"Not only that," I said, standing in my chocolate socks to peer out of the rear flap of our tent, "he hasn't got any clothes on."
"You mean he's starkers?" said Jean, rushing to look. Whatever ailed Red John in the early-morning hours remained a mystery, but his predawn litany became a part of the trek.
By six o'clock the tents had come down, and the porters were loaded up. We turned west, guided by our sirdar (foreman), whose name seemed to be Gangway or Nosegay, I couldn't make it out. He was humming his morning prayers, the Buddhist's Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum. Hail to thee, jewel in the flower of the Lotus, hail to thee....
Three hours later, as we made ready to leave our breakfast site, Shipton came to me and said. "I think that you need a lesson in walking. You're expending far too much energy." I could not have agreed more. Now began our first steep, zigzag climb of more than 1,000 feet up a stone "staircase," slabs of cement wedged into the trail. The steps, which represented centuries of labor by the Nepalese, were by no means smoothly set or evenly separated. Some steps were only a few inches apart, others required a leap upward, still others had been washed away by monsoons.
"Interlock your fingers in mine," said Shipton, thrusting one hand out behind him. "and follow exactly in my footsteps. If you get winded, it means you're going too fast. Don't try to make it to a step beyond your reach, which will put you off-balance. The trick is to keep an even, steady pace, even if it means going out of your way off the path." I took his hand, and he moved upward steadily, never varying the length of his steps. As I moved with him I began to feel that I was not so much climbing as simply rising. My breathing became even and unlabored. Halfway up I was still not fatigued. There was actually a sense of exhilaration.
"Most climbers much prefer going uphill to downhill." he said. "Don't talk if it makes you lose your puff." We stopped to rest on a plateau that looked out over the valley.
"I suppose the reason mountain-climbers get a reputation for not talking is that they get used to saving their wind for climbing," I said, hazarding a guess. Shipton's eyes twinkled.
"Not necessarily," he said. "It's as much a matter of temperament. The appeal of mountain climbing, aside from the sense of achievement, is an appreciation of vast spaces and utter solitude. I've always thought Mallory's statement that men climb mountains "because they are there' rather supercilious."
We started off again. I was suddenly tired and couldn't recapture my rhythmic pace. "One of my best friends, a strong climber named Bill Tilman, can go for months without saying a word," Shipton went on. "He's rather a misogynist and a recluse. To this day he's never been inside a cinema. Another friend of mine, the late Dan Bryant, a strong climber from New Zealand, once spent two days alone with Bill in Darjeeling in complete silence. Bill is extremely shy. After years of climbing together, including one Himalaya expedition of seven months, we still referred to each other as Shipton and Tilman. Noel Odell, who is also quite reserved, and who climbed with Tilman to the top of Nanda Devi, India's highest mountain, wrote in his account of the conquest, 'When we reached the top we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands.' "
I'll never make it in this business, I thought. Too gabby. I craned my neck toward the as yet invisible top of the staircase. "Don't look up," said Shipton. "Just concentrate on the next step. Walking properly becomes automatic with a little practice, then you can think about something pleasant."