Commitment, and the Himalayan climber

On 4 December 2002, Doug Scott, legendary Himalayan alpinist, delivered a keynote address at a symposium on 'Directions in Himalayan Climbing', organised as part of the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival. In the excerpts from Scott's speech below, he discusses the primordial connection of mankind to climbing, the psychology of mountaineering, his own experience pioneering a route up the southwest face of Mount Everest in 1975, and, above all, the need for "commitment" to the mountain while climbing it.


To have any understanding about the future of mountaineering, we had better first look back to have an idea of how we got to where we are now. It has been about 200,000 years since homo sapiens first emerged and began hunting-gathering in small groups for mutual aid, though there are just a few remnants of hunter-gatherers left in the world. But they were everywhere 10,000 years ago before the first urbanisation. The chief characteristics of this lengthy period experienced by our ancestors involved mainly facing uncertainty and risk. And to survive in those frugal times they had to be resourceful, imaginative, exploratory and cooperative.

Climbers might just be catching my drift here and making parallel connections. It was not survival of the fittest, as Darwin was supposed to have said but did not, but survival of the most social. Life was not one constant quest for the next mouthful of food. For these hunter-gatherers, it seems, did have leisure time, probably more than most of us here have. They had time to paint and carve. We know from their cave paintings and the figurines caved out of rock and ivory that they had the ability to develop the level of everyday consciousness that we experience and connect with the sub-conscience. In other words, they naturally developed spirituality, and got into religion.

Such people we call 'primitive', but in many ways they were more mature than advanced societies today. I had an opportunity in 1999 to visit Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India and meet tribal people who are still hunter-gatherers, I thought I was seeing a snapshot of perhaps how all our ancestors once were. These people led a partner and myself for 18 days through a primary rainforest during a dreadful monsoon. We were totally out of our depth in this jungle, coming in three or four hours after them every night by head torch, to find that they had already lit our fire and cleared a sleeping space for us. They would do all that before they would do anything for themselves. They did not have to do it, because we were not going to give them more money, and money did not seem to mean much to them anyway. I think it was that their hearts just went out to these totally inept foreigners stumbling about their jungle, completely out of depth. And through the trip they were full of spontaneous humour and goodwill and kindness. So when I say we are seeing a snapshot of how all our ancestors once were, I think it is quite important to note that underneath our veneer of civilisation and conditioning, at heart we are very much like that.

The nature of climbing

It is such a good symbol, mountaineering. Reaching up in the right direction, and in the process shedding all the superfluous and material ways. You just cannot carry anything superfluous to actual survival. And at the same time, there is a shedding of all superfluous thought – psychologically, you get more and more prepared as you climb, as you strip away everything that is superfluous to being there on the climb. It was the Roman Cicero who said, "that which has always fascinated man most is the unknown". I am sure all climbers would concur with that.

This is why the Himalaya are so important to climbers from the West, where all our mountains have been climbed. In the Alps, for instance, every major face has been climbed. In contrast, I would say that there are more peaks over 6000 metres in the Himalaya and Central Asia that have not been climbed than have been climbed. You only have to fly over parts of Tibet to see how many peaks there are out there. And of the peaks that have been climbed, apart of course from Everest, there are major features still to be climbed.

I would like to stress the importance of going where no one has gone before. I think that Harish Kapadia and his Bombay mountaineers, who for years have wandered up remote valleys and climbed small peaks in the Himalaya, have done something more important than climbing old ways, even up Everest. It is intrinsically interesting to be on a new climb, to wonder about that line you are following. About three or four years ago, I ascended an unclimbed peak near Kanchenjunga in northeast Nepal, with just one partner. For four days we were on it, working up our line of weakness, every pitch, every day wondering if that line of weakness was going to connect with another line. What is around the next corner? Facing up to that uncertainty really puts an edge on the climb and makes it so exhilarating. It is hard to explain to non-climbers why this is so fascinating, but I can assure you that it is. Just to be facing up to all that uncertainty.


All Everest climbers, in my opinion and expreience are very ambitious. Certainly I was very ambitious to attempt the southwest face of Everest in 1975. And there is nothing wrong with ambition, so long as you are not going to harm anyone else along the way. But on the southwest face, above Camp Six, it seemed like Dougal Haston and I climbed beyond ego, hardly aware of family and friends, hardly aware of each other. We were just focused on that patch of rock-ice in front, totally focused. And yet, I do recall a calm prescience that this was going to work out. That feeling really comes upon you when everything is right for you to be there – you have got the required experience, you are with a partner who is supportive, you have waited until snow conditions are reasonable. And then at such times when you are going for it, cruising, it is really exhilarating. It does imply that it is worth the wait.

The best time on any climb is when you are off it, after the danges is over, but before you have engaged with the rest of your life. The longer you can remain in that in-between period, the better, just to savour a great climb. When you are focused on the climb, it has the effect of slowing down the thought process, so that by the time you are at the bottom, after danger, you feel so at peace with yourself for having done the climb, for having gone to your limit. But then you notice that thoughts do come in, but more slowly than the usual, and they come rolling in from the periphery. They come in so slowly, you can recognize the thoughts, and with the recognition, the thought – that thought – will evaporate if you let it go, and there is a wider space between that thought and the next one that comes along. And it is in that space that there is the peace, and you find that you are becoming more aware of yourself and your friends around you, the environment you are in, and everything else for that matter. This explains why we go back from these climbs with more enthusiasm to do all it is we have to do back home and perhaps tackle everything with a little more objectivity – from having stepped out of our habitual routines, and even become a little more tolerant of others, more compassionate. In my case, I have to admit that it does not last long, so I find myself going back to the mountains for another quick fix.

Everest will always be the ultimate superlative. Being the highest, it is always assumed to be the best. And of course it is the highest, and the ultimate climbs have to encounter the full array of problems, not just verticality, harsh winds, low temperatures, but also dealing with this lack of oxygen. You see from Everest the progression that occurs with mountains. It came late to Everest because Nepal did not allow anyone in until about 1949. But in 1953, the easiest climb was done, the southeast ridge. In 1960, the Chinese did the north ridge, the next easiest. And then we have the Americans doing the west ridge in 1963 – that was one of the finest things ever done in the Himalaya. It was a huge step, because they actually traversed over the mountain and went down the other side. There were people sent up to support them, to rescue them if they got into trouble, but the summiteers ended up rescuing the frost-bitten rescuers and helping them down. That was Tom Horbein and William Unsoeld. I think that was the finest thing ever done on Everest, and perhaps in the Himalaya. That was just a fantastic step into the unknown at the time. Then came our southwest face climb, which obviously was much steeper than the others, but not necessarily harder. Long ridges are generally more difficult than steep face climbs, because the face is going to be shorter and protected, because faces are generally concave, so you are protected from winds. Being on a long ridge is like being on a summit all day, so you are exposed to the elements. Then came the south approach by the Russians, which was much, much more technically difficult than our southwest face climb. And that was about the end of that.

Alpine style climbing

About style, one thing you can say that climbers are doing all the time without really thinking about it is trying to keep the margin of safety satisfyingly narrow without closing the gap and going over the edge and getting themselves killed. There is a mountain in Bhutan that is only about 7500 feet in vertical height that the Japanese have climbed by using 14,000 feet of rope. Now, if you want to use that much rope, you are going to have to keep going back down, because it is very heavy. So you will get into a yo-yo situation where you keep going down, bringing more rope back up, tying it to the mountain, putting in fixed camps. That becomes very boring, as we found on the southwest face of Everest. It also means that you are not really committing yourself to the mountain. How can you have committed yourself if you know that at any time if there is a storm, or you feel ill, or there is an accident, or exhaustion, you can scuttle down to complete safety? There cannot be commitment, because when you are roped in that way, you are still attached to the ground – you have really brought the ground up with you. That is the problem with the big siege-style expeditions, the fact that the fixed rope takes out those essential ingredients: the facing up to uncertainty and risk. And as you come down from a climb like that, that margin of safety can be so wide as to leave you a bit unsatisfied.

There is something so fantastic about going alpine style – going for it, cutting loose. Commitment. It means feeling a million miles from home, out on a limb, going for it. Exhilarating. Compared to the opposite, which is this laborious kind of construction exercise of the siege-style. And it is only when we do commit ourselves to anything in life that we find ourselves going beyond ourselves. On the mountain, certainly, once you have committed, it is surprising how you get a second wind, an extra burst of super-human energy you did not know you had.

I think you can think of your own lives, where you have to really take a risk, perhaps in business or in relationships, and it is only when you took a risk and faced up to total uncertainty for a time that then, magically, you shot off ahead. Everything worked out much better than you thought.

Peace glacier

Also speaking at the symposium was Harish Kapadia, mountaineer, explorer and honorary editor of the Bombay-based Himalayan Journal. In recent years, Kapadia has lobbied for India and Pakistan to declare the disputed Siachen glacier a peace park. With troops stationed as high as 22,000 feet, Siachen has been dubbed the "world's highest battlefield". The low-burn Siachen war has led to hundreds of combat and cold-weather casualties, as well as many Pakistani and Indian soldiers succumbing to Acute Mountain Sickness. Troops from the two sides have been eyeball-to-eyeball on the glacier since April 1984, fighting for control of a sparsely populated but strategically significant chunk of ice and rock that overlooks the eastern Karakoram mountain range, which forms the meeting point of China, India and Pakistan. (See Himal, December 1998.)

The 76-km long, 2-to-8-km-wide glacier is threatened not only by daily shelling, but also by the strain of stationing thousands of troops on an ice ledge unsuitable for human habitation. On the Indian side, barrels of human excrement are dumped into glacier crevasses each day, and hundreds of litres of kerosene oil are piped up every 24 hours to keep the camps operational. Worse still, periodic shifts in the glacier lead the military inhabitants to continuously spoil new areas. "They establish a camp, then the glacier moves – so you have to move everything and build a whole new base", explains Kapadia.

As of 2002, there were 169 trans-frontier parks on the borders of 98 countries, so Kapadia's plan has numerous precedents. The Indian defence minister, George Fernandes, was informally approached and was filled in on the need for the project, which Kapadia has suggested calling the Rose Peace Park ('Sia' in Balti means 'rose'). Kapadia has even climbed in the European Alps with Pakistani mountaineers to promote goodwill between the two countries. Given that 97 percent of military deaths in Siachen result from environmental conditions and altitude rather than military confrontation, Kapadia seems to have settled on a smart and humanitarian way to protect the environment, save lives and promote interest in the glacier. It remains to be seen, however, if Delhi and Islamabad are willing to come out of the cold and agree on the park.

Himalayan standards

Founded in 1965, the Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagne (UIAGM) administers a uniform course of professional mountaineering training with partners in 22 countries. The UIAGM curriculum, which is updated to keep pace with advancements in mountaineering techniques, ensures that graduates receive proper training and certification to lead climbs in Europe, the Americas, Japan and New Zealand.

Tashi Jangbu, a participant in the symposium and a former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, would like Nepal to develop uniform national training and certification standards in cooperation with UIAGM. Because UIAGM's mountaineering course typically requires four years of training and includes an emphasis on skiing, a skill non-applicable to Himalayan mountaineering, Tashi argues that the course would have to be tailored to Nepal's unique needs. Ideally, he says, training centres would rise up near local climbing areas, allowing mountaineers to train around and familiarise themselves with specific local conditions.

"This would also allow local populations at the base of the various mountain massifs to benefit more directly from the mountaineering industry", says Tashi. "As things stand, the economic benefits from climbing tend to be concentrated away from the mountain communities themselves, except in the case of the Khumbu Sherpas". As of now, there are no uniform mountaineering guide standards in Nepal.

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