If you want to buy your loved one a book for Christmas make it this one!
IN the summer of 2012 two veteran Scots mountaineers stood on the summit of Nanga Parbat (8126m) in Pakistan. They had just climbed this massive mountain by its Mazeno Ridge, at 10km the longest route to the summit of an 8000m mountain, one of the last great problems in the Himalayas.
Their companions, South African mountaineer Cathy O’Dowd, Lhakpa Rangdu Sherpa, Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa and Lhakpa Zarok Sherpa, had decided to quit at the Mazeno Gap after negotiating the vast Mazeno Ridge, a “dragon’s back” with eight separate summits of over 7000 metres. The two Scots were left to tackle the final summit pyramid of Nanga Parbat themselves, one of only 14 peaks above 8000 metres in the world.
Ten international teams had previously attempted the route, and all had failed. Rick Allen from Aberdeen and Sandy Allan from Newtonmore, both in their late fifties, had succeeded where many younger climbers had given up.
There is no doubting the boldness of this achievement. The expedition has been described as "the most significant British ascent of an 8000m peak in a generation" and the two Scots were awarded the Piolets d'Or, mountaineering's highest honour, and the sport's equivalent of the Oscars. Suddenly the world mountaineering community wanted to know the story of the Mazeno Ridge success, every little detail. Sandy had to write a book.
I've known Sandy Allan for a number of years. Born and bred in Dalwhinnie where his parents ran the distillery, Sandy is a mountain guide by profession, combining his love of the mountains with technical rope access work in the oil industry. He now lives around the corner from me in Newtonmore in Badenoch, but connections are such in the relatively tight-knit mountaineering community that I most often hear of Sandy's exploits from mutual friends: years ago he climbed the Mustagh Tower in Pakistan and a pal of mine, the novelist Andrew Grieg, was on the same expedition: he guided Calum Morris, the son of another good friend to the summit of Ama Dablam: and he gained a lot of inspiration and encouragement from another Newtonmore resident, the late Alan Blackshaw, a wonderful mountaineer in his own right.
So rather than simply review Sandy's book, In Some Lost Place - the First Ascent of Nanga Parbat's Mazeno Ridge, which was published during the summer, I thought I'd rather sit down with the man himself and over a dram or two try and discover some facets of his highland character that had perhaps contributed to his mountaineering successes. I didn't want to go over the expedition again - I interviewed Sandy for the BBC's Adventure Show as soon as he got home from Pakistan - but I was keen to talk to him about some other aspects of his mountaineering career.
You can read the book yourself, and I enthusiastically commend it to you. Another mutual friend, the journalist Iain Macwhirter, described it as "one of the best adventure tales I've read in years." With Christmas fast approaching it would make a wonderful gift for anyone with an interest in mountains or a fondness for a fast moving tale of do-or-die adventure.
The most compelling question I wanted to ask Sandy was how on earth did he and Rick manage such an epic, strength-sapping, and soul destroying high altitude expedition at an age when most folk are beginning to think about a new pair of slippers and retirement? When I was in my late fifties, after a lifetime of climbing up and down hills, my knees were so crocked I had difficulty coming down the stairs some morning. I suspect Sandy is made of sterner stuff...
"I sometimes think of all the friends I've had who have died in the mountains and what our lives would be like if they were still here," Sandy told me. "I guess it would be a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, except on a crag, with all those ageing faces that still remain. I am no longer strong or daft enough to think I am invincible but I still get a huge feeling of self confidence when I strap on my crampons and have good ice tools in my hands."
That's all very well, but what is it that has kept Sandy Allan at the top of his game for well over thirty years?
"Many folk have remarked on our ages, as though what we were doing was more remarkable because we were well past fifty," said Sandy. "I don't fully understand it. In my head I still feel as enthusiastic and excited as ever, and while I'm not as strong as I used to be in my twenties and thirties, I've gained in other ways and don't see any reason to stop climbing until by body says 'enough'. I don't think I'm unusual in this. Steve Swenson, who reached the Mazeno Gap in 2004, was in his late forties when he did it and is still climbing hard in the Karakoram. The Spanish climber Carlos Soria Fontan didn't do his first eight-thousander until he was in his fifties and is still going strong in his mid-seventies, climbing Kangchenjunga aged seventy-five. Climbing is part of who I am. I still love doing it, so why should I quit?
There is a big difference between climbing recreationally into your fifties and sixties and even seventies, but it's a whole different ball game staying motivated enough to train and stay fit enough to allow your body to perform at a high level in the 8000 metre death zone. How does Sandy keep himself fit?
"Yes indeed, the body has to be kept in shape and that doesn't get any easier. For training I cycle on my simple Dawes hybrid bike, squeezing in a session early in the morning or late in the evening around my local circuit, leaving my house in Newtonmore, below the crags of Creag Dhubh, passing by Balgowan and riding through to Laggan, past my friends the MacDonalds at Drumgask Farm and up the hill to Catlodge, alternating the route sometimes by going to the Slimon's farm at Breakachy or taking the longer hill towards Dalwhinnie and back along the old A9 to my home."
I've often seen Sandy pedalling along, his raincoat billowing out behind him in the wind but as a form of training it appears at odds with the strict climbing wall and gymnasium routines of many of his contemporaries.
"Aye, sometimes the wind and rain are relentless but I love to see the hills of home slipping by and watching the wildlife - mountain hares, red deer and the occasional fox, with buzzards hanging overhead. Wild flowers change with the season and I once saw baby stoats playing among them on the verge. My most favourite of all though is hearing the evening call of the curlew, bubbling up from the darkening moor. It keeps me company."
I asked Sandy how important these other aspects of the outdoors were to him? I very rarely hear mountain guides or professional climbers rhapsodise about wildlife...
"It's all part of mountaineering, and mountains are a huge part of my life. They always have been, ever since my twin brother Greg and I ranged free in the hills close to Dalwhinnie when we were boys. It was on these hills we learned to pace ourselves, something I still do on the mountains, keeping a steady pace - guide's pace we call it.
"I remember grouse beating when Greg and I were teenagers. Walking the Haughs of Cromdale, Dorback and the Kinveachy, a line of school kids and impoverished students waving white cotton flags, or more officially 'driving' grouse so they would fly over foreigners' guns and be shot. Black labradors, springer spaniels and Irish red setters would collect the shot birds, which were of more value to the shooters than us country peasants. Greg and I could gallop over the hills at an impressive rate and a friendly old gamekeeper called Charlie Oswald used to shout at us: 'Boys,if you run in the morning you'll be exhausted by night!' The last drive would come and as we made our way back to the vehicles that would take us home we would run by old Charlie the gamekeeper, laughing and shouting as we passed him: 'That's right Charlie, if you run in the morning...'"
Sandy Allan has been climbing mountains for as long as he can remember. It's simply in his blood. As a youngster he wanted to be a shepherd, just so he could spend a lifetime in the hills, but recreational climbing saw him team up with a number of friends and make a series of bold and adventurous new routes, particularly in the Cairngorms, his hills of home. He also served time as a member of the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue Team, honing the skills and practising the judgements that were to later make him one of the best mountain guides in the business.
And those hard-earned skills probably saved the lives of the two Scots on Nanga Parbat. When Cathy O’Dowd and the Sherpas left Cathy had mistakenly descended with Sandy’s lighter in her pocket. Sometime later, after summiting, it was discovered that Rick’s lighter wasn’t working. This was serious, because they didn’t have the means to melt snow for drinking water, and dehydration at altitude can lead very quickly to a life-threatening situation. At altitude the blood becomes thick and unless you can drink several litres of liquid every day the heart becomes incapable of pumping the blood to the heart and brain.
The pair then spent over 72 hours at altitude without water – they were exhausted and hallucinating, they were challenging the impossible. It was during this intense survival period, on the tight borderline between life and death, that another aspect of Sandy's highland upbringing came to the fore and kept his mind optimistic and positive. His mother had been a Free Presbyterian and Sandy and his brother and sister had been brought up with a strong sense of faith. In his book he describes his religion as somewhere between Bhuddism and Christianity, "sitting in the middle of life's proverbial rocky road" but there is little doubt that there is a spiritual force in Sandy Allan's life that offers him great peace and contentment, even in times of extreme turmoil, such as descending Nanga Parbat's notorious Diamir Face.
"I still retain a hunger for Christian expression, a solid connection to the faith I'd experienced as a child. I'm used to the intellectual rejection by others of religious feeling. It's easy to justify disbelief, to say there is nothing out there in the dark. I often wonder about my own faith, and I acknowledge that I'm probably less devout than I should be, but I still carry the feeling of something good watching over me. That was important on the Mazeno Ridge."
A few paragraphs from Sandy’s book illustrate this sense of inner peace. On the descent from the summit Rick and Sandy were seriously suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. They had no proper bivouac equipment and their chances of survival were probably less than fifty-fifty...
"Darkness was on its way, it was chilly and I had only dug about three-quarters of our (snow) cave. I braced myself mentally and walked back round to my entrance, taking care to place my feet carefully. I watched the snowflakes fall and found myself mentally assessing the impact the current weather would have on the snowpack. I marvelled at the incredible dendritic shapes of the flakes as they lay on the fabric of my sleeve. I felt the wind on my skin. I noticed that I had noticed myself, a magnified me, reading these signs.
"Everything simply stopped for a moment and I saw nature at its wildest and best. I felt a realisation that something profound was happening. God stocktaking, I thought, ticking a list, two humans on the side of the mountain. I felt suddenly lifted up spiritually, encouraged and reassured. I felt totally at home in this wild environment. I was acutely aware of our exposure and my deep fear, but I felt I was now receiving some positive energy too, nature reassuring me that I was aware and had the skills and experience to handle all that was happening. I felt strong and absolutely convinced I could do what I needed to do. I don't know where it came from, but I knew I had the strength to continue."
In Some Lost Place - The First Ascent of Nanga Parbat's Mazeno Ridge, by Sandy Allan is published by Vertebrate Publishing and costs £24
This article was first published in the Scots Magazine where I write a monthly column called Cameron's Country.