Frank Smythe - Mountaineer, photographer, explorer & botanist
I enjoy listening to audiobooks, and one I bought a few years ago is High: Stories of Survival from Everest and K2, by Matt Dickinson, Chirs Bonington, David Roberts and others.
When winter arrives, and the weather grows icy, my thoughts always turn to the exciting prospect of getting out into the crispy-cold hills with my tent, and while I’m out there I like to listen to books like this, which tend to put my aches, pains and minor battles with our wintery weather into some kind of perspective.
Anyhoo… the most interesting things in this whole book, for me, are the following two passages by Frank Smythe (1900-1949: a British mountaineer, author, photographer, botanist and Army Colonel) from Camp 6: An Account of the 1933 Mount Everest Expedition.
In the passages transcribed below he describes two odd experiences that he had whilst descending from a failed attempt on the summit. It’s not uncommon, of course, for people climbing and walking in mountains to have strange experiences, but I love to read about them, despite the fact that the memory of them tends to return at dusk when I’m camping, and settling into my tent for the night… *g*
The second of these passages is one of the most interesting accounts of something inexplicable that I’ve ever read (which is saying quite a lot!) If you listen to the book you can find the passages at 3:46:46 and 3:50:48 respectively.
“And now I must relate the curious incident described in Everest 1933.
After leaving Eric a strange feeling possessed me that I was accompanied by another. I have already mentioned a feeling of detachment, in which it seemed as though I stood aside and watched myself. Once before during a fall in the Dolomites I’d had the same feeling, and it is not an uncommon experience with mountaineers who have a long fall.
It may be that the feeling that I was accompanied was due to this, which, in its turn, was due to lack of oxygen and the mental and physical stress of climbing alone at a great altitude. I do not offer this as an explanation but merely as a suggestion. This ‘presence’ was strong, and friendly. In its company I could not feel lonely; neither could I come to any harm. It was always there to sustain me on my solitary climb up the snow-covered slabs.
Now, as I halted and extracted some mint cake from my pocket, it was so near that instinctively I divided the mint into two halves, and turned round with one half in my hand to offer it to my ‘companion’.”
“The climbing was simple enough at first, but presently became more difficult. Instead of the easy slabs that had led us upwards from the camp to the foot of the first step I found myself on a series of narrow, outward sloping ledges separated by abrupt little walls. These ledges were never continuous for long, and it was necessary when one petered out to descend to another. However, I could still afford to lose height without descending below the level of Camp 6.
This route took me across the band some distance below the place where Wyn and Waggers found the ice axe, but I did not see any further traces of Mallory and Irvine. I remember glancing down at a wide, gently sloping expanse of snow, screes and broken rocks below the band and thinking that if the ice axe indeed marked the point where they slipped it was possible that their bodies might have come to rest there.
Some of the ledges were wider than others and I paused to rest at intervals. It was during one of these halts that I was startled to observe an extraordinary phenomenon. Chancing to look over the North East shoulder, now directly in front of me, I saw two dark objects in the sky. In shape they resembled kite balloons, and my first reaction was to wonder what on earth kite balloons could be doing near Everest–a certain proof that lack of oxygen had impaired my mental faculties–but a moment later I recognised this as an absurd thought. At the same time I was very puzzled. The objects were black and silhouetted sharply against the sky, or possibly a background of cloud: my memory is not clear at this point. They were bulbous in shape, and one possessed what looked like squat, under-developed wings whilst the other had a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a tea kettle. But what was most weird about them was that they distinctly pulsated with an in-and-out motion as though they possessed some horrible quality of life. One interesting point is that these pulsations were much slower than my own heart beats. Of this I am certain, and I mention it in view of a suggestion put forward, afterwards, that it was an optical illusion and that the apparent pulsations synchronised with my pulse rate.
After my first reaction of ‘kite balloons’ my brain seemed to function normally, and so interested was I that, believing them to be fantasies of my imagination, I deliberately put myself to a series of mental tests. First of all I looked away. The objects did not follow my vision, but when my gaze returned to the North East shoulder they were still hovering there. I looked away again and, by way of a more exacting mental test, identified by name a number of peaks, valleys and glaciers. I found no difficulty in X, Y and the Rombuk Glacier [X and Y are things I’ve no idea how to spell], but when I again looked back the objects were in precisely the same position.
“Nothing was to be gained by further examination, and, tired as I was with the apparently endless succession of slabs, I decided to carry on to Camp 6. I was just starting off when a mist, forming suddenly, began to drift across the North East shoulder. Gradually the objects disappeared behind it. Soon they were vague shadows. Then, as the mist thickened, they disappeared altogether. The mist only lasted a few seconds, then melted away. I expected to see the objects again but they were no longer there. They had disappeared as mysteriously as they came.
Was it an optical illusion or a mirage? It may be of interest to state that my height was about 27,600 feet, and that the objects were a few degrees above the North East ridge about half way between the position of the 1924 Camp 6 and the crest of the North East shoulder. This gives their height as about 27,200 feet, and a line connecting me with them would have ended not in a background of sky but of clouds and mountains. It’s possible therefore that imagination magnified some strange effect of mist, mountain and shadow, yet, whatever they were, it was a strange and altogether uncanny experience.”
Interesting stuff, eh? It doesn’t sound to me as though Frank Smythe was either a fantasist or an unreliable reporter. It could be that he wrongly thought he saw something that wasn’t there, but if he did see what he describes then what on earth can it have been? I have no idea, but cue spooky music…. *g*