Mountaineers are a special breed. A breed entirely apart from the rest of us who follow an esoteric way of thinking. Eric Shipton got it right when he wrote approvingly in Upon That Mountain of the “philosophy which aims at living a full life while the opportunity offers. There are few treasures of more lasting worth than the experience of a way of life that is in itself wholly satisfying. Such, after all, are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.”
Shipton would know, because he and his lifelong friend William Tilman made the greatest duo of mountaineer-explorers of the 20th century with a huge quantum of pioneering work to their credit.
It was the quest for this way of life that led men and women into the wilds where they were pitted against unbridled nature. Whether it was explorers such as Ernest Shackleton in the Arctic Circle or Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen in the Karakorams, Fridtjof Nansen in Greenland or, closer to our times, Ranulph Fiennes and his partner Mike Stroud hauling heavily laden sleds across Antarctica, all have a common thread connecting them. Such persons push themselves to the very limits of human endurance to achieve the seemingly unachievable.
A tour de force for those unfamiliar with the extreme sport, a book about scaling the peak called The Ogre is also about real leadership
It will be hard to determine if it is exposure to nature that makes these people the characters they are — selfless, sensitive, unimpeachably honest, upright and humane — or if they are naturally of this bent that leads them to engage in mountaineering, the most extreme among extreme sports and, indeed, the most sublime of them all.
The Ogre: Biography of a Mountain and the Dramatic Story of the First Ascent by British mountaineer Doug Scott is a story of a superhuman endeavour that unfolded on a Karakoram peak. This is the stuff that can only be the stuff of Hollywood flicks.
In 1977, Scott came to the Karakorams to climb the mountain known to Western climbers as The Ogre, and as Baintha Brakk to the Baltis. Sitting halfway up the left bank of the Biafo Glacier, the 7,287 metre (23,900 feet) high peak was unclimbed till then. Those who have seen it cannot but remark on its squat, brooding, almost frightful appearance and find the foreign title rather apt. Apart from the appearance, even a novice would know that those huge granite slabs rearing up at 50 degrees and naked of snow for a thousand metres and more, can only be tackled by a climber with substantial experience on great walls.
To attempt the first ascent of The Ogre, Scott was in good company with Chris Bonington (later knighted), Paul Braithwaite, Julian Anthoine and Clive Rowland. All had considerable alpine and Himalayan experience behind them.
The climb began well with excellent sunny weather and blue skies. Scott made the summit with Bonington at 7pm on a mid-July evening. Elated by the success, Scott was perhaps a little careless on the downward abseil when he used his feet against the rock wall to steady himself to fix the ropes better. Snow that had melted in the late afternoon sun had now refrozen in a thin veneer of transparent ice.
“My feet slid across the ice, off into the air and away I went, galloping across the rocks, striding faster and faster, trying to regain control, to arrest the swing but then spinning, rolling wildly round and round and away into the void, clutching the ends of the rope for all I was worth.”
As he swung back to the rock wall, he held out his feet as “a pair of buffers” and the speed at which he was then flying did the rest: both his legs snapped just above the ankles. Bonington came down to assist him and the two managed to struggle only some few score metres down to spend nine hours of the fast descending night in the open at around 7,200 metres above the sea. If that was bad, the worst was yet to come.
Nature was waiting for just something to go wrong and she moved in with a blizzard that was to rage over the next four days. Meanwhile, another accident led to Bonington hurting himself. Owing to the intense pain in his chest, he suspected broken ribs. And so it was confirmed several days later by two American doctors in Askole.
With great difficulty, the injured duo regained a lower camp from where Anthoine and Rowland had watched Scott swinging into the void. Thereafter darkness and the following snowstorm prevented any more to be known. Both feared the worst for the climbers, but were yet waiting for them.
On the eighth day after the fateful abseil, Scott was in Base Camp where a team of Balti porters prepared a makeshift stretcher to carry him three days down the Biafo Glacier to Askole.
The opening part of the book dealing with the history of exploration and mountaineering paints a wide and interesting canvas, a veritable tour de force for those unacquainted with the subject. The fast clip of the narrative makes The Ogre a one-sitting book. Indeed, the pace picks up in the last part dealing with the accident and the crawl to safety, leaving one feeling as if one just sat through a nail-biting film. The vivid narration leaves the reader almost breathless and, in the end, relieved to see Scott on the stretcher.
If Shipton had a view on the philosophy of mountaineering, Scott finds the lonely peaks “as places for spiritual renewal.” According to him, Anthoine felt that “Every year you need to flush out your system and do a little suffering.” Altogether, The Ogre quite captures the soul of mountaineering, the only extreme sport where the protagonists do not play out their struggle on TV screens and within reach of an ambulance service.
As you proceed through The Ogre, the realisation comes on strong that this lot, with their considerable mountaineering expeditions, were suited to the crises from which they so gloriously came through. For four days in a raging blizzard and without any food, the badly injured duo is assisted down the mountain across granite slabs and the crevassed glacier by their two good mates and you cannot miss the intensely moving camaraderie. The superhuman will to survive is equally admirable.
However, in the gloaming of dusk, with Base Camp just “around the corner”, Scott finds his will faltering. Yet he makes it to the safety of tent and sleeping bag. In the eight-day crawl on his knees Scott eats through four pairs of outer trousers and ends up with badly bruised and swollen knees.
Scott’s admiration for the Balti porters who bore him down and around the crevasses and rocky moraines of the Biafo Glacier is understandable. He notes that there seems to be no leader in the group that is tasked to bring him within reach of a helicopter. There are only strong individuals. Where they would normally have walked with their 25 kilogramme loads, they cannot do so with a stretcher and a route is picked after a quietly murmured discussion. There is never an error and not a raised voice.
Scott’s gratitude to the Baltis resulted in the raising of $10,000 to give the people of Askole — the village from where his porters came — a clean drinking water supply. Until this installation in 1990, child mortality from dysentery was very high. The supply works to this day.
The Ogre is much more than the book to read as a masterpiece of adventure travel writing or mountaineering. In fact, the part dealing with the descent to safety should be made essential reading for those in management training courses where they claim to ‘prepare leaders’. It shows what one really needs to face the rigours of life.
The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel
The Ogre: Biography of a Mountain and the
Dramatic Story of the First Ascent
By Doug Scott
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 27th, 2019