Metal, Mountains, Magick Part Three
Climbing with Crowley was not always rosy, as his forays further afield into Asia will attest. After ascending most of the Alps and several mountains in Mexico, including Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl and an aborted attempt on Volcan de Colima (which was erupting at the time melting their boots), Crowley and Eckenstein hatched a plan to tackle ‘the savage mountain’, K2. Eckenstein had experience of the Karakorum before, it was here he fell out with the expedition leader Martin Conway and therefore most of the Alpine Club. After two years of preparing, they set off with four other European climbers, in March 1901.
K2 was considered un-climbable and was only successfully summited in 1954, a far harder and challenging climb than Everest which is only 237m larger. As the group were to find out, the window of opportunity for summiting is extremely small and the weather is particularly harsh as well as changeable. The party had to deal with the extremes of sub-zero temperatures whilst at the same time getting sunburnt.
It’s important to realise just how difficult travel was at this time let alone mountain climbing. It took 14 days just to reach the foot of mountain and required a small army of people. Along with the six European climbers, were a squad of over 150 porters, 20 servants and 50 ponies for the extremely tough journey. They all had to be fed, which led to 18 sheep, 15 goats and several dozen hens beginning the ascent of the north east spur.
On top of this, for his intellectual nourishment, Crowley insisted on taking his ridiculous travelling library. He argued that mental health was just as important as physical. As wise as this seems, he proved to be not a good team player on this trip. He was an excellent climbing partner but his selfishness and egocentric behaviour came out in the most extreme of places and he did not work well in a team. His clothing was also unsuitable, being mostly cotton items he had purchased in India rather than the more sensible tweeds wore by the rest of the climbers. The porters and servants were also inadequately dressed for altitude in their goat skin clothing, but were better prepared than Crowley.
Crowley’s job was to lead small groups and establish camps at differing altitudes. He excelled at this, loving being in charge of what was Eckenstein’s trip, and no doubt playing the lord he proclaimed himself to be. But this was not to be a successful ascent. They were stuck at Camp X, (18,733 feet) for two weeks due to the weather, reaching as high as 22,000 feet from Camp XI but this is as high as they would get. It remained however an altitude record for seven years and not to be beaten on K2 until 1939. Crowley himself suffered from lice, dhobi itch, indigestion, constipation as well as having hallucinations, a temperature of 103˚F and had problems breathing. All the symptoms of malaria.
Whilst ascending back to camp, one of the climbers, Jules Jacot-Guillarmod, returned without his porter. The man had fallen into a crevasse and Guillarmod cut the rope. Disgusted by his behaviour, Eckenstein, Crowley and the others descended from camp to attempt an ill-fated rescue. The porter was lost, everyone was ill, camp life was incredibly difficult and the climb was over by August 3rd. They had been on K2 for 68 days and only 8 had clear weather. This would became another record for the longest time spent at altitude.
Clearly forgetting the behaviour he found so despicable on K2, once back at Boleskine, Crowley and Guillarmod made plans to conquer Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. At 28,169 feet it was a harder climb than even the unconquerable K2, only 82 feet its junior. Few Europeans had even seen it at this time. Crowley would only sign up to the expedition if he was to be the absolute leader and this was granted. They first approached Guy Knowles who was also on the K2 expedition as being a partner but unsurprisingly, Knowles refused. Perhaps he remembered Crowley had pulled a gun on him whilst refusing to ascend further up K2 in a storm. Eckenstein himself also declined. Kanchenjunga was dangerous and he did not consider Guillamord to be up to the task. He also hated him, partly for leaving the porter behind. Despite the warnings from his closest climbing companion, Crowley -aiming for another altitude record- pushed on with the planning.
Crowley left Boleskine for India on the 6th May but it wasn’t until arriving in Darjeeling on the 9th July that he got his first view of Kanchenjunga through binoculars. He concluded from that distance that the western approach from the col was the route they would take and also that it would be an easy walk, before ascending the south west face. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and Crowley’s famed recklessness, stubbornness and arrogance was to end this ambitious trip in disaster and death.
The rest of the party reached Darjeeling by the end of July. A shipwreck in the red sea had slowed their journey again highlighting how long and dangerous international travel was at the turn of the 20th century. Guillarmod had recruited only two others climbers, both experienced alpinists, though it was made clear that on this trip, Crowley was the boss. They set off on the 8th of August, again with a large group that included 3 Kashmiris he had employed on K2 and around 230 local porters carrying seven tons of supplies. They had 200 miles of ridges in between them and the foot of the mountain, but luckily the going was relatively easy to start. Heavy forest slowed their approach to the mountain as did the constant rain. Leaky waterproofs and leeches made every day a struggle.
Unsurprisingly, the south west face was not quite the easy walk Crowley had anticipated. It was obviously too dangerous, but it had been chosen and Crowley was the undisputed leader. The team almost immediately began to fall apart, mostly due to Crowley’s behaviour and treatment of everyone. He insisted on this route and pressed on in what was clearly reckless abandon, unconcerned with the sacredness the local people held the mountain in. The porters were not properly equipped; the climbers had crampons, the porters went barefoot. Nevertheless, Camp V was established at 6,200m and from there an attempt made it to 6,500m before an avalanche they caused forced them back. Crowley claims to have reached 7,620m.
After this, and fed up with Crowley’s arrogance, the others made a risky decision to descend to Camp III late in the day. This was against Crowley’s advice, according to his own writing, and he saw it as mutinous, but the camp was too small and ill-equipped for them all. The lack of appropriate footwear on the porters caused one of them to slip, and because all of them were roped together an avalanche was set off. Three porters and one of the European climbers, Alexis Pache, died. Hearing the frantic cries for help the remainder of Camp V set off to help, Crowley stayed in his sleeping bag drinking tea and then slept. He passed the site of the accident the next day upon descent and didn’t stop to speak to the survivors or offer any assistance in their rescue efforts. He continued straight to Darjeeling where he apparently pocketed the remainder of the expedition funds.
Crowley also showed little remorse upon returning home, gossiping about his partners and bemoaning their lack of skill. He wrote his version of events for the Daily Mail, possibly even in his tent the night of the fateful accident, exaggerating his own involvement and achievements. In the end though, it did no good. His mountaineering reputation was ruined and even Eckenstein would no longer put up with him. He made a trip to the Alps a few years later, all the while planning for more Himalayan adventure, but he would never return nor make any record attempts again. His already quite unpopular name had fallen even further out of favour and he was quickly forgotten amongst the mountaineering community. He knew his mountaineering days were over and he was to never climb seriously again.
Crowley was undoubtedly a world class mountaineer. His progress in the field stained by his other passions and lifestyle choices. He was to become and remain a drug addict for most of his life but it was mountaineering that gave this young man a sense of power where he lacked it. Had he ignored his magickal calling, he no doubt would be remembered as a pioneering mountaineer having broken many records during this nascent time period of the sport. His major climbs in the Himalayas may not have been successful but they were attempted nearly 50 years before they were finally climbed. His climbing received criticism at the time, he was deemed reckless and along with Eckenstein used unconventional methods such as solo climbing, un-roped pitches, short ice axes and crampons. But these techniques, and some of his routes, were undoubtedly ahead of their time and paved the way for modern mountaineering.
Bruce Bryce is going to take a break from thinking about Alesteir Crowley.
Currently listening to Ozzy, Dio and anything on Library of the Occult Records.