Compiled and edited by Eric Vola
Lulu Publishing £16.95 267pp
In 2015 Eric Vola decided the mountaineering exploits of Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders deserved greater coverage in French climbing circles. To that end he took the books the pair had already published in English, selected what he thought were appropriate extracts and produced for his home market Les Tribulations de Mick et Vic en Himalaya. It turned out to have been a wise decision as the book went on to win the Grand Prix of the International mountain book festival of Passy.
A year later it was retranslated into English. Even though much of the old material was not readily available, at first sight this seems a rather pointless exercise. Closer examination shows Vola’s editorial skills add something a bit special. As Chris Bonington put in his informative Introduction, it was a case of 1+1 equalling not 2 but at least 3. Not only are the pair’s accounts topped and tailed with new material but Vola’s selection underlies the relationship between the two author/climbers. Saunders, perhaps typically, carries the main burden of the tune, but this is tellingly augmented by Fowler’s laid-back and often barbed counterpoint.
The other contribution Vola makes is the picture he draws, not only of the main protagonists, but the whole ambience of the North London Mountaineering Club and its alcohol fuelled meetings in that “inelegant Edwardian pile”, The Globe. It is here we meet the rest of the cast, Lobby, Bollards et al. where beer is drunk and plans are laid. It has always been the case that the driving force that pushed up the standards of British climbing had just such a gathering - from the more or less sedate reunions at Pen-y-Pas or the Wastwater Hotel to the shenanigans of the Rock and Ice in Llanberis and Langdale. Such meeting places are an intrinsic part in the games climbers play and, although in different eras, there is striking resemblance between the description offered by both Joe Brown and Vic Saunders as they respectively and somewhat tentatively entered The Padarn and The Globe.
The NLMC also introduced a new approach to winter climbing in Scotland. The norm for the English based climber was to take a week or ten days off work sometime in February, base yourself somewhere around Fort Bill then hope for the best. The problem with that is you’re just as likely to end up in the Clachaig watching steady drizzle turn the snow into slush as you are to be front-pointing perfect conditions on the Ben. Fowler and friends decided on a different approach. Once winter arrived, they left straight after work every Friday, climbed Saturday/Sunday, then drove back Sunday night to be at work on Monday morning. With four drivers it was possible to get enough sleep to take advantage of the right weather if it should occur and so stay well ahead of the game.
The bulk of the book concerns their attempts on Bojohahgur, Spantik and Ultar, three mountains situated above the Hunza Valley and conveniently near the Karakoram Highway. They took with them the lateral thinking they had applied to Scottish winter ascents. The traditional approach to mountains of such height and complexity was to employ siege tactics, establishing a series of camps linked with fixed ropes then yo-yoing men and supplies up and down until eventually a summit bid was possible. Mick and Vic had other ideas. As they could not afford to spend weeks on the mountain, they adopted an Alpine approach - a small party carrying everything on its back with sufficient food to sit out bad weather if need be. The trouble with this approach was it gave them little room for error if anything went wrong. A telling example of the real dangers they undertook is illustrated by a terse conversation between Saunders and his partner on their retreat from Ultar where the ropes were continually jamming.
‘Steve was up there for half an hour, while I shivered below with cold and neurosis.
“Victor,” came the voice from the dark, “if the ropes go on jamming like this we are going to definitely die. If we abseil down the middle of the face, we’ll only maybe die.”
“That is incontrovertible logic,” I said to myself.’
But all the drama is punctuated, as Bonington puts it, by “a very British sense of humour, sharp and quick for Mick, caustic and sophisticated for Vic “. Indeed, if you weren’t aware of the context, the description of a first four, then three-man bivouac on a sloping slab half way up Bojohaghur has all the trappings of an ill-conceived high-altitude stag-do. And even off the hill the stories continue to entertain. Fowler’s description of scraping the barrel of London’s curry houses in the hope of hardening up his digestive system or Saunders simulating a crevasse rescue for the benefit of Thames TV by being dropped off a bridge, would surely merit inclusion in any anthology of mountain humour. Therefore, it is not surprising, as I read Vola’s compilation, I was simultaneously reminded of the irreverent humour of W.E. Bowman’s Ascent of Rum Doodle and the sense of serious danger that Heinrich Harrer captures in The White Spider. Such a combination would suggest a very good book and should make it a serious contender for Santa to pop into your Xmas rucksack.