Early 1980s poor family, too many children, carless, no passports, seeks fun, fulfilling, family holiday for the price of a pack of firelighters. Replies on a postcard to Malcolm Bonnington-Fiennes, base camp SY22.
Our airmiles were rather paltry, our landmiles would have made Alan Wells look like a distance runner. Options were limited but my ever resourceful parents hit upon the holiday to end all holidays; it came in under budget and would only take a few days.
We were getting back to nature, we hadn’t actually left it as it was all we could afford. A few days enjoying simple pleasures, reconnecting with the environment, honing our survival skills is what the family required. We’d cook on a fire, sleep under canvas, whittle even.
I was sold on the idea immediately, Sarah, my older sister less so and younger sister Laura was still grappling with speech so her opinions could be a little difficult to read. Sarah was swiftly dispatched to a friend’s house as her tendency to cry before falling highlighted the fact that she hadn’t the mettle for this expedition and we didn’t need passengers in the badlands. It would just be the four of us, a good even number, watching each other's back, all pulling in the same direction.
Day One. Base camp was about eighteen miles from home, an inhospitable mountain with a huge waterfall. Imagine the Eiger with Niagara falling off the side. We enlisted the help of a native Sherpa called Gill to take us there and, having overloaded her aging Renault five with us and our gear, embarked. Always quick to grasp the concept, Laura initiated her perfunctory self-cleansing mechanism; a quick spew over us and our belongings would soon have us blending in with the smells of our surroundings. Genius. On reaching base camp we waved goodbye to the friendly native knowing that this was it, us against nature. Tents were erected with minimal fuss, after all we’d left Sarah behind.
Mountain man and I did a quick recce, gathered wood and located the toilets on the campsite.. sorry, dug a rudimentary latrine. After devouring our rations we came under attack, the natives had it in for us and were showing their displeasure with each bite. Luckily mountain woman had packed some insect repellant. This siege mentality brought us closer, a common enemy to fight against.
Day Two. Having weighed up the terrain, wind speed, precipitation and mars bar supply mountain man and I decided this was the time to push for the summit, any later and we would be staring disaster in the face. We couldn’t risk mountain woman and child eating before we got back so we looked at our compasses, because we had compasses, and off we went. After a gruelling six or seven minutes I was cruelly struck down, I pleaded with mountain man to go on without me. My toe was agonisingly painful, it had to be frostbite. Mountain man approached me with his Swiss Army knife, the toe was clearly going to be removed, maybe I could find some wood to bite down on. After gently removing my plimsole.. sorry Brasher walking boot, he shook the offending pebble out of the end and we thanked the gods for smiling upon us.
After climbing for maybe an hour we happened upon a crystal clear mountain stream, this is as pure as water gets and mountain man was straight in, gulping down all he could and filling his canteen. Aware of the dangers a mountain can hold I decided to forgo quenching my biting thirst and make sure we were safe. Mountain man ridiculed me for my safety first approach, he had a cruel streak but that single mindedness has made him one of the top mountaineers in our household. I could only dream that one day the ways of the mountain would be passed on to me, I imagined that on his deathbed something would seep from him and then I would know that I was now mountain man. We passed a sheep circling in a pool further upstream, the serenity of the animal was beguiling as if something spiritual was taking place. Mountain man wasn’t keen to look at it, a clash of energies maybe.
We made it to the summit under his guidance and with astonishing haste we headed back to base camp. Barely a word was spoken during the descent, the mark of a true mountaineer, overcome by the conquest he was struggling to keep his emotions in check. How I admired him.
Back at base camp I began to truly appreciate what this meant to mountain man; so overwhelmed he could take no part in our petty banter and silently refused food. This must have put him on a higher plain somehow and at one with the mountain.
Day Three. The agony of having conquered the mountain was now evident in every move of mountain man, he clutched his sides and roared at the latrine whilst dancing shamanically. We had to get back home, take him away from his nemesis to find peace. Mountain woman and child set off for the comms centre, a red rectangular box some miles away, from where she hoped Sherpa Gill could be summoned. I was left with strict instructions to ‘keep an eye on your dad’, mountain speak for ‘don’t let him out of your sight, he’s battling demons!’
As mountain man elect I stuck to the task, I could see what the future held for me. The pain etched on mountain man’s face was clear, i followed him, no easy task given his animal side seemed to have taken over. I could feel that something huge was happening, I was covering ground easily, keeping up with him, and then as I was perched high up on a rock I spotted him padding around in some bracken and clinging to an indistinct, white idol. Was he on his deathbed? Something was certainly seeping from him, roaring out of him to be precise.
We don’t talk of this. The power of the mountains is greater than us.