Mountaineering elite and three time winner of the Piolet D’or award, Mick Fowler shares the lessons he’s learnt from his many amazing and unusual experiences.
Mention of mistakes always make me think back to my first ever Himalayan trip, an attempt on the wonderfully named Bojohagur Duonasir in Pakistan in 1984.
Some of the mistakes we made were incredibly basic but we made them. I have listed those I can readily remember (I’m sure there were more!) in the hope that other newcomers might be more prepared than we were and have a more successful first trip.
1. Our relationship with our Liaison Officer (LO) was rubbish. We didn’t like him and made that very clear. The end result was continual tension and stress. Learning point – be nice to your LO, even if he is an idiot.
LO on the L. Team on the R. Bonding not going well.
2. Our research was rubbish – we chose Bojohagur for no other reason than it was close to the road and unclimbed. It was much higher than any of us had been to before and it had no obvious, attractive lines. Learning point – research thoroughly. Chose an objective that ticks your boxes. The most accessible objective is rarely the best.
3. Our cook was rubbish. He was a schoolteacher who appropriately asked us to call him ‘Die.’ We chose him because he was the first that offered and subsequently discovered he had no previous experience of cooking for a climbing trip. Learning point – check out key people like cooks as much as possible. Don’t just take the first available option.
4. Our base camp site was rubbish – woefully low and nearly 4,500m below the summit. Learning point – have the base camp as high as possible. Within reason! For a peak in the region of 6,500m I find a BC at about 4,500m is ideal.
Bojohagur base camp. A lovely site to camp but totally unsuitable in every other way.
5. Our water supply was rubbish, in the flow line of a shepherd’s toilet higher up the mountain. We were sick all the time. Learning Point – do check where your water supply is coming from.
6. Our understanding of Himalayan temperatures was rubbish. We fried and ground to a hot, sweaty, exhausted halt on an open snow/ice slope after trying to climb throughout the day. Learning point: south facing slopes below c6,000m can get very hot. Plan accordingly and be prepared to stop early.
South facing slopes at 6,000m late in the day and without acclimatizing. Not a good idea.
7. Our knowledge of bivouacs was rubbish. We tried to bivouac in a bag made of parachute silk. It gave minimal protection from the elements and contoured to our body shapes like cling film. Learning point – a small tent which can double up as a bivouac sack is invaluable.
8. Our efforts to sleep at altitude were rubbish. We took so many sleeping tablets to aid sleep at altitude that one member fell from a bivouac ledge and ended up dangling free. The others were too zonked to be very interested in helping. Learning points – drug free sleeping is best.
When Chris Watts dangled beneath this ledge in the night it became clear that the sleeping tablets had been a very bad idea.
9. Our knowledge of acclimatisation was rubbish. We rushed to over 6,000m without any acclimatizing. Surprisingly enough we didn’t feel our best and had to retreat shortly afterwards. Learning point – take time to acclimatise.
10. Our understanding of sun damage and wear and tear on slings was rubbish. A previously used abseil sling broke – remarkably this did not result in any serious injury. Learning point – always place a new abseil sling.
11. Our teamwork skills were rubbish. I ended up bivouacing alone and trying to melt snow in my helmet. Learning point – stay together and don’t separate the pan and stove.
12. Our organization was rubbish. People left kit at supposedly obvious places which others were unable to find. Learning point – if you must leave kit to be collected later make sure you know exactly where it is and be sure you will be able to find it if it gets buried in snow.
13. Our appreciation of what it takes to succeed in the Himalaya was rubbish. The low point of the trip, hilarious in retrospect, was when members of the Hiroshima Walking Club who had come up the other side of the mountain walked strongly past us technical masters to achieve the first ascent. Learning point – there’s more to Himalayan climbing than technical ability.
There’s little doubt about it. We were rubbish.
An Alpine Club stalwart clearly thought this as he wrote to me afterwards saying we should be ashamed of our performance. Actually though I am not. We had an amazing number of interesting, unusual experiences, we learned a lot and we sowed the seeds that would see me return time and time again and develop an enthusiasm for Himalayan trips that stays with me 33 years later.
And I am still making mistakes and learning from them.