Mountaineering books tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Expedition through exotic locations; long arduous haul up snowy slopes; a near death experience at high altitude; rounded off with some metaphysical reflections.
Scottish mountaineer Sandy Allan’s account of his epic climb on the Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat (8,126 mtrs), observes the conventions. But he manages to rise above the cliches to produce one of the best adventure tales I’ve read in years.
Allan and his Scottish climbing partner, Rick Allen, were in their late 50s when they took on this inconceivably demanding route on one of the highest mountains in the world in 2012. The Mazeno Ridge is about the same length as the Cuillin Ridge in Skye, 10 kms, but it is nearly all above 7,000 metres and requires fourteen days of intense climbing.
You might wonder what the point is – but the ridge remained unclimbed after numerous attempts and challenges like that just torment mountaineers’ minds. Anyway, Everest is done to death and the Mazeno is twice as hard and arguably three times as dangerous. Nanga Parbat is a notoriously deadly mountain – “The Man Eater” – largely because of its unstable weather. To spend two weeks on it is borderline insanity.
In the event, the mountain was kind to them. Until, in classic Scottish mountaineering fashion very human cock-up nearly cost them their lives right at the end. After the final climb up Nanga Parbat summit they discovered that Rick’s lighter wasn’t working shortly after Sandy had casually disposed of his matches. It wasn’t a cigarette they are dying for, however, but water. They couldn’t light their gas stoves to melt snow.
They were surrounded by oceans of frozen water and very nearly died of thirst. At this altitude blood becomes so thick and sludge-like that without constant hydration,meaning 7-8 litres a day, the heart is often incapable of pumping it around the body. And as if that wasn’t enough, they they had to dig ice caves at night because they lacked proper bivouac equipment having dumped it before the final summit push to save weight.
They ended up spending 72 hours without water above 7,000 metres. Some mountaineering physiologists might have said that that was impossible, coming after such an arduous fourteen days of high altitude work. But as Allan tells it, their age probably saved their lives. Their bodies may have been weaker than in their youth, but their minds were rock hard. Pure experience and a refusal to give up, born of a lifetime in difficult situations, helped them to negotiate an epic descent while hallucinating wildly.
The climb won them the 2013 Piolet d’Or, a kind of mountaineering Oscar. Though in typical Scottish fashion Allan dismisses the award as meretricious materialism. He valued rather the spiritual rewards, though in an untypically conventional, almost protestant way. This is a tightly written book, mystic self-indulgence is minimal and the tension towards the end rivals a thriller. But what I found particularly interesting were Allan’s reflections on a lifetime on mountains, and what motivated him down all the years. .
He is one of the last of a stoic generation of Scottish climbers who never needed aids like satellite phones and navigational devices. Allan honed his hill craft rescuing people off the Cairngorm Plateau as part of the Mountain Rescue team. He was born in Dalwhinnie, often mentioned in the news as the coldest place in Scotland, where his parents ran the distillery. He says he wanted to become a shepherd and ended up shepherding people up mountains.
I actually accompanied him on one of his early Himalayan climbs a quarter of a century ago on Lohtse with the another great Scottish mountaineer, the late Mal Duff. I was totally useless, succumbing to giardia – an intestinal parasite – and severe altitude headaches almost as soon as I arrived. What I mainly remember was lying in my tent at night hearing to the avalanches rumbling down the mountain outside like trains in the London Underground. Sandy Allan, though,was a hyperactive mountain bunny – the thin air was like a drug to him.
He went on to be a mountain guide hauling parties up Everest and other Himalayan mountains for a living and to finance expeditions. This is no kind of life for people who hope to die in their beds. Altitude mountaineering is frankly a dance with death. Much of this book is devoted to brief obituaries of climbing friends he has known and lost.
As for the Mazeno – climbing a new ridge on an obscure mountain in Pakistan might seem an odd cause upon which to lay down your life. But they do it so you don’t have to. So read all about it and just revel in the joy of being alive.