You are tent-bound in the mountains, in a storm. Time to read a good book. Will it be British mountaineer George Mallory’s choice: Shakespeare? Or Dostoevsky, the favourite of another mountain-loving Briton, Bill Tilman. Heavy stuff, both of them. For a lighter read, try W E Bowman’s hilarious mountaineering satire, The Ascent of Rum Doodle. First published in 1956, Rum Doodle is now on The Guardian’s list of ‘1000 Novels Everyone Must Read’ and among Colorado-based publisher Chessler’s ‘100 Best Mountaineering Books’. It has been called ‘an epic’, ‘Homeric’,’ inspiring’ and ‘very, very funny’.
A team of fictitious 1950s-era British climbers set out to climb the world’s highest peak, the 40,000½ foot Rum Doodle, in a country called Yogistan. As you read the book, you will recognise Yogistan as a thinly veiled Nepal. And, once you finish, you will remember Binder, the book’s narrator and expedition leader – naïve, always rationalising, and clueless; Prone, the doctor – always ill; Jungle, the route finder – always lost; and Constant, diplomat and linguist – always arguing. There is also Wish, the expedition scientist; Burley, head of the commissariat; and the photographer, Shute, who never actually succeeds in taking any pictures.
After the voyage out from London to Bombay, the team reaches Yogistan at the chaotic Chaikosi railhead where they engage 3000 Yogistani porters led by Bing, Bang and Bong, and the avoid-at-all-costs expedition cook, Pong. The intrepid Yogistanis speak in burps and belches, smoke stunk, and eat what can only be called gunk. Binder (which is actually a UK brand of gaseous butter beans) does his best to tell the story. With unbridled understatement, for example, he describes a great obstacle that his gang must surmount: ‘The North Wall is a sheer glass-like face of ice,’ he writes, ‘broken only by rock, snowfields, ice-pinnacles, crevasses, bergschrunds, ridges, gulleys, scree, chimneys, cracks, slabs, gendarmes, Les Dames Anglaises, needles, strata, gneiss and gabbro … A formidable obstacle, and one to daunt the hearts of a disunited party supported by mediocre porters …’
Along the way, he meditates on the number 153, contemplates the seat of Constant’s pants, worries about his men’s love lives, and touts the inestimable value of a stock of ‘medicinal’ champagne. When his men fall into a crevasse, the bubbly keeps their spirits up until rescued by Bing and Bong.
Bowman (1911-85) was an English engineer, and although he climbed a few crags in the UK’s Lake District, including ‘Napes Needle’, he never saw the Himalaya. That did not put him off, though, for he hung out with a lot of story-telling British climbers. In its characterisation of the indomitable spirit and dry humour of British mountaineers, the imaginative Rum Doodle is spot on. But what inspired Bowman to write Rum Doodle? Was it Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna (1952), or Hunt’s Ascent of Everest (1953)? Some say it was Dostoevsky-loving Tilman’s 1937 Ascent of Nanda Devi with which there are definite similarities.
There are other possibilities, too. Was the chaos at Chaikosi station inspired by the anxious search for lost Sherpas in the Calcutta railyards described in Eric Shipton’s Nanda Devi (1936)? Does Binder’s ridicule of scientific experimentation reflect Mallory’s remark that science on a mountain is ‘unsporting’, quoted by C G Bruce in Assault on Mount Everest, 1922? Bowman’s witty caricatures of Rum Doodle team members, including those who had ‘been high’, ‘high enough’ or ‘higher than most’, are reminiscent of many real-life climbers. Did Bowman give the Yogistanis simple names like Bing and Bong because names such as Gyalzen, Lobsang, Gombu and Ongdi, encountered in so many expedition accounts, were difficult to pronounce? And, as Binder ponders that wonderful champagne (being rapidly depleted down there in the crevasse), it is not much of a stretch to recall Tilman’s poetic reflections, in his Nepal Himalaya (1952), about the village of Bung: ‘So richly redolent of rum.’
So far, however, no one has suggested the one mountaineering exploit that may well have influenced Bowman the most. It is described in Showell Styles’s The Moated Mountain (1955), which chronicles a relatively inconsequential 1954 British expedition to the obscure 21,890 feet Baudha Himal in central Nepal. Styles’s entertaining book, largely ignored now, was popular in its day and readily available to Bowman well before he wrote Rum Doodle. Even before that, he probably heard about it from raconteurs amongst the British climbing fraternity with whom he hung out.
The similarities between Rum Doodle and The Moated Mountain story are many. Both begin with tongue-in-cheek forewords by acclaimed climbing pioneers (fictitious and real, respectively). And Bowman surely read Styles’s note that if they had not gotten permission for Baudha, they would have climbed Manirang near Spiti, next to ‘the delightfully named Tum-Tum.’ Reading on, compare the angst over a ‘missing’ lake (one that they cannot find on a map) on Baudha with a lost camp on Rum Doodle, and Styles’s ‘seventy overproof’ Nepali raksi with Binder’s fixation on the champagne.
Ultimately, however, the fictional fiasco atop the Doodle is almost identical with the disillusion encountered on Baudha. Geological moats in the eyes of each team are the key to concluding the respective tales, as Bowman appears to have rather cleverly morphed Styles’s factual adventure on Baudha into Rum Doodle’s farcical final surprise. If you want to discover the final episodes of these books on your own, stop here and read the two books. But if you cannot wait to find out what happened atop those two great peaks, read on
The final surprise on Baudha and Rum Doodle is what each team saw from the top. In both cases the true summit was beyond their reach. On Baudha, the mountaineers confronted several chasms, the ‘moats’ of the book’s title. In The Moated Mountain, Showell Styles describes what he saw from Baudha’s South Summit: ‘…there was our summit, 6000 feet above us’ across a ‘trough of snow-land’ that fell away steeply at their feet. Later, after trying alternative routes, his team topped out again. Somewhere above 17,200 feet one of the team climbed ‘to the top of a knoll on the crest, and halted; because he could go no farther. He had reached the brink of the third and inner moat…’ The summit of Baudha was nearly 5000 feet above him, across an impassable chasm.
Compare that with what Binder saw atop North Doodle, when he realised his great blunder: ‘Then I saw. Over to the east a magnificent mountain stood against the sky, its glittering summit 5000 feet above me … Rum Doodle … scarcely more than a mile distant; but between us the Conundra gorge plunged to awful and unseen depths.’
Don Messerschmidt is an anthropologist and writer who has spent several decades studying local cultures, including pilgrimage, in the Nepal Himalaya.