TAC 40 Index
Stirling Albert Halls, 13/11/98
IT'S TEMPTING to suggest there have been only two great British mountaineers over the past twenty-five years, and that one of them, Doug Scott, is yin to Chris Bonington's yang. This, though, is wrong on at least two counts. There have been more ace ice climbers, it's just that most of them are now dead. During this lecture Scott recited a litany of the fallen, as on some high-altitude Remembrance Day: Haston, Estcourt, Boardman, McIntyre, Tasker... And it would be more accurate to describe Scott as both yin and yang to Bonington's straight-outta-Sandhurst regimentation, to his logistical prowess and organisational nous. Yet true though this may be, Scott appears to hold toward Bonington none of the antagonism that the schism-hungry climbing press would wish. Early in his talk he lavished praise (insofar as his quiet, humble manner fits with the idea of "lavish") on Bonington's massive involvement in the most celebrated years of his climbing life: Everest.
Everest was the first of Scott's "Seven Summits", the high points of each continent, and he had climbed four of them "before realising the other three existed." Several - Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America, the European summit El'brus - are what high-altitude hillgoers might call "walk-ups", easy snow-plods with little problem beyond thin air. But Scott was having none of that, climbing them "in fine style" (in other words, up ice walls and overhangs), such that his talk could have echoed the 1975 Everest trip by being called "Seven Summits the Hard Way".
This was a long show, two hours of slides and thoughts, but Scott never bored his audience. Even the occasional snapshot-style picture merely bolstered the humanity of his story, whilst Scott himself maintained a calm, enthralling, been-there-done-that presence throughout. Here was a man nearing sixty (born five days after Bob Dylan) still interested in living precariously, edgily, and it was good to hear talk of "self-discovery" and "spirituality", terms long out of fashion in a materialistic age. Here was a man who made three 1998 trips to the Himalaya, none in any way resembling those of trekker or tourist.
The slides were complemented by anecdote. Discovering in some vertical Denali bivvy that his hastily-packed sleeping bag belonged to his seven-year-old daughter. A grim account of rescuing two youths on descent only to see them lose their hands and feet to frostbite. Climbing Vinson in Antarctica with Chris from Thirsk, "the man who supplies all Harry Ramsden's chip shops with potatoes." Popping up Railway Union Workers' Peak in Russia. Worrying about dehydration amid "seventy-foot high heather" in East Africa. Befriending "Sheila" on Aconcagua, "neither a man nor a woman", a between-ops transsexual shunned by the rest of the "rather conservative" expedition. Stumbling across "the highest dead horse in the world" at 6400m on the same hill.
Scott's world is far removed from that of humble Scottish hillgoing. The only name personally familiar to your editor was Leonid, "a poet with the job of collecting the bodies of climbers"; I once climbed a hill above Loch Earn with this El'brus guide, who had hitched, in winter, from St Petersburg. But the audience warmed to and empathised with Scott because of his wider, transcontinental belief in self-discovery and basic humanity. Gently spoken he might be, but here was a hard, hard climber, and a considerate, conscientious man. This showed through in terms of his companions - often spoken of in the present tense, even though long dead - and, particularly, when speaking of the countries and the peoples he visits. Two of his Seven Summits stand above scenes of great injustice, Tibet and Papua New Guinea, and Scott's evidence left no doubt where his sympathies lie. What angers him, in a quietly impassioned way, are forced trans-migrations, gulags, "the total market economy", and Western indifference to governments that "control no oil and have no strategic importance." His own attempt to counter exploitation in Himalayan regions includes the Specialist Trekking Co-operative: ethically sound foreign policy made flesh.
Himalayan climbing is not the new rock 'n' roll, and the greying, balding Scott no longer resembles one of the wild-haired Grateful Dead. He comes across as uncategorisable, more than averagely aware of his place in the world. He's dwarfed by mountains, by timescale, by businesses, by tyrannies, yet he's a giant of a man. Wisdom and contentment tumble from him like rivers from a glacier. For all his skills and strengths, he's been lucky: fellow climbers and indigenous villagers have died whereas he survives. And he knows it. He's a member of The Grateful Living.
TAC 40 Index