THREE PAIRS OF BOOTS
UNLIKE LONDONERS, every country gentleman has several pairs of boots. One pair, now relegated to the potting-shed, was once boned to a brilliant sheen to please some tyrant sergeant-major. Others stand ready to pursue fox, fish, fowl or errant cow. Being a mountaineer I have others too. My latest acquisition, a pair of The Times lightweight Walking Boots, incidentally enabled me to achieve one of my life's ambitions: a letter in the bottom right-hand corner of the Times correspondence page, in which I queried their description as having 'ecological soles', but hoped that they would waft me effortlessly over the hills of Tibet. Since then they have indeed borne me far and high, though not always without effort.
They were accompanied on their travels by a junior and a senior partner. The former, a cheap pair of plastic and canvas trainers, scarcely worthy of the name 'boots', had their special role to play during a preliminary fortnight in Nepal. For a week they bicycled unsteadily around the narrow alleys of Kathmandu, weaving unsteadily between pedestrians and puddles, while protected from the monsoon rains by a mauve umbrella. Then came their first serious test: a week's trek in the Himalayan foothills to acclimatize for greater heights in Tibet. There are two strategies to choose between when walking in Nepal during the rains, as slender leeches stretch out from every pathside leaf and stone, eager to join any passerby. One is the Maginot Line approach, wearing heavy boots, trousers and knee-length gaiters in the vain hope of denying access to one's skin. One of my companions supplemented this by soaking his socks in a mixture of washing powder and ammonia, so that by midday his feet were foaming from every eyelet-hole. The alternative, which I favour, is the lightweight, SAS approach: minimum footwear, short shorts, a smear of Jungle-Juice insect repellent on bare legs and constant vigilance by oneself and whoever is walking close behind one. Whatever one does, some leeches will get through occasionally to intimate parts of one's anatomy, there to gorge into fat black slugs. A touch of Jungle-Juice will end their feast at once. Otherwise they drop off when satiated; one fell out of my beard on to a letter I was writing home after supper.
Our Sherpas carried tents, cooking gear and food while we laboured to follow them with our rucksacks of personal gear; first between terraced rice fields like emerald staircases up the steep hillside; then along knife-edged forest ridges wreathed in clouds, through which we caught glimpses of shingle-roofed villages and slender waterfalls far below us. Eventually we reached the Bhairav Kund at 4420 m, a little lake where Hindus and Buddhists hold an annual country fair. Tattered prayer flags still fluttered by the shore, but even the summer graziers had gone down to lower pastures with their cattle.
In a day and a half we dropped 2700 m to the road, where our heavy baggage awaited us. Landslides had obliterated the road in several places so we had to march across Friendship Bridge into Tibet with a train of 180 porters. My Times boots now came into service. At Nyalam, 30 km inside Tibet, the serious mountaineers left us and started establishing a series of camps up Xixa-bangma,1 while we went round to the north of the mountain. The vast brown stony plains and rolling hills of the high Tibetan plateau stretched away into the distance, while behind us rose the white sawtooth palisade of the Himalaya with Everest 60 miles away. We were camped by a wide blue lake at 4570 m, under a cloudless sky and a brilliant sun. I even swam - very briefly. After some walks in the hills we recruited two local Tibetan herdsmen and four of their yak, and set off for a brief foray to the northern side of Xixabangma. A long day's march brought us to a campsite where we quickly filled our waterbottles from a small stream before it froze for the night. Next morning we explored the glacier close by, which carried a spectacular array of gleaming ice-towers up to 50 m, high. These are only found on the long tongues of glaciers in the northern Himalaya and the Karakoram.
On our last day we climbed a peak beside the glacier and eventually reached the little ice-cap on top at 6176 m, a personal best and a satisfying achievement for my three young companions on their first mountaineering trip. A best too, I suspect, for any pair of The Times boots. The view from the top was superb but there -was a bitterly cold wind with a chill factor of - 40°C so we did not linger. My companions made speed down into the valley while I took another route along the crest. Presently I saw a line of tracks crossing mine which appeared to have been made by a "two-footed animal. Although I am sceptically inclined, thoughts of yetis naturally came to mind, so I took some photographs, carefully planting a Times bootprint by the side to provide a scale. Of course Sherpas strongly assert the existence of yetis, and numerous British mountaineers including Eric Shipton and John Hunt have photographed plausible tracks, though none as high as mine. Unfortunately several local animals, including bears, are known to put their hindfeet exactly in the prints of their forefeet at some gaits, and sunmelt can play havoc with the shapes of tracks. However, these tracks were little melted and do not clearly match any of the likely animals such as snow leopard or bear, so they remain intriguing. Until someone captures or gets a close photograph of a yeti the controversy will continue, to the benefit of those seeking to fund Himalayan expeditions.
We rejoined the climbers at their base camp at 5000 m on the east of the mountain, and here my third pair of boots, heavier and with a rigid sole, came into play, as I needed to wear crampons to take survey equipment up a glacier. We dumped it at 5640 m but then had to retreat in the worst Himalayan blizzard in living memory. Many other parties of climbers and tourists were cut off, including a man with a wooden leg, whose predicament hit the world's headlines; some had to be rescued by helicopter; some died. With two of my students I spent the eve of my 65th birthday sitting on a small ledge where the driving snow continually threatened to cover us. Next morning we reached base camp where our' companions had had to dig hard to prevent their tents being buried-The weather now turned very cold and each night I had to take my boots to bed with me or even to wear them inside my sleeping-bag-to prevent their being frozen hard next morning. The climbers, including Steven Venables who has since climbed Everest, made a final attempt on the summit but were driven back by the intense cold. Our yaks could not reach us through the deep snow so we had to abandon much of our heavy baggage, but eventually we reached roadhead again after an arduous journey down. Most of us had mild frostbite but suffered nothing worse than lost finger- or toe-nails.
I sent my heaviest boots back with our baggage to Nepal but they were stolen on the way. My other pairs travelled with me to Lhasa and Beijing. The lightest (all my frosted toes could bear) took me up Beijing's highest hill, all of 50 m, beside the azure Temple of Heaven; and later up 7500 granite steps to the summit of China's holiest mountain, the Tai Shan. My Times boots now stand in my wardrobe awaiting their next chance to leave ecological footprints in remote places.