Monthly Archives: August 2021

There are coincidences in life that just knock you back a few steps. Take your breath away, if you’ll pardon the attempt at humor, that will come clear below. About six years ago my wife Kristen was talking with our British-Canadian friend Ruth Bowen in Yellowknife, and Ruth mentioned that she was getting ready to take a visual celebration of her grandfather’s life down to a showing at Jasper or Banff, or maybe both, because of his historical involvement with mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. “Oh,” Kristen said, “Was he a mountain climber?” Yes, Ruth said. Quite a climber in fact. His name was Frank Smythe.

At this, Kristen’s jaw probably went slack for a split second, but not as slack as mine went about a day and a half later, when she was back home and recounting her town run, and nonchalantly let slip with “Oh and I saw Kris and Ruth; Ruth is going off on a tour with an exhibit she’s made about her grandfather, Frank Smythe.”

Now like many husbands, I am not always so finely attuned to the detailed specifics of my wife’s monologue as I should be, when she returns home after a whirlwind of visiting and errands in the big city, Yellowknife (population about 18,000.) Thus maybe it took a second or two for me to say, “Hold on, wait, what?”

Now she knew she had me — and that thus by default, up to that point she maybe had not quite, well, had me a hundred percent, so to speak.

“Ruth Bowen is Frank Smythe’s granddaughter.”

At this point, Kristen likes to tell people, “Dave gave me a look as if I had just announced I was pregnant.” Which at that age and stage in our life, not to mention my sterilization status, would have been about as likely as, well, about as likely as our friend Ruth in Yellowknife being the granddaughter of the man whose books about mountaineering in the first half of the twentieth century I had been devouring at the rate of one a month for the past six months. I think I said something profound and insightful like, “Auughff?”

It has been a busy month, I am away from home now on a flying contract, and it is time to post something here. Maybe this is a last-ditch maneuver, but it is an inspired one, I promise.

If you want to read something astounding, inspiring, and utterly devoid of any reference to you-know-what, or you know where, or you know who, for a complete change, try this. As I did just the other morning, gazing at the inner sanctum of our bookshelf and looking for something to ease my aching back, clear my mind, and take me far, far, away. It is excerpted from Frank Smythe’s book Camp Six. I have asked no one’s permission to reprint it here, but I promise to buy Frank’s granddaughter Ruth a pint next time I see her, right in Yellowknife, where she lives about sixty feet from where I tie up the floatplanes when I come and go from there on charters. It is a small big world at times, isn’t it?

{Here is Smythe writing of his escapades with Eric Shipton, and then alone, high on the northeast ridge of Everest, in 1933. Nine years, almost to the day, after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine.  From Camp Six, published 1937.}

And now I must recount the first of two strange experiences that befell me that day. All the time that I was climbing alone, I had the feeling that there was someone with me. I felt also that were I to slip I should be held up and supported as though I had a companion above me with a rope. Sir Ernest Shackleton had the same experience when crossing the mountains of South Georgia after his hazardous open-boat journey from Elephant Island, and he narrates how he and his companion felt that there was an extra ‘someone’ in the party.  When I reached the ledge I felt I ought to eat something in order to keep up my strength. All I had brought with me was a slab of Kendal mint cake. This I took out of my pocket and, carefully dividing it into two halves, turned round with one half in my hand to offer my ‘companion.’

The second experience was bizarre, to say the least of it. It was in all probability an hallucination due to lack of oxygen, which affects not only the physical powers but the mental powers also. I was making my way back towards Camp Six when chancing to look up, I saw two dark objects floating in the blue sky. In shape they resembled kite balloons, except that one appeared to possess short squat wings. As they hovered motionless, they seemed to pulsate in and out as though they were breathing. I gazed at them dumbfounded and intensely interested. It seemed to me that my brain was working normally, but to test myself I looked away. The objects did not follow my gaze but were still there when I looked back. So I looked away again, but this time identified by name various details of the landscape by way of a mental test. Yet, when I again looked back, the objects were still visible. A minute or two later, a mist drifted across the north-east shoulder of Everest above which they were poised. As this thickened the objects gradually disappeared behind it and were lost to sight. A few minutes later the mist blew away. I looked again, expecting to see them, but they had vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. If it was an optical illusion, it was a very strange one. But it is possible that fatigue magnified out of all proportion something capable of a perfectly ordinary and rational explanation. That is all I can say about the matter and it rests there. 

It was not easy finding my way back {down – my emphasis} to Camp Six {at 27,400 feet ASL – again, my astonished emphasis} across the wilderness of slabs, and it was a relief when at last the little tent came into view. Shipton was safely there, and after a hot drink we talked over the situation. We were both of us very loath to spend a third night at the camp, which for two men was very uncomfortable. At the same time, I was too tired to descend to Camp Five.  It was arranged, therefore, that Shipton, who had had a long rest and had completely recovered, should descend, leaving me behind. I am not sure now that it was a wise decision. It would have been better for us to have remained together, but at the time we both welcomed it. Accordingly, Shipton set off down to Camp Five. 

The weather was not looking good when he left and grey clouds were beginning to form about Everest, yet neither of us anticipated the storm that broke an hour later. It caught him when he was still a long way from Camp Five, and he had a terrible descent, narrowly escaping being frozen to death in the blizzard. He told me afterwards that at one point he nearly met with disaster. He had let himself down from a rock by his arms on to a slope of snow, when the latter suddenly slid off, exposing a smooth slab destitute of all footholds. To let go with his hands meant a certain slip, and the only alternative was to pull himself back. To any one who has never done it, it is impossible to give any idea of the strength and determination required for an arm-pull at twenty-seven thousand feet. Suffice it to say, Shipton did it, and thereby saved his life. He arrived at Camp Five almost exhausted, where he was welcomed by Birnie who was in support there. 

When the storm broke, and I heard the wind roaring past the little tent, I felt anxious for Shipton’s safety, and was relieved when, towards sundown, the weather cleared a little. 

It was an extraordinary experience spending a night higher than any other human being, but I scarcely appreciated this at the time. I was concerned only with making myself as comfortable as possible, and one of my memories is a grand brew of café au lait. 

At sundown the wind died away, and I prepared to settle down for the long cold night which at that latitude lasts for nearly twelve hours. But before doing so, I unlaced the flaps of the tent and glanced outside. It was a scene of incredible desolation. All round were great slabs of rocks mortared with snow in their interstices like an immense expanse of armour-plating. Thousands of feet beneath lay a great sea of cloud slowly writhing and twisting in its uppermost billows and, here and there, seeming almost on fire, where it was touched by the rays of the setting sun. There was not a sound. No stone-fall or avalanche disturbed the serenity of Everest. There was silence, an absolute and complete silence; and permeating all, investing all, with a deadly embrace, was the cold, the coldness that reigns in the abysses of space. 

The last flare from the sun was illumining the rocks as I laced up the tent and snuggled deeply in my sleeping-bag. The lull in the weather was only temporary, and later the wind rose, but I was not aware of it; I slept the clock round, a sleep of sheer exhaustion.

Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton, 1933: