Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Soldiers and Sherpas, by Brummie Stokes

I'll bet I found out where Ian Woodall got his phony credentials before leading his expedition; he must have read Soldiers and Sherpas, by Brummie Stokes. According to this book, Stokes is the real deal, having actually been a special forces soldier that fought behind enemy lines as well as teaching mountain rescue and mountain warfare to NATO troops. He ascended Everest in spring of 1976 along with Bronco Lane as a part of the Joint British / Nepalese Army expedition, and went on to lead three additional Everest expeditions in the 1980s. His tale is an exciting one and I found it hard to put this book down.

Stokes primary career was as a member of Special Air Services (SAS) in the British Army, and he trains, teaches, and fights around the world. The first part of the book recounts his varied campaigns, including fights in Malaya, Oman, and Borneo. His sense of humor makes his early career entertaining, while the seriousness of the action makes it engrossing. He also travels to a range of other exciting locations, including British Guiana, Jamaica, Chile, the Canadian Rockies, and two years in Southern Germany for a wide-ranging career from the jungle swamps to the high mountains.

Stokes' friend Bronco Lane convinces him to sign up for the Army Mountaineering Association so that he can try for a spot on an upcoming Nuptse climb that would serve as a trial run for a climb of Everest. Climbing had already been an important part of Stokes' life, and he convinced the expedition leader through his actions on a shakedown trip to the Alps to include him on the team. He performs well on the Nuptse trip, despite multiple fatalities and the team's rejection by the mountain, and is invited along with Lane to the Everest climb. The pair works themselves hard from the beginning of the trek and find themselves selected for the first summit team. They suffer an extra tent-bound day and night on the Southeast Shoulder before their ascent and are caught in a whiteout on their descent, forcing a bivouac in a snow hole at 28,000 feet. Though both later receive multiple amputations because of their severe frostbite, they continue to climb and return to Everest.

Stokes' next expedition is planned by himself and Lane as an entirely SAS affair. They use a trip to Mount McKinley as a shakedown, before heading to Everest in the spring of 1984 to attempt the first British ascent of the Japanese North Face route that follows a series of couloirs close to the West Ridge. Things don't go quite as planned, and Everest sends them packing very early in the trip. (I'll let you read it!)

Stokes is back post-monsoon in 1986 for a go at the yet-unclimbed Northeast Ridge. He brings an all-star British cast, including Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine, Paul Nunn, and Clive Rowland. They make it as far as the base of the Pinnacles, but low jet stream winds and eight feet of new snow beat them back. Stokes also talks about what else is going on around the mountain, and discusses the efforts of Jean Troillet, Roger Marshall, and a Chilean expedition. In the epilogue of the book, Stokes talks about his 1988 return to the Northeast Ridge; though he was struck by cerebral edema on the East Rongbuk glacier and eventually had to retreat all the way back to London, two of his team, Harry Taylor and Russell Brice, managed to make the first ascent of the Pinnacles. 

1 comment:

  1. For the official coverage of the Joint British and Nepalese Army expeditions, read Jon Fleming & Ronald Faux's "Soldiers on Everest."