Britons, Haston and Scott, reached the summit. Chris Bonington led this successful expedition and the official cards carried the Base Camp cachet (type 13).

The British and Nepalese armies have had a long and close military association, and in 1976 they combined together to form a climbing team for an expedition to Everest. Souvenir covers carried a picture of Everest, the Base Camp, advance base, South Col and the summit marked. Three cachets were used by the expedition 'Base Camp established 24th March 1976', a triangular 'South Col reached 5th May 1976' and 'Summit Reached 16th May 1976' (types 14a, 14b, 14c). All letters were cancelled at Kathmandu GPO.

In the same year in August, the Americans took the place of a French team that cancelled its expedition to attempt to climb Everest in the American bi-centennial year. Three cachets were used on the souvenir cards. Two based on different designs of mountaineering equipment, 'the Base Camp' being in the shape of a tent, the 'Carried by Runner' cachet incorporated in a haversack and the 'Summit Reached' in the shape of a mountain (types 15a, 15b, 15c).

The 1977 expedition came from Korea, and 2 climbers Sang Dong Po and Pemba Norbu reached the summit on 15 September. There were no cachets for this, but a souvenir expedition card was organized by the Nepal Philatelic Society of Kathmandu which was signed by the 2 summiters and the leader Kim Young Do and cancelled at Kathmandu GPO 30 September 1977 (fig 7).



Everest on Stamps

Everest is found regularly on the stamps of Nepal. The first Perkins Bacon printed stamp issued in 1907 showed the figure of a god seated in the midst of mountain peaks. The deity represented Siva Madheva. The Nepalese believe that the throne is Mount Everest; thus the design represents not only the god but Everest as well as his residence (fig 8). In the pictorial issue of 1949 the 20p value shows Kathmandu Valley with Mount Everest in the background (fig 9) and the 4p value in the 1959 issue (fig 10) shows what must be presumed to be the Khumbu Glacier. More recent issues have been made in 1960 and 1971 specifically showing the mountain (fig 11) and the King's birthday issue on 11 June 1970 also included a view of the mountain (fig 12). On 15 May 1973 India issued a commemorative stamp for the 15th anniversary of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation showing the mountain (fig 13). The current 10p and 25 aerogrammes have a mountain shown on the stamp design and although not named it must be presumed to represent Everest. The 25th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest was celebrated on 29 May 1978 with Nepal issuing 2 commemorative stamps (fig 14) showing views of Everest and a new postcard of 20p denomination which has the date 29 May 78 printed on it (fig 15).

First day cancellations were made at Kathmandu, Pokhara and for the first time Namchebazar at the foot of Everest; at a function held at the General Post Office the Minister of Communications, Mr Hari Bahadur Basnyat initialled some of the First Day covers. This particular issue saw a great deal of philatelic activity with a special helicopter flight to the Base Camp of Mount Everest—Namchebazar to have stamps and covers cancelled at the local Post Office. For the first time 15,000 medallic first day covers prepared by the Franklin Philatelic Society of the USA were issued. These medallic covers can be regarded as the first of its type prepared in Nepal that served both a philatelic and numismatic purpose. The foreign exchange earned for this issue exceeded the total amount of foreign exchange earned in a single year to date.




The First Winter Ascent of Nanga Parbat | Alpine Journal Extract

The First Winter Ascent of Nanga Parbat - Journal Extract

On 26 February 2016, Simone Moro, Alex Txicon and Ali Sadpara reached the summit of Nanga Parbat via the Kinshofer route to make the first winter ascent. Nanga Parbat was first attempted in winter in 1988-89 by a Polish team and more than 30 expeditions have tried since. Moro reflected on both the historic and his personal journey to the first winter ascent in a piece for the 2016 Alpine Journal.

The Diamir face of Nanga Parbat. Moro switched from the Messner route to the Kinshofer due to unusually risky conditions on his favoured line.
(All photos courtesy of Simone Moro)

It was a cold dream, one almost 30 years in the making, on an epic mountain, the biggest in the world even if it isn’t the highest. In the course of those three decades I spent a whole year either under or on the slopes of Nanga Parbat before finally realising my ambition of climbing to the summit in winter, and with a unique group of people. To realise big dreams you have to accept long waits and numerous defeats; rework strategies, teams and tactics. In a nutshell, you have to be willing to be mentally very strong as well as physically.

A winter expedition to an 8,000er is not the cold version of a spring or summer expedition. It’s another world, a way of doing alpinism that’s completely different; one that has to be learned, understood and experienced. Cold is certainly one of the elements with which you have to cope, but there is also the constant wind, freezing and damn loud, a wind that can force you to stay in your tent at base camp even if the sky is clear and the sun is shining. Good weather windows are very rare and brief so acclimatisation phases are often irregular and incomplete; staying on the mountain for gradually increasing periods is incredibly difficult. Days are also very short and so the potential period for active climbing is reduced.

The times you leave and reach camps or for a summit bid are very different from those in summer. You can’t be out in the dark, out of your tent and sleeping bag. Gas cans used to melt snow and provide water often freeze and must be kept warm. You never leave high camps up; tents are taken down and packed every time you leave them to return to the valley. There are so many technical details and protocols that must be respected when climbing an 8,000er in winter. Our climb of Nanga Parbat this winter was all this, but with a human drama and a sequence of events spread over nearly three months, which eventually focused on six days and five nights spent on the mountain in late February, days that were unforgettable and ultimately historic.

There were so many of us this year dreaming of the first ascent of the penultimate winter summit of an 8,000er. These dreamers formed six expeditions, four on the Diamir side, totalling nine climbers, and two on the Rupal side, with 10. Routes chosen were the Messner-Eisendle-Tomaseth and Kinshofer for the Diamir side and the Schell for the Rupal. These were the three lines along which our dreams ran last winter; all had been attempted before in the years since the first winter attempt in 1988-89, when a Polish team led by that brilliant expedition leader Andrzej Zawada made the first winter attempt on Nanga Parbat, on that occasion via the Kinshofer.

Jumaring a fixed line on the summit bid.

But there was something different this year to all my previous winter expeditions. I felt something in my soul, in my heart and mind. I’ve never wanted a mountain like I did this year and this desire was sweet: it was love. I didn’t think about defeating the mountain, I never thought like that; I wanted instead to have a good relationship with her, I wanted to court her, to take things gently. I was already prepared to accept a third failure in winter following those of 2012 and 2014, but this time I was sure, really strongly confident that Nanga Parbat would be granted me after so many years.

I had learned a bit about the Himalayan giants; I had the experience of 15 winter expeditions. Although I had already climbed three 8,000ers in winter, both in the Himalaya and the Karakoram and always with several companions, I realised that for a special dream like Nanga we wanted a special team and a special atmosphere. For this reason I chose Tamara Lunger: we had shared some mountaineering projects since 2009, but only recently, in the last year, had we become climbing partners, following my long association with Denis Urubko. In 2015 Tamara and I attempted Manaslu together in winter, and although we didn’t make the summit, we climbed two smaller peaks via two new routes alpine style, and I realised that Tamara was the right one, even for an adventure in winter. She is strong at altitude [Editor’s note: Lunger was the second Italian woman to climb K2 without oxygen and is a highly regarded ski mountaineer], stronger than most I’ve met in my 25-year career, she is always in a good mood, and most of all she was also in love with Nanga Parbat and high altitude.

As a team of two people of different sexes, taking a different approach from usual made sense; we decided not to communicate with the outside world for the whole of the expedition. We weren’t in a hurry, we had more than three and a half months, all of the winter season, and we knew we wouldn’t be back home until 21 March. We chose not to report anything, not to update websites or have a dedicated blog; that was the second surprise, and I knew this decision was at odds with others on the mountain.

It was 6 December when we flew from Milan to Islamabad and as always happens on any expedition, especially winter, things did not go as expected. We wanted to acclimatise on the 7,000m peak Spantik, before going to Nanga Parbat, but our local agent did not respect our agreement, and tried to quadruple our fee; we knew there would probably be further increases when we got back from base camp, and that we had no other option but to accept. So we cancelled the first part of the expedition and headed to Nanga Parbat base camp, which we reached on 27 December.

Two months passed, intense, beautiful and fascinating months, before the day arrived when all our waiting and efforts paid off. Before that, however, Tamara and I tried for a month to climb the Messner route, more dangerous this year than usual. That month was spent going backwards and forwards up the Diama glacier, always briskly, and then going as high as possible on Ganalo Peak while still getting down during the day to the base of our route. It was nearly 15km to base camp from that quiet and wild place. The Pole Tomek Mackiewicz and his expedition partner Elisabeth Revol had the same goal but with different methods and strategies from our own, although with the same belief in the beauty and appeal of the Messner route.

In the course of a month Tamara and I weren’t able to get beyond 6,000m and spent just two nights at 5,800m. That was too little gain in altitude for any valuable acclimatisation and any realistic hope of success in winter on that route. Constant serac collapses and a dangerous maze to work through the initial part of the route made us realise we had to change. Tomek added weight to our decision; his last desperate attempt ended at 7,400m. He and Elisabeth decided to return home.

At camp 2 the four climbers discovered that two of their sleeping mats had blown away. They were forced to share for the next five nights.

It was a similar story with the Poles Adam Bielicki and Jacek Czech, who returned home, the first after a fall and the other for health problems. Time was moving on; the large Polish expedition attempting the Rupal Face stopped hoping and fighting and went home, as well as the Brazilian-born American Cleo Weidlich and her team of Sherpas. Of the original expeditions, there remained just me and Tamara and the team of Alex Txicon from Spain, who had invited us to join him and his group on the Kinshofer at the start of the expedition.

After we gave up on the Messner, we accepted his offer and were both happy and excited; I was always convinced that this was the year. I kept repeating to Tamara and later also to Alex and his climbing partner, the Pakistani Muhammad Ali Sadpara: this year we would go to the top. However, Alex’s invitation caused a strange reaction from his expedition partner Daniele Nardi. For complex reasons and personal relationships, we split them apart, and Daniele took the decision to abandon base camp.

So it was a case of those who were left, those who were stranded on Nanga Parbat to carry on to the summit in the teeth of the winter cold. Despite this, we were for sure the most resilient and optimistic team I’d ever experienced, able to move every day over the course of two months, even in cold weather, keeping fit and active. True, we were also the least acclimatised we had ever been; although Tamara and I were very fast, we hadn’t once slept high in almost three months of the climb. Finally, having switched to the Kinshofer, we had an opportunity to spend a night at camp two. With Alex and Ali, we tested our engines, going in less than 10 hours from base camp, around 4,300m on Nanga Parbat, to camp two at 6,100m; we passed a good night and worked beautifully with our two new fellow adventurers.

We had made the most of a single sunny day to make that flying visit to altitude and now prepared to wait for the right window, a period of good weather sufficiently long and stable to allow us a try. There was a little less than a month to go before the end of winter but I kept repeating like a mantra that this was the year I would get to the top, we will go to the top, the top… It was not an obsession, but a clear conviction. I felt it. I knew it.

The four climbers back at base camp: left to right Alex Txicon, Tamara Lunger, Simone Moro and Muhammad Ali Sadpara.

It was a cold and frosty morning when Tamara, Alex, Ali and I set off on 22 February 2016 on snowshoes to the base of the Kinshofer route. The window of good weather had arrived, and with it the clear intention of attempting the summit even though I knew that on paper both Tamara and I had insufficient acclimatisation for a big jump of more than 4,000m in altitude.

We reached camp two in about nine hours, fast, smiling, happy, despite the bitter cold and the shady steep gully we climbed. But when we arrived we had a nasty surprise that would cost us for the next five nights. Two sleeping mats had been blown away by the wind in the preceding few days; the four of us would have to share the remaining mats in the incredible cold of winter nights high on Nanga Parbat. We spent two nights in the tent at camp two because of strong winds that arrived next day. Four sleeping on two mattresses wasn’t very comfortable, but at least we found a solution to this setback that would see us through the attempt.

The weather remained stable, albeit with wind and cold, and we climbed first to camp three at 6,750m and then camp four at 7,150m, striking and packing the tent each morning with all the other gear. The last camp we deliberately located lower than usual, 1,000m below the summit. We could feel our obvious failure to acclimatise and so had to come up with a new strategy as well as being determined. Tamara and I were already 1,000m higher than the maximum altitude we had reached in the previous three months, and now we had to climb another 1,000m.

We had divided the work with Alex and Ali, but now we needed to decide how best to deal with the summit day. We left the tent at different times, to allow everyone to get ready comfortably and not all four of us at the same time. I wasn’t using battery-heated insoles like the others, so I left the tent last. First were Ali and Alex, at 6am on 26 February; half an hour later it was Tamara’s turn to leave the haven of the tent. I got myself ready, warming my feet over the stove and then left at 7.45am. I kept up a strong and steady pace, with regular breaks, and reached first Tamara and then my companions. It was cold, very cold, minus 34°C with a strong wind of 45km/h, so it felt more like minus 58°C.

It was only at around 10.30am that we saw the first rays of the sun transform the mountain’s harsh appearance and lift our mood, even though the unceasing wind seemed now to spread everywhere as we gained altitude and became more exposed to its exhausting effects. Our hypoxia was becoming more pronounced; I could manage only around five steps, sometimes ten. It was past 2pm when we passed the 8,000m mark, spread out but in visual contact. Ali, in that last stretch, climbed a little to the right of the usual line of ascent, while Alex, Tamara and I stuck to the regular route, becoming increasingly fatigued as we strove towards a summit that seemed never to arrive.

In the morning, just after she left the tent, Tamara had been sick, vomiting the little breakfast she had managed to eat. She continued to vomit every time I offered her liquid or food. It was also the start of her menstrual cycle, adding to her fatigue. Clear-headed and rational, she took the decision to abandon the summit at around 8,040m, only 80m or so in altitude from the top. The decision probably saved her life. The three of us, a little ahead, took the last few steps to the summit at 8,126m. It had taken 27 years since the first attempt in winter, generations of alpinists passing on the baton to keep alive a project that seemed almost impossible.

Moro had to persuade his two fellow summit climbers Alex Txicon and Muhammad Ali Sadpara to pose for a photograph in the face of intense cold.

We hugged on top, exhausted, incredulous but sharing an ecstatic joy. It was already 3.30pm. Now in the last hours of daylight and coping with the obvious exhaustion, we hurried to start our descent. Not seeing Tamara, we realised that something had happened and she was already on her way down. Ali had seen her from the summit and waved a few minutes before. I insisted that we stop to take a photograph on the top; Ali and Alex weren’t fussed because of the cold, but I managed to capture this historic moment not only for us.

I wanted to look once again to the Rupal side. I imagined it was almost 50 years ago, and those two lads from the South Tyrol, Reinhold and Günther Messner, were climbing up towards me. As a child they had made me dream. Reading about them, realising that their strength was in the co-operation and understanding they shared, I developed the ambition to one day become a man capable of climbing mountains, to try to do it my way, finding my own path with a close companion as they did. With Tamara I found that connection again, and with Ali and Alex we established a unique and almost unrepeatable bond. If the dedication of my fourth first winter ascent was to Günther Messner, I must also acknowledge the team with whom I lived for five nights and six days on Nanga Parbat, as well as all those who for 30 years kept the flame of this dream alight.




Christmas at Camp II - Holiday Tales from the Mountains

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.”




Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites | Review

In a review from the 2021 Alpine Journal, (on sale now via Cordee), Ed Douglas examines the 2021 Boardman Tasker winner; 'Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites' by David Smart. He discovers not only a well-researched and considered portrait of Comici, a man whose identity was bound up in the muscularity of Italian nationalism, but also a book with a contemporary resonance and huge value for an English-speaking audience who have rarely been given much insight into this period of Italian climbing. 

Emilio Comici
Angel of the Dolomites
David Smart
RMB, 2020, pp248, £31

On 7 August 1915, as the summer sun bleached the fields of northern Italy, the poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio arrived over the port of Trieste in a flimsy biplane piloted by his friend Giuseppe Miraglia. The white city, D’Annunzio noted, shone against the backdrop of the Carso, the limestone plateau that traditionally divided Italians from Slovenes and offered Triestino climbers a training ground for the challenges of the Dolomites.

From his cockpit, D’Annunzio, then in his early fifties, released bombs on Austrian submarines floating in the harbour and also threw packets of messages – garnished with green, white and red ribbons bought from a Venetian haberdashery – to the people below who were watching the air raid from Trieste’s main piazza. Written in D’Annunzio’s florid style, they promised that soon the Italian tricolour would fly over the castle of San Giusto, the city’s heart. Irredentists, desperate to be free of Austrian rule and part of a reunified Italy, stood in the streets and cheered during later bombing raids, despite the risks.

There’s no evidence that Emilio Comici watched this first air sortie over his city, but it’s safe to say that if he didn’t then he would have heard all about it, and would have revelled in its daring. In this fascinating biography, improbably the first for such a titan of 1930s climbing, David Smart makes it clear that news of Italian success left Comici exhilarated. How could it not? Italians in the city had chafed for centuries under rule from Vienna, whose brutality they blamed for the war. Plus, he was 14 years old and already vulnerable to the romance of adventure. Italian boys’ clubs were shut down by the authorities so they had more time on their hands to dream of freedom. Always a bit of a mammone, a mummy’s boy, he would strum the family’s mandolin as she made his dinner and sing about their beloved city, and how it fretted under the Austrian heel.

Among the names that would have thrilled the teenage Comici was Napoleone Cozzi, a brilliant pre-war climber who made the Val Rosandra just outside Trieste a training ground, a palestra, where a young alpinist could perfect the skills required for the hard new climbs being put up in the Dolomites by such great names as Paul Preuss, Angelo Dibona and Tita Piaz, the so-called ‘devil of the Dolomites’. And it was in the Val Rosandra that Comici would start on his path to fame, if not fortune. But as Smart makes clear, Cozzi was also an irredentist, famous for his arrest in 1904 and subsequent trial in Vienna after Austrian secret police discovered what are now called IEDs hidden under the floorboards of the Trieste Gymnastics Society. Years later, during the war, when Comici walked those same floorboards, notions of climbing and adventure were inextricably fused in his mind with the nationalist, irredentist cause that so inspired him.

Emilio Comici in his signature climbing jacket and basketball shoes at Val Rosandra outside Trieste.
With journalist and occasional benefactor Severino Casara and good friend Emmy Hartwich-Brioschi, who had been Paul Preuss’ lover, at Lake Misurina in 1935

Politics, however, was moving on rapidly. The colourful, ludicrous extravagance of Gabriele D’Annunzio had morphed into something new and darker. In October 1922, while Comici was doing his national service, Mussolini’s fascists levered their way to power. Already a member of the Associazione XXX Ottobre, the date news of Austria’s defeat reached Trieste, Comici joined Mussolini’s party and became one of the squadristi, a black shirt. Something in the fascist aesthetic appealed to Comici, a climber who would have understood very well how to use Instagram: it was modern, clean and seemingly progressive, and well dressed, like he was: so unlike the well-heeled romanticism of Mitteleuropan alpinists like Julius Klugy, long a mentor to successive generations of alpinists in Trieste, including Cozzi. For a working-class climber like Comici, the future seemed elsewhere. After he climbed his eponymous route on the Cima Grande, one of the most striking landmarks in the history of alpinism, he wrote in the hut book: ‘By the same light that illuminates the value and tenacity of the Italians of Mussolini, we have opened the path to the north face of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.’

There is a great deal to recommend this book, not least David Smart’s ability to paint a broad canvas without exhausting the reader’s attention. All this historical perspective is not only fascinating and rich with detail, but also necessary, because of the equivocal place Comici holds in the climbing firmament, the glamorous risk-taker adding sheen to Mussolini’s project. At times, Smart strains a little too hard to excuse Comici’s political allegiances, although I think mostly he gets it right. I would like to have heard more from Comici’s near-contemporaries on this; Fosco Maraini famously tore up his fascist party membership card when his father enrolled him. Comici, on the other hand, averted his gaze. Towards the end of the book, Smart writes:

Even after the Trieste section of the CAI hung signs forbidding Jews in its huts, Emilio had fretted over the predicament of his Jewish friends, not as if racism was a core program of his beloved party (which, after 1938, it was), but as if it was some kind of unintended oversight by a regime he saw as benevolent.

For much of this book, until its poignant and fatal conclusion, I wondered whether Smart’s considerable talents would have been better deployed writing a history of the whole sixth-grade scene, which for English readers is woefully underexplored and yet forms the basis for the explosion of big-wall climbing in Yosemite and elsewhere after the war. Because Emilio Comici did seem to bob around on the surface of his own unusually interesting era, like a cork on a storm-tossed ocean. The portrayal of his childhood is, presumably through necessity, somewhat hurried. The poor leave little trace. But it’s clear he had little meaningful education. That left him with a sense of inferiority, especially around some of his intellectual clients, and a lack of traction in the wider world.

Music was a comfort and a pleasure throughout his life and there is a wonderful scene towards the end of the book when, now living in the Dolomites, he takes up the piano under the instruction of one of his clients, Rita Palmquist, a Dane who had performed concerts all over Europe. Mussolini had tried to suppress folk songs and mandolin playing because they led to unmanly display of emotion. But Il Duce approved of the piano, which he could play himself. Comici had some natural talent and persevered, but learning the piano in his late thirties was understandably frustrating. After one lesson ended badly, Comici stood up and closed the lid, telling his teacher:

You have witnessed the most splendid symbol of my spiritual life. A closed door. You see, I have worked hard to develop my body, my muscles. I managed to do so, but at the detriment to my inner life. A few years ago, I thought I would be a writer, but it was an illusion. In the spiritual realm, there is a closed door for me.

Palmquist, understandably, was deeply moved at this declaration, the austere man of the mountains revealing briefly the torment beneath the surface, a man ‘who some accused of turning climbing into a mechanical thing, was, in fact, deeply sensitive.’ And the rest. Smart paints a convincing portrait of a man who was if anything hypersensitive, particularly to criticism. Like his beloved home city Trieste, Smart writes, Comici had a certain distacco, an aloofness from the world, and a self-sufficiency, or lontananza, that added to the impression that he was somewhere on a higher plane. ‘There have been few more haunted alpinists,’ Smart writes at one point. He’s speaking of ghosts, but it stands for his character too.

This self-absorption, from an Alpine outsider like Comici, must have come across as arrogance to some, and petulant arrogance when the Dimai brothers were rude about him after the Cima Grande climb. Comici appealed to the fascist authorities for resolution, but they just shrugged and suggested he stand up for himself. Even when he took the initiative and soloed the north face to counter the Dimais’ sniping, he had to spoil the effect by having another sulk. You want to shout at him across the decades: you made your point, Emilio, let it go! Enamoured of press attention but reluctant to engage through a natural shyness, Comici certainly suffered for his art. He wanted to be taken seriously as a man but often ended up as a symbol of something, of a legend that became a trap that slowly compressed him.

Perhaps that was what the piano playing was all about. It was also to please his ageing mother, a kindness the fascists would have frowned on as effeminate. One of the most striking aspects of this book is the ubiquity of women. They’re everywhere in this story, a reminder that women have more often been excluded from the story of climbing, not the actual climbing. There’s the Slovenian Mira ‘Marko’ Pibernik, as Smart calls her, although she preferred her maiden name Debelak, since her first marriage was arranged and soon discarded. A woman familiar to students of Ben Nevis history, she was on the first ascent of Slav Route. She’d also swung leads on the first ascent of the 900m north face of Jôf di Montasio. There’s Riccardo Cassin’s climbing partner Mary Varale, who brought Comici to Lecco to teach them pegging and later quit the CAI because of its blatant misogyny. Comici would take her on another truly great Tre Cime climb, the Spigolo Giallo. Anna Escher, one of his richest and most regular clients. And Emmy Hartwich-Brioschi, Paul Preuss’ lover at the time of his death, introduced to Comici by their mutual friend, the rather flaky journalist Severino Casara. Paula Wiesinger is there, the first woman to climb grade VI in the Dolomites. Trieste itself was home to more women climbing grade VI than anywhere else in the world, in particular Bruna Bernadini, who rarely followed. Finally there was the celebrated poet Antonia Pozzi, another of Comici’s clients, a brilliant young woman who faced her own demons. She took a long cool look at Comici and saw him high on his lonely perch among the mountains where ‘ … you will only see/your rope/encased in ice/and your hard heart/among the pale spires.’ She committed suicide aged 26 but Comici, the ‘sullen, poor, uneducated kid from the docklands of Trieste’, seems not to have noticed.

Towards the end of his short life, Emilio Comici began to grasp more fully his place in the world, how the populism of men like Gabriele D’Annunzio had twisted the urge of all Italians to be free. Comici had gone to the Dolomites so that an Italian might, in his own country, surpass the achievements of the Germans there. Naïve perhaps, even self-regarding, but not I think necessarily malign. The only new route he climbed in the war, during which he served as a minor fascist functionary, was dedicated to Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s great rival who had opposed Italy’s Nazi-style race laws. Smart offers this as an indication that Comici’s fascist ardour was cooling. I’m not so sure. Either way, we shall never know whether Comici would have joined Cassin, who’d had his own flirtation with fascism, in fighting with the partisans against the Nazis. Because shortly after the Angel of the Dolomites was dead.

‘They will only get me in the end,’ Comici wrote of the mountains even as his passion for climbing waned. Ironically, it was the palestra he created in Vallunga that did for him, a place where he could teach but also perform for an audience, a banal accident caused by a rotten rope. Having fallen 30m and struck his head, he stood up again, blood streaming down his face, the broken ends still clutched in his fist, before dropping dead on the ground. David Smart has done the English-speaking climbing world an immense service with this book, capturing all the grandeur and vanity of our sport and the politics that informs it, all trapped in the amber of the 1930s, that turbulent era that looks so much like our own.