Ahead of the 2017 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature event at Kendal Mountain Festival in November, Stephen Venables reflects on the legacy of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker.
'Haven't you heard?! Just the two of them. Thirty days on the wall. Hammock bivvies. Pitches of overhanging aid. Ken Wilson says it's the hardest thing ever done in the Himalaya.'
It was November 1976 and we were driving out to the Alps, intent on the second ascent of the Super Couloir, and as we rattled across northern France in my mini van, excited by our alpine ambitions, Lindsay Griffin was filling me in on the latest news from the international stage. It was only after Christmas, returning disappointed to Britain – we didn't quite make it to the top of the couloir – that I got hold of Mountain magazine and read the full story of the extraordinary first ascent of Changabang's West Wall by Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker. Later that winter I heard Tasker lecture about the climb at the Alpine Club where everyone, ambitious young climbers and arthritic Everest veterans alike, seemed equally transfixed by the breathtaking chutzpah of these two men who had re-written the rules of Himalayan climbing.
Forty years on the Boardman-Tasker pairing seems almost immutable, forged from birth. In fact the partnership came comparatively late in the two men's careers. Before 1976 it was not 'Pete and Joe' but 'Dick and Joe'. At the beginning of the decade, while Boardman was making first British ticks of some very impressive alpine North Faces – and some extremely bold first ascents in the Hindu Kush – with his Nottingham University friends, Tasker was forging a formidable partnership with Manchester University's Dick Renshaw. Nowadays, when queues form on the Eigerwand every winter, it might seem hard to imagine just what a big deal it was when Tasker and Renshaw, armed with little stubby Chouinard ice hammers and home-made clothing, made the third winter ascent of the face in 1974. The following year they drove out to India, to the Garhwal Himalaya, to climb a very hard new route, on sight, in pure alpine style, up the Southeast Ridge of a seven-thousand-metre peak called Dunagiri. That was intended as the warm up for neighbouring Changabang. In fact they barely got down alive from Dunagiri and Renshaw got sufficiently bad frostbite to be out of the running when Tasker returned to India the following year. So Boardman was invited to go to Changabang and a great new partnership was born, ending six years later when the two men vanished high on the Northeast Ridge of Everest, echoing uncannily the similar disappearance of Mallory and Irvine in 1924.
I remember so clearly that summer morning in 1982 when the news broke. The two confident, stubbled, sunburnt faces smiling out from the Sunday front pages. The sense almost of inevitability – that perhaps they had just pushed it too far, too often. But also the sadness. I had never met either of them, but I had climbed with their friend Dick, and for a decade they had shaped and inspired my own dreams. They had shown what was possible. Joe Tasker, in particular, had been prepared to cock a snook at received wisdom. At a time when it seemed unthinkable for two people to attempt an unrelentingly steep, cold, Eiger-sized wall on a peak close to seven thousand metres high, he had said, 'Why not?'.
That bold vision was an inspiration. So too was the ability to write about the vision. Boardman's Shining Mountain, published by the highly regarded Hodder and Stoughton when he was just twenty-seven, grabs you with the sheer emotional intensity of the protracted struggle on Changabang. Tasker's Everest The Cruel Way – with its cocky allusion to Bonington's Everest The Hard Way – chronicles the intense masochism of a winter attempt on the West Ridge, concluding, with a typically uncompromising Tasker flourish, that they hadn't tried hard enough. No such regrets in his posthumously published Savage Arena, which marches breathlessly from epic to epic, starting with the Eigerwand winter ascent and concluding with a page-turning escape from high on the Abruzzi Ridge of K2.
My favourite, though, is Boardman's Sacred Summits. It's a beautifully constructed, lyrically engaging travel book describing the extraordinary events of a single year, starting with a journey with his wife Hillary through the jungles of Irian Jaya to the summit of Carstenz Pyramid. In the spring he makes the third ascent, by a new route, without oxygen, of the world's third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, with Joe Tasker, Doug Scott and, initially, Georges Bettembourg. As if that were not enough, he returns to Nepal in the autumn to climb the dauntingly long, outrageously knife-edged Southwest Ridge of the previously unclimbed south summit of Gaurisankar, with Guy Neidhardt, Tim Leach, Pemba Lama and John Barry. The last named provides conversational grist to the author's mill, his provocative banter – like Scott's philosophical musings on Kanchenjunga – woven entertainingly into the narrative.
Soon after Boardman and Tasker died, their friends and colleagues decided on the perfect memorial to reflect their great contribution to the world of mountaineering – an annual award for an English language work of mountain-related literature. The trustees included members of both men's families, their surviving colleagues from the Everest expedition – Chris Bonington, Charlie Clarke and Dick Renshaw – and other friends such as the then head of the BMC, Dennis Gray. The trustees decided wisely to stay right out of the judging process, appointing a totally independent three person jury each year. However, with the help of generous sponsors such as Jardine Matheson, the trustees have managed to maintain and grow a solid capital fund, financing a really useful cash prize each year – initially £1,000 and now £3,000.
The tax-free cash is great, of course, but what really counts is the kudos. I can remember the thrill in 1986 when my editor, Maggie Body (who had also edited Boardman's books, and Bonington's, and Shipton's) phoned up to ask, 'Are you free to come to a ceremony on October the seventeenth? You've won the Boardman Tasker prize!' Since then the winner has always been kept a close secret until the day of the ceremony. On three subsequent occasions I have had to endure the sweating-palms of anxious hope amongst my fellow shortlisters, followed by attempts at gracious smiles as the chosen winner goes up to receive his prize.
Awarding a prize to something as unquantifiable as a book is, of course, a subjective business, with an element of the lottery about it. However, it is a great way of raising profile. Thanks to the dedication of the trustees and the stature of the judges, the Boardman-Tasker prize has grown steadily in importance, to the point where even making it onto the shortlist gives a book a really useful boost. And it seems to me that the quality of the shortlisted books gets better and better. This year looks like a vintage crop and I like to think that Pete and Joe would be pleased at the amount of hard graft, intellect, imagination, craftsmanship and fun which goes into the continuing annual celebration of their legacy.
Kendal Mountain Festival 2017
Kendal Mountain Festival is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 17 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.
On Friday 17th November, the 2017 winner of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature will be announced during a special event at KMF.
- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE