The Echo Lake Caper

Fiction from Woodstock Summer

San Francisco Dreamin’

15 minutes

In August 1969, on my way back from Woodstock, I was stuck in New York, and my money had run out. My pal Andy who’d come across from San Francisco with me, and was also penniless, had miraculously found a lovely young woman who had a drive-away back to San Francisco. Even more miraculously, her room mate Lindi had a drive-away to the west coast too. “Come over and use your winning ways.” he said, “and she’ll take you too.” I visited with a bottle of wine, and spent the night. Lindi and I had a really enjoyable tour of the west [written up elsewhere] before driving to her boyfriend’s house in Seattle. From there, they dropped me off in Olympia to meet Angie, who we’d met skinny dipping in the Missouri river a few days earlier. After a night at her place, Angie drove me to visit Junior out on the shores of Echo Lake, an hour or so from Olympia. I’d met Junior when he’d crashed at my place in San Francisco earlier in the year. He had told me I was welcome to visit his lakeside rental in Washington state anytime.

Junior, and his room-mates Mike and Dave were dealing PCP, a horse tranquilliser, which was known as Angel dust when smoked. This they had in quantity, as they got it straight from the producer. The three of them had the remains of 5,000 caps of PCP, 1,000 hits of acid, some mescaline, uppers, downers and hash.

Echo Lake lived up to its name, and I could hear the polite murmurings of conversation and tinkle of glasses from the decks of cabins across the lake. We were more noisy by far. That our boisterous shouting, and careless words were not cause for a police visit I can only put down to our drinking. We were seen as college boy drunks, not dopers, due to our shouting for another beer, or a shot of Jack Daniels.

I intended to stay for a few days before setting off back to San Francisco. By now broke again, having spent the $25 I’d borrowed from Judy in New York to get back across America, I wrote back to June in San Francisco to ask for a loan of $25 which I would repay by cashing my last pay-check when I got back. June, who I had fallen out with at Woodstock, and who had returned home without me, responded to my request by return post. I opened a bulky envelope and out fell 10,000 dollars!

However, it was in Monopoly money, and came with a note saying, “Don’t spend it all at once, baby.” I thought this was hilarious and laughed out loud. Junior, Mike and Dave were delighted I should find the joke so funny.

The trouble was I was still penniless and 700 miles north of San Francisco. Cashing the cheque was my only source of money and it hadn’t worked out. That afternoon, Junior went off to the village. “Anybody want anything at the store?” he inquired as usual. Up to then, having no money, I had always responded “no.”. However this time, I said “can you get me a six pack of imported beer?” and gave him a Monopoly $20 bill. For the next few days, I bought favours with Monopoly money, until Junior asked me to do the dishes, and offered me one of my Monopoly $20 bills. I was happy to oblige, twenty dollars had already bought me a six pack. Getting Monopoly money accepted as a medium of exchange made my life far easier.

This began a separate economy around the house, and even when we went out to clubs. I could ask one of the boys to buy me a cocktail, pick up a six-pack on the way home, or chose my favourite snacks. Monopoly money was accepted by the three of them as currency, and I was the richest in it. After a week, about five hundred dollars was in circulation, but I had $9,500 in reserve!

Each of the three was partial to a different drug. For Junior it was smack, Mike uppers and Dave downers. However, each day we all took a cap of PCP. At some point after the ragged process of coffee making, and perhaps eating breakfast, someone would pull out a handful of drugs and offer them around to the other two, me and an occasional overnighter. After a while, my consistent acceptance of any offer of drugs, led them to merely say ‘open up’ and I’d be given a pill or cap without being asked, and at least once, without knowing what I was getting. I had PCP pretty well every day, often followed by acid or mescaline. The joints, knives or hash pipe was sure to come out at some point, and we drank cases of beer, and the occasional bottle of Jack Daniels.

In the evenings we often went to the Starlight club, in Tacoma, where the guys would deal. The Starlight club had a great live band, a nightclub atmosphere and a tolerant attitude. One night, stoned on PCP and acid, we were all four chair dancing –dancing sitting down, as we were barely able to stand. We were doing this vigorously and at one point, Junior slid off his seat, and disappeared under the table. I leaned over to Dave and asked if he thought Junior was OK. “He’s probably having a great time,” he replied, returning his attention to the band. An age later, when Junior finally clambered back onto his chair, I asked him “How was it under the table.” “Fucking amazing, man!” he said, and I believed him.

After I’d been staying for two weeks, the three began falling out, and none of them trusted the others, so I was asked each night to hide the stash, in case of a night-time police raid. I’d wander into the bushes around the cabin and hide the tin tool box filled with drugs before going to bed. In the morning I was the only one who knew where the dope was and whoever was up first would bribe me with offers of a six pack from the store, coffee in bed or Monopoly money, to get up and retrieve the stash.

After about a month, the big dealer, and manufacturer of the PCP, showed up to collect on his drugs. There was a problem as the boys had real difficulty pulling together anyway near the money owed for the drop in stock. Fortunately I wasn’t part of that problem. After some hard words to the trio and their promises they’d do better this time, the dealer offered me a ride down to San Francisco in his camper.

He was 23 years old and a brilliant chemist. He told me that the PCP I’d been freely using for the past month was part of a million hits he had made in his bath tub. Echo Lake was the last of his stops, driving up from Berkeley and collecting from his dealers.

He’d already been arrested for manufacturing PCP, but with a top lawyer he’d kept out of jail. However, the Berkeley drug squad had him in their sights. A drug squad detective had told him that they had their eyes on him. He had even got a phone call before leaving Berkeley. “We’ve seen your new stuff,” he’d been told, “we’re going to get you.” He didn’t seem at all concerned.

He was certainly enjoying his prosperous new lifestyle. He owned six vehicles and told me he’d driven down to LA to visit his parents in his new Dodge pickup, but had to leave quickly, so he’d left the pickup on their drive and flown home. The next weekend, he’d driven back to L.A. in his new Porsche. Again he’d flown back to Berkeley. The following week he’d taken his camper van, and the next week his Lincoln. “What did your father say, when you turned up with four different vehicles?” I asked. “He was proud of me for doing so well,” he replied.

[An excerpt from Woodstock Summer, part of California Daze]


First Knock Door

Doting your flower: Paying the bride-price among the Ewondo in Central Cameroon.

15 minutes

Cameroon 1999

A village balafon orchestra, playing all night at a dote

Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s English speaking South West Province, is perched on the side of Mount Cameroon, a volcano and the largest mountain in West Africa. I had come to see the volcano erupting. But, apart from a red glow above the up-hill horizon, when the clouds cleared late in the evening, the eruption was not visible from town. So, I went and had a beer in a local bar and got talking to Victor and his friend Albert.

Are you a serious man?

When Victor found I had an Ewondo girlfriend from the Centre Province, he asked me if I was a serious man.

“If you are a serious man, you need to know how to dote your love,” he said. “I will tell you how to go see her father.”

The Ewondo live in the French speaking Centre province, so I asked, “How do you know about the Ewondo?”

“I had a love from there,” he told me. “You must be ready for what will happen. It is called the First Knock Door. When you go to see the father to ask for his daughter, you will say to the father, ‘You have a nice flower in the family that I love’.”

“The father will say: ‘I have so many girls here, I don’t know the one you really want’.

They will present you so many girls. And, the one you are looking for will not be among those they are presenting. And, they will start to show you one after the other. And, when all the girls are passed, you will tell the father that, ‘Among all the girls, I have not seen my love- the one I want’. And the father will say, ‘I don’t have any other daughters, I don’t know why you are disturbing me. You can go back to your country. You think I am a child, you can play with me!’ ”

“Then the mother will say, ‘There is another one child somewhere, I will go look for her. If that one is not the one you are looking for, I don’t think I have any other one in my compound’.”

“They will tell you that the roads leading to where that one is, is a very long distance and they need transport to go and bring their daughter. You issue them money to go where the daughter is, and when you give the mother the money to go look for that daughter she will tell you that her legs are bad, ‘I need some treatment before going’. You will give more money for the treatment. And they will go bring you a different girl- not the one you want.

Then you will be very angry.”

“The mother will say: ‘There is one other one- that is the final one’ and that they need another transport again. So now you will give them another money. Then they will go and bring you your wife. The face of the wife will be so covered and they will ask you, ‘is this the one you are looking for?’ ”

“You will say, ‘I want to open it’. You know her appearance, you know her structure very well.”

“You say, ‘That is my wife- I will just go and grip her’.”

“Then the father will sit down, and the father will be very angry. He will ask you, ‘Mr Man, this is the only daughter I have, now you want to take her away, I am dead’. He will pretend to fall fits- and they will give him some drinks- red wine- what you call in French ‘vin rouge’ 20 litres.”

“Gandia,” says Albert, naming the preferred brand.

“The girl will sit beside you and then you will call family heads and discuss the palaver and they will arrange a day that you people will come again. That is the first part, which is called ‘Knock door’. That is the first part- we have not yet finished.”

Victor told me, “This is how they do it for the Centre province, the Eton, the Ewondo, the Bulu.”

We ordered more beer, and Victor continued.

You will give Green,” the second phase of it.

“Now you are going back to your father-in-law, with your wife. Arriving there the girl is no more your wife, she is now a child in that house, and no more your wife. The father will ask his daughter that, ‘We have never seen a white man in our country in our village- you refuse to marry a black man because you want a white man’. ”

“This will not happen to you,” I said.

“But I just want to let you know what will happen to you, to be alert.”

“The father will call the girl. He will ask the girl openly, in front of you, with those drinks that you brought the first time, ‘This is the food that this man has bring- and wine,’ and the father will say:

‘Let me eat and drink this wine because I don’t want something that if I eat the food of this man and drink his wine then tomorrow he will escape from marriage. And tell me really if you really love this man, because we are now in serious business. If you want him- this is the food and the wine. We have prepared it, go and give it to your husband.’

“Then the girl will take some food in a plate, bring it in front of you, put the food in your mouth; then you will also take some of the food, put it too in her mouth. Then there will be clapping on you, there will be cheering. Then she will take the wine and give it to you. Then you drink, (you drink small), and you will take it too and give it to her and she will drink too.”

The bar owner brought the new beers and asked, “I will just open it, eh?”

We still had some beer in our bottles, so Victor said, “Allow it, allow it” (leave it).

Victor returned to his description, “And then you will embrace your wife. The family will very happy about the whole show now- they will have confidence that you will have decided to get marriage. That is the second part of it.”

The list- part three

“We are now coming to the final phase- the dote. And this is what we call the third part

They will ask you so many things to bring. Now they will give you a list for what they want from you to buy and bring for that girl.” (That is the bride price).

“And then you will bring them. It will be a very big festival. People will eat and drink hard and dance. Before the dancing they will tell you to open the floor with your wife- you and your fiancée til dawn.”

Victor gave me an idea of what would be on the list:

5 bags of rice 4 big hens 5m of materials (cloth)

10 machetes 20 files (for the machetes) 5 jugs of vin rouge

“It costs one million,” he said. (Over a thousand pounds).

I asked, “If you don’t have the money to pay for these things, what can you do?” “You will not bring according to this list. You will not bring them according to what they ask you, but according to what you can afford.”

Albert added something on how to avoid the bride price: “You can bullet that girl, make her pregnant. Then you bullet her again.” Her father will ask, “Who pregnant you?”

The daughter will say, “It’s the one.”

“And you don’t have much problem.”

As we drank more beers, the conversation moved on from marriage. Victor is built like Sonny Liston and Eric says that he has many girl friends.

“I am annoyed of him. He told me he can’t change. He has more than twenty girlfriend. We went to the hotel, he has a girlfriend. We went to the house, he has a girlfriend. Now he goes to another girlfriend. That is not right.”

“I love so many,” said Victor.

“You don’t love, you like.”

“You can go out with so many girls”

Eric said, “To me it is not easy it is bad.”

“Get up early you will see.”

“He must tell the truth,” said Eric, “but it is bitter”

A record of a conversation in the Apollo bar in Buea on March 1999. I had been keeping notes of this conversation, but by now my wrist was sore, and I stopped writing.


The list for my dote (translated from the French)

2 fat pigs 2 fat goats 100 kg rice 2 cartons tomatoes I bag of onions

4 bags of Maggi cubes 2 sacks of salt 20 litres of oil 5 palettes of fish

2 20 litre demijohns of red wine 12 cases of beer 10 litres of spirits

40 litres of palm wine 6 cases of soft drinks 1 bottle of rum

5 bottles of whiskey 5 cartons of Baron de Vallee wine 12 glasses

1 cork screw

For my father in law: A sofa set A dark suit and shoes

For my mothers in law: 40 sheets of corrugated iron roofing 2 large pots

1 double sided wool blanket 6 bolts of wax cloth

For Judith’s brothers: 5 machettes 5 files 1 radio for Balla 1 TV for Sidoine

This was the first list. A number of items for the bride’s sisters followed.

Some of the Dote on the lorry for the village


Canadian Customs boards US warship

USS Roark, Vancouver

1000 words/10 minutes

The tiny Greenpeace sailing boat motored quietly towards the USS Roark, a nuclear armed warship, tied up to a dock in Vancouver, B.C., I felt sick. Nobody, as far as I was aware, had ever tried to board a US warship, and I was to be the guinea pig. I didn’t want to be shot by the US marines as I climbed up the side of the American frigate. I knew there would be a scandal if they did shoot me, but I might not be alive to enjoy the US Navy’s discomfort if the captain ordered me shot, or a trigger happy marine shot me by accident. And, I wasn’t convinced their protocol would ensure they didn’t shoot me.

Wondering if I’d get shot. Not feeling happy at all.

It was a mixed blessing that Steve Shallhorn, Greenpeace Canada’s Nuclear Free Seas campaigner had complete confidence in me. When he’d come up with the idea he’d chatted with me at the office. “Simon, with your gift of the gab, you are the only one that can pull it off”. It was broad day-light and our boat was followed by another boat carrying Canadian print and television media. But the US navy was bound to be touchy about anyone boarding their ship uninvited.

I was on board the Vega, the iconic Greenpeace sailing boat that had twice ventured into the waters around Mururoa atoll in 1972/3 skippered by David McTaggert, a Canadian who later founded Greenpeace International. McTaggert had been assaulted by French marines, who had boarded the Vega and beaten him badly, causing him to lose the sight of one eye. The French had later blown up the Rainbow Warrior killing Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira in 1985. I had no confidence the Americans would be any less protective of their nuclear fleet. The Roark was berthed in Vancouver, a self declared Nuclear Free City. But the waters around the city were a federal government jurisdiction and the city of Vancouver had no control over what ships came to visit. As the Vega approached the Roark my pulse raced and my stomach felt sour.

The Vega had a high powered crew: Twilly Cannon (who later became Greenpeace US action coordinator) was skippering, while John Sprange the Greenpeace International Action Coordinator, and Pat Herron the Greenpeace US zodiac legend, both hefty blokes, were there to hold the ladder I was to use to climb aboard. In order to avoid possible legal complications for Greenpeace (!), I wasn’t dressed as a Canada Customs officer (the official designation). Instead I was dressed as a Canadian Customs officer: wearing an official looking jacket found in a charity shop with added gold braid and brass buttons, and a pair of green cord trousers with stripes down each leg, all laboriously sewn on by me.

Before boarding, I read out a statement: “I represent Canadian Customs, and it is a Canadian custom to be nuclear free. I will be boarding your vessel to confirm whether you are carrying nuclear weapons.” The ship then went aside the USS Roark and the ladder was hooked over the ships rail. “I am coming aboard”, I called. “Negatory” responded a burly seaman and he and two other sailors quickly tipped the ladder off. John and Pat hooked it back on again and John shouted “Go, go” and I scurried up the ladder like a rat fleeing the wrong ship. At the top of the ladder the three sailors grabbed and shoved me and tried to throw off the ship. I feared that if I was tossed back onto the deck of the Vega, I would possibly crack my skull or break my back, so I shouted to the Vega to cast off. This took what seemed like an age, as I clung on in panic until I saw that they had got out from under me. One of the three sailors was painfully forcing my fingers off the cable of the ships rail. I clutched the cable frantically, while the other two sailors pushed and shoved at me from the other side of the rail.

Once I was sure that the Vega was away, I considered letting go. Being tossed into the sea by American sailors would show their disrespect for Canadian Customs! But with a strength born of desperation, and too much experience rock climbing of having to hang on when a slip could mean a serious injury. I managed to hold on. After a few minutes of tussling, the three sailors stopped trying to throw me into the sea. I stood with each arm held by a sailor, loudly demanding the right to board and make a search to discover if they were carrying nuclear weapons.

I carried on with my demands to inspect the ship for nuclear weapons. I demanded the captain call off his sailors and show respect for Canadian Customs. “You are guests in our country. We have a right to know if you are bringing nuclear weapons into the middle of our city!” After a while, the sailors relaxed, and just held me without trying to throw me into the cold water. Ten minutes later, two Vancouver Harbour police boarded the ship, from the dockside, crossed the deck and escorted me off. I was taken to the Harbour Police station on a quiet back street behind the docks, and after being booked I was let go. After all the tension and high level of adrenalin, I got out of the police station feeling a little flat. It was still early in the day, Steve Shallhorn and the press people were dealing with media, and the Vega crew were taking the boat back to its dock. I am not even sure that I got a free beer out of my frightening mornings work. But at least I hadn’t been shot.


Last night at the Avalon Ballroom

15/20 minutes

It was a wet Saturday night in San Francisco in November 1968, and I had nothing to do. When I arrived in San Francisco, I was lucky to have an address to crash at. I’d never met Charlie Lai, but he kindly put me up on his sofa for over a month. “You’ll have to leave then,” he told me, “as I’m moving.” Charlie was studying pharmacy and yet he had a peculiarly American diet. He lunched daily on a large packet of potato chips, mayonnaise and a litre of Dr Peppers soda pop. The night before Charlie moved out, he went out to visit his girl friend. I watched him go down the dark street through a rain streaked window.

In 1968, San Francisco was the place to be. I’d gotten a job for five months in London driving a laundry van, and wrangled a student visa and cut price ticket to New York. I got a short term job in NY, but decided to hitch-hike across the US to spend the rest of my holiday in San Francisco. Before I left London I had saved a board game which was printed as a centre spread in the underground Oz magazine. Unfolding the thin paper centre-fold, I followed the journey around the board, visiting some of the highlights of San Francisco’s counter-culture, including Golden Gate park, the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom. I’d been in San Francisco a while and still hadn’t been to most of the sites on the board.

The Avalon Ballroom was a key part of the cultural heritage of 1960s San Francisco. Janis Joplin made her first public appearance here with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. Bill Halley and the Comets and Bo Diddley played the venue. Steve Gaskin, who went on to set up the Farm ran his famous Monday Night meetings there. I remembered the excitement I’d felt back in London about visiting San Francisco, and decided that having flown 3,500 miles to New York and then hitch-hiked almost 3,000 miles across the US to San Francisco, I shouldn’t let a little rain hold me back.

I read the address of the Avalon Ballroom, got my rain coat, walked the short distance to Market street through the rain and caught a tram down town. When I arrived, I climbed the stairs into an ornate Edwardian foyer. Talking to the very cute ticket seller I said that I had heard of the Avalon Ballroom in London and had finally got around to coming.

“You’re lucky,” she said, ‘”tonight is our final night.”

I’d managed to hit the Last Night at the Avalon Ballroom.

Tickets cost $3.50.

“God, that’s a lot.”

She looked me straight in the eye and said with that profound conviction of the hippy, “It’s worth it.”

I forgot to ask who was playing.

I went in to a small ballroom, with moulded ceilings and elegant proportions. A few hundred people sat in small groups around the floor, and I was soon stoned with the first of several joints circulating freely in my neighbourhood. The opening band, the Ace of Cups, was the first all woman band I’d seen. They had a driving beat and a great rocking lead guitar and several good singers. It turns out that they were not just the first all-women band I’d seen, but the first in San Francisco. They were chosen by Jimi Hendrix to open for him, and also played with the Grateful Dead. They were not recorded, which is a real shame, and split up after four years, but there are some short videos of them playing at about this time. Astonishingly, they reformed recently, and are still great. This is one of their infectious tunes, Feel Good Baby!, which would have been an anthem of the 60s if it had been recorded then, and is a really good anthem for today. I think you might like them, and better late than never:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present the Great All Woman Band- The Ace of Cups!

And here’s a recent recording of their first song- about hippy life in San Francisco.

The short documentary is well worth a watch (just 7 minutes).

There is a lot more on YouTube, and they are a real discovery.

This is the place to go if you want to get a head start on your spiritual awakening

Up next was another great band, Quicksilver Messenger Service.

They had a brilliant lead guitar player and were one of the archetypal San Francisco bands of the epoch. With true hippy logic, they decided that as four of them were Virgos and one was a Gemini, and as Virgos and Geminis are ruled by the planet Mercury, (it goes on) and as another name for Mercury is Quicksilver, (and on) and Quicksilver is the messenger of the Gods, and Virgo is the servant, they’d call themselves Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Mona https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vu_hiGOrRI

I went to the bathroom, in the break, and for some unfathomable reason scored a couple of reds- a barbiturate downer, for the first, and last, time ever. This caused me to fall asleep for half an hour….

Fortunately, I woke to an announcement: “We have a real treat for you tonight, fresh from Texas, playing his first gig on the West coast, you’ll be hearing a lot more about this guy… Johnny Winter”

They were right. One of the all-time great blues rock guitarists, he played Woodstock in 1969 (where – sorry Johnny, I Bogarted your joint when I crashed the backstage musicians area).

Here he is in 1970 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG3ShLhn2hc&list=PL5jPQshWo8ryZcm33NRI9zZze2bbXHfhX

I couldn’t believe it. Three great bands in a row. This was already the best rock concert I’d ever been to. Then came the stunning finale.

“We were all sad when they split up, but they are back together for a reunion tonight. It’s Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.” This was Janis’s last concert with Big Brother and the Holding Company (you gotta love the name). Janice was my favourite singer, and this was my favourite band in San Francisco, a town with numerous great bands. Janis was an incredible force, a real blues singer (also) from Texas. I don’t think she ever found as good a band to play with as Big Brother and the Holding Company. I had listened to their album in awe, but never seen them live, so this was the greatest treat of all.

Janis live singing Ball and Chain with Big Brother

Another Piece of My Heart (from the album)

This must have been one of the greatest concerts in rock history, all in a small ballroom, sitting (on the floor) just thirty feet from these great performers. Joints were passing around freely, and I was in great company.

The hippy ticket seller had not lied.

I woke up next morning, a little groggy, on Charlie’s sofa. It was time to help him carry it down-stairs and into the van he’d hired to move out. Before Charlie drove of to go live with his girl friend, the new tenant Jack arrived with his furniture. Waving Charlie goodbye, I offered Jack a hand to move in, and carried his stuff up the stairs for an hour, including another sofa. Jack offered me a beer for my help, and while we drank, I told him that I had been sleeping on Charlie’s sofa, and persuaded him to invite me to stay on his. I thought it ironic that whilst Charlie and Jack had gone to all the trouble to move from one place to another, I merely had to deal with moving on to a new sofa.

You had to love San Francisco in the 1968.

Bonus tracks

Ace of Cups with that scion of San Francisco counter culture, Wavy Gravy

Janis Joplin Queen of Rock of Roll

And, some cultural background.

A “normal housewife” takes LSD

An artist takes LSD. This has a magnificent musical introduction reminiscent of a 1950s horror movie!

Brewer’s Droop- The Unmaking of the English Pint

Market Research Madness-Part 3

15 minutes

[I’d made a living for several years inventing the answers to thousands of market research questionnaires. When the mammoth shoe survey finished, ending my epic footwear creativity, (see Market Research Madness 2), I needed another source of income.]

While I was working up to nine days a week for Konrad Jackson I’d also been moonlighting for several other agencies. Now, my main gig over, I was lucky that a woman in one of these agencies decided to set up on her own and I became the first member of her new team. I helped Jane set up her office in her home, not far from where I lived, and when she got her first big job, I photocopied and collated the questionnaires and then set off to test them. After years of inventing people to answer questionnaires, I was actually pretty good at getting real people to answer real questions, and Jane was good at designing a short and pertinent questionnaire. She also paid a reasonable sum per questionnaire, so with a modicum of invention I could do two days work in one, and as the pay per questionnaire was good, I managed to earn enough in a couple of weeks to take time off. And, as the work was sporadic, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the rest of my life. I moved to Wales, but instead of trying to make a living there, I returned to London each time my stash ran out.

“We have a new questionnaire,” Jane told me one day, “But people are finding it very difficult to get results.” People were coming back from an evening’s work with at most three questionnaires completed, and some with none. She was now offering £1 each for a short questionnaire, an unheard of sum, and I was happy to give it a try. I set off one evening with a dozen questionnaires to a pub where a new “woman’s” beer had been trialled. Jane’s researchers were unable to get any of the few women in a pub to answer the questionnaire. There were two problems: how few women drank in pubs those days and that they would usually be drinking with a date or a partner, and might not want the irritation of being interviewed. Also, most men aren’t happy with another man coming up and talking to their wife or girlfriend, perhaps particularly when they are having a relaxing drink. I knew had to swing the men behind the idea. When I went up to the first table, with two men and two women, I asked the women if they would answer a quick questionnaire, but I also turned to the men to get their agreement. However, there was another more particular problem- the women claimed not to remember the promotional event a month earlier, but the men definitely did. So, in spite of it being a women only survey, I promised the men a chance to answer after I’d finished with the two women.

The moron’s from the advertising company had promoted a beer designed “for women” with an advertisement showing a bottle of Straight 8, poised between a woman’s raised hands, her open mouth behind- a fantasy blow job. Then they had trialled it in pubs by hiring long-legged hostesses in very short skirts to hand out free beers. The men had ogled the hostesses and their partners had hated the experience. After interviewing the two women, very quickly as they claimed to have no memory of the event, I moved to the two men. As the questionnaire was for women only, Frank became Fiona and Jack was now Jacqueline. They regaled me with vivid stories, which clearly brought back further negative memories for the two women. I now had four completed questionnaires from a single table, more than any other researcher had achieved in a night. I ran out of questionnaires in an hour.

Straight 8, originally a “Woman’s beer” returns as another men’s beer

Next day, Jane was delighted, and I got another batch of pubs to keep me busy all week. As I could easily do a reasonable nights work in about an hour, I could get my nights work done very quickly, and £15, a good day’s pay at the time, without interfering with my own evening’s plans. I also had the entire day off though I was making a moderate full time wage. As I was almost the only person able to get the questionnaires answered in sufficient numbers to make it worth while, I got a overly high proportion of the work. I could have got 50 questionnaires completed in a long evening, but as I was already doing so much better than the others, I had to limit myself to 15 a night so’s to not raise suspicions.

I returned from another sojourn in Wales (where I wasn’t quite as lazy as believed at the office, going on long walks over the hills, brewing large quantities of home-made beer, and wandering the fields around my cottage picking magic mushrooms) and Jane offered me a job as a bottle washer. It turned out the job was actually as a barman, a job I’d always wanted. I guessed it was felt I had landed on my feet too easily again, so my job title was downgraded.

A pub was booked during the day and recruiters enticed people off the street with an offer of two free beers to compare. I was behind the bar and served half pints of beers A and B to the researchers, who carried them to a table to carry out their interviews as new people were brought in. Often after the interview, the drinker would come up to the bar and ask sheepishly if they could have another. I enjoyed handing out free beer, and from their choice of beer, and a few sociable questions as they drank it, I quickly knew the preferred beer, and why it was preferred. However, I kept the results of this qualitative research to myself. After all, I was only being paid as a bottle washer.

We later returned to the same pub, but this time tested two different beers in 12 ounce cans, the first time I’d seen beer in a can apart from the giant four pint or seven pint “pipkin” so popular as a take out if going to a party after the pub. This went on for a couple of weeks and on the last day, we had dozens of cases of 24 beers left over . I felt it was just plain wrong to send beer back to a brewery. On the last morning there was a large delivery for the pub, and I talked to the delivery driver. I offered him a free case of the new beer if he’d take two cases out the back door for me and hide them. At the end of the day, we did an inventory and the remaining cases were sent back to the brewery. After everyone had gone, I popped out the back and ferried the first case up the road to the tube station. The ticket collector was happy with my offer of a couple of free beers to guard the first case while I went back to get the second. I was perhaps a little too generous on the way home, but handing out free beers is a lot of fun. It cost me all of one case and part of the other to get help carrying eighteen beers home. There, my room-mates joined me in celebrating a job well done with brews from the last case.

However, beer research was not over. My last gig in the world of market research, was for Britain’s worst brewer. Watney’s had managed, by corporate takeover and massive advertising, to become the largest brewer in the UK. They also produced some of the worst beer – Watney’s Red Barrel.

A new research project involved going into a Watney’s pub where a new beer was on tap for the night. I would recruit customers and get them a free pint of Starlight and question them about it as they drank. One night, in an east end pub, three pin-striped besuited men showed up and stood drinking at the bar. I went over and asked if they were from the advertising agency.

“No, we’re from Watney’s.”

They asked me how the beer was going down.

“Not well,” I said.

They told me that the beer was being tested to replace Mann’s KK Special (Watney’s owned Mann’s). I’d lived next to a Mann’s pub, and appreciated KK as a good traditional session bitter. I told the execs that I had enjoyed KK Special but I didn’t like this beer at all.

“Well, It’s exactly the same beer!” said one of the marketing suits.

“That’s astonishing. I thought I knew about beer, but obviously I don’t,” I said. “ I remember KK Special as being red, un-carbonated and quite bitter. Starlight is yellow, sweetish and almost as carbonated as a pop.”

“Oh it’s got a different recipe, but it has the same market profile.”

This pretty well sums up what happens when the marketing boys take over a brewery.

Watney’s Red Barrel became an icon of all that was wrong with British life. Here is a Monty Python skit. It takes a little while to get onto the beer, but then note how often Watney’s Red Barrel comes up.


A Straight 8 ad. Apparently after our research they recognised it wasn’t a woman’s beer.

Appendix: What’s wrong with Watney’s?

Watney’s quote from Wikipedia:

The most well-known beer of the 1960s and 1970s is Watney’s Red Barrel. Its reputation as a bland, tasteless, pasteurised, corporate brew represented everything that was wrong with the British brewing industry in the eyes of real ale enthusiasts. [Or anyone who liked good beer]

And this, from https://boakandbailey.com/2019/01/watneys-red-barrel-how-bad-could-it-have-been/

Cross-referring to a set of brewing logs from the Watney’s (Usher’s) brewery in Trowbridge, he reached a startling conclusion – that Watney’s was in the habit of dumping stale beer into fresh beer to maximise profits:

I’ve seen thousands of brewing records from several countries, but these were the first to shock me. And the first where I haven’t thought “I’d really like to try that beer.” CAMRA was right to tell readers to “avoid like the plague” in the first Good Beer Guide. Because Watney’s products were up to 20 percent muck: beer returned from pubs, sludgy stuff from the bottom of tanks and other crap lying around the brewery.

What tossers these corporate brewers were, messing with the Great British Pint. And, thank god for CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, who came along and make the drinking life bearable again..

You were always welcome at a party with a 7 pint pipkin, and too drunk to care the beer was bland and tasteless

Oh thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin, beset the road I was to wander in. LVII Rubaiyat, 1st edition.

Refuse the Cruise

Protesting Cruise Missile Testing in the Canadian North

20 minutes

In the winter of 1984 Jim Bohlen, one of the founders of Greenpeace and then Greenpeace Canada anti-nuclear campaigner; Kevin McKeown, Greenpeace Canada action coordinator; and two others chained themselves to the only entrance to the Cold Lake air force base 150 miles NE of Edmonton, Alberta to protest the testing of US cruise missiles. In 1985 Jim was back again with Kevin, who was coordinating a group of Greenpeace protesters on a road on the missile’s flightpath. Above their heads, suspended a hundred feet in the air by helium balloons, they flew a thirty metre wide net, with the slogan “Refuse the Cruise.” They’d named the net the “Cruise-catcher,” as it pretended it was going to catch the cruise missile as it flew past. Though the winter weather was bitter, a number of TV news crews had come to film the protest. Incredibly, after all the cameras had taken their shots of the protest, the cruise missile flew directly over the cruise catcher, but far higher than planned. Apparently, the military weren’t ready to risk a confrontation with Greenpeace’s high tech defence! None of the TV crews present got this on film as they were so astonished that they just stood and stared in disbelief.

In the mid 1980s, the United States military was permitted to conduct six cruise missile tests each year in northern Canada, whose terrain resembles Siberia. Each winter from 1984, cruise missiles were launched from a US B52 Bomber over Canada’s Beaufort sea and travelled down the Mackenzie River valley, closely following the terrain at just metres above the tree tops to avoid detection. After 1500 miles, they landed at the Primrose Lake test site in the Cold Lake airbase,

Cruise missiles added to the number of nuclear warheads, and encouraged the Russians to develop their own equivalent system. More missiles in turn increased the number of opportunities of a nuclear accident; and made it possible for there to be a ‘limited’ nuclear war. Canada is a non-nuclear weapons nation, and there was wide opposition across the country to cruise testing, but the bitter cold, isolation and short notice before tests meant it was almost impossible, apart from a small local peace group, for people to protest at the base.

Not long before the planned cruise testing cycle in the winter of 1986/87, Jim Bohlen, asked me if I could coordinate an occupation of the test site in time to stop the next missile test. The test would take place sometime in mid January and the temperatures might drop below -40c. We would only have 48 hours warning, so we had to be ready to go at a moments notice. Jim had already found two people to agree to invade the base: Luanne Roth, Greenpeace Vancouver director, and Arne Hansen a Greenpeace volunteer and ardent peacenik. Kevin would be there again to help us get into the base. We were unable to find a fourth person in the time available, so we were limited to a team of three. On the other hand, we needed to have two teams, to increase our chances of getting past the guards and occupying the landing zone, so that they would have to abort the test. It is not safe to travel alone in winter, as a minor accident, or simple carelessness could prove fatal in the bitter temperatures. Hyperthermia and frostbite come quickly at extreme temperatures. It is far safer to have a buddy, checking your face for frostbite, looking out for signs of hypothermia, and able to look after you if you become incoherent, or incapacitated.

I had taken two winter survival courses, been on a multi-day dog sled trip in Quebec and camped out by the roadside when hitch-hiking in Quebec in the winter. But apart from hitch hiking, when I slept alone near a road, I had always winter camped with others. I was well aware that it was an absolute rule not to go out in extreme cold alone, and I would not have accepted this risk for any other reason than to do a Greenpeace action. But as we needed to have two teams, somebody would have to go in alone. I couldn’t let anyone else do this, so as the coordinator, and the most experienced in cold weather camping, it had to be me.

I found the best equipment available in Vancouver and bought three very expensive down sleeping bags, three very warm down jackets, mittens, hats, socks, felt lined boots, bivvy sacs, snowshoes and other necessary equipment. The snow shoes were a modern design, with aluminium frames and wide webbing. They were lighter and smaller than the wooden ones I had used previously elsewhere in Canada, and were easier to use as they weren’t so cumbersome. Luanne and I drove up to one of the ski hills outside Vancouver one Sunday and practised with the snowshoes. They were relatively easy to use, though still tricky on a steep slope. Thankfully the terrain in Alberta would be flat.

When we got the news that the airspace used by the missile was to be closed, Luanne and I flew to Edmonton the same day. A local video crew filmed us crossing a snowy field near the airport before dark. When we later went into the test site, this footage was released to the media. After filming, Kevin drove us through the winter snow to a motel in a small town just far enough away from the base to be incognito. Arne was working that day, so he flew in after dark. The next day, Kevin found a road that skirted the base, and after breakfast he took Luanne and Arne to the edge of the base and they set off through the forest towards the landing zone. I stayed back so that I could do a media piece on the phone with Jim Bohlen, not yet arrived from Vancouver, and so that the occupation teams would come from different directions at different times.

After the media call, Kevin dropped me at another spot on the periphery of the base. As I set off through the trees just after lunch, carrying a large and heavy pack, I found that the snow shoes were not doing their job and I sank a foot or eighteen inches into the powder snow with every step. It was exhausting lifting the snowshoe out of a deep hole, trying to balance against the pull of the giant backpack and then sinking deep into the snow again. I realised belatedly that the snowshoes were small because the snow in BC is wet and heavy, and so holds more weight per square foot. And as I had kept our destination a secret when buying the snowshoes I hadn’t realised that they were not appropriate for Alberta’s powder snow. My mistake might cost us dear. I struggled on through the afternoon, and into the fading light, occasionally stumbling and landing on my side or face-planting in the snow. When I fell, I had to wriggle out of the pack’s shoulder straps and belt, leveraging on the pack to regain my feet. After each fall, I had to get rid of the snow that had fallen down my collar, or forced its way up my sleeves. Then poise uncomfortably on the too-small snow shoes, wrestle the massive back pack onto a knee and then up onto my back. Sometimes this caused another plunge into the snow and the process began again. A fall could cost several minutes and was exhausting, worse, it made me sweat profusely. The feel of cold, clammy sweat against the skin was worrying. I struggled to make sure I didn’t fall, but deadwood under the snow occasionally tripped me or low branches caught the towering backpack. In the hours before dusk, I barely made three miles. I was worried about Luanne and Arne, who would also be suffering with the wrong equipment. I hoped they wouldn’t have to turn back. Not knowing if they would manage made it imperative I carried on, so I continued into the early dark. Once it was dark, it was even harder to avoid tripping or catching the pack on a tree, so after another hour or so, stumbling and falling even more often in the dark, I stopped and set up camp. It was difficult to set up a snow camp at night, in the bitter cold and nervously trying to make sure that my light didn’t give my position away. I had a bivvy sac, and struggled to get a couple of sleeping mats and a down bag inside without letting in any snow. Putting on down booties, and brushing off the snow on my clothes, I wriggled into the bivvy sac, and zipped myself up.

You don’t sleep much at below -20 c, but I was reasonably comfortable as snow is soft, and forms to the body. With a fair bit of toe wriggling, leg flexing and hand thumping I kept from freezing until dawn. I must have dozed off, as I woke at first light to the sound of a helicopter circling close by. The tree cover is not very thick in northern Alberta in the winter, with patches of leafless deciduous trees, and I was worried I’d be spotted. The helicopter stayed circling within a short distance of me for some time. I packed up my kit, a harder job than laying it out. Getting a vast sleeping bag back into its stuff sack with mittens on is tricky, so I took them off for a bit. At -20 or so, hands freeze quickly. Forcing everything into my pack also needed a bit of foot work- which required getting out of one of my snowshoes. After a few falls, and curses, I got everything strapped down and set off. I had another 10 miles to go to the landing spot if I was to disrupt the test. I had to get there by 2, and so I had about 5 hours. This didn’t seem likely, but as long as I could get to the general area of the landing zone, they ought to abort the cruise landing until they knew where we were. The key was to not get caught.

After an hour, I came to a large snow covered clearing. The helicopter had moved off but was still audible, so not very far away. I realised that if I crossed the clearing my tracks would be easily visible from the helicopter, if it did a sweep back. And once tracks are spotted they could drop a team who could easily follow the tracks and I would be caught. I skulked in the trees wondering on my best course. I decided that it would be best if one of the teams did get caught- as it would prove we were there! But it was important both teams weren’t caught, as then (if they knew there were only two) they could safely go ahead with the test. I had a small FM radio and was listening to CBC. Our site invasion was on the hourly news. The military were denying there were any protesters in the test site due to their tight security.

I made a detour of the clearing and was better at keeping on my feet than the day before, but still tripped at times, plunging with the ungainly pack deep into the snow. I considered leaving the pack in order to move faster. But, while I could easily see my oversized footprints snaking through the trees behind me, they might be covered if wind blew snow into my tracks. If I hurt myself, a sprained ankle would be enough, I wouldn’t survive the night without my sleeping bag. I had to keep the cumbersome backpack, like it or not. An hour before the planned landing I realised I was still too far from the landing zone, and the media on my pocket radio were reporting as fact that there were no protesters in the test site. I decided that it would be best if I headed out now to inform the media that I had in fact been occupying the testing area – and that a second group that had left earlier was still there. Heading back was much less tiring, as my tracks were now frozen and held my weight, and I got a boost in energy heading for the warmth. I got out to the road in a couple of hours. Kevin had been making hourly passes at the pickup point, and within ten minutes, he arrived with the van and took me back to the motel. I briefed Jim, who had arrived from Vancouver, and the media team patched me in to do numerous live media calls.

I talked to media outlets across the US, countering the military’s assertion that nobody had been in the test site. I gave them details about what it was like hiking through the snow and camping out at -20, how I’d evaded the military helicopters, that the other team was still in there and that I’d come out to counter the military’s lie and let people know we had been actively disrupting the cruise testing. I tried to always bringing the conversation back to the most important points: that we were there to protest the testing of offensive nuclear weapons in Canada, that cruise missiles were a dangerous provocation and that most Canadians objected to the tests. I heard Jim on the other phone telling the media we three were prepared to sacrifice our lives for our beliefs. I was prepared to risk my life, but absolutely wasn’t prepared to sacrifice it! I was kept busy for several hours, but when night fell, we began to get worried for Arne and Luanne- what if they were in trouble? If they weren’t back by …we set a time we’d have to inform the military and suffer the indignity of a military rescue! Kevin and I went back to the rendezvous point, and waited until the deadline. We had almost given up hope, when two very tired people came out of the woods. They’d travelled a lot further than I had and almost got to the landing zone. But they heard that the missile had landed and so had turned around and, exhausted, struggled to get back to the road that night.

Luanne and Arne joined in the media work, and with Jim and Beverly, our media person, we managed to talk to dozens of media outlets across Canada and the US. The military announced they had carried out a successful test and continued to insist that our claims of penetrating their security were bogus. Jim wanted to claim we’d disrupted the test, forcing them to crash, but was dissuaded from doing so.

Two days later, the military announced that the missile had been crash landed 14 km before the landing zone! But by then this was no longer a big story, just a footnote. By delaying their news the military had cleverly undermined the effectiveness of our action. Jim had had the right instincts. Don’t let the liars stop you claiming success! The fact the cruise had been crash landed into the forest meant that we’d effectively disrupted their test, and potentially damaged the flight recorder and slowed the deployment of the missiles. Most Greenpeace actions stop an activity for hours at best. The purpose is to highlight an issue and show activities that are usually too far away, hidden behind fences or otherwise unseen. This action had not only got extensive coverage across the US and Canada, represented the millions of Canadians opposed to cruise testing, but best of all, we had aborted a multi-million dollar murder-missile test.

I have some footage of TV coverage of this action, I will put it up when I sort a technical problem.

Boris and Bill

Greenpeace and the US/Russia Summit in Vancouver 1993

Video links at end of piece.

There had been real hope that when Bill Clinton met Boris Yeltsin in Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th 1993, their summit would lead to an agreement to end nuclear testing. But as the planning for the meeting progressed, Greenpeace Canada nuclear campaigner Steve Shallhorn learned that a test ban had slipped from being potentially the top of the agenda. It was now not even on the list of topics the two presidents were scheduled to discuss.

In 1993, Greenpeace Canada had no action team in the west, and I was hired on contract when an action coordinator was needed. So Steve called me into the Greenpeace office and told me he wanted to do an action to get ending nuclear testing back on the table when the presidents met. We went together to Canada Place, a vast tent-like structure on Vancouver’s waterfront, where the formal part of the meeting would take place. I had previously scouted this building (out of professional curiosity), and had documented how to climb the great cables that held the roof on. But I knew that there would be no way we would get near the building, never mind onto it, when Boris and Bill were in town. We later learned that security around the meeting sites was to be provided by 2,000 Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as the US and Canadian secret services. They guarded all access roads; all manhole covers were sealed and all mailboxes and news stands were removed from the area. Whilst it had never crossed my mind to hide in a sewer, or hang a banner on a mailbox, it was obvious that security would be tight.

It was still two weeks before the meeting, so there was no problem walking around the esplanade which surrounds Canada Place. Steve and I looked for a building overlooking it, from which we could hang a banner that would be visible, at least notionally, to the two presidents. There were a number of office towers, but access to their roofs would be impossible, as they might be seen as possible sniper hideouts. Steve pointed out a tall tower half a mile away in the distance with a giant W on the top. It seemed to be the only option, so I went to see it up close. The tower was on top of the Woodwards department store in the down town east-side. The main building was five or six stories high, with a multi-story rectangular tower that rose another twenty metres above the roof top. On top of this tower was a 25 metre replica of the Eiffel tower, with Woodward’s landmark “W” installed on top of it. The W lit up at night and revolved to advertise what had once been the top department store in Vancouver. The front of the store was on a busy shopping street, but behind the store was a much quieter street, with a multi-story car park from which a three story bridge crossed to Woodwards. From the roof of the car park I could see that we could walk across the roof of the bridge and get onto the store’s fire escape. But from the top of the fire escape to the roof of the store was a twelve foot blank wall. Once on the store’s roof, we still had the problem of accessing the roof tower, which would probably be locked.

I phoned up the store and, posing as a photographer working for a postcard company. The next day I met a charming young woman in the management office, who took me to the roof of the store, where I checked out the possibilities for tourist postcards. I then asked to see the roof of the tower. She took out a bunch of keys and unlocked the tower door. Fortunately, it had a push bar to exit from the inside. Climbing a series of stairways past vast tanks which held central heating oil, we emerged onto the roof of the tank tower, which was perhaps 30 feet square. From here rose the mini Eiffel tower that held the W. The staffer wouldn’t let me climb the tower – something I needed to do to measure the W for a banner, and to see if there was a switch up there to get the W revolving. Consistent with my cover story, I said I’d book a crew and return in a week to do a shoot. I had to return on the day before the action as I planned to hide someone in the tower to let the climbers in and I could hardly leave them there for days. I’d have to hope that the weather was fine the day before the action, as it wouldn’t work asking to go on the roof to take photographs in a heavy rain.

The tanks tower, the mini-Eiffel tower, and the revolving W

After seven years doing actions for Greenpeace, I had been arrested so often I now usually managed other climbers, and stayed out of arrest situations. So I needed two climbers, and one of them would need to be very experienced. Fortuitously, Brian Beard, who had joined me on my first action on the Cambie Street bridge [see previous blog] had just got back in touch. The Greenpeace offices were bugged, and as this action was of concern to Canada’s secret service, I called Brian in Edmonton from my home phone, and asked him if he’d like to come to Vancouver for a few days to go climbing with me the following week. He got the message. The other climber was Dean from the Toronto office, who had had Greenpeace climbing training and done a few actions already. He was calm under pressure and highly competent but this would be a challenge. My plan was complicated, and the banners would be very high and would be susceptible to any wind. The banners were made by a friendly sailmaker, and if you think of how the wind drives a sailing boat, you realise that a banner filled with wind will pull against its attachment with a great deal of force and, as the tower was an open girder structure, it would catch the wind whichever direction it came from. Dean would be safe as long as he was accompanied by an experienced climber. Fortunately I had complete faith in Brian. They arrived just a couple of days before the action and both worked amazingly well together to finalise their equipment, plan the banner deployment, train together and pack the rucksacks.

This had to be a big and dramatic action as we were targetting the US and international news media. I had ordered two large banners so that we could get out our message in both English and Russian.

Both these banners would optimally be visible from the summit meeting at Canada place.

I also wanted to put Bill and Boris on either side of the W, on the top of the tower, as icing on the cake. Optimally, we could get the W to spin and so address our message directly to each of them. Bill Stop Nuclear Testing; Boris Stop Nuclear Testing (for the Americans) and the same in Russian. I needed to be sure of the W’s size before I ordered the name banners, so I went to the city hall planning department and found the plans. There were numerous sketches of the tower and the mini Eiffel tower, but curiously none of them showed the size of the W. I guestimated it was big enough to fit a 12 foot by 10 foot banner, and ordered two. Steve had asked for the banners in English and Russian. I told him of my idea for Bill and Boris on the W, and he let me get on with it and spend what I needed.

Sketch for lettering Russian banner

Dima Litvinov the Russian campaigner, in town for the summit, gave me the translation of “Stop Nuclear Testing”, which is just “Stop Testing” in Russian. I spent some time fiddling to get it to look good on a vertical banner. I usually did the lettering with the Greenpeace canvassers who finished work at 9 or 10pm. I bought a case of beer and ordered in plenty of good pizzas, and we worked into the early morning, moving desks and taking over the office. As we had four banners, this took several nights.

We had always used an expensive ink to letter the banners. This meant laying out as much banner as we had floor space for between the desks, and waiting for it to dry before moving on to the next section. There was a risk of spillage, so the work had to be done very carefully, and an inked banner slogan could not be changed, as the ink was permanent. Banners were rarely reused, as even if you wanted the same slogan the banner size might not be appropriate for the next site.

So, I had developed a different system, pencilling in the outlines of the words and using black duct tape to fill in the letters. This was quicker, didn’t require waiting for the banner to dry, and meant the slogan could be stripped off or modified so that banners became reusable. This saved thousands of dollars (I was using top quality sail cloth and paying about $2,000 for a large banner), and allowed us to reuse banners with new slogans and do extra actions, even when there was little or no budget.

Now I needed to know if we could get access to the Eiffel tower platform and whether there was a switch for the W. And, I absolutely had to get someone hidden to let the climbers into the locked tank tower.

The weather forecast for the summit meeting was strong winds and heavy rain, so we brought the action forward a day. I was able to book a shoot on the roof of Woodwards two days before the summit opened, and fortunately, it was a clear day. I now needed a camera crew, which I again recruited from the Greenpeace door to door canvas team. Canvassers dress casually, and we needed quite a bit of borrowing to replace patched trousers with more upmarket clothing to make the film crew look passably professional. We also needed a professional camera kit and someone able to use it convincingly. And lastly we needed a volunteer to hide and spend the night in the tanks tower, to open the door from the inside, prop it open and then to drop a rope for the other climbers coming up the fire escape with the kit. Dean volunteered for this dull, cold job, even though he was also going to be hanging the banner.

On April 1st, I returned to the Woodwards roof, with the camera crew. There were four of us, me as director, one of the canvassers playing a photographer carrying an impressive array of borrowed cameras, with Dean and another assistant to help him. The photographer moved around setting up carefully composed photographs. I was hoping the Woodwards employee would leave us on the roof alone, but it was not to be. So, while one of the photographer’s assistants kept them busy, I set off to climb the tower. I wasn’t noticed until I was almost at the top, and pretended not to hear a call to come down, while my assistant assured the staffer I was used to working at heights. I found I could easily get onto the tower platform, and got a better idea of the W’s size from just underneath it, but couldn’t measure it without some dangerous gymnastics. It seemed the 10 x 12 foot banners would work. I also found a red electrical box that appeared to be the switch to start the W, then descended. As the photographer and his assistant finished up their work, I told Dean to quietly leave. We gave him five minutes to find a hiding place behind one of the oil tanks, then said we had finished. The staffer asked where our fourth person was, and I said they had had to leave as they were needed back in the office. We were politely escorted down the tower stairs, past the great oil tanks, and a hiding Dean, down through the building and out. This had been the tricky part. We now had someone on the inside to let us back in.

The news that night was full of the heavy security system in place for the summit. That evening I parked a rental van on the top floor of the parking lot behind the Woodwards building. From the drivers seat, I had a full view of the bridge across to Woodwards, the fire escape, the oil tank tower and the mini Eiffel tower with the W on top. I returned around 2am with Brian and a helper, who took all the gear from the van, hopped the railing, walked across the roof of the bridge and clambered onto Woodward’s fire escape. When they got to the top of the fire escape, to my relief, Dean lowered a rope and they prussiked up to the roof. Watching from my van, I had a nervous time as Dean kept his head over the parapet whilst they climbed. The climbers were hidden in shadow and not easily visible by the occasional pedestrians on the street below, but if they saw Dean on the roof, they might easily raise the alarm. I could not call to ask him to pull his head back from view as a shout might have caused people to look up and see him, so I waited tensely, and hoped to hell no one would look up. When they were both over the top, and out of sight, I relaxed. Then came many cold hours waiting to hear whether they had gotten up the mast and were ready to go.

The overnight wait is always nerve racking. That night the wind was strong and had a real bite and I was cold even sitting in the van. I hoped the climbers were fine and that I hadn’t over complicated their task in my desire to make the banner as spectacular as possible. I knew that Brian was both a safe and very experienced climber. But I was still worried given that he was setting up anchors in the dark, in a place he had not previously seen in daylight, and on a cold and increasingly windy night. If they’d been spotted climbing from the fire escape, or as they climbed the metal tower, they could potentially still be stopped. They were not necessarily able to get out of reach of interference as they set up the anchors on the platform at the top of the Eiffel tower. Their only defence would be that the third person on the roof would lock themselves onto the Eiffel tower’s metal ladder, making it unsafe for security or the police to pass them to get at the climbers.

In the morning I was in radio contact with Brian, and though they were finding the going slow, they were on track to unfurl the banners. We had a dramatic plan. The climbers would pull down the first vertical banner: “Stop Nuclear Testing-Greenpeace”, and then another vertical banner saying “Stop Testing” in Russian. Then the icing on the cake, they would set the W revolving and it would have Bill on one side and Boris on the other, so that as it spun it would say “Bill Stop Nuclear Testing- Greenpeace”/ and “Boris Stop Nuclear Testing -Greenpeace”; and “Boris Stop Testing” [in Russian] and “Bill Stop Testing” [in Russian].

In the morning, the banners unfurled like a dream.

It took a little while, but soon the W began to spin, and I was delighted. All this was filmed by half a dozen TV crews, and we made a big splash on the Canadian and US news as well as various international stations too.

After a couple of hours, with the high winds whipping the banners against the sharp edges of the tower, the bigger English banner began to tear. It didn’t take long to shed badly, and had to be dropped. The wind was cold and quite violent, so in the afternoon, the climbers came down. The store didn’t press charges, so the climbers walked free after a really brilliant job. The bigger the international event, the harder it is to get your voice heard. This meeting was a really top level summit, and yet we managed to get massive coverage on the day and evening before the Presidents arrived. Once you are in the news you are part of the story, and the further protests – following Yeltsin’s boat touring the harbour, were given good coverage too. Also the imagery of the presidents meeting was dull in comparison with Greenpeace’s actions. Most of the other protests were a crowd with banners, or another talking head. Not only did Greenpeace get coverage of our series of actions, and an opportunity to raise the issue, but when the presidents arrived the next day, the first question at the joint press conference was from the New York Times. Their reporter asked Clinton, “What are you doing about Nuclear Testing?”

This action wouldn’t have been possible without the enormous skill and dedication of both Brian Beard, the lead climber, and Dean Mercer, who successfully hid himself to spend a cold night in the tank tower, and then joined in the banner hanging. It’s lucky we did our action the day before the meeting started. When president Yeltsin arrived, he stepped off his Aeroflot jetliner into pouring rain.

Here is some positive media from the Canada’s CBC

Kiro TV (US)
Greenpeace protests at Bill and Boris Vancouver summit 1993. An action gives a Greenpeace spokesperson prime time to get out the Greenpeace message. But also notice how this US station includes the marginal Communist Party of Canada to muddy any positive message

Norway, Let the Last Whales Live!

My First Greenpeace Action

It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing-Duke Ellington

15 minutes

Suddenly, there was a great tearing sound and I was swinging wildly through the air. I looked up the single strand of 11mm (less than half an inch) climbing rope that connected me to the Cambie street bridge, to see if it was still attached. I swung out twenty feet over the water, then swooped back towards the bridge support. Looking down I could see the concrete bridge footing about 40 feet below me. If the rope broke now, I’d plummet onto the concrete and get badly hurt. Instead, I swung back out towards the water. Looking up again I realised that the banner strung between my rope and Brian’s had torn where it connected to my rope. Due to the strong wind on the banner, we had been pushed at an angle under the bridge. When the banner tore away, I had swung back in a great arc, and carried on swinging. I was worried about the effect of the swinging on my rope as it went over the edge of the bridge above me. Climbing rope is very good at protecting a climber taking a fall. Because the rope stretches, it absorbs most of the energy of the fall and puts far less shock onto the climber. It can also quickly wear through if it is weighted and rubs over a sharp edge: and we were putting massive extra stresses on the rope. Climbing rope is very strong, and has a two ton breaking strength. But it is in not designed for the forces operating on a 750 square foot banner in a strong wind. As I swung, my life was in the hands of the rope gods.

The banner tore from my rope. Eventually, I stopped swinging wildly

I was hanging off the Cambie street bridge in down-town Vancouver, British Columbia, to bring a message to the Crown Prince of Norway, who was coincidentally the President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The banner read “Norway, Let the Last Whales Live. Greenpeace.” Norway was about to restart killing minke whales and we wanted our message to get to the prince personally, to embarrass Norway into stopping the planned hunt. It was May 1986, and the prince was in Vancouver to open the Norwegian pavilion at Expo 86.

I had been working for Greenpeace in their Vancouver office for just six months. Less than a year earlier, Fernando Periera had been murdered by the French Secret Service when they blew up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour. This added another level of seriousness to the work, and reminded us all of the risks we took. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_Rainbow_Warrior

Luanne Roth, the Vancouver Greenpeace director, knew that I spent most weekends at Squamish, Canada’s top rock-climbing area, just an hour north of Vancouver. She asked me if I could hang a banner to protest Norway’s plan to resume killing minke whales. The Norwegian princely personage was going to be taken on a tour of the Expo site by boat. He would pass under the Cambie street bridge, and we would be there to greet him. I agreed and started preparing.

It didn’t occur to me to contact the climbers who carried out the Greenpeace actions from Toronto, and I set about working out how to hang a banner from scratch. The first thing I did was look for a climbing partner and posted a hand written sign on the notice board in the Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC), Vancouver’s vast outdoor equipment store.

“Greenpeace is planning a summer of actions and looking for volunteers. We are particularly looking for climbers to help hang banners and support actions to protect the environment. Please contact Simon Waters at…”

The big task was to work out how to safely hang a banner suspended 40 feet above the water. I practised in a local park, by tying a rope to a tree and slowly walking backwards. The next day, a volunteer played ‘gravity’, holding the rope off the ground and applying a bit of a pull as I slowly backed away from the tree. Over several days, and with the help of several patient volunteers, we practised attaching a banner to my rope, then backing up further to attach the bottom. Then we did the same thing with two ropes, getting another volunteer to play my partner. This was a laborious learning process, but I absolutely didn’t want to cock up my first Greenpeace action.

Kevin McKeown, the canvass coordinator was in overall charge of the action. He had worked on a number of actions already and had managed the deployment of the brilliant Cruise Catcher the previous winter. Kevin took on ordering the banner, getting the slogan written on it, and organising the volunteer helpers on the bridge. Both Kevin and I were working full time as fundraisers, and doing the action preparation in our spare time. We went together to scout the bridge. The plan was we would walk up the bridge pavement, looking like innocuous backpackers, and tie our anchors onto the balustrade. We selected the spot where we would go over the edge, and I took out a measuring tape. We chose where one end of the banner would go, and measured and remeasured the distance to the other end. I marked up our two anchors, the places where we’d attach ourselves to the bridge. It was an act of faith that the bridge balustrade would support the forces working on a 25 by 30 foot banner. There was another problem too. The rope needed to be protected from rubbing against the bridge under the potentially high stress of a large banner as it ran over the edge of the bridge. The sawing back and forth under pressure could quickly cut the rope. We came up with a method of protecting the rope, but this was the one part of our plan that was rather make do. Though I was a climber and protecting the rope over an edge is a climbing problem, the extra stresses on the rope when you added a large banner was of an entirely different order of magnitude. Musing on this, I bought the climbing equipment for the action, including two new ropes. Later, hanging on the rope in a strong wind, I hoped my preparations had been adequate.

Greenpeace is full of stories of semi-magical happenings, and I was very lucky to have one on this first action. I got an answer to my note at the MEC from a brilliant and imperturbable climber, Brian Beard. Over the years, this was the only time I got a response to my notices on the MEC noticeboard, and just when I needed it most. Brian was an excellent climber and far more experienced than me, so I was happy that he agreed that my laboriously thought out plan would work.

On the day of the action, we were parked near the bridge in the Greenpeace canvas car. Brian and I were wearing our harnesses, and all kitted up, with the banner in a backpack. Kevin was coordinating with the media team by radio, and we were waiting to hear that the princely chappie had set out on his boat tour. Somehow, through the radio crackle we heard the police talking about Cambie street bridge on their radios. This caused a bit of a panic. “We have to go NOW” said Kevin. So, instead of walking nonchalantly onto the bridge, we drove, made an illegal stop with a squeal of tires, and jumped out. The support team were inconspicuously lingering on the wide bridge pavement, and did a great job helping us set up. Everything worked out as planned. Brian and I connected our anchors to the marked spots, a support person ran a rope between us, we did a final check and abseiled off the bridge. It is a tricky operation going over the edge and this was the first time I’d abseiled off a structure, as opposed to a cliff edge. I was very lucky to have a solid, experienced, confident companion for my first action. All went smoothly, and twenty feet below the road bed, we pulled the banner across and attached the top, went down another thirty feet and attached the bottom. The wind was strong enough to push us quite a way under the bridge, but we were feeling great…until the banner tore.

As my swinging reduced, I was now over water again. I calculated what I would need to do if the rope broke, and felt fairly confident I could swim to safety, especially with a team of supporters nearby. I just hoped the banner didn’t land on top of me. Now torn, the banner turned into a great flapping sail and Brian detached himself too. Half an hour later, the media underneath the bridge left and I shouted down “Have they gone home yet? Can we come up now?”

We prussiked up the rope and we were greeted by police, who were more bemused than upset. The camera crews hadn’t gone, they’d moved onto the bridge deck to catch our arrival on top. I did a few media pieces, my first for Greenpeace, both in English and appalling French. This was my first time as spokesperson for Greenpeace. Curiously, later that day I was interviewed for TV again about the Greenpeace fundraising bingo! So I was on the news twice that night for two entirely different topics. And, as I had been interviewed in French as well as English, the action was featured on CBC Francais, the beginning of my role as Greenpeace’s west coast francophone spokesperson.

That night, the news reported that the Norwegian Crown Prince’s boat tour of the Expo site was cut short, due to our emergency banner deployment, so he wasn’t taken under the bridge. Non-the-less, the media connected the two events, and the Prince was faced with questions at his press conference that afternoon about how he resolved the conflict of being head of the WWF and the crown prince of a nation about to restart whaling. In fact the main questions were about Norway and whaling, and we were top, or near top of the news on every channel. They used the banner, the banner tearing, and my sound-bites when back on the bridge. We also made the front page of the Vancouver Sun the next day.

We were lucky. Everything worked out, apart from the banner tearing: we got great coverage, there were no arrests and we were both safe and well. I also learned several important lessons. A practical point: make sure the banner will survive the stresses of a strong wind. From then on I managed the purchase of the banners and had them made by a sail-maker. This cost a lot more, but I wasn’t prepared to accept the risk of another near disaster. A tactical point: stick to the topic and get the message out, when you are in front of a camera. You go to a lot of trouble, and at least some risk, to pull off an action. But the action is not what you want to talk about; it is an opportunity to highlight an issue. The banner slogan, displayed in a dramatic situation, is visible for enough time to get your message across, unfiltered by the media. When the climbers talk to the media, they are more likely to make the news than the campaigner standing by with the media. You need to use this opportunity to explain the issue. This was about stopping Norway from killing an endangered whale species.

I also observed from the inside, how an action can highlight an issue, and force the other protagonist to respond to questioning by the media. The crown prince was in Vancouver to do PR work for Norway. Greenpeace changed the topic, and instead used his visit to build resistance to Norway’s whaling plans.

I also learned from watching Kevin’s in his role as overall coordinator- as I just organised the banner hang aspect. Kevin is quick witted and decisive. We worked together many times after this, me generally managing any climbing actions with his help, and Kevin managing water actions with mine. I also learned something from Beverly our media person. She politely told me not to vocalise that we will wrap up once the media have gone!

Due to what I learned on this action I decided the following year not to hang a banner off Vancouver’s Liions Gate bridge, as it is a very windy spot, and the climbers would be a hundred, not forty feet off the water. Instead, we climbed the cable supports. When trying to explain to the judge the safety concerns that led me to do this, he cut me off, called me a liar, and gave me two weeks in jail!

Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering-3

Knots in Manali, and War with Pakistan

15 Minutes

[Following our ascent of a 17,000 foot ridge overlooking Tibet, we return for exams at the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, Manali.]

At 17, with my pal Vijay in Hyderabad

We packed up our tents at high camp, leaving three foot high pedestals of snow where our tents had stood, showing us how much the snow had melted in just a week or so. We descended to the tree-line camp. It was now late May, and spring was coming fast at 9,500 ft and the Beas river now showed as a large stream emerging from a tunnel of snow. After ten or twelve days camping on snow, it was time for a wash. I set up my airbed on the snow in front of my tent and had a flannel bath with a pot of hot water skived from the kitchen tent. I then ran barefoot across the snow, and jumped into the Beas, submerging for a second to rinse off the soap, ran back to the tent, and hurriedly redressed.

Back at Manali, we prepared for an interview with the director. We had been taught numerous knots on the course, and Dan Kumar had recently shown us a new knot, which was not in the curriculum. I spent the day before the interview practising the knots and swotting up on the vocabulary. When I went in to meet the director, Dan Kumar and Purshotum were there too. “I have had good reports”, the director said, then after a few questions on techniques and equipment, he asked me to demonstrate some knots. One of them was Dan Kumar’s new knot! I was thankful, I’d learned it too. I told the director, that I was hoping to receive an A, as I wanted to attend an advanced course. “We will have to see what we can do”, he told me. The next day we heard that fourteen of us got an A grade, the highest number on any course ever. With so many succeeding, I’d have to do some lobbying to be invited back.

Back in Hyderabad, Jake received a letter from Mr Govind at the Ministry of Defence Production. “I hear that Simon has done well at the institute”. Unfortunately, the 7th advanced course in August was in a restricted area, over the Rohtang pass, and it was not possible to get me permission. However, I was welcome to go to the 8th advanced course beginning in September. This made me the first non-Indian ever invited to an advance course at the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering.

With three months until the advanced course, I returned to my decadent neo-colonial lifestyle. I woke late, and went three times a week to sail at the sailing club on the artificial lake which separated Hyderabad from Secunderabad. The sailing was brilliant, in well maintained two person 1920s clinker built Eagles, faster plywood Enterprises, or in four person Moths, useful for taking out a larger party to picnic on the island. It was consistently sunny, but not too hot at 2,000 ft., with usually enough wind for good sailing.

Hyderabad is a fascinating place. It had been a Muslim state under a Nizam, with a Muslim ruling class and a Hindu majority population. The Nizam was reputed to have been the richest man in the world, and owned the diamond mine at Golconda. Some of the world’s great diamonds came from here including the Koh-i-noor diamond, part of the British crown jewels. Outdoing the Arabian sheiks who weighed themselves annually in gold, the Nizam weighed himself each year with diamonds! He had over 100 wives, and many hundreds of children.

Curiously, there was also a Maharaja with a palace in town (I dated his daughter twice, until a jealous rival told her parents about our secret meetings). Due to the Muslim tradition of separating their women folk in purdah, the Hindu’s were also hiding away their daughters. This made any hopes of getting a local girl-friend even less likely. The only girls who were allowed out apart from my two younger sisters were two white-blonde Mormon girls from Utah, who were much sought after by wealthy local young men.

In 1965, things were hotting up between India and Pakistan. When British India was divided, India claimed Hyderabad, in spite of the Nizam opting for Pakistan, on the grounds that the population was majority Hindu. However, they also claimed Kashmir, with its Muslim majority, on the grounds that the Rajah opted for India. This was perhaps due to Kashmir being Nehru’s birthplace. This had led to ongoing conflict between the two new neighbours, and Pakistan had invaded Kashmir that spring.

Apart from sailing, there was not much for me to do. My close friends Kamal, a Muslim and Vijay, a Hindu, were students in their early twenties, but still living at home and on a student budget. I had started working at 15, and saved enough to hitch-hike to India when I was 16. For some reason, though I had occasional use of the car, use of an account to eat and drink at the sailing club, and a very well stocked cellar at home, I never thought to ask for cash, so I was now penniless and stuck at home most of the time. This led to generally idle days and booze filled evenings. I drank my way through fifty cases of 24 Tuborg stubbies in just a few months, with the help of a few friends, and then moved onto VSOP cognac. Jake socialised exclusively with his Indian colleagues, who were interesting, intellectual, and nationalist. Here I first heard discussions on appropriate technology from Jake’s predecessor George McRobie, who returned for a long visit. He later took over the Institute of Appropriate Technology from Schumacher of “Small is Beautiful” fame. There were discussions about development: India didn’t need rockets, nuclear power and private cars (Nehru’s prescription) but a wider availability of bicycles, better ploughs and water pumps to promote development from the bottom up. However, this wasn’t sufficient to keep me fully occupied, and I longed to get back to the mountains.

As the day of departure for Manali drew near, the situation between India and Pakistan grew worse. There was talk of increased travel restrictions, and no-go areas. War hysteria had reached new heights, with groups of vigilantes scouring the streets for spies and saboteurs. This led to the lynching of an innocent young man in Delhi who was singing a just released movie song, which the crowd believed to be in Urdu (the language of Muslims and Pakistan). When I got to Delhi, I heard that all foreigners, including missionaries and nuns who had been there for decades, were being evicted as undesirable foreigners from the whole of Punjab. I hoped that, as Manali was high in the mountains, I might be able to avoid the restrictions: I just had to get there. However, when I got to Delhi station I discovered that all the trains north had been commandeered by the military. I was determined to get to Manali.

After chatting to some friendly troops on the platform, I boarded a troop train with a carriage full of junior officers on their way to the front. As the journey progressed, my companions chased off any inquisitive officials. Once off the train, I still had to pass through a number of checkpoints on the road north, with excitable policemen and soldiers looking for saboteurs and aliens. However, my letter confirming a place at the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, and some bravado, got me through each time. When I finally, I got to the institute, the director was stunned by my arrival. “How did you get here?” he asked, “This has been declared a restricted zone. I am very sorry, but I absolutely can’t let you stay here without a permit.” I was obliged to return to Delhi. There, I spent three days going from office to office at various ministries, until I got a permit to go back to Manali and the area where the course would be held. I phoned up the institute in triumph to hear, “I am afraid that the other students have not shown up and the course is cancelled.” I was told that I could return for another course, once the war was over.

I returned dejectedly to Hyderabad. Once there I followed the course of the war, now a series of major tank battles in Punjab, both on Indian and Pakistani radio. There were contradictory reports of daily advances of 10km for more than a week by Indian troops, though they didn’t get to Lahore which I knew to be less than 30km from the frontier. It was fascinating to watch how propaganda works. Most of my friends were certain that the news from their chosen media was correct (Muslims listened to Radio Pakistan, Hindus to All India Radio). Worse than that, apart from our delightfully cynical friend Saluddin, they were also all convinced that their chosen side was in the right, and winning. As the war progressed it seemed less and less likely that I could get on a course before the winter. I had been staying on in India since the end of May, just to attend the advanced course. In October, with no prospect of climbing until at least the spring, I returned to the UK. Far from becoming the best qualified British climber, with a trainers certificate from the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, Darjeeling (my goal), I didn’t climb in the mountains again until I discovered the volcanoes of Mexico ten years later. [See earlier blog: of Pulque and Popo]

Here are links to the two Himalayan Institutes of mountaineering- they still have bargain courses!

HIM in Darjeeling https://hmidarjeeling.com/

The HMI in Manali is also still going strong, under another name and management


Bear Hunting, Goat Sausage and Views Over Tibet

The Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering Part 2

20 minutes.

Part 1: A Princess Or An Ice Axe is the first piece on the blog. If you haven’t read it, now is the time. After ten days at the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, we set off to continue our training in the mountains.

A view of the Himalayas. See end of piece for an explanation

The day after we’d been issued our climbing and camping kit, we got up early to load an antiquated truck which left with all the gear. Then we waited for a rousing send off from the Director, who arrived after a two hour delay. It was a splendid speech, expressly designed to put us off climbing for life. “Sometimes people get angry and if there is an ice axe in their hand they might use it… Sometimes the instructors do it also… Most of you show no interest in climbing… The best part of climbing is being dirty… Your cooks often show no interest in you. They may be lazy and tired, and the food will probably be dreadful.”

After this rousing pep talk we walked up the Kulu valley past a police checkpoint, where we each had to show a chit from the institute as we were on the road to the Rohtang pass which was a restricted area, on the borders with Tibet. After an hour or so, we turned off onto a dirt track which climbed through the forest. We were beginning to feel the altitude, but my room mate Chopra and I were fit as a sitar. After ten kilometres, we found the lorry, and helped carry kit bags and supplies through the trees to a wooden hut where we would spend the night. We had a dull, damp and chilly afternoon waiting for dinner, and anxious to get into the snow. Outside the woods dripped with rain.

The next morning, about twenty Sherpa porters arrived to carry the food and kitchen camp gear. We students carried all our own kit for the first time, mine about forty pounds as I was carrying Hillary’s boots and a bottle of brandy, on a the four hour trek into melting snow. We post-holed (sank down past our knees) exhaustedly for almost an hour doing the last mile to camp. This was Dundi, at about 9,500, in a large snow covered meadow on the tree line, with the Beas river running through it under the snow. The Sherpas, had already set up a kitchen tent, and delivered a large pile of wood for cooking, and for a big fire outside the cook tent. They wended off down below the snow line for the night. From then on, they made a daily carry of wood to keep the fires going.

We pitched our canvas tents on snow for the first time, blew up air mattresses, rolled out sleeping bags, and sorted our kit. In the latrine, I noticed that in two places I had what looked like bed bugs burrowing into my scrotum and my leg. I told Pete, a Peace Corps volunteer who was also on the course, who let me have some powder. After applying it I discovered that there were two creatures floating around in my clothes too. Unwilling to move up to high camp with these hitch-hikers, I stripped to my underpants and plunged twenty yards through the snow, barefoot, to the river. I stood knee deep in the freezing stream, then plunged under water that came out from the snow just yards away. I was in the water for just seconds, then hobbled back across the snow to my tent and changed into clean clothes. Following my example, three or four of my class mates, perhaps thinking my plunge a part of British culture, or good mountaineering style, went into the water too. But they stood around, in the freezing waters calling for friends to take pictures, (one, while explaining to his tent mate where his camera was to be found, turned a bright purple).

Later, Chopra and I wandered over to the large fire by the kitchen, and spent the afternoon talking to Purshotum and Dan Kumar, our two trainers, and drinking cups of hot chai from the cook tent. Purshotum was a member of the North West Frontier Police, whose role was to patrol India’s mountainous western borders with China and Pakistan. He was as hard as nails, and sat in his shirt sleeves as we covered ourselves in sweaters. That evening we ate the goat that had been slaughtered in the morning. For obvious reasons, they were going to throw away the intestines, but they thought we Brits ate them as we ate ‘sausage’. So, at tea time I was offered the intestines. I ate them, rather reluctantly, with the few others around the fire. I didn’t have the heart to explain that sausages used the intestine skin but we didn’t eat the contents of the intestines. As I was eating my piece, I wondered how far from the end of the intestines it came. Most of our fellow trainees, either slept, or played cards in their tents, missing out on hot chai and great stories around the fire. However, on this occasion, they also missed joining in on the intestines.

Each morning at 6, we were woken with “Chai sahib” from outside the tent. We struggled to get the frozen zip open with freezing fingers and then lay in our sleeping bags drinking the hot sweet tea. From after breakfast until lunch, we went to the slopes above the camp and learned glissading (or boot skiing), leaning on a 4 foot ice-axe, self arrest techniques (how to stop a slide on steep snow with an ice axe), rope work, and walking in crampons. Each afternoon, Chopra and I went back to the fire, where we joined Purshotum and Dan Kumar, ate tasty extras from the cook-tent, and listened to wondrous tales of the mountains. Dan Kumar was a very tough Sherpa. He’d broken various bones and had had numerous adventures. He’d walked out from one trip with a broken leg, and on another carried a trainee down off a summit. He told us this in a quiet unassuming manner. Purshotum told us the best story about him. A recent advanced course had succeeded in putting four of their twelve members on the summit of a 19,000 ft peak, and were boasting to the basic course students camped nearby. Dan Kumar decided he’d had enough, and so he’d taken the entire basic course – all twenty trainees, up the same summit a few days later!

One afternoon, as we sat around the fire, Purshotum spotted a bear in the trees across the valley, half a mile away, and jumped up to chase it. I joined him, and we slithered down through the snow. As we struggled up the far slope Purshotum told me his plan was to beat the bear over the head and have bear meat for dinner! This seemed like a pretty dangerous exercise, but I was committed, as otherwise I’d have had to abandon him to do it alone. We hadn’t gone to get our ice-axes by our tents, and so Purshotum picked up a large bough, and I got one too. We struggled up the slope through deep snow, and saw the bear disappearing behind a large rock. We carried on up, past the rock but (happily) the bear had moved away. After a search through the trees we abandoned the hunt. We glissaded back down the slope, using our boughs for support and mine snapped in two almost immediately, as it was completely rotten. Then Purshotum’s broke too. Thank god we hadn’t hit the bear over the head with them!

After four or five days we moved up into the basin below Beaskund, the source of the Beas river, at about 11,000. Here were well above the tree line, overlooking a range of jagged peaks, which we watched avalanche thunderously each afternoon, from the cook-house fire. Each day the Sherpas still brought bundles of firewood up from below the tree line, so the cook fire and large fire outside the cook tent continued to burn merrily. One afternoon, the director arrived.He sat around the fire withus, and after supper his servant came up and said, “I have put your hot water bottle in your sleeping bag, sahib”. So much for the tough climber!

We carried on acclimatising and improving our snow skills. We were supposed to do some ice training, but because of the late spring, the ice was still covered in snow. We made a trip up to Beaskund itself, the source of the Beas river, at 12,000, but still saw no ice, so we improvised a crevasse rescue on a steep slope. We were now pretty adept in basic snow skills, tying onto a rope, rope management, ice-axe belays, walking in crampons, and camping on snow (though with all meals provided). Many of the trainees had problems keeping warm, as they had not checked their kit as instructed. Some froze in inadequate sleeping bags, some had boots that didn’t fit, or only one pair of socks. They put their wet socks to dry by the camp fire in the afternoon, but often left them unsupervised, and a few burned holes in them. I kept my feet warm in Hillary’s oversized shoes with my three pairs of socks. The shoes let in some snow, in spite of the gaiters, but each afternoon I was able to carefully dry my socks by the roaring fire.

Summit day. We are woken at 2am- the weather has cleared. Climbed into my boots and went down to the kitchen tent. I was issued 1 hard-boiled egg, 1 chocolate bar, 15 biscuits, and 6 toffees. I had taken a tiffen box full of rice, ghobi and ghosh (corned beef and pork luncheon meat mixed) last night as most people hadn’t turned up for dinner through the rain. We set off at 3.30 am but after a few hundred yards, I realised that I had forgotten my symbolic bottle of Remy Martin VSOP cognac, which I’d brought from our well stocked cellar in Hyderabad, to celebrate the summit. I hurried back to my tent and ferreted it out of my kit. By the time I set off the second time, I was quite a ways behind the group. I spent the next hour catching up and over-taking to join the front runners. We stopped at 15,500 (about the height of Mt Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak) for a proper break and a briefing, in the morning light. I pulled out the brandy and offered it around. Most refused, but I insisted it was a tradition to have a snort on the summit bid. Many then accepted the offer and had a bottle capful. This wasn’t conscious sabotage of my fellow trainees, but seeing as many of them had never had a drink before, it probably didn’t help them to have their first drink on a freezing morning at 15,500 ft. I had a couple of capsful and we roped up in pairs and I set off, this time as part of the leading group. We continued up, eventually arriving underneath a steep snow slope. The first pair set off kicking steps, but soon tired, and Chopra led us past them. The snow was soft, and very steep, and it was really heavy going step kicking at 17,000 ft.

When Chopra stopped and leant heavily on his axe, Dan Kumar, told me to take the lead. I kicked steps at almost knee height, but they came down to within a few inches of the lower foot. I carried on up, slowly approaching a ridge line fifty feet above my head. As the ridge approached head height, shoulder height… I nearly fell over backwards. I was looking over to a slope that fell steeply out of sight. Far away in the distance was Tibet, with a vast 23,000 foot peak looming above the others. To my right the slope fell away too, and there was Manali, 11,000 feet below us! I was stunned. Dan Kumar got me to move to my left along the ridge, which sloped gently upwards.

Looking down at Manali and the Kulu valley from 17,000 feet. This is the shot at the top the right way up! (apologies for the coffee stain)

I could see the peak to my left a few hundred yards away along the ridge with the sun shining through a cloudy day (the first sun we’d seen). I could see 50 miles in to Spity and Lahoul. There were 4 or 5 ranges of very impressive mountains running roughly from left to right across my vision – everything ahead was above the snowline, some above 20,000 feet. To the right, I could see more vast mountains and below them, looking wonderfully green, was the Kulu valley from Solong to Manali and past about 10 more miles. I took 3-4 picturess and by then Dan Kumar and Chopra and the prof had overtaken me, and were traversing the ridge. The mist was fast coming up, and soon the visibility was only a couple of miles. We traversed the ridge for fifty feet including twenty feet balanced on top. After perhaps half an hour, most of us were up. Looking further along the ridge we could see that it was heavily corniced and Dan Kumar thought it was at risk of sliding and that the snow conditions (which were unusually bad for the time of the year) were too dangerous. Soon we began to get cold, so at about 11, we set off down; running, jumping, whooping and glissading the 6,000 feet back to camp by noon. We then spent a rather dull early afternoon, hungry, as we’d eaten our limited summit supplies, but later Chopra and I sat at the cook-fire, and drank tea with Purshotum and Dan Kumar, and enjoyed a few chapattis which miraculously appeared from the cook tent.

Next instalment: Can I get on the advanced course? The Indo-Pakistan war and jumping a troop trains going north.


A physical comedy

20 minutes

It was the annual Festival of the Glorious Ewe, the patron saint of Mordek, and the capital was thronged with visitors. Kopek, chief spy of the Pimpleknuckle Confederation, surreptitiously mingled with the crowd disguised as a peasant on a jaunt to town, though his monocle and well waxed handlebar moustaches jarred slightly with his shepherds smock and slouch hat. He kept his eye on the guests arriving by coach or litter, climbing the great stone steps of the great Gothik town hall, to the crowded ballroom on the second floor.

Eustace Claricorne, deputy assistant to the Master of the Back Stairs, had dressed carefully for the grand reception and proudly wore the Mordek tricornered hat on his tousled head, and his myriad medals and badges above his ceremonial green and purple sash. He looked out of his turret window, high in the east wing of the town hall, with views of the spires and turrets of the town and of the vast throng filling the square below. It was vital that he do well today not only for Mordek, but for himself. Unfortunately, the day before had not gone well, accompanying the Master on a surreptitious visit to the Hedgehog embassy on a mission to promote an alliance against the threats of an invasion by Pimpleknuckle. Carelessly tripping over the embassy carpet, he had knocked over the ambassador’s portly wife. Today Eustace had strict instructions, in a note from the governor, to be on his best behaviour. The guest of honour at the grand reception was to be the irritable ambassador from Mordek’s warlike neighbour Pimpleknuckle himself. Pimpleknuckle claimed the border village of Gok, population 3 persons and 14 sheep, and sought a pretext to invade. It was important that the ambassador was not provoked, as a slight to his august person could be used as excuse for aggression.

As Eustace descended the back stairs from his quarters a trumpet cavalcade sounded from the steps of the Great Hall signalling the arrival of the Pimpleknuckle emissary. Eustace stuck his head into the grand ballroom. The mayor and alder folk were dressed in elegant costumes of lambs wool, with ewes horn hats, to honour the Grand Ewe. Eustace looked down the imposing grand staircase which swept from the ballroom to the mezzanine and down again to the grand entrance hall. Resplendent in his finest court regalia, he hurried to join the Governor by the great front doors. At the top of the grand staircase, he noticed his left shoelace was undone, and stooped to tie it.

A fall from grace

As he bent over, a waiter carrying a tray of empty glasses backed out of the ballroom, colliding with Eustace and knocking him forcefully forward. Eustace landed on his head, and rolled over the top stair. His speed was such that he continued to the second stair, and here (now going faster) over the third. At the bottom of the 26 stairs, as chance would have it, he collided with a large statue which slowed him down considerably. However, this wasn’t enough to stop him bouncing over the top step of the main staircase down to the lobby, again bouncing slightly faster onto the next step. By the time he hit the hall below, his descent had been observed, and a footman ran to close the great door, but too late. Rolling down the hall at a terrific pace, Eustace bowled over Madam the Governor who flew into the air and landed forcefully on top of the newly arrived Pimpleknuckian ambassador. Out the door Eustace shot! Bouncing down the top step at quite a speed, and progressively faster down each of the 12 stone steps, the deputy assistant to the Master of the Back Stairs, medals clashing against his gold braid, rolled into the main square, now gaily decorated for the festivities. He continued to roll across the great square, through the thick crowd, miraculously only bowling over the occasional surprised personages as he passed. Exiting the square, he tumbled at great speed down the steep hill that led to the town gates.

Upstairs in the reception room, there was a wave of incredulity. A half dozen near the door saw the Plenipotentiary, in all his well polished regalia, roll over the edge of the first stairs, and then suddenly reappear, glinting under the great candelabra, as he shot over the top step of the mezzanine. They relayed this astonishing sight to those standing near, and then a cry was heard from the crowd by the windows “Eustace is rolling down the square!” What to do was the question on many lips. The chief of police and the fire chief arrived by the mayor’s side from different directions. The police chief indicated by a small movement of his head that the fire chief should speak first. “I believe it would be opportune to go and investigate,” she said to the mayor. “Perhaps you will join me,” she added to the police chief.

These two officers, resplendent in their ceremonial uniforms, one bright red, the other a deep blue, hurried down the staircase, picking up a couple of members of their respective forces as they went. Unfortunately, though on official business, one of the firemen had over indulged on the delicious sweet wine. He was a large man and he followed tipsily along, slightly behind the others, and when he tripped on the top step he fell against the two policemen a few steps below him. The policemen fell, like well trained skittles, knocking both the fire chief and the chief of police off their feet and into a tumble down the stairs.

The only one not to get knocked off her feet was the second fireman, who bravely grabbed at her colleague’s arm, getting a good grip as he went past. The first fireman being of large proportions, and she of slight build, this did not slow him down. Instead it jerked her into the air, feet straight out behind her, and she joined him in his revolutions. At the bottom of the first flight of stairs these officials bounced, each in their own particular way, as they rolled across the landing, bumping into several footmen who tried to arrest their fall. Instead they all, now including two footmen and a maid, continued at high speed over the top of the first stair of the main staircase. Downwards, a melee of colourful uniforms, they bounced from stair to stair. Onwards they rolled, like giant cheeses, or hogsheads of claret, across the entrance hall and, unfortunately for protocol, over the prostrate Pimpleknuckian ambassador and his retinue. They bounced on through the still open door and down the great stairs into the main square.

This too of course was seen from above, and a multitude of the guests proclaimed their shock and horror, or went for a strong drink, or sat down stunned, or all three of the above. However, the rush of the more practical to help was a tonic to see. Two dozen guests, including many of the nations leading officials, dashed to the stairs to go down and assist the victims. In their rush out of the ballroom, the crowd swept the first of the aid party brusquely over the top step. As they stumbled, a few managed to regain their footing, but those behind them, shoved in their turn by the surge to help, toppled them again and they joined the others, cartwheeling down the stairs. On the landing they met little resistance, it having been swept almost clear by their predecessors. However, they did add a minor duchess, who had been unmolested by the passing of the emergency personnel. Onward they rolled, a great tumbling mass of dignitaries and lesser members of officialdom, all now united by the wonders of gravitational attraction.

By now the Eustace, the first to fall, had left the square and was rolling with some speed through the town, causing some collateral damage to the occasional latecomer. He first collided with Esmeralda the lady librarian, who most unfortunately had just lifted her front foot when struck, and pivoting on her back foot, she too began to roll with great speed, and given the loveliness of her bright red dress, great effect. The Tardy-Jones family, perennially late, were just entering the road from a side street and got the full effect of the rotating red dress alongside the man spinning in his gold filigree court dress. “Bravo” they cried, impressed with the elegant display. As it was an important festive occasion, extra guards had been deployed, and the town gate was open. Out they rolled, ornate gentleman and brightly dressed lady librarian, past an astonished gate guard who shouted to his friend on the parapet above. The tower guard heard a cry and looked down. “No,” shouted the gatekeeper, “look to the road”. The tower guard turned around to the road outside the gate, and saw the astonishing sight of a man rolling along at high speed accompanied by a lady in a brilliant red dress. “Stop in the name of the Governor”, he called, but to no apparent effect.

By this time, those embodiments of public order, the chiefs of police and fire, and their attendant minions, were rolling expeditiously across the main square. Given their number, and in several cases large mass, they wrought more havoc, or to put it more scientifically, had greater material effect, upon the body of revellers than the passing of the Deputy assistant to the Master of the Back Stairs,. With an accuracy that would have greatly improved the towns chances in the recent national 10-pin bowling tournament, they cut a wide swathe across the square. Their inverted V of well aimed blows and clouts upon the assembled personages caused a profusion of response vectors as each individual reacted independently to the strike force imposed upon them. But, marvellously undeterred by any extraneous contact, the mass of officials rolled, and frankly bounced and hurtled, towards the steep hill leading to the town gates. Before the crowd had begun to recover, or even had had a chance to reflect upon their condition, a third wave of personages came streaming down the great steps of the town hall, and added their portion to the general confusion.

This last wave, was made all the more elegant by the presence of a, even if minor, duchess, her diamonds glittering charmingly in the afternoon sun. They too bounced and hurtled, through, over and across the by now largely supine crowd, thwacking one here, thumping another there, and generally clobbering the last of those still standing. Generally, those struck by the passing ‘rollers’ were flattened, but some instead joined the mass descent of the hill below the square. The specific reasons for one response or another is a field of great interest to science, and has been the topic of considerable conjecture. We will leave this inquiry to others and merely report the facts as they are known. Apart from the first two rollers, the second group began with six or seven officials, recruited two footmen and a maid upon the first landing, and lost one member in crossing the great hall. As they crossed the square, however, their numbers were replenished by a balloon seller, a toffee apple man, three brave, if foolish, policemen, and several visitors to the festivities, whose positions in society are as yet unknown (though one was reported to have sported a handlebar moustache and monocle). This large group swept a large swathe of persons off their feet who either collapsed or cascaded into others, so that by the time of the arrival of the third group, by then numbering seventeen officials and dignitaries, and a glittering duchess, their route though the square was largely clear of those still vertical. Of interest to physicists, but unfortunately beyond the scope of this reportage, was the fact that several persons who had been sent hurtling off towards the extremities of the square rebounded and in their turn discombobulated the trajectories of several members of the third, and by far the largest, group to hurtle across the square.

Unknown to Mordek, it was not Pimpleknuckle that was the great threat. The small but efficient army of neighbouring statelet of Grimchek had been dispatched to attack Mordek some weeks earlier. The Grimchek troops were under the leadership of the notorious General Handlebar, the hero of the Great Chicken War. However, due to a misunderstanding of mapcraft in the Grimchek Ministry of War, the map of Mordek had been printed upside down with north at the bottom. By diligently following the wrong directions the Grimchek forces had spent quite several weeks lost in the woods of lower Mordek and were unaware of the recently agreed truce. Now, after their myriad difficulties in the woods, they were finally approaching the town, climbing the long and steep road towards the town gates led by a marching band, featuring tubas, ukuleles and penny whistles, playing martial airs.

As the army of Grimchek climbed the road, they were met by three successive waves of ‘rollers’, known to the world as the ‘Descent of the Mordek Patriots’. There has been some quibbling in the media, that the physics of gravity would make impossible manoeuvring around the corners on the long descent to the valley below the town. I can only state the facts. In spite of, or perhaps due to, the winding nature of the road that descended into the deep valley below the town, the numerous rollers swerved around the corners and kept to the road. This is of course apart from a few unfortunate exceptions- the navel attaché for example, became stuck in a thorn tree on the first bend.

Eustace and Esmeralda swept majestically down the steep hill, defying the small minded notions of foreign physicists, taking the corners with ease and elegance as they swept ever faster past the magnificent views of the verdant valley below, backed by distant mountains catching the afternoon sun. Eventually they turned a corner and sped down upon the advance guard of the invading army. They arrived so unexpectedly, and with such speed that they were met with no resistance, and swept through the company, elegantly bowling many of them off the roadside cliff. Before they had time to recover from this first pair, the advanced guard was almost immediately struck by a larger body, in both senses. The oversized drunken fireman, wobbling as wildly as he rolled speedily, crashed through the remaining upright soldiers. He was quickly followed by his many companions of the fire service and police during this second assault, who having dispatched the advanced guard, swept on towards the main body of troops.

General Handlebar, riding his great black stallion Coltrane, rode at the head of the main body of his army. Eustace and Esmeralda passed, one each side of the mounted general, each taking out a line of troops. The general, astonished by this hideous new weapon of war, turned to bark an order, but was immediately driven off his horse by the portly fireman, now advancing at a most warlike rotation. The general’s horse, panicked at the sudden loss of his commander, now turned tail and joined the rout caused by the first wave of gyrators and added considerably to the confusion. Dropping their guns, abandoning their cannon, leaving their tambourines and ukuleles scattered across the road, the army fled, though not fast enough to avoid the arrival of the majority of the second wave. There was little left for the third wave to topple, and the diamonds of the duchess shone impressively in the late afternoon light as she hurtled over the now largely prostate figures.

[To be ended shortly]

Of Pulque and Popo:

Two climbs on Popocatepetl

The “tourist route” is up the far left slope. Snow conditions vary. The route around to the summit risks a dangerous fall either way.

20 minutes

No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man- Heraclitus.

Twice a day, Pablo’s donkey passed Francisco’s place in San Pedro barrio, Tepoztlan, carrying jerry cans of pulque, Mexico’s cactus beer. Francisco’s shack was right on the edge of Tepoztlan near the last remaining agave field in the town of the god of pulque. Pablo would call out as he passed the shack, and we would often buy a litre or two of the milky liquid. One afternoon Carlos, a traveller from Spain, and I took a couple of litres of pulque up the hill behind Francisco’s shack and sat with a view of the great volcano Popocatepetl (5452m), visible in the distance over the intervening hills. As we drained the last of the pulque, Popo’s summit snowfield glinting in the afternoon light, we concocted a plan to climb Popo a few days later, on New Year’s Eve.

Popocatepetl is high enough, that in spite of being in the tropics, the top can be bitterly cold in the winter. I had a warm sleeping bag, for a night in a hut, and managed to borrow a down jacket, warm mitts and a wool hat from Texican friends who would soon be returning to the freezing US winter. Carlos was less lucky, but found an old leather motorcycling jacket and lined leather gloves. We set off on the 29th December, taking several local buses to Amecameca, where we could hire ice-axes and crampons. The equipment we were offered was old, and dilapidated, but it was only a long slog up volcanic ash and snow after all. The next day, we left Amecameca and hitched the road that climbs steeply up to the Paso des Cortes, (3400m) the saddle between Popo and Iztaccihuatl (5286m) the sleeping woman.

Popocatapetl with Ixtacciuatl behind. Tlamacas hidden behind Popo

From the pass, which Cortez had used to advance on Mexico city, we were lucky to get a ride the three or so miles through the alpine forest to Tlamacas, (3947m); where there is a large climbers chalet, with a canteen and bunkhouse. Popocatepetl is Nahuatl [the language of the Aztecs] for Smoking Mountain; it is the second highest peak in Mexico, after Pico de Orizaba or Citlateptl (5,700m). It looms over Mexico city and it is still intermittently active. We got to Tlamacas early enough to continue to a mountain hut a couple of km further on and about 200m ft higher. The hut was small, without any furniture and crowded with a dozen students from Mexico City, some of whom were passing a bottle of Tequila. We found space for our sleeping bags on the plank floor and ate a cold supper. Just before dark, someone ran into the hut to report that a climber had fallen high on the mountain and was injured, then carried on down to alert the mountain rescue. An hour or so later, a group arrived carrying the injured climber. I learned from his girl-friend that he was an experienced climber from Colorado, and had slipped on the icy summit slopes, tumbled over volcanic rocks and broken his leg. I offered my sleeping bag for him and encouraged his girl friend to get in with him to keep him warm as it was now nearly freezing and he was suffering from shock. When the mountain rescue team arrived with a stretcher, they had brought a cheap, thin kapok sleeping bag, with an all round zip. I worried about the injured climber staying warm on the long carry down in the dark and offered them my sleeping bag to keep him warm, in exchange for the miserable rescue bag.

After the mountain rescue left, the students finished off their bottle of tequila and put out their lantern. I had a long, bitterly cold, and largely sleepless night in spite of my down jacket. Carlos and I woke to our alarms before dawn. The wind was very strong, and buffeting the hut, but we had heard that this was normal, and it usually moderated later in the morning. We set out at first light, the first, and it turned out the only party to attempt the summit that morning. The climb was reasonably easy up 30 degree slopes on hard snow, and soon the wind died down. We felt the altitude, but had the advantage of having spent over a month at about 1700m in Tepoztlan, where we did a lot of walking including, sometimes twice a day, the 2km climb up the steep hill from town to Francisco’s shack in the San Pedro barrio.

We arrived at the craters edge into a blast of freezing wind and were surprised to find four people waking up from a bivouac. Behind them the crater dropped hundreds of metres into a sulphurous pit where mist swirled. The group of four well-equipped Mexican climbers, in full down suits, had come up late the evening before and spent the night bivouacked on the craters lip. They were getting up and kitting up to climb to the summit, on the far side of the crater. The wind was suddenly tremendous, and bitingly cold and they decided that it was too dangerous to climb along the crater edge to the summit. As we talked to them, I began to get very cold. I looked at the slope back down. The wind had turned the snow crust to ice, which glittered in the morning sun, and I was not confident I could climb down safely with crampons, which I hadn’t used since learning to use them ten years earlier. I was also worried about my ability to balance on the steep ice as I was beginning to get really cold and becoming hypothermic. I felt it only too likely I’d trip over my crampons, and start to tumble. I feared I’d end up like the Coloradan climber, or worse.

Thankfully, the Mexican climbers decided to rope down the slope, and offered to tie us on too. So we slowly down-climbed on belay, and then sat with ice-axe wedged waiting for the rest of the party. Carlos was now getting seriously hypothermic with only a motorcycle jacket in the sub-zero temperature and strong wind, and I worried he’d lose the ability to climb. I was bitterly cold too, sitting shivering in the snow, in spite of the down jacket. At one point, I contemplated untying and descending alone to get moving, as I became colder and colder. I sat numbly looking at the fantastic views across Mexico almost to the sea. Eventually, after two or three very slow rope lengths, belaying six people down one by one, the slope eased and we untied. We’d been very lucky to have met up with the Mexicans and thanked them profusely. Then we all ran whooping and hollering down the rest of the snow and plodded back on the volcanic ash path to Tlamacas, and warmed up with hot drinks and food. It is only in writing this piece that I remember how close we were to not making it down safely.

The next day, we returned our rented equipment in Amecameca and I went to find the mountain rescue and my sleeping bag. There I heard the good news that the Coloradan climber was safe in hospital, and swapped their very poor sleeping bag for my own. This was my second time at 5,000 metres, but like the first time in the Himalayas, it was a ridge line not an actual summit. I felt that I’d climbed Popo, as I had looked into the crater, but none the less, I had wanted to go to the summit.

Over the next few years, I climbed half a dozen non-technical volcanoes in Mexico and Guatemala, each one a thrilling experience, some with exciting volcanic activity. I was back in Mexico one winter in the early 90s, again staying in Tepoztlan, but now in a posher house in the flatlands south of el Mercado. Francisco and his Texican friends had purchased the pulque fields to save a small piece of the traditional economy. So, I was treated to some fine pulque for old time’s sake and, inevitably, decided to have another go at Popo.

This time I went alone. I got a bus up to the Paso del Cortes, and was dropped off on the saddle, and walked the three gently climbing miles to Tlamacas, with lovely views of pines and other alpine plants. It was a sunny winters afternoon, and I had time to wander into the meadows to look at the wild flowers, and sit under a pine listening to the mountain birdsong.

I spent the night in the climbers hostel, and got up at 4 am with the first group heading off for the summit. We walked along with headlamps lighting a black sand path in the mist. I chatted to various groups as we stopped for breathers in the cold, windless air, but it didn’t take long for the majority of the other climbers to overtake me. Most of them were college students from Mexico City, over 2200m, and even the Americans studying there for a few months had had a good acclimatisation. I was fairly fresh from Vancouver, at sea level, and I was also over 40, and not particularly fit.

It got light as we arrived at the snow, a steep and rather icy slope leading to the summit, and I was back with the slow coaches. A dozen or so people were visible a hundred or two metres above us, going up the long snow slope to the summit. Many of the slower hikers looked at the steep snow slope and gave up. I kicked steps about 50 metres up the snow, and sat on a flat rock to put on my crampons and to get back my breath. The altitude was making breathing painful and I felt terrible. I was joined on the rock by a Mexican woman of about my age.

After about 10 minutes, I realised I was beat and gave up on my ambition to get to the top. Instead, I descended and showed six or eight people who had stopped below the snow how to use their ice-axe and to walk up and (importantly, from my own experience) back down the slope in crampons. I spent an hour doing this, and one by one my students picked up the technique, took heart, and went on up the slope towards the skyline. I then returned to the rock for my pack. The Mexican woman was still resting, but she now decided to carry on up. I went up with her, but it wasn’t long before she was going faster than me, and disappeared into the distance. I was left to puff up, last and alone. When I got to the craters edge, about twenty people were lying in the sunshine, nibbling on snacks or taking pictures. I lay down for twenty minutes, to recover my breath, and soon afterwards they all left, moving off along the rim to the left for an easier snow-free descent. After my rest, I decided I should go for the top, and was surprised to discover it was several hundred metres around the rim. Feeling lonelier and lonelier, I walked through a swirling mist of sulphurous fumes with views to the vast crater floor hundreds of metres below, and with a stiff climb at the end to the actual summit. Whoopee, I’d finally made a 5,000 metre summit. The views from the summit were extraordinary, from Mexico city to the east, past Puebla in the west, to the distant cone of Citlateptl, more than a 100 km away. But I was alone, and nervous of the swirling fumes, so I didn’t stay long and descended past our resting place and around to the descent. I plunged down, ploughing through deep black ash and sand, though it was quickly more tiring than I’d expected, and I was soon exhausted. I carried on straight down, rather than angling back towards the ascent route, as I should have, so at the end of the descent I had a several hour walk back around the mountain. There was terrific heat off the black volcanic sand, in the noonday sun and I had to take numerous rests, dehydrated and breathing painfully at over 4,000 metres. It took me several hours to get to the trail down to Tlamacas. I arrived exhausted, and decided to spend another night.

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play -Heraclitus

After a siesta and a good meal in the cafeteria, I spent the evening chatting to the arrivals for the next day’s attempts. Again, most were Mexican students but many of them were Americans studying in Mexico City. There were also a few climbers: two thirty something Brits and three fifty something Americans who had recently climbed Denali, North America’s highest peak. I was woken by everyone leaving between four and five am but went contentedly back to sleep. Around eight, the Americans returned having failed on their attempts due to altitude sickness. Later, the two Brits came back also unsuccessful. I thought it ironic that more or less any half motivated student could get up the mountain, but that it had defeated five good but unacclimatised climbers. I was lucky I’d stopped and helped the stragglers the day before, or I too would have given up. It was a lesson in the value of resting when suffering from the altitude.

No one ever climbs the same mountain twice, for it is not the same mountain, and you are not the same person. If something as solid and unchanging as a mountain is never the same, due to ever changing conditions, how much more so is it with life. Each of us faces the same, so different world.

Recently, Popo is off limits due to volcanic activity.

Some pictures of the 2019 eruptions


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fshQ_q7k9h4 a YouTube video of recent skiing action that shows there are a number of serious hazards on Popo.

Is a good guide to the three big volcanoes


Is an interesting traveller’s tale of a climb on Popo

As you can see you need to take the risks seriously. I was very lucky, don’t count on being so fortunate.

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