American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Shining Mountain: Two Men on Changabang's West Wall

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  • Publication Year: 1979

The Shining Mountain: Two Men on Changabang’s West Wall, by Peter Boardman, with material by Joe Tasker. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978. 192 pages, 15 black-and-white photos, 12 color plates, 2 sketches. Price £5.95.

The climb that may well be the hardest yet done in the Himalaya remains relatively little-known, at least to Americans. In climbing the west wall of Changabang in October 1976, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker brilliantly demonstrated what might be called the Shipton principle of expeditionary mountaineering: that a two-man lightweight, low-budget assault can rise to the kinds of challenges others would reserve for a massive attacking force. Changabang, which Longstaff had called “the most superbly beautiful mountain I have ever seen,” was first climbed by an immensely strong Bonington team (including Scott, Boysen and Haston) by the east ridge in 1974. They had found the climb exciting enough to publish a book about it.

The west wall is another proposition altogether. A 5000-foot precipice so sustained that Boardman and Tasker had to resort to semihanging bivouacs, it demanded from the men both extremely “necky” climbing in severe cold and a grim dedication of purpose over a full month alone together. They chose to fix ropes continuously to a point near the summit. It is clear, however, that an alpine-style attempt would have failed early, and that the peculiar hazards of the fixed-rope assault bred an oppressive psychology of its own.

A mark of Boardman’s integrity is that the tone in which he recounts the climb is sotto voce, without a vestige of the sort of grandiose selfappraisal indulged in (whether or not accurately) by writers like Messner and Bonington. In The Shining Mountain Boardman offers us a wealth of climbing specificity; but the most interesting dimension of the account, and the one the book is really built on, is the intense relationship between the two men.

It is interesting that Tasker and Boardman had not climbed together before Changabang. They were drawn to each other by mutual respect and by a mutual passion for the mountain. Tasker’s fine Alpine record had been capped by an extraordinary two-man ascent with Dick Renshaw of the southeast ridge of Dunagiri (near Changabang); within British mountaineering circles, he was regarded as a fine climber. But Boardman, thanks to the Everest Southwest Face Expedition, had recently become a media “star.” The tension between the two men hinges from the start around this disparity of fame. Boardman feels he must prove himself to Tasker, who, in irritable moments, exploits his resentment—as when Boardman accidentally kneels on Tasker’s photographic gear, eliciting this gibe: “I had to buy my cameras. They weren’t given to me, you know.”

Boardman is extremely honest in revealing his own worry that Tasker is nervier or tougher than he is. The competitive need not to confess fear or weakness seems, as much as anything, to have been the bond that drove the men upward. Tasker’s diary gives a limited insight into a sensitive, introspective soul; but the long habit of keeping things to himself (from thirteen to twenty-one he had trained to be a priest) makes the passages somewhat opaque. The two men, it is clear, did not reach a level of real intimacy, except in the inevitable climbing sense. Even there, Boardman is sharp enough to see, the strength of their union was based sometimes not on trust but on its opposite. Leery of a flexing single-peg rappel anchor, Boardman unclips from it while Tasker is starting down. Tasker witnesses the act and shouts up cheerfully, “Well, if it does come out, you’ll be a bit stranded up there without a rope.”

Boardman makes the fascinating observation that, “If we opened up our relationship whilst on the climb, the mountain might exploit our weaknesses.” (One wonders if this disturbing proposition is true in general.) A corresponding difficulty, borne out fully by other two-man expeditions, has to do with the relativity of judgment. In making any single decision, the voice recommending descent, postponement, caution can seem to the other like a coward’s; vice versa, a reckless fool’s. The subjective tangles that result, Boardman emphasizes, create an ominous air of unreality.

The actual narration of the climbing turns out to be matter-of-fact, and the summit itself seems anticlimactic. Tasker and Boardman’s expertise resulted in a relatively safe climb; the closest incident to disaster was an exploding stove at Base Camp. But Boardman’s fine eye for detail brings vividly to life the nightmarish aspects of bivouacking in hammocks, the fumbling stupidity extreme cold provokes, the peculiar terror of jümaring first on the fixed ropes—“like the jester tasting the king’s food for poison.” His eye picks out on the access road a wayside warning sign that could well stand as an emblem for mountaineering: “Life is short. Do not make it shorter.”

Finally, the reader responds gratefully to Boardman’s astute awareness of his predecessors, so that Shipton, Tilman, Longstaff and others emerge not as gray-beards but as canny light-weight trekkers years ahead of their time.

The most gripping incident in the book has nothing to do with Changabang. After their climb, Boardman and Tasker walk into the Base Camp of the Italian Garhwal Expedition. A single woman from the American Dunagiri expedition is there, having also just arrived; she seems strangely withdrawn. After trading vibrant gossip with the Italians, Tasker and Boardman talk to the woman, Ruth Erb. It turns out that she is the sole survivor of the expedition. She has just spent two days alone, trapped in a camp at 19,850 feet, having witnessed the fatal falls of the four men who were going for the summit—including her husband. The Italians had rescued her but seemed reluctant to try to reach the bodies. The next day Boardman and Tasker accomplish the job, dragging the bodies into a crevasse.

“I was feeling sick and Joe, noticing I was fighting back tears, came over to help me. But this was an overwhelming sorrow that weeping could not symbolise. ‘I suppose we ought to say a prayer or something,’ I said. We had never discussed religion or beliefs before.

“ ‘We’ll stop for some moments,’ said Joe.”

David Roberts

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