In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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Life of Geek

When we first moved to Swansea, I started the local school half way through the 3rd year of juniors. These days that has a year number, probably year 5 or year 6 or year (x-b). I don’t know. I was 9-and-a-bit. Being the son of a serviceman, I was used to moving around and new places. I had also developed a reluctance to make really strong friendships, as they would always end after a year or two, when dad was posted to a new base. I’ve heard other with a similar background say the same thing.

So fitting in to the school didn’t pose a problem. I found I was better at English, reading and writing and slightly worse at maths and science. Different schools, different curricula, I suppose. It didn’t affect me much (except fractions – I was first exposed to them in Swansea. I didn’t understand them, despite the attentions of my teacher and my parents. Who needed fractions? two thirds of us, apparently.)

The one thing that I really looked forward to, though, was Friday afternoons when the teacher would read to us.  I arrived half way through ‘The Hobbit’. I didn’t know anything about the story or the author, but I really enjoyed the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves. My parents bought the book so that I could catch up with the first half of the story. I was a good reader, and loved books so it didn’t take long.

Fast forward to the late 70’s. Punk was in, flares were out, prog rock was no longer appreciated. I was scared to go into the Virgin record store in Swansea because it was dark and full of older boys dressed in the black uniform of punks. But I frequented the local library and read as much as I could. usually science fiction from the grown up section, as kids books didn’t capture my imagination. Then I discovered ‘The Lord of the Rings’. And it was by the same author as ‘The Hobbit’. Heaven!

The copy in the library was in three volumes. I read volume one, but volume two was out so I couldn’t go further. I waited ages for volume two to come in, and borrowed 2 and 3 at the same time to make sure I could finish the story. It took a long time – the language was more difficult than I’d come across before but it was worth taking the time to read it properly. I loved the world of Middle Earth and all the things that lived there. I eagerly looked for more fantasy books, but nothing came close to Tolkien. I discovered some of his other books – mainly unfinished stories and legends of Middle Earth which made his fictional world more real. But nothing compared to the Lord of the Rings. So I read it again. And again.

Fast forward to 2001. The movies were due out. I couldn’t wait and went to see them in the cinema as they were released. As I recall, it was around this time of year that each one came out. I drank them in, because unlike many adaptations of books, these actually matched my imagined world of Middle Earth. All the characters and races were just as I pictured them in 1979. Of course I got the extended collectors editions of the boxed DVD sets – why wouldn’t I?

Fast forward again – 2007. I’m in the lodge at Gorak Shep having just returned from climbing Kala Patthar – 5545m above sea level and with the perfect view of Everest. It’s cold, I’m tired and I’m reading ‘The Hobbit’. It was a welcome reminder of home and something that didn’t need a lot of concentration to enjoy.

Two years later I gave that copy of the book to my friend’s little boy for his first birthday – she’d asked that all her friends give him the book that meant the most to them in their childhood. For me there was no question about which book it would be.

One more fast forward. No more after this, I promise. It’s yesterday. I went to see ‘The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of the Hobbit trilogy by Peter Jackson. I was on my own – it’s the price one pays for geekdom. I wasn’t the only loner in the theatre. Buying the ticket, the person behind the counter glanced behind me to see if I really was alone, and almost asked if I was sure I only wanted one. There may have been the faint look of sadness in her eyes, or it may have been sympathy for my obvious sad, lonely existence.

I sat and watched the movie – nearly 3 hours of it. I was hooked from the opening music. It was great – no disappointment. Once again, my Middle Earth was there on screen. In places I felt it was dragging a bit, but at the same time, I was enjoying every second. I’m biased, of course, but it just felt familiar and.. right.

Shameless plug – if you go to my 1-a-day Flickr site you will see my local library. It’s role in my reading history means it deserves a place there.