Katmandu. A city of dust, flies, sacred cows, pagoda-like temples and brightly painted rickshaws. The people, Newars, a slender, brown-skinned race with almond-shaped eyes and bright smiles. The rickshaws, attached to bicycles, waited hopefully for business outside the entrance to the Hotel Shanker, the converted Nepalese palace in which we stayed. A palace is not necessarily a castle. Tony described with relish a rat that was sharing his quarters. Room keys, by custom left dangling in keyholes, soundlessly disappeared and reappeared with unsettling regularity. An enormous room chart near the reception desk, to which one was waved, was a masterpiece of confusion, with almost no one occupying the room inscribed thereon. Lamps flickered on and off, necessitating a treasure hunt that led along exposed wires to an invisible plug lodged behind an immovable chest. Nepalese "runners," dressed in white cotton trousers and tunics that flared at the knees, sat patiently outside each room, anxious to follow instructions they could not understand.
Dr. Frank, an orthopedic surgeon, spent a sleepless night in a room he had shared with the geologist we called Red John. Our other two Johns had been designated Dr. John and Youngjohn. Red John, whose trekking costume, from socks to slouch hat, was of scarlet hue, looked like Alec Guinness made up for one of his roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
"Red John snores, I'm afraid," complained Dr. Frank, coming haggard to the breakfast table. "I can't share a tent with someone who makes such a frightful din." We all peered covertly at Red John, who appeared well-rested and was happily spooning up porridge a few tables away. "Do you suppose he wears that ludicrous outfit in London?" asked Eric Shipton.
Word came late that morning that Nepalese officials had refused to issue permits for "an assault" on White Peak because an early snowfall in the Dhaulagiri area made the project risky. This was a bitter disappointment to all but one member of the group, who managed nevertheless to put on a suitably long face when the announcement was made. Shipton and Fox went off to see what could be done. There was a possibility, said Shipton, of going by a different route to the Tilicho area, a region not far from the Tibetan frontier and still largely unexplored. If so, he knew of an unnamed 18,400-foot peak we might climb. (He would!) Dr. Jack, our official medical officer, referred to by the others as "our ready m.o.," said he thought the medical supplies and four canisters of oxygen we were carrying would be adequate for the slightly longer trip. Jean cried, "Oh, isn't it supah! supah! supah!" Jean was to be my tentmate. A pert 37-year-old schoolteacher who had moved seven years before from England to Whitehorse, Canada in the Yukon, she had a boundless enthusiasm for potential discomfort and the same nauseatingly solid background of trekking as the others.
Fox and Shipton returned to the hotel just before dinner, flushed with the triumphant news that our trekking permits had been revised and that we would trek to Tilicho Pass and the unnamed peak.
"Splendid!" said Francois, the stockbroker, who had once dealt with a friend's perforated ulcer at 14,000 feet.
"Smashing news," said Dr. Jack, who had once broken his leg in an avalanche. Dr. John loaned me Nepali Self-Taught, a book he had picked up outside the Temple of Holy Pornography in Katmandu.
Pokhara. A lush, green valley dominated by Macha Puchare (22,935 feet), which translates as Fishtail because of its twin-peaked summits separated by a recess in which, the natives believe, a goddess dwells. And here, right from the doorway of our airplane, the trek began. Hoisting my rucksack, I stumbled after the others as we set off, passing chickens, goats, cows and an occasional water buffalo splashing in a mud hole by the side of the road. Children tumbled everywhere, shouting namaste which means literally I salute the God in you, and serves as good morning, good evening, how are you and goodby. Orange and lemon trees dotted the landscape. Red poinsettias decorated rounded huts with thatched roofs, and prayer flags, small flowers or bright bits of rags tied to trees, fluttered overhead. Our porters, each carrying loads of 50 to 70 pounds, preceded us in single file, looking in the distance like hunchbacks on their way to Notre Dame. Vi Tate stopped frequently to photograph spider webs threading the bushes. Hugh, the nuclear physicist, silent and aloof, gathered specimens of fauna and flora, dropped bits and pieces into his camera case and stopped every so often to sweep the countryside with his binoculars.
"How goes it?" I asked, catching up. He didn't answer. Nuclear physicists trust no one. Duncan McPherson plodded past with Old Eric and Tom, tilted forward, hands clasped behind his back. I trotted along behind.
"From Srinagar," Duncan was saying, "I walked to Leh in Ladakh, about 200 miles...." I dropped back. Rosamond Twistington-Higgins walked with a peculiar shuffle, iron-gray hair clipped short, her tweed skirt and open-necked shirt neatly pressed. I was already sweating and rumpled.