"I cannot get a clear idea from the clothing list about ladies' underwear," I wrote, "and if this is not too delicate a question, how many sets should I bring or will there be some sort of Nepalese laundromat at the foot of Annapurna?" The special promotions manager of Cooks was not to be put off by so simple a question.
"As regards laundry," he replied quickly, "I am afraid you will find that what you have to do is to wash your 'smalls' in the many streams that you will follow and cross and recross.... You probably won't wash anything and maybe not even yourself for a day or two around High Camp, where it will be rather cold...."
The trek was to begin the first of November, with the group meeting in London. By September, Mr. Grant was fairly beating his typewriter to death, and my sheaf of bulletins and instructions was running a close second to the Sunday edition of
The New York Times
for bulk. There was one bulletin I did not like the sound of at all.
"An important and very worthwhile modification has been made in the intended itinerary to Annapurna; it is that all members will achieve a maximum of 12,500 feet on the eastern slopes of the Dhaulagiri Range, where they will camp for two nights and visit the Dhaulagiri Icefall. Those members then fit and able (italics his) to go higher may go from this camp to a higher viewpoint of approximately 17,000 feet." I read on with glazed eyes. "Some altitude stress will naturally be felt at 12,500 feet but should not seriously affect people in first-class condition. The stress above this altitude up to 17,000 feet can be quite severe and is unpredictable; indeed, some people may feel it very little or not at all, whereas others may be substantially affected."
I had to open Mr. Grant's next hair-raising communiqu� with my teeth and one hand, having been immunized against smallpox, tetanus, typhoid, polio, typhus and cholera. My pockets jingled with vials of dysentery pills and malaria suppressants.
"It is just possible," I read gloomily, "that the further rise to 17,000 feet, mentioned in my last bulletin, may be achieved by those still fit and wanting to, but the question is under consideration because, although not 'climbing' in the technical sense, it would involve the use of ropes and picks. This higher viewpoint is known as White Peak." This bulletin was accompanied by yet another form to be signed that was bluntly headed "Assumption of Risk." As far as I could gather, the assumption was theirs, the risk was mine.
The next bulletin announced that our Group Leader was to be none other than Mountaineer Eric Shipton, who had led the 1951 expedition to Everest, an expedition that included Sir Edmund Hillary. It was that reconnaissance trip on which the successful southern route up Everest had been discovered, culminating two years later in the conquest itself. Shipton, I learned, had once climbed 26 peaks in excess of 20,000 feet on a single trip. My admiration for his courage and stamina was clouded only by the vague suspicion that he might be insane. I signed the "Assumption of Risk" and mailed it back to Harry Grant.
Then it was off to Bloomingdale's but that department store, it turned out, did not carry string underwear in Lingerie, had never stocked balaclava helmets in Millinery, failed to turn up chukka hiking boots in Shoes and did not handle Glacier Creme in Notions. But no matter, I could, one of my bulletins informed me, buy everything I needed in London, that city of historical renown, to which I was duly conveyed in a big, silver bird.
It was at the Excelsior Hotel, near London's Heathrow Airport, that I first met some of my fellow trekkers. Most of the men were considerably older than Leslie Howard, even adding on the years he's been dead. Eric Jarvis, who came to be called Old Eric, so as not to confuse him with Eric Shipton, was 66. A retired bank manager, he confided that he had indulged a passion for climbing most of his adult life, making many of his trips with Tom Littledale, a retired schoolteacher. Old Eric tended to be taciturn, while Tom, lean and ebullient, talked nonstop.
"By rough calculation," Tom told me, "Eric judges that we've been up about 60 mountains together, including the Zinalrothorn and the Wetterhorn. Most of our climbing has been done in the Alps. I did a small trek in Kashmir in 1946 to celebrate the end of the war, and some years ago Eric went off without me to do the Julian Alps in Yugoslavia, the Tatra in Czechoslovakia and Pt. Lenana in Kenya. Of course, we've climbed the Matterhorn. Anyone interested in climbing does the Matterhorn."