THE CLIMBING PARTNER - THE OTHER EXPERIENCE IN THE HIMALAYA
ARE THEY HYPOXIA induced hallucinations? Derangements brought on by stress and fatigue when the human frame is stretched to the ultimate degree? Or are they real -'frontier' experiences as I would like to call them ? Paranormal experiences in the Himalaya amongst mountaineers as chronicled stretch over since decades and there is sure to be a considerable corpus which has not been set down for fear of ridicule or worse.
The 1933 expedition to the North Face of Everest was remarkable in many aspects. For one thing it had men like Eric Shipton and Frank Smythe in the party. It was during this expedition that Wyn Harris discovered the ice axe belonging to either Mallory and Irvine who disappeared in 1924 on Everest on their way to the summit. The expedition also equalled the oxygen-less altitude record on Everest set up by Norton in 1924 - 28,200 ft which was broken more than 50 years later by Messner and Habeler. On 1 June 1933 Shipton and Smythe had set out for the summit of Everest from C6 at 27,200 ft and then when Shipton had collapsed Smythe had gone on alone until he was forced to turn* back at about 28,200 ft, a thousand feet short of the summit. It was when he was nearing C6 on his return journey that he had the experience which is best related in his own words.
I was still some 200 feet above C6 and a considerable distance horizontally from it when, chancing to glance in the direction of the north ridge, I saw two curious looking objects floating in the sky. They strongly resembled kite balloons in shape, but one possessed what appeared to be squat underdeveloped wings, and the other a protuberance suggestive of a beak. They hovered motionless but seemed slowly to pulsate, a pulsation much slower than my own heart-beats, which is of interest supposing that it was an optical illusion. The two objects were very dark in colour and were silhouetted sharply against the sky, or possibly a background of cloud. So interested was I that I stopped to
observe them. My brain appeared to be working normally and I deliberately put myself through a series of tests. First of all I glanced away. The objects did not follow my vision but they were still there when I looked back again. Then I looked away again and this time identified by name a number of peaks, valleys and glaciers by way of a mental test. But when I looked back again, the objects confronted me. At this I gave them up as a bad job, but just as I was starting to move again a mist suddenly drifted across. Gradually they disappeared behind it; and when a minute or two later it had drifted clear, exposing the whole of the north ridge once more, they had vanished as mysteriously as they came.
Was this the first chronicled UFO sighting on the Himalaya ? Did Smythe have extra-sensory perception or was it just stress that produced what a climbing colleague gently derided as 'Frank's pulsating teapots' ? We shall not know.
More than forty years later something more eerie happened to Nick Estcourt when he was part of the team that was attempting the difficult Southwest face of Everest under Chris Bonington's leadership. Logistics dictated that on 26 September 1975 four bottles of oxygen had to be supplied to C6 high up on the mountain and to do this Nick Estcourt volunteered to leave C4 with the bottles early in the morning. In doing so Estcourt had an experience straight out of the bizarre world of M. R. James. This is the story in his own words.
I set off on my own at about 3.30 in the morning (from Camp IV) pulling up the fixed ropes leading upto Camp 5. It was a moonlit night and the shapes of the rocks were etched clearly against the brightness of the snow. I was about two hundred feet above the camp when I turned around. I can't remember why but perhaps I had a feeling that someone was following me. Anyway I turned around and saw this figure behind me. He looked like an ordinary climber, far enough behind, so that I could not feel him moving up the fixed rope, but not all that far below. I could see his arms and legs and assumed that it was someone trying to catch me up. I stopped and waited for him. He then seemed to stop or to be moving very, very slowly, he made no effort to signal or wave - I shouted down, but got no reply and so in the end I thought,
'Sod it, I might as well press on!' ___ I carried on and turned
round three or four times ___ and this figure was still behind
me. It was definitely a human figure with arms and legs and at one stage I can remember seeing him behind a slight undulation
in the slope, from the waist upwards as you would expect with the lower part of his body hidden in the slight dip. I turned again as I reached the old site of Camp 4 (six hundred above Camp IV in the current expedition) and there was no one there at all. It seemed very eerie. I wasn't sure if anyone had fallen off or what. He couldn't possibly have had time to have turned back and drop down the ropes out of sight, since I could see almost all the way back to Camp 4. The whole thing seemed very peculiar.
Later discussing his experience with others it was clearly established that the figure could not have been a member of the team.
Once again there is no satisfactory explanation. Nick Estcourt was well acclimatised and in any case the altitude at which he had the experience was around 7300 m low enough to discount any hallucinatory factor. Was it then a psychic phenomenon, an ectoplasmic emanation of Jangbo the Sherpa who was killed in an avalanche in the area in 1973 and who had been closely associated with Estcourt in 1972? A pre-sentiment of death ? Mick Burke a member of the team was to die later that day on his lonely plough back from the summit and a few years later Estcourt himself would die in a tragic avalanche on K2. Could this possibly be the Abominable Snowman plagued by loneliness following Estcourt in its desperate hunger for company?
Reinhold Messner arguably the greatest mountaineer of the modern age has had several paranormal experiences. In 1970 along with his brother Gunther, Messner made the first ascent of the famous Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. Their descent without ropes down the Diamir face is now mountaineering history. Part of the descent meant climbing down a chute of smooth polished ice at an angle of fifty degrees without ropes or any other aid using only the front points of crampons. It was here that Messner felt the presence of a third person climbing down with him as he and Gunther went down to the Mummery Rib in the darkness. Later Gunther was killed by an avalanche as the two fought their way through extreme exhaustion down to base camp.
Inspite of personal tragedy, Messner was back to the Nanga Parbat in 1978 to do his first 8000 m solo bid up the Diamir face. This time up the presence of the other person was even more vivid, guiding him and telling him to go left or right to find the best route as he made his way through the glacier at the foot of the mountain. Higher on the face, at around 7500 m, he was once again aware of a presence, this time a woman at the edge of his vision with whom he talked and who assured him of the success of his summit bid. Messner's successful solo ascent and descent of Nanga Parbat is now part of adventure history.
Once again the questions raised defy straight answers. The first time on Diamir with Gunther, Messner was not alone. Why then a third persort? Supposing this was a result of mountain loneliness? On his solo bid, he felt the presence of a benevolent entity on the glacier itself which could not have been caused by altitude. It is possible though that the 'woman' he saw and talked with at 7500 m was born out of physical and emotional exhaustion. In 1977 Messner had been separated from Uschi his wife and he was emotionally drained by the experience.
In 1980 Messner mounted his remarkable solo bid on Everest up the North Face. Here also at the higher altitudes Messner felt a guiding hand and above 8000 m he could sense the mystical presence of Mallory.
In 1988 Stephen Venables as part of a team of four climbers took on the hitherto 'unclimbable' Kangshung Face of Everest. It was an ascent of epic proportions and ultimately it was Venables alone who climbed from the South to the top of Everest. During the descent from the summit to the South Co! battling appalling weather and extreme exhaustion he found companionship in an 'old man' who appeared in moments of great danger guiding his way and nursed him to safety. Forced to bivouac in the open, above South Col as he was benighted, Venables had the 'old man' as his companion throughout the night, who disappeared only when the dawn came and his safety was assured.
What was this phenomenon - hallucination induced by lack of oxygen above 8000 m and extreme exhaustion or the guardian spirit of Everest or the shades of dead and gone mountaineers? Could it have been the protective aura of the ashram from Pondicherry from where Venables had taken votive petals to the top of Everest? The questions remain.
It is not that paranormal experiences are confined to the Himalaya. Modern mountaineering began a century ago in July 1865 with the first ascent of the Matterhorn by Edward Whymper. In July on their descent from the Matterhorn, four of Whymper's climbing companions fell 1200 m to their death. Speechless and numb with horror the rest of the party climbed down to safety toward Zermatt when at 6 p.m. a strange thing happened. As Whymper reported in his book, Scrambles Among the Alps___ a mighty arch appeared, rising above the Lyskanum high into the sky. Pale, colourless and noiseless but perfectly sharp and defined .... this unearthly apparition seemed like a vision from another world; and almost appalled we watched with amazement the gradual development of two vast crosses,
one on either side ___ The spectral forms remained motionless. It
was fearful and wonderful sight; unique in my experience and impressive beyond description, coming at such a moment'.
1. See article 'Fires on the Mountain', in the present issue on this subject about another accident to Venables in 1992. - Ed.
Yet again the above 'fog-bow' appearance can perhaps be explained by natural causes but its curious occurrence immediately after the accident makes us wonder like Whymper nearly a century and a half ago. There are mysteries yet on earth and in heaven and in mountains that bridge them.
1. Everest, by Walt Unsworth, (p. 182).
2. Everest the Hard Way, by Chris Bonington. (Pp. 191-192).
3. Quest for Adventure, by Chris Bonington.
4. Everest Kangshung Face, by Stephen Venables.
5. Scrambles Amongst the Alps, by Edward Whymper.
A look at paranormal experiences in the Himalaya to different climbers over the years.