"Of course," I said. I saw no reason to mention Sixth Avenue during the transit strike.
In addition to the bank manager and three schoolteachers, the party included a nuclear physicist, three doctors, a genteel lady named Rosemary who worked in the British Foreign Office, a telephone operator, two housewives, a sociologist, a semiretired civil engineer, a hotelier, a stockbroker, a geologist, an economist and a policeman. Then there was Vi Tate, in her mid-60s, who had once been asked to choose between her fianc� and a trip around the world. Vi had chosen the world tour and had been traveling ever since. "Can't stand sitting around the house, never could," she declared to Rosamond Twistington-Higgins, an art teacher from Sussex. In her restlessness, Vi had once bossed a ranch in Wyoming, made two trips to the Antarctic and, while crossing the Sahara, had been thrown from a camel. Sixth Avenue she hadn't tried.
And there was Eric Shipton. He was sitting in a corner of the Excelsior lounge reading Edward Whymper's Travels Among the Great Andes of the Equator. An ice ax was beside his chair. Shorter than average but sturdily built, he had thinning white hair that emphasized a strong jaw. His complexion was ruddy, his eyes a bright, inquisitive blue. Occasionally he looked up from his book, his expression puzzled, as if he were trying to remember how he got where he was and what, if anything, he was supposed to be doing.
"He never talks much at low altitudes." explained Anthony Fox, our deputy leader. "Once we get above sea level he'll open up." Tony Fox was an impressive 28-year-old who stood 6'3". An administrative assistant at Britain's Ramblers' Association—the counterpart of America's Sierra Club—he had assisted Shipton on an Everest trek the previous year. "Now then," he said at one point, "we all understand that once we start trekking there will be no personal deviations from the approved route, and no one is to leave his tent at night without a torch. We don't want a repeat performance of the blighter who went over a cliff last year."
"Who did what?" I asked politely. I could not recall Mr. Grant mentioning this little incident in any of his bulletins. "Went out looking for a bush one night and tumbled off the edge." said Tony. "Fortunately he recovered after some months in a hospital. The ground is not always level, you understand, and occasionally our tents will be pitched on slopes." I thought about that a while. Then I thought it best to stop thinking.
Word came that our plane was colicky, which caused a delay of some hours, but finally we were off to faraway Nepal, where we were to spend a full day in Katmandu arranging for the trek. From there we would be conveyed by the Royal Nepal Airline to Pokhara, a 45-minute flight. In Pokhara we would be met by 10 Sherpas and 30 porters supplied by an organization called Mountain Travel, whose business is equipping climbing expeditions and treks right down to the last tin of farinaceous food.
The 14-hour flight was tedious, and I fell in briefly with Duncan McPherson, a Scot from Edinburgh who had served as a bridge engineer in Madras, India during the Second World War. Like Old Eric and Tom, he had a passion for traveling by foot.
"Familiar with Sikkim, are you?" he asked, as the plane droned on toward my doom.
"Not intimately," I said. He looked at me severely, his spectacles glinting. "Almost anyone interested in trekking has done Sikkim," he said. "It takes about four weeks. You leave Kalimpong, ac-chly, where there is a home for Anglo-Indians, then walk to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. From Gangtok you go up the Lachen Chu over the Serpo La, something over 18,000 feet, then down the Lachung valley and back to Gangtok. Then you can go along the Singalila ridge to Darjeeling—where exactly have you done your trekking?" I embarked on a falsehood about the Cats-kills.
"Molehills," said Duncan.