I appreciate mountaineers
who get out and risk their necks for my reading pleasure. And the more
thrilling or calamitous their accounts-i.e., Touching the Void
or Into Thin Air-the better. But, as I devour the results of
their daring from the warmth and coziness of my armchair, a nasty part
of my brain asks: Who are these idiots, and would I want to spend one
day in their company at sea level, much less roped to them on some god-forsaken
back in 1956 in England, a structural engineer named W. E. Bowman must
have had the same question. He too, like me, had never climbed a mountain.
In fact, he had only seen a mountain once, on a trip to Switzerland.
But being more creative than me, he sat down and imagined the types
of personalities it would take to conquer the tallest mountain in the
world. The result is his masterpiece, The Ascent of Rum Doodle.
And what a group
of yahoos he dreamed up! Surely no mountain but the 40,000-foot Rum
Doodle has had to bear such an onslaught of disagreeable, unfit, likely
alcoholic-and yet, weirdly endearing-adventurers. This team could only
be lead by Binder, an Englishman of the cheery, stiff-upper-lip variety
who interprets quarrels among the climbers as bonding, and all refusal
of dangerous duty as humility.
The other members
of the expedition have their own idiosyncrasies. Jungle, the route-finder,
gets hopelessly lost in London trying to find the pre-climb organization
meeting. Constant, the interpreter of the Yogistani language (a dialect
spoken entirely from the stomach, accounting for gastritis amongst 95%
of the native population), has trouble distinguishing between gurgles
and snorts, leading to some frightening encounters. Pong, the cook,
is the main catalyst for urging the men up the mountain, as they flee
in terror from his meals. And the doctor in charge of the group's well-being
is named Prone. (Need I say more?)
The January '03
issue of Outside Magazine named this lost treasure (recently
republished by Pimlico Press) one of "10 GREAT Books You've Probably
Never Heard Of." Bill Bryson, a pretty humorous travel writer himself,
calls it "one of the funniest books you will ever read." His
introduction to the current edition is alone worth reading for its affectionate
portrait of W. E. Bowman, including an explanation of the novel's mysterious
recurring number of 153.
According to Bryson,
the book has always had a following amidst mountaineers. For example,
Mount Rumdoodle is now a geographic feature on maps of Antarctica, named
in honor of Bowman by members of the Australian Antarctic Expedition.
So, while I will probably never understand the mind of someone who chooses
a death-defying (and cold) hobby like mountaineering, I've at least
discovered that adventurers know how to laugh at their own expense.