"What about social security, bus discounts, medical alert jewellery, Gold Bond Powder? Pants all the way up to your armpits? And all those other senior perks? You ask me, old folks have it pretty sweet." - Homer Simpson
A strange way to start a TAC article, you may feel (at least now that Dr McSharkie seems to be largely gone from these pages), but it was Hamish Brown's trousers that led me to dig out this quote. He sure does have a set up to his armpits. And like Jerry Garcia as described by Paul Morley in the NME circa 1982, they were "trousers failing by a miserable four inches to touch his shoes". None of which should be held against Hamish of course - far from it. But attire does serve to differentiate the participants in Warbeck's round-up of the November speaking circuit. Conrad Anker, the man who discovered Mallory, was quiet and functional in North Face casual wear. Catherine Destivelle was a picture of Gallic chic in a kind of dark blouson with white polo neck. Kurt Diemberger was a cross between Brown and Destivelle: Homer's trousers with a continental blouson top.
Tiso are running a speaking blitz right now and all power to them. I would suggest though that they buy a new 35mm projector. Both Brown and Anker wasted time and energy fiddling with the focus of a very old projector. Destivelle was at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival and Diemberger's tour was co-sponsored by the Ramblers and the MCofS. The Ramblers connection meant TAC's favourite bÍte noire Mr McNeish introduced Kurt, but I have to say he was exemplary. En passant I should also say that in appearance McNeish could be Kurt's son or brother.
So who was the best? All were fantastic. Destivelle led in the Death Defying Stunts category. She had clips of herself soloing the Old Person of Hoy and that impossible tower out of Close Encounters. Near the top of this one, she realised her legs were in fact long enough to keep touching either side of the groove she was in and so just cast off her self-belay. There had been some doubt as her legs were already at about 179 degrees and she still had about 200 feet to go. In Mali we saw her in conversation with a local heedjin. It was in French. "He is telling me," translated Catherine, "that I must be in league with the Devil to climb like that". Close up nothing could be less devilish. With a shy smile (calm down - Ed.) she signs any number of posters and doesn't demand the usual couple of quid for the privilege. Hamish on the other hand was wanting three quid for some A4 sheets of poems. What a mercenary. (Just kidding.)
Speaking of poetry, Hamish was also the only one to interrupt his reminiscing on 40 years in the hills to read poems by the light of his headtorch. Diemberger interrupted his recollections to quote Greenlandic proverbs such as "only the spirits of the air know what is beyond the mountains". The Austrian has asked portentous questions of the aforementioned spirits throughout his career. Sometimes they have told him to sleep on a summit for an hour before descending. In 1978 they assured him that Everest would be successful. I am not trying to be a smartass but he made quite a big deal about listening to this voice and the fact that it had always been correct. One did have to wonder what happened to it in 1986 on K2.
Speaking of the fateful year, it did hang over the talk. How would he deal with it? Very briefly. A slide of Julie Tullis "going strongly for the top", a break in the voice. "People ask me will you go back after losing close friends? They expect me to say no. However losing my friends was not all there was to it, I also lived with them up there. They found their life up there." Another break in the voice came when discussing Hermann Buhl's demise on Broad Peak in 1957, and Kurt produced the poignant slide taken after a whiteout had cleared: of Buhl's footprints, the only sign left after he had blindly walked off a cornice.
So far I haven't said much about Anker the quiet American. Not because he wasn't good. In some ways he was the most impressive in his modest way. I suspect he can do the Destivelle acrobatics because he holds record times in Yosemite. He was also invited into the select company of Venables and Messner by the people making the Shackleton IMAX. He may be forever cast as the "man who found Mallory", but apparently his presence on that expedition was last-minute. (Recruited to free-climb the second step.) Although the episode and subsequent controversy was discussed - as befits such a pivotal discovery - it was far from being the focus of the night. Having previously listened to Joe Simpson dissing the behaviour of the Mallory expedition it was interesting to hear Anker's side. Still in touch with Mallory's family, he seems at peace with them. For the record, he voted against releasing the notorious photo, but was outnumbered. He did free-climb the second step and thinks that Mallory probably didn't.
Anker of the four speakers seemed to value the interaction with the audience - he prolonged the question session by chucking freebies to every questioner (yes, I did ask one, and got a T-shirt). His policy of not necessarily pushing the envelope was rooted in seeing his kids again. Hamish Brown solved this by taking his with him. Impressive photos were shown of urchins and bumpkins from his Fife school doing the Cuillin Ridge. Hamish fulminated against the namby-pamby state that no longer allows this. Mine and the Ed's experience of a school party on the Cuillin is less edifying; but then I am sure Hamish had his troops dragooned into impeccable ridge-walk manners.
TAC 56 Index