If you’ve read my earlier post about acquiring a new-to-me copy of The Shining Mountain, you know that I felt fated to read it again, immediately. I don’t recall reading it for the first time, but most likely it was in this same American edition which was published shortly after Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker were lost on Everest in 1982. The first British edition was published in 1976 shortly after the climb of the west wall of Changabang with Joe Tasker, the book’s subject.
So, as I read, I must have known Boardman was dead, but somehow I don’t remember this fact as affecting my reading of the book. 1982. The year we were married. Thirty-seven years Boardman and Tasker didn’t have. It may be that in 1982 death was more of an abstraction to me. Not so now.
The Shining Mountain is one of the most explicitly self-conscious expedition books, before or since. I think this is due partly to Boardman’s acute consciousness of he and Tasker as a two-person team, with little margin for error and wholly self-sufficient. His climb on Everest the previous year was one of those enormous old-fashioned, well-financed, and well-publicized expeditions.
My gloss on the passages (which speak best for themselves) is in italics.
I was still diary scribbling notes onto bits of paper. I had left my diary on the moraine at Advance Camp, thinking that if anything happened to us on the Wall, then at least someone might find record of what had happened to us up to that point. Also, I censored it–I didn’t write about the occasional disagreements Joe and I had, or worries I felt about the route. I thought, “ What if this is the last thing I write and somebody read it? I think things done in the strange world of an expedition, once recorded, become inflated and can be easily misunderstood by the non-mountaineer or uninformed commentator, eager for ‘the reasons behind the tragedy’. Joe was intrigued by my assiduous writings:
“I wondered why Pete wanted to preserved the situation, rather than use every conscious minute to savour them. He was usually full of apt literary quotations and when I told him that Graham Greene had said that a writer’s greatest problem was not trying to remember, but trying to forget, he thought that I had made it up to excuse my laziness in keeping a diary” (73).
It is often presumed that journal writing, because of its immediacy to events described, is a kind of primary truth. But of course, experience mediated through language is always . . . mediated. The gap between language and “the truth” can’t ever quite close. Every word choice is a construct.
I love that Boardman didn’t disclose his disagreements with Joe in his journal, yet chose to reveal them to the public in what would become the book.
And then there’s Joe’s “living in the present.” He would later publish two books and one wonders if he changed his view on this subject and kept a journal or recalled events and feeling s later “in tranquility.
The icefield had a symbolic aura about it, and entering it was like entering other secret places–there was the same air of privilege and mystery about it, I had the same feeling about the Spider on the North Face of the Eiger (80–1).
This is Peter quoting Joe. These secret places with their aura of privilege and mystery. A big part of the allure.
I noticed he [Joe] had only clipped into two of the three angled pegs I had placed so apprehensively before.
“Why have you only clipped two, Joe?”
“They look all right. Two should be enough,” he said
I hastily clipped into the third one. Pegs always give an illusion of safety if you have not put them in yourself (132).
Love this last line. It’s weirdly true. Theoretically, we should trust only what we place ourselves, right? But we tend to trust fixed pins and bolts, foe example, whose efficacy is quite unknown to ourselves. Pete, here is like “I placed them, I know how sketchy they are!” My friends Charlie at some point vowed never to rap off any anchor that ne didn’t place himself. And, every time I’ve climbed with him, that’s been the way it is.
Hurry up, there’s no time for taking photographs.” It was the first time Joe had sounded angrily impatient.
“Don’t worry, “I shouted back, “You’ll be glad of them when you are an old man!” (135).
Just heartbreaking. Because they never became old men. But then, how often do I look back at my climbing photographs from 1982 or ’76? They are among my most valued possessions, what I’d hate most to lose in a housefire. And yet, I never look at them.
He was down it half an hour before I was, as I descended the last dangerous section, I looked down at him collecting our fallen belongings, envying his safe world of the glacier. At last I was stumbling over the lumpy avalanche debris at the foot of the slope. “Nothing can kill me now,” I thought as I walked across the glacier to help him (168).
We all know the “Nothing can kill me now” feeling when we reach safe ground after an ordeal. And yet, for most of us, we don’t stay in the “nothing can kill me now” zone. We are slow learners.
As I strode through the main street I started to feel, for the first time, unkempt and strangely dressed. But no one was noticing me and I felt confident. So this was the outside—were its preoccupations off-centre or were mine? Did I need it? It was twilight, transistor radios were blaring and naked bulbs were flickering dimly in the shops and sweet-meat stalls. It was crowded, and I had to jostle past through the crowds of shoppers, pilgrims, and beggars, carts and dogs. My senses were stormed by a confusion of images, intense, momentary ‘takes’ freely flashing by the corners of my eyes.
I walked into the rest house. Joe was there, looking washed and rested. I was still carrying with me the wilderness of mountain life and the aura of one of the newly returned amongst people (178).
Re-entry into “the real world.” There is that zone between the vertical world and the world where we can once again, smell the grass, taste the ice cream, and feel the pounding of a hot shower on our wasted bodies. The mountain world and everyday life can be separate universes. I remember aching to be in the mountains, that I had been so far away from them. Then I remembered it had only been two days.
• Peter Boardman’s body has been seen a couple times on the windswept ridge of Everest where they were last seen. But Tasker’s has not.
• The Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, established in their names, has been awarded annually since 1984.
• The most recent winner was Kate Harris for her Land of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road.