By Doug Scott
Vertebrate £20 pp 178
The Ogre is a book of two halves. The first sixty pages give a concise and interesting account of the history of exploration in the Karakoram. The remainder of the book is an account of the successful first ascent of The Ogre itself. This combination of old and new is the first of a series where the author links the history of a climbing area with the ascent of one particular peak. Among proposed examples are Kangchenjunga and Pik Lenin.
The history of exploration begins with the commercial activities of the East India Company which, in the interest of profit, wanted to safeguard (and that usually meant lay claim to) its trading territories. Eventually, the colonial ambitions of its competitors became so intense, the British Government decided to take over. What followed is generally referred to as “The Great Game” where, not for the last time, Britain and Russia vied for control of the north-west corner of the subcontinent. As Napoleon found to his cost at Waterloo, the side that has the more accurate map has the advantage and Scott describes the Government sponsored wanderings of such early explorers as Francis Younghusband and Henry Godwin-Austen. They, in addition to the general work of locating and mapping the easiest ways to bring troops to bear on any Russian invasion, were instructed to ascertain the exact position of K2 and whether or not it could be claimed as part of the British Empire.
The line between cartographical/scientific research and exploration for its own sake has always been blurred and with the opening of the Suez Canal, thus facilitating a relatively quick passage to India, mountaineers, seeking new peaks to add to their Alpine conquests, began to explore the Greater Ranges. Notorious among these were the wealthy Americans, William and Fanny Workman, who “developed a passion for the Karakoram” and made a number of important first ascents. The culmination of this early exploration came in the late 1930s when Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman were able to correct some important erroneous assumptions made by their predecessors. All that now remained was the completion of the Karakoram Highway to bring into the area a flood of climbers of all nationalities. In addition to the author’s own précis of historical events, Scott provides for the reader who wants to know more a very useful bibliography for further reading.
For the ascent of the mountain itself, Scott gathered together an interesting group of climbers with a variety of social background and experience. Perhaps the most significant choice was Chris Bonington. Scott invited him hoping a) he would bring his vast experience to bear and b) that Bonington would appreciate and enjoy the Alpine style approach that Scott hoped to employ. Unlike the traditional expedition, there would be no crocodile of porters carrying food for porters carrying food for climbers. In fact, there would be no leader. It was expected each member of the group would respond as necessary.
One problem with this democratic approach is how decisions are made when there is disagreement within the team. Bonington and Nick Estcourt made an early attempt on the summit and felt that, by establishing one higher camp, success would be theirs. The remaining members of the party, Clive Rowland and Mo Anthoine, demurred, wanting more time to acclimatize. In fact, as is so often the case, it was events that decided how things were going to pan out. Paul Brathwaite was injured in a rock fall and took no further part in the ascent and the party’s early efforts left Estcourt completely debilitated. A snow cave was dug out between the two peaks and from this secure base Scott and Bonington reached the summit without too much difficulty.
All that remained was a return to the snow cave, a possible second ascent by Rowland and Anthoine, then an orderly retreat over the West Peak to Base Camp and home. But Scott, while attempting to reach a couple of pegs they had left in situ, stepped onto a veneer of ice that had formed from melting snow. In own words “In that careless moment I lost control.” The result was an involuntary pendulum into a rock face and two broken legs. Bonington with the eventual help of Rowland and Anthoine managed to get Scott to the snow cave where they were able to assess the situation. Scott could only crawl or, at best, slide down steep rock on his back. It was at this point the weather changed and the party was marooned at 23000 feet with no food and only patchy equipment. They had no choice. Despite the weather, they would have to try to get down as quickly as possible.
Matters were then complicated when Bonnington who had previously fallen without any apparent ill effects, now was in considerable pain with what turned out to be broken ribs and had convinced himself that he had pulmonary oedema. Eventually, they reached the tent at Camp III where they were forced to sit out the worst of the weather. Slowly but surely Rowland and Anthoine shepherded the party off the mountain and when they reached comparative safety Rowland went ahead to procure food. He returned with not only the necessary provisions but the news that Estcourt and Brathwaite, fearing the worst, had returned to Askole to muster a search party.
What followed, if it had not been so serious, seemed more like a Brian Rix farce. An already exhausted Anthoine rushed after the departed couple trying to avert bad news reaching England and rustle up a sufficient number of porters to help with the evacuation. The helicopter dispatched to bring Scott to hospital crash-landed on arrival leaving Bonington stranded at Base Camp. The latter, so frustrated by the turn of events, started to walk back to civilization and when the helicopter eventually picked him up it had to land on the eighteenth green of a large international golf course leaving Bonington, “totally emaciated, dusty, dirty and unwashed” to blag his way into the Club House in order to telephone the Embassy for assistance.
Many mountaineering accounts strike the triumphal note of conquest, but this story of the fight against the odds is not so much about reaching the top as about getting out alive. The dozen or so pages of text that describes the actual ascent from Base camp to the summit is not what distinguishes the book from a score or so like it. If Scott had not slipped and the weather not broken, the author would have been left with a fairly straightforward account of high altitude climbing, punctuated with the almost obligatory anecdotes that surround the Lads’ Few Days Away. Instead it is a vivid reminder of how easily things can go wrong and that an Alpine approach to climbing in the likes of the Karakoram is at best high risk. The author might well invite the reader to smile somewhat condescendingly at the belt and braces approach of the Japanese and American parties who were also on the mountain, but Bonington, at least, will remember that, but for the American doctors who carried the extra equipment to administer antibiotics intravenously, he might have lost his life.