THIS astute comment by Sir Edmund Hilary, who together with Namgyal Wangdi or Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first recorded ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, was in response to a journalist’s question as to why he liked mountains.
As humans, we face many physical and mental climbs in our lifetime and often we seldom reach the summits through unforeseen happenings along our journey. We are often disappointed but disappointments can strengthen our resolve to reach the peaks. I should like to take the reader on a series of climbs that I have endured and often enjoyed in my longish life.
My first introduction to mountaineering was as a seven-year-old lad when my father took me to the cinema to see the film ‘The Ascent of Everest’. It was essentially a documentary on Sir John Hunt’s successful expedition to put two mountaineers on the world’s highest peak. Later in life I sat next to Sir John at a dinner and a more modest man about his accomplishments I have yet to meet.
Enthused by this film, my father took me to ‘Watchcroft’, the highest point of 252 metres on the rugged granite moorlands of West Cornwall, England. From there one could see the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the peninsula and the English Channel on the other. I was truly on top of my world!
I knew that if I wanted to see greater altitudes in the world that I needed a good education and after hard academic work at school, with a modicum of success, I gained a place to read Geography at Oxford University. There for the first time in my life I met sharper and more astute brains than mine and finished with a sound degree. I had been tipped for a first class honours degree by my tutor but, because of an avid interest in university sports and in particular hockey and athletics, I had to settle for second best! My confidence received a massive jolt but it was soon restored in my marriage to a first class honours graduate from another university, who was studying for a PhD at London University. Many of my cousins were teachers and thus I followed the same route gaining a distinction in a Postgraduate Certificate of Education, again at Oxford.
From a selective state Grammar School background, I was determined to put my education to good effect. I had no intention of teaching in a then called ‘public’ school. It was during my education practice at St Paul’s School in London, a highly selective independent school that changed my mind for I taught students whose brain capacity far exceeded mine yet they were willing to learn my subject from me!
After a three-year spell at my first independent school in the Upper Thames Valley, I moved with my ever-growing family to the Fylde coast of Lancashire as Head of Department in an independent school. It was there that my interest in mountains was rekindled during Geography field trips, which I took at weekends to the English Lake District, the Derbyshire Peak District, and the Yorkshire Dales. I was encouraged by the headmaster of that school to embark on a Mountain Leadership course along with seven other teaching colleagues. On that course I learned how to climb, abseil, and use an ice pick if falling on an icy surface. In my five years at that school, I climbed six of England’s highest peaks from Helvellyn at 950 metres to Ingleborough at 723 metres.
Bitten by mountaineering bug
One long weekend, I took a group of my A ‘level Geographers on an expedition to echo sound (using an electronic transponder) Red Tarn, the highest glacial lake in the UK in the English Lake District. We spent the night at an outward bound centre and at first light took off carrying an inflatable four man dinghy and 100 metres of coiled rope. It was an arduous trek up to the tarn which stood at 718 metres above sea level. We were suddenly hit by an early May snowstorm but continued with the survey of the lake’s depth.
Red Tarn sits in an armchair shaped glaciated hollow beneath the second highest peak in England, Helvellyn, at 950 metres, and is surrounded by the arêtes of Swirral Edge and Striding Edge. It took six hours to survey the lake’s depth and we descended the mountain as dusk closed in. This was the first ever accurate sounding of that lake using a transponder.
Probably my greatest frightening mountain experience occurred two days before Christmas one year, when seven teaching colleagues and I climbed the 868 metres saddleback mountain of Blencathra in the Lake District. We took the Sharp Edge route to the summit. This edge (formerly known as Razor Edge) was an arête or very narrow ridge with a 200 metre vertical drop on either side! It is renowned for being the most exposed grade 1 scramble in the Lake District requiring nerves of steel, a head for heights and very steady hands and feet.
It was a self-finding exercise as the winter’s ice was slightly melting making hand and footholds more perilous. We managed to make it to the summit by literally crawling on our hands and knees along the arête and fortunately the low cloud shielded my view from the vertical drops on either side! We descended by a gentler route and celebrated with a beer in a nearby inn.
About 16 years later, we went with our son on several summer visits to the Austrian Tyrol to climb mountains such as the Grossglockner at 3,798 metres in the Oztaler Alps and to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and the Slovenian Julian Alps, there to cool off in former glacial lakes after arduous mountain treks.
Climbing in Borneo
The millennium year saw me in my 10th year of headmastership of a large coeducational boarding and day school in Somerset, England and I was determined to lead an overseas expedition of A’level Geography and Biology students to Sabah. In its 163 years since its founding, the school had never before been so far overseas and the students for this expedition had to work at weekends for two years to earn money to pay for the expedition costs.
I had visited Mount Kinabalu twice previously and been thwarted from ascending it once by drought and the second time by torrential rain. On both occasions the mountain was closed. With 14 senior girls, 12 boys, two other teachers, and two undergraduate students we left the Timpohon Gate at 8.30am and climbed upwards to reach Laban Rata Resthouse at 11am when the heavens suddenly opened and torrential rain cascaded down the bare granitic rocks until midnight. It looked as though our summit bid was to be aborted. After a few hours of restless sleep, we all, but five students who were suffering from altitude sickness, took off with our Kadazandusun guides for Low’s Peak.
Clambering up the fixed ropes past Donkey’s Ears we saw dawn break, as the low cloud evaporated and the most beautiful view of the land below stretching to the South China Sea came into sight. As the oldest man on the mountain that particular day, I felt overwhelmed with joy having reached Low’s Peak at 4,095 metres and observed Low’s Gully. The descent was no problem for my students, who merrily skipped down to the National Park Headquarters in just under two hours. I had problems for knees ached and it took me nearly four hours with rests!
For the students, the vegetational zones on a tropical mountain, which they had read about in text books had suddenly come to life! The two female postgraduate students went on to high flying careers; one, a Sabahan, is now a senior partner in a GP surgery in the north of England and the other a Professor of Cultural Geography at a London University College.
My days for physical climbs of mountains are now over but the memories still linger on. Hopefully and God willing. I shall have a few more years left to climb the mountains of everyday life and explore lower altitude regions in England and Sarawak. Mountains are still there to be climbed — maybe Santubong ‘ere too long?