Earth and grass and rock smell of damp. The rain has only just stopped. The hut, my home, is empty. I have been in North Wales for two weeks. The mornings have been crisp and snow lingers on the tops refusing to accept summer. I sleep in my green Berlingo van. The Llanberis Pass is quiet, apart from the sheep. The sheep baa and wake me. I turn and wrap my sleeping bag around my shoulders before yelling “shuuuutuuuup” In desperation after another bout of BAAAA’S, I open the rear doors and throw stones. Wrapping myself again, I revel in the chill and the clear air and the thrill of climbing rock with friends.
Since my return from Nepal I have questioned our philosophy. Is it right to consider going back to Annapurna III Southeast ridge by helicopter? I don’t think there is a day goes by without me thinking about our plan. In fact, I don’t think there is an hour I have not thought about the ridge and the dilemma surrounding the approach. As one of my friends said, “Taking a chopper is not very Shipton/Tilman.”
The most obvious answer would be to forget about the ridge and move on, move on to something new, but when has climbing ever been about doing the sensible thing? And the ridge is one of the most compelling objectives for an alpinist, made more compelling and intriguing by the mystique and aura surrounding it.
The more I think about taking a helicopter to base camp, the more I think it is the correct decision (apart from not going of course). The most obvious argument I can come up with for flying is it will avoid the death of a local and I was under no doubt that this would have happened if Matt and myself had not called a halt to the first attempt. One of my main arguments against commercial climbs of big hills is the use of high altitude climbing Sherpas. This I know is also full of confliction. The Sherpas are risking their lives to fix rope, carry oxygen, carry tents, food, clothing etc, to molly-coddle and if called upon, to rescue… they do this for a wage which gives them a high standard of living in a third world country. It’s a job, but is it a job worth loosing you’re life for. I wonder how many of the people on commercial trips actually consider their dream climb could end up in the death of a local. Do they even care? I would find it very difficult to live with myself if someone had been killed as a direct result of my playing in the mountains.
Is our flying to Annapurna III BC any different than the hundreds of climbers that fly every year to Denali, or any of the other ranges in the Alaskan mountains. Is it different than the climbers who fly to Antarctica, Baffin, Logan, Lukla, Skardu, Everest BC, or climbers that take motorised transport into Greenland, or a skidoo into an ice climb in Canada? My main concern here is the precedent we will be setting. In years to come will rich climbers from developed countries fly into all base camps because of me and my decision now? Did Chris Bonington stop to consider his ethics when he took a plane into the Grand Jorasses? Did Destivelle and Lowe wonder long and hard about flying to the base and from the top of the Losar icefall opposite Namche Bazaar, did Will Gadd think twice before flying a chopper to Tengkang Poche?
Another concern would be the loss of earnings by porters, but I do not think this is a valid concern as the track into the south side of Annapurna III is hardly a trade route. 10 expeditions have attempted to go into this side of Annapurna III since 1981 and at least 3 (maybe 5 but there is some confusion with the info available) didn’t make it to BC. If we had managed to continue on our approach to the Southeast Ridge, 14 of the 20 porters were leaving anyway, (also a common theme for Annapurna III south side) which given time constraints and the way ahead would have made it virtually impossible for us to continue.
An argument against flying may be our use of a limited resource, (the helicopter), for our selfish reasons and in using the helicopter we are delaying the more important work, of lets say, building bridges. This is not the case anymore with companies like Fishtail Air who are a privately owned company and in the business of making money by people chartering their helicopters.
So apart from setting a precedent which I don’t think it is as the few examples above show this sort of thing has been going on for years, my main concern is it just isn’t very Shipton/Tilman. Try as hard as I may to justify and reason with myself, the feeling of not taking on the full challenge is a tad overwhelming. But will it stop me from going to attempt the Southeast ridge? Or to be more clear, will it stop me flying to BC which all said and done is only the start of the difficulties. Talking to Rob Fairley (a member of the 1988 Annapurna III expedition) it sounds like approaching the ridge from BC is also filled with danger, or at least it was in the 80’s. (Let’s hope global warming has worked in our favour here) When he was there he thought the dangers were so real he refused to attempt the ridge but was almost killed by an avalanche crossing at night to try another objective. I’m starting to think that once we are actually climbing, this will be the easy part. (Said very tongue in cheek)
Since writing the above I have received a very interesting and surprising e-mail from Rob Fairley. When I first contacted Rob, on our return from Nepal, I told him we were thinking of flying in to BC in October. Rob’s reply was that he didn’t think flying in was the correct decision. I immediately assumed it was because of some of the ethical reasons I have stated above, but it appears that Rob thinks that taking a chopper in and out again, without knowing the way by foot is too committing. A link to his report has been added below, it’s very thought provoking and has convinced me of my decision for the autumn.
For Blog Annapurna 3 Thoughts and Suggestions