Chapter 39

The twenty-eighth was fine and we held a durbar. It was decided that, Eckenstein being ill, Pfannl, Guillarmod and I should start up the mountain. Eckenstein voted for the doctor, qua doctor, in case of one of us being ill. It shows how easy he thought the slopes.

Wessely was very offensive in his resentment at not being included in the party. It was an intolerably bad piece of sportsmanship. Pfannl tended to take his side, and the pair made so much unpleasantness that we were soon reduced to the expedient of getting them out of the way as much as possible.

We got everything ready; but next morning the wind was so high that we could not start. Even while drinking our chocolate in the cooking tent, we nearly got frostbitten. After sunrise, the wind dropped; but it was too late to start. Eckenstein and Knowles were both ill, but the rest of us went on ski nearly to the pass at the top of the glacier. About four o'clock in the afternoon the wind started again and once again loosened my tent. This time snow came driving up the valley.

We had a spare tent for the use of the few natives whom we kept with us. I had gone out to try to refix my tabernacle at sunset — and there was a Balti out in the snow praying with his face towards Mecca! The religion of the Mohammedan, unlike that of the Christian, is positive. It is not based on fear, but on the actual sense of the relations of man and God. I laugh to think of the well-fed, idle and ignorant missionary at Shigar trying to convert men of this stamp. Their simplicity sees through Christian sophistication at a glance; and, their sense of ethics being outraged as well as their sense of reverence, it is easy to understand that the only converts from Mohammedanism are absolutely conscienceless scoundrels who wish to live on the scarcely camouflaged subsidies of missions.

The next day found me completely snow-blind. The pain is not so much severe as irritating. The feeling is as of having red hot sand at the back of one's eyes. One keeps on blinking with the idea of removing it, and of course it won't be removed. During my ski-läufing I had religiously worn goggles. My condition was due entirely to pottering about the camp for a few minutes in the snowstorm, fixing my tent. I got all right again in a couple of days. The weather was moderate on June 30th and July 1st. But from July 2nd to 6th was a continuous snowstorm. There was no remittance day or night. It was this which made Camp 10 unpopular.

We got rid of the Austrians on July 1st by sending them to Camp 11 {316} at the corner of the north-east ridge of Chogo Ri. At this point the glacier divides into two large snow basins. One leads to the pass which I have named Windy Gap (21,500 feet) on whose north-west is the mountain at the head of the valley, which I called Staircase Peak, from the well-marked and regular indentations of its eastern ridge. The other is apparently a kind of blind alley, its circus of rocks seems to have no definite break. It is difficult to be sure of this, for when I saw it it was always a cauldron of whirling mists of snow.

Pfannl and Wessely had reported that the north-east ridge of K2 was climbable, and on Monday the seventh, which was fine, it was decided to try to ascend the mountain by that route. So main camp was to be moved to Camp 11. I was rather ill, but protested. The proposed route was in fact absurd. Camp 11 was much farther from the summit than Camp 10, and the proposal was to reach the shoulder by following a along and deeply indented ridge the wall of which is on the Chogo Lungma side, a sheer precipice of avalanche-swept slopes, except at the point which I had originally picked out.

However, I was overruled. The doctor and I prepared to leave on the eighth. It was on this occasion that we discovered the incapacity of the natives to pull a sledge. It is about three hours' march to Camp 11. The going was not bad, though I was still rather sick. The weather was good enough to go out. I went a considerable distance up the slopes of the mountain. There is some conflict in opinion as to the height reached by various members of the party. Eckenstein was fanatically determined never to exaggerate any exploit. We made a very great number of boiling-point determinations of the heights of our camps; but even these are subject to various sources of error. Camp 11 is roughly 20,000 feet; but I suspect it to be a little higher. I estimated my climbing at 21,500 feet at the time; but this was mostly out of respect for Eckenstein. I was his most devoted disciple; I would not have given him any chance to reproach me by making a statement which might afterwards prove an exaggeration. But my real opinion is that I reached something over 22,0000 feet. I could see clearly over Windy Gap; I must have been well above it. I would not depend on the reading of aneroids in any circumstances. We had taken three instruments specially constructed; they only began to register at 15,000 feet and went to 30,000. But comparisons of the three showed — usually — that no two were alike.

In the evening I was very ill indeed; indigestion, fever, shivering. In order to breathe I had to use my whole muscular strength. I was also on the point of vomiting and remained in this condition nearly all the night. In the morning I was a little better; my breathing had become normal; but I had a great deal of pain and felt very ill and weak. The weather was splendid. {317}

Wessely and Guillarmod were encouraged to repeat my climb of the previous day; but from their report it is not clear whether or not they got farther than I did. I lay in the sunlight and rested. I noticed strange sights; a fly, a butterfly, some crows and an insect which I thought was a bee, but I could not be sure. All visited the camp. Later the camp was covered with the snow from a big avalanche from Chogo Ri. It stripped the whole wall of the north-east ridge; that is, it was about four miles broad.

Eckenstein and Knowles came up on the eleventh. Another fine day. I was still very ill; my temperature 39.4° Centigrade. I did not at all realize the cause at first, simple as it was. The true explanation was very far-fetched in the actual sense of the word. My symptoms became unmistakable before long and I had to admit that I was suffering from malaria. The hardships of the journey had removed my physiological protection and the bug stated to buzz about. I was thus the proud possessor of another world's record; the only man who had had malaria at over twenty thousand feet! Incidentally, I was also the only poet at that altitude. I have always been very amused at Shelley's boast that he had “trodden the glaciers of the Alps” — the Mer de Glace and the Glacier des Boissons! But I was actually writing poetry in these camps. Better poetry.

Like the man who committed suicide when he learnt that the was unable to move his upper jaw, I had been annoyed by reading somewhere that it was impossible to find a rime to “silver”. I spent my spare time in thinking up all the most impossible words in the language, finding rimes for them — good rimes, not mere assonances — and introducing them into “Ascension Day” and “Pentecost”. In that poem will therefore be found rimes for refuge, reverence, country, virgin, courtesan, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Aischulos, Sophocles, Aristobulos, Alcibiades, fortress, unfashionable, sandwich, perorate, silver, bishop (eight rimes for this word), Sidney (three rimes for this), maniac, Leviticus, Cornelius, Abra-Melin, Brahmacharya, Kismet, Winchester, Christ Church, worship, Chesterton, Srotápatti (two rimes to this), Balliol, and so on.

I have mentioned hardships. It may be interesting to mention the nature of these. The first and greatest was malaise, which was mostly due to lack of food and exercise. The latter complaint seems rather ridiculous; but it is an absolute fact. One must not bring damp things into the tent; if one does, it practically destroys the efficacy of one's protection against cold. One must therefore stay cooped up in one's tent as long as the weather is bad. I was in charge of the kitchen and had to go out in all sorts of weather; but that was hardly exercise. I often found that by the time I had filled and lighted the stoves and got the snow melted, I could not stand the cold any longer. I had to rush back to my sleeping-bag and warm up while someone else prepared the food. {318}

We kept warm with kangri, of a sort, when things got too bad. We had brought up a number of Japanese instras, but they would not burn; there was not enough oxygen. The cartridges could however be used if left loose in empty biscuit tins. For a similar reason pipe-smoking was impossible; the only way to do it was to relight the pipe from the flame of the candle at each puff. We had a few cigars and we could smoke these quite comfortably. (It appears that the altitude is not wholly responsible for this. At greater heights on Kangchenjunga I smoked my pipe as comfortably as at sealevel.)

This same is true about food. We found it difficult to eat anything but what may be called delicacies from the standpoint of people in our position. I felt a certain distaste for food. I had to be “tempted” like an invalid or a fastidious child. It became obvious that Eckenstein's German army theories were inapplicable to Himalayan exploration.

We suffered little from cold in the acute way, but rather from a chronic effect. The problem of cold has not been scientifically stated by any explorer so far as I know. It is thus: The normal temperature of the body is 37° centigrade. If therefore the temperature of the air is 30° one has to make up the difference by the heat disengaged by the combustion of food. If the temperature is 23° one requires theoretically twice as much food, if 15° three times as much, if 8° our times as much, if 1° five times as much, if -6° six times as much, if -13° seven times as much, if -30° eight times as much. There temperatures are very much less hot and less cold than those actually experienced. The maximum and minimum thermometers proved altogether unreliable; and the observations on the chart refer to more or less arbitrary times. Other thermometers showed temperatures of over 40° and under 30° centigrade. Unfortunately, simple arithmetic is not the only consideration. The digestive apparatus is calculated for dealing with an amount of food corresponding to, I don't know what temperature, but we might say at a guess 1°. If the average temperature is less than this, it means that you have to eat more than you can digest; and that means a gradual accumulation of troubles.

One can, of course, economize one's heat to some extent by diminishing the radiation; that is by wearing non-conducting clothes, also by supplying artificial heat from kangris and so on. (The kangri, by the way, is a Kashmiri device. It is a pot of copper or iron in which charcoal is burnt. The natives put it under their blankets and squat on it. It is alleged that this habit explains the great frequency of cancer of the testicles or scrotum in the country. The analogy is with “chimneysweep's cancer”.)

After cancelling out all the excrescences of the equation, the situation amounts to this; that you cannot live permanently in conditions unsuited to your organism. It is pitiful to have to make statements of this kind, seeing that it is no more than a recapitulation of the main proposition of Darwin and {319} Spencer. But the average explorer (for some inexplicable reason) seems absolutely incapable of applying common sense, experience or the teaching of science to the vital problems with which he is posed. Here in 1922, after all our experience, we have the members of the Everest expedition drivelling about acclimatization, as if science did not exist. Norman Collie told me plainly in 1896 on his return from the Mummery expedition to Nanga Parbat, that the only chance of getting up a big mountain was to rush it. I knew Collie for a man of science and for a man of sense and experience. I trusted his information absolutely and I governed myself accordingly.

The only thing to do is to lay in a stock of energy, get rid of all your fat at the exact moment when you have a change to climb a mountain, and jump back out of its reach, so to speak, before it can take its revenge. To talk of acclimatization is to adopt the psychology of the man who trained his horse gradually to live on a single straw a day, and would have revolutionized our system of nutrition, if the balky brute had not been aggravating enough to die on his hands. If you want to acclimatize yourself to mountain conditions, you can go and live a bit higher than the hillmen of Tibet. If you do this for fifteen generations or so, your descendants will acquire a thorax like a beer barrel and a heart capable of doing three times the work that it can at present. If you then get incarnated in your clan, you can lay siege to Chogo Ri with a reasonable prospect of success. As the hymn says,

Patience and perseverance

Made a Bishop of His Reverence.

This programme is however hardly acceptable to Western minds, so little penetrated with Einstein's ideas that everything has to be done in a hurry. We may therefore leave “acclimatization” to the mentally defective heroes of the Everest expedition of 1921 and 1922. Collie was right in saying that one is living on one's capital on prolonged mountain expeditions. My experience enables me to add that it is not only a question of mountains. Any kind of prolonged hardship gradually wears one down. Again I repeat, it is pitiful to have to insist on such obvious truths. The low vitality of the working classes, the national deterioration caused by the privations of wartime, scream their warning. Anyone on earth except a member of the English Alpine Club would take it to heart.

When I went to Kanchenjunga three years later I had got everything down to a fine point. I trained at Darjeeling by feeding up as much as possible (the diet at the Drum Druid Hotel was slow starvation), by having myself massaged by an “educated” Bengali who was a Seventh Day Adventist and stole ten pounds. I arrived at twenty-one thousand feet in absolute perfect condition only three weeks out from the base and suffered absolutely none of the conditions which were pulling us slowly to pieces on Chogo Ri, except {320} Wessely who, like the brute beast that he was, seemed insensible to the influence of hardship and was keeping himself in comfort by stealing the supplies of the expedition surreptitiously.

We were all suffering more or less. Knowles had lost 33 of his 186 pounds; the doctor some 20 of this 167 since leaving Askole. A man with galloping consumption could hardly do better. Our haemoglobin had diminished by twenty per cent. Eckenstein was suffering from various complicated pulmonary troubles; Knowles and the doctor were repeatedly down with influenza; as for myself, the recrudescence of my malaria, which began with a violent liver chill on the twenty-seventy of July and lasted till the end of the month, kept my temperature at 39.3° or thereabouts. Pfannl, the great athlete, had a story of his own. (Coming soon.)

Owing to the fact that snow at these altitudes evaporates without melting, it disappears from the neighbourhood of a tent, leaving a pinnacle where it is protected by the canvas. Thus, at the end of five days' snowstorm one would find oneself perched on a plateau some feet above the rest of the glacier. (This illustrates the formation of glacier tables.) It was necessary, whatever the weather might be, to shift the tent, as otherwise the weight of the snow on the sloping sides, and the general strain, would tear the canvas. We have a photograph of the plateau from which our tents had been removed after five days of snowstorm. In the middle of the square patch of hard snow relegated by pressure are two deep depressions like rude graves. These represent the ice melted by the warmth of our bodies through a double groundsheet of Willesden canvas, the canvas of the Roberts valise and the thick cork mattress.

Pfannl and Wessely had become completely intolerable and we encouraged them to go off to Camp 12 (estimated at about 21,000 feet) on the thirteenth. The weather showed its usual readiness to cook up a storm. On the fourteenth I describe it as (x.o.p.)n+1. A chit (note) arrived saying that Pfannl was ill. On the fifteenth the weather cleared in the afternoon; but I could see that it meant further mischief. My diary notes that I ate a meal this day. I must have been pretty bad previously to make such an entry; for my diary, whatever its other defects, is a supreme model of the laconic style.

Another chit told us that Pfannl was worse. The doctor went up to Camp 12 to look after him. Nemesis had come to town. Athletic training, as understood by athletes, is a violation of the first principles of nature. Wilkie Collins, in Man and Wife, had told me about it. A little old woman is provoked to personal conflict by the Pride of England and it ends by his collapsing. The same thing had happened to Pfannl. They had the utmost difficulty to get him down to Camp 11. This misadventure lost us our last chance of making a dash for K2. There was one series of two fine days, the second of which could have been used by Knowles and myself if we had not {321} been obliged to superintend the caravan of invalids. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth was an almost continuous snowstorm. Pfannl was suffering from oedema of both lungs and his mind was gone.

A pathetic incident sticks in my mind. He sent for me to come to his tent and told me that these dull brutes could not understand him, but that I, as a poet, would be able to enter into his feelings. He then said that there were three of him; two of them were all right; but the third was a mountain with a dagger and he was afraid that it would stab him. I did not at that time realize the significance of the delusion. Today it is obvious that the fear and fascination of the hills had got mixed up with that of the phallus, thus determining the character of the symbol. As things were, I could merely report that he was insane, and the doctor continued the treatment of keeping him continuously under morphia. {322}

Previous | The Confessions of Aleister Crowley | Next


If you have found this material useful or enlightening, you may also be interested in


Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O., and the O.T.O. Lamen design are registered trademarks of Ordo Templi Orientis.


All copyrights on Aleister Crowley material are held by Ordo Templi Orientis. This site is not an official O.T.O. website, and is neither sponsored by nor controlled by Ordo Templi Orientis.

The text of this Aleister Crowley material is made available here only for personal and non-commercial use. This material is provided here in a convenient searchable form as a study resource for those seekers looking for it in their research. For any commercial use, please contact Ordo Templi Orientis.