When I was a child still playing with Legos, my favorite set was the pirate ship named the Black Seas Baracuda. I had the most extensive collection of those blocks and pieces among anyone I knew and I considered new sets merely pieces for harvesting. The Baracuda was different; it could only be modified, never dismantled.
It resonated with something in me, and it wasn’t warefare against the Colonial tall ship that Lego made or plundering the villages I’d build on my own inventing. No, these pirates were misunderstood bohemians on a quest, searching for a treasure, real or proverbial, on a forboding sea with scattered islands, forts and settlements to explore. (Unfortunately, these adventurers were a little unbridled for an eleven year-old and I liked leaving the recent encounter a heap of building blocks.)
I hadn’t discovered mountain climbing as my biggest interest in life yet, but there were similarities in it’s appeal. Take the ship, for instance, it’s self containing and a vehicle for seeking the unknown. I have always thought of me with my backpack or a rope team in similar ways. The quest of the pirates in my imagination was more about the thrill of discovery than greed.
Tangentially, I suspect that the fascination with pirates today, like in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for example, satisfies in us a need for an adventurous life. We’ve been everywhere, just about. Knowledge is at our fingertips. Part of having a good adventure is the element of the unknown.
I don’t play with pirate ships or Legos anymore, but Wunderkind has her Duplos and I expect my young son, Schnickelfritz, to play with pirates down the road. The unknown for them is life itself and it’s really exciting for Natalie and I to watch.
This past weekend, Schnickelfritz and I were exploring our basement, the unknown of the homeowning-adult world. We re-discovered something that brought me back to the idea of the unknown with mountaineering and climbing. It started out as merely ticking a chore off my weekend to-do list, while Schnickelfritz sat in one arm and I perused the contents of some boxes I hadn’t looked through in six years.
Among year books, momentos from my days working for Congress, including a campaign-logo teeshirt I don’t remember receiving, I came across my photocopied version of Men Against the Clouds: The Conquest of Minya Konka by Richard Burdsall and Arthur Emmons.
In an article from 2000 in Climbing magazine I came across a piece by Gregory Croach — the climber and author of Enduring Patagonia among other books –that told the bigger story about the Minya Konka book and the gist goes like this: In 1930, Everest was generally accepted as the tallest mountain in the world. No one had climbed it yet and much the surrounding world was mysterious to Western climbers. Visitors to China’s mountainous Sichuan Province, north of Tibet, returned with news of a mountain. The mountain dominated its neighboring landscape. It appeared to reach higher than anything else on Earth.
A survey was conducted and the initial reading prompted a telegraph that said it was the highest mountain in the world, taller than Everest, at 30,000 ft.
Even famous American Teddy Roosevelt got excited over the mountain. On his well-known Panda hunting trip, he recorded in his journal: “Mount Koonka, 30,000 ft?” The spelling might have been phonetical as the written name has been refined since then. To Tibetans it is Minya Konka. (To the Chinese people it is Gongga Shan.)
With the possibility of a new grand momument to climbing, eight Americans set off to climb the peak. To some extent, their adventure of getting to the mountain, and all that happened to them en route, makes the story one of the greatest mountain adventure stories I have ever heard.
There are no pirates in the story, at least in the literal sense, but there were warships, rifles, nearly a year spent away from home in an exotic land, deserters, and an unknown as big as the ocean.
I’ll continue to share with you more in my next post, including the journey there, who the climbers were, and I’ll tell you about their efforts to get to the mountain and what happened on what might be the roof of the world.
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Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.