The Ascent of Rum Doodle - The Plan

An exclusive extract from W E Bowman's classic The Ascent of Rum Doodle, first published in 1956, to accompany the Trail Magazine story (October 2016 issue).

Here, in Chapter 2, we see the team readying themselves for departure to climb the formidable Rum Doodle, at 40,000.5 ft the highest mountain on earth. The team - Binder (leader and narrator) Shute (photographer) Wish (scientist) Burley (lead climber) Prone (doctor) and Constant (diplomat) have assembled at the rendezvous in London. But the team member responsible for navigation is missing...

AFTER THREE HECTIC months of preparation we met in London, on the eve of our departure, for a final review of our plans. Only Jungle, who was to have spoken on the use of the radio gear and his own methods of route-finding, was absent. He rang up to say that he had taken the wrong bus and was not quite certain of his whereabouts; but he had just caught sight of the North Star and expected to join us shortly. Burley, although not at his best – he told me he was suffering from London lassitude – gave us a detailed picture of the transportation arrangements.

   The object of the expedition was to place two men on the summit of Rum Doodle. This necessitated the establishment of a camp at 39,000 feet stocked with a fortnight’s supplies for two, so that in the event of adverse weather conditions the party could wait in comfort for an improvement. The equipment for this camp had to be carried from the railhead at Chaikhosi, a distance of 500 miles. Five porters would be needed for this. Two porters would be needed to carry the food for these five, and another would carry the food for these two. His food would be carried by a boy. The boy would carry his own food. The first supporting party would be established at 38,000 feet, also with a fortnight’s supplies, which necessitated another eight porters and a boy. In all, to transport tents and equipment, food, radio, scientific and photographic gear, personal effects, and so on, 3,000 porters and 375 boys would be required.

   At this point the telephone bell rang. It was Jungle, who seemed in the best of spirits. He had, he said, definitely identified his whereabouts as Cockfosters. We congratulated him and said we would expect him shortly. Burley was congratulated on his masterly command of detail, although Wish expressed the opinion that the weight allowed for scientific equipment was scandalously small. He particularly wanted to take a mechanical glacier shovel and a three-ton pneumatic geologist’s hammer, but neither of these indispensable items was allowed for. Burley was quite short with him. He pointed out that shovelling ice on Rum Doodle was quite a different thing from shovelling ice on Mont Blanc, while the rarefied atmosphere obtaining on the mountain would probably render the pneumatic gear impracticable.

   Wish burst into tears and said that he might as well go home at once, as he did not seem to be appreciated. Constant, in his tactful way, said that he was sure that Burley had no intention of belittling Wish’s importance to the expedition; he had only meant that scientific gear was out of place on an expedition whose sole object was to place two men on the summit of Rum Doodle. This brought in Shute, who said he very much regretted the implication that scientific gear was a white elephant; one of the most important parts of our work would be the investigation of the effects of rarefied atmosphere upon three-dimensional colour television. Prone, who was suffering from a severe cold in the head, muttered something, which nobody quite understood, about ‘ibportant bedical baterial’ in a kind of enraged mumble.

   Responsive, as a good leader should be, to human atmosphere, I sensed a hidden discord, and I quietly reminded all of the words of Totter: Mont Blanc might be climbed by a disunited party; Rum Doodle, never. This sobering thought had the desired effect, helped perhaps by the fact that Burley, overcome by London lassitude, had fallen asleep. Wish, who was to share a tent with him, was much distressed to find that he snored heavily, but he was consoled by Shute who reminded him that owing to the attenuation of sound waves in a rarefied atmosphere the snores would be much less offensive at high altitudes. Wish then outlined the scientific programme. In addition to investigations into the hypographical and topnological fossiferation of the area he hoped to collect new data on the effect of biochronical disastrification of the geneospherical pandiculae on the exegesis of Wharton’s warple. He also hoped to bring back a pair of each species of living creature found on the mountain in order to study the possibility of breeding mountaineers capable of living normal lives at high altitudes.

   At this point Jungle rang again. It was not Cockfosters, he said, but Richmond. He had seen Cockfosters on a bus, but it turned out that the bus was going to Cockfosters. Owing to this he had, of course, set off in the wrong direction, but would be with us shortly. After this, Shute described the photographic apparatus, the chief of which was a three-dimensional colour cinematographic camera. He hoped to obtain a film record of every aspect of the expedition’s work. Suitable love-interest and accident sequences would be added by the company who had supplied the apparatus, and, with a patriotic song incorporated and the original material cut down to a minimum, the film was to be marketed on a world-wide basis as an epic of British heroism. If the summit were reached the successful pair would, if photogenic and under sixty, be offered film contracts for a picture entitled ‘Tarzan and the Atrocious Snowmen’. At this point a telegram was delivered. It read: SIGHTED BARKING CREEK NINETEEN THIRTY HOURS COURSE WEST NORTH WEST

   Burley awoke with a complicated gurgle and said that it was all wrong to clutter up a climbing expedition, the object of which was to place two men on the summit of Rum Doodle, with a lot of scientific rubbish. He expressed the opinion that a scientist on an expedition was even more of a nuisance than his gear, which was considerable. He told us about his friend Groag, who shared a tent with a scientist on the 1923 expedition to Turn Teedle. Like all scientists, this one was very absent-minded. One day he inadvertently made tea with copper-sulphate solution instead of water, with the result that he and Groag turned blue and were colour-blind for a fortnight, being unable to distinguish blue from white. One day this scientist stepped off the edge of a snowfield, thinking the blue sky beyond a continuation of the snow. He was saved only by great effort and devotion on the part of Burley, who had the misfortune to be roped to him. Burley said that any ordinary man would have left him to his fate.

   Wish said that he did not believe one word of the story. He himself had drunk gallons of copper-sulphate tea with impunity. The blue effect was no doubt due to cardiosynthesis of the bloodstream due to the rarefied atmosphere. He strongly resented the statement that all scientists were absent-minded. At this point a knock was heard on the door. It was a sergeant from the local police station. A policeman in Lewisham had discovered a furtive stranger loitering near the gas works. He had been found to be in possession of maps and navigating instruments and had been arrested as a spy. He has given his name as Forest and this address as a reference. We gave the necessary assurances and asked the sergeant to transmit a message to the effect that we expected to see Jungle shortly. Constant then told us about Yogistan, the country through which we must travel to reach the mountain. 

The natives, he said, were sturdy, independent people, friendly and of imperturbable dignity and cheerfulness. Their language, of which he had made a special study, was a branch of the aneroid-megalithic tongue. It contained no verbs and was spoken entirely from the stomach. Prone said this was nonsense; if they spoke entirely from their stomachs they would suffer from permanent gastritis. Constant said that this was, in fact, the national disease, being hypodermic in 95% of the population. Prone said that if this was the case he didn’t see how they could keep cheerful. Constant said that this was due to their strength of character. He said that he was not used to having his word doubted, and if Prone persisted in his present uncooperative attitude he, Constant, would have to issue an ultimatum.

   Prone then spoke to us about the problem of maintaining the fitness which was so essential to our success. He urged us to follow rigidly the precautions which he had laid down, and handed each of us several pages of closely-typed manuscript. He said that if we followed his advice he could guarantee immunity from illness. Here he broke down with a fit of coughing and had to be thumped on the back. Constant did the thumping, and my impression was that he thumped a good deal harder than was strictly necessary. At any rate, Prone struck back at him, and a nasty incident might have ensued had not Prone been completely overcome by a fit of sneezing which made him quite incapable of defending himself.

   I took this opportunity to thank all for their contributions, and remarked that I had no doubt that such little differences of opinion as might appear between us were evidence of the commendable frankness and openness with which we regarded one another, and that I had no reason to suppose that we would not make an efficient and united team. I reminded them of the words of Totter: In an expedition of this kind the desires of the individual must be subordinated to the common cause. Constant said Amen, and on this solemn note we woke Burley and set about making our preparations for the morrow’s departure.

   Next day we sailed from Tilbury. As I stepped aboard two telegrams were handed to me. One read: BEST OF LUCK REMEMBER NOT CLIMBING MONT BLANC TOTTER. The other ran: STRANDED ABERCWMSOSPANFACH WILL FOLLOW BY PLANE SEND HUNDRED POUNDS JUNGLE.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle is published by Vintage Classics. With thanks to Vintage and Ghee Bowman. 

Read about the legacy of The Ascent of Rum Doodle - with contributions from Doug Scott, Chris Bonington and Bill Bryson – in the October 2016 edition of Trail Magazine.