Posts Tagged ‘adventure

ADVENTURE REWIND: The Real Indiana Jones

- March 25th, 2014

From one adventurer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, to another,  the intrepid explorer Hiram Bingham who “discovered” (more about that later) the “lost” (as I said, more later) Inca city of Machu Picchu. This Nosey Parker blog post first appeared on May 24, 2009, and I’ve since made a few text and photo additions — including a postscript on Hiram Bingham III’s son, Hiram Bingham IV.

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His name was Hiram Bingham — the Third.

He stood six-foot-four and he was a handsome, charming son-of-a-gun. Speaking of guns, he always carried a Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver as he criss-crossed South America, from the Andes mountains to the Amazon jungles, searching for lost cities and hidden treasure.

Slouch hat? Oh yeah. Bull whip? He didn’t need one. He had his smile — and his guns.

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Hiram Bingham was born in Hawaii in 1875, the son and grandson of missionaries (thus Hiram Bingham I and II — Hiram Bingham I being the guy who put the whole damn archipelego of beautiful semi-naked women in neck-to-ankle muu-muus for reasons of religious prurient prudery).

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The first Hiram Bingham — instigator of the Hawaiian coverup

Like the fictitious Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham led a double life as distinguished scholar and swashbuckling adventurer. Bingham taught South American history at Yale, Harvard and Princeton — he was one of the youngest academics ever appointed full professor at Yale — but throughout his life he listed his occupation in Who’s Who In America as “Explorer.”

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Bingham escaped the genteel poverty and religious straightjacket of Hawaiian missionary life in his teens and worked his way through Yale, graduating in 1898. His academic career continued with a post-graduate degree from the University of California (Berkeley) in 1900 and his doctorate from Harvard in 1905.

But Bingham didn’t have to take part-time jobs to pay his way through those later degrees. In 1899, the handsome, gangly young man-about-town married Alfreda Mitchell, heiress granddaughter of the fabulously wealthy New York jeweller Charles Tiffany (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Tiffany lampshades, etc.).

As well as giving Hiram seven sons during his infrequent stays at their New Haven, Conn. mansion, Alfreda also paid for his continuing studies and supported much of his early work as an explorer.

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Hiram Bingham III is seen at his New Haven home in 1908 with his parents, wife Alfreda and four of his eventual seven sons. There’s an interesting postscript at the end of this piece about the eldest son, Hiram Bingham IV, seen here leaning against his mother at the far right.

So by the time Hiram Bingham first set foot in South America in 1906 he was already a wealthy (or at least well-sponsored), fast-rising star in the world of Ivy League academics. That first visit whetted his appetite for further exploration of the relatively virgin continent of South America. Bingham returned in 1908, joining a local Peruvian expedition in search of lost Inca ruins (and their supposed hidden treasures) while mapping out his own future plans of exploration and discovery.

Returning to the U.S., he was unable to get academic backing for further South American forays, so he turned to his wife and several wealthy Yale classmates to finance his next adventure — the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911.

The goal of Bingham and his Yale pals was Vilcabamba, the “last Inca capital” hidden high in the Peruvian Andes where the Inca rulers had retreated as the Spanish conquistadors gnawed through their empire in the mid-1500s.

Bingham eventually found Vilcabamba, which had been destroyed and forgotten by the Spanish in 1572, but he also found an even greater treasure — Machu Picchu.

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Now Bingham is officially listed as the “scientific” discoverer of Machu Picchu because the magnificent Inca city in the clouds was never really “lost.” It had been abandoned by the Incas prior to the arrival of the Spaniards and so the conquistadors were not aware of its locale — or even its existence, apart from a few vague references in legends.

But the overgrown city was well-known to the descendants of Inca subjects living in the area, and the site had been visited by other Peruvians and Europeans (including a couple of British missionaries) before Bingham got there. In fact, when Bingham reached the mountaintop on July 24, 1911, several local farmers were cultivating the terraced fields built by the Incas four centuries earlier.

The difference was that Bingham presented this incredible, undisturbed masterpiece of Inca construction to the world. The others had kept their knowledge to themselves.

Following vague local stories, Bingham had not been expecting much when he climbed to Machu Picchu from the expedition’s camp further down the mountain on that rainy July day in 1911. In fact, none of the other members of the expedition chose to make the trek and Bingham’s main local guide sent an 11-year-old boy to show Bingham the way.

What Bingham found — apart from local farmers at work — was an overgrown city of sophisticated stone structures, undisturbed since the Incas had walked away from it hundreds of years earlier.

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A photo taken by Hiram Bingham of Machu Picchu as he found it in 1911

It apparently took Bingham a while to realize what he had found. Notes of other members of the expedition indicate that he was not particularly excited about what he had seen when he returned to camp.

Bingham left several junior members of the group to begin clearing the Machu Picchu site while he pushed on to Vilcabamba — which he did “discover” (as with Machu Picchu, Vilcabamba was well-known locally and had been visited by 19th-Century Europeans prior to Bingham’s arrival in 1911).

Because the conquistadors had laid waste to Vilcabamba, the ruins were in far worse shape than the relatively untouched Machu Picchu complex and Bingham really only found a small corner of the last Inca capital. Bingham thought (erroneously) that what he had found was Vitcos, a regional military sub-capital. The massive sprawl of the city was not truly known until further serious archeological excavation was done in the early 1970s.

Bingham’s appreciation for what he had found at Machu Picchu grew during that journey, and on his return to Machu Picchu to see what had already been uncovered by his team, he became positively euphoric

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Machu Picchu revealed, stripped of overgrowth at the end of the 1911 expedition

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A hand-painted glass plate photo of Bingham and a local Peruvian worker at Machu Picchu in 1911, taken by Bingham’s expedition colleague Harry Ward Foote, another Yale professor.

NOTE: Bingham thought Machu Picchu was an Inca “fortress” and came to believe it was the real Vilcabamba, the last capital of the retreating nation. Machu Picchu is, however, quite close to the original Inca capital of Cuzco, and despite its rich and elaborate construction, Machu Picchu would have housed only about 600 people comfortably. The current leading academic belief is that Machu Picchu — with a milder climate than Cuzco — was a vacation estate for a ruling Inca emperor and his retinue of nobles, administrators and support staff. In effect, it was probably the equivalent of Windsor Castle during Queen Victoria’s (and now Elizabeth’s) reign. When the Inca emperor died a century before the Spanish arrived, the estate was shut down and abandoned — as the estates of other emperors were known to have been abandoned when they died.

When he returned to the U.S., Bingham was able to parlay his find — complete with photos and breathless magazine accounts — into major financing for a new expedition in 1912, sponsored by Yale and the National Geographic Society.

The 1912 expedition was the one that thoroughly uncovered Machu Picchu’s secrets and provided more than 4,000 artifacts (a current claim by the Peruvian government cites about 40,000 artifacts) for Bingham to triumphantly bring back for display at Yale.

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The National Geographic Society devoted the entire April 1913 issue of its monthly journal, National Geographic magazine, to Bingham’s 1912 expedition.

 

The incredible photos and irresistible stories of the dashing explorer/adventurer made Bingham an international star and created the template for the Indiana Jones type of freebooting/semi-respectable adventurer that has been part of modern pop culture’s mythology for 100 years.

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Bingham returned to explore other parts of the Andes in 1915, but most of the Machu Picchu recovery work he left to others. Bingham was not an archeologist — he was an explorer.

But that 1915 expedition pretty much ended Bingham’s career as an explorer — although not as an adventurer.

He had developed an enthusiasm for aviation and, when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, he joined the air service of the U.S. Army as a pilot (despite being over the normal age for duty). He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, commanding the U.S. Expeditionary Force’s main pilot training base in France.

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Bingham in the U.S. Army air service during World War I.

After the war, Bingham gave up academics for politics. He became Republican lieutenant-governor of Connecticut in 1922, won election as governor of the state in November 1924 — and then as U.S. senator for the state in a December 1924 byelection to fill the seat left vacant by the suicide of Sen. Frank Bosworth Brandegee.

Bingham immediately took his Senate seat and then became governor of Connecticut for exactly two days — Jan. 7-8, 1925 — before resigning the governorship in favour of the Senate.

Bingham’s Senate career was a mixed success. He was a strong advocate of aviation and was known as “the Flying Senator.”

In these accompanying 1931 photos, you will see Bingham getting out of an autogiro, a cross between a helicopter and airplane, that had just flown him from the U.S. Capitol Building to a golf game at a suburban Washington course.

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However he was also censured by the Senate in 1929 for unethical dealings with a lobbyist.

Bingham lost his bid for re-election in 1932 in the Roosevelt Democratic sweep and retired from politics.

Shortly afterwards, Alfreda divorced him — in part because of his womanizing and also because his administration of her fortune had become highly suspect.

Bingham got into business with rocky results, married a woman half his age in 1937 and wrote a bestseller in 1948 — Lost City of the Incas — based on his Machu Picchu expeditions four decades earlier.

Bingham died in 1956 at age 80. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery across the river from Washington D.C., along with John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, the writer Dashiell Hammett, the actor Lee Marvin and about 400,000 others.

Hiram Bingham III was a legend four or five times over — a daring, charismatic explorer and adventurer, a writer who caught the public’s imagination (and his self-promotion was certainly deserved), a war hero and a successful academic and politician with genuine star quality.

He was also a bit of a cad in his private life, a manipulator and conniver, and a highly self-involved egoist — all qualities that Bingham probably needed to become one the most extraordinary heroes of the 20th Century — the real Indiana Jones.

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UPDATE: I recently learned that Hiram Bingham III’s eldest son is famous in his own right — and for perhaps greater contributions to humanity than his father’s.

The son, in the family tradition, was named Hiram Bingham IV at birth — but was (thankfully) known as Harry.

Harry Bingham’s early life was shaped by his mother’s wealth and his father’s fame. Perhaps more importantly he inherited his father’s love of travel and sense of public service.

After graduating from Yale and Harvard, young Harry joined the U.S. diplomatic corps in 1929. During the 1930s, he served in various U.S. embassies, consulates and missions around the world, from Kobe (Japan) to Beijing (China) to Warsaw (Poland) and to London (England/Great Britain/United Kingdom/whatever).

Although well-connected and intelligent, Harry Bingham did not rise as rapidly through the ranks of the diplomatic corps as one would expect. Perhaps he was a little too high-principled, independent and outspoken to be fully trusted by his masters. At least that is the assumption one can make from later events.

In any case, Harry was appointed to the relatively lowly post of vice-consul in the southern French port city of Marseille in 1939. And it was there that Harry Bingham rose to greatness when war engulfed Europe and the Nazis conquered France in 1940.

With the Vichy government  of southern France a nominally independent vassal of Nazi Germany and the United States a neutral non-combatant, Bingham was positioned at one of the few outlets to the free world for fugitives from the Nazi war machine — if they had the proper identity and exit papers.

As vice-consul, Bingham was responsible for issuing visas, passports and other official documents in the Marseille consulate. Faced with a flood of desperate refugees — Jews, political undesirables, banned writers, dissidents and persecution victims of all persuasions — Harry Bingham began issuing false U.S. passports and travel visas allowing safe passage out of Hitler’s Europe.

When  the U.S. consul in Marseille became aware of his subordinate’s activities, he ordered Harry to stop. Harry kept issuing false documents and saving lives.

When his superiors at the state department in Washington, D.C., ordered him to stop violating diplomatic procedure, Harry kept on issuing false documents and saving lives.

Harry Bingham was not alone. Several other courageous Americans in Vichy France, including journalist Varian Fry and academic Albert Hirschman, were part of a network that got thousands of fugitives and refugees (like artist Marc Chagall and author-political theorist Hannah Arendt) out of the Nazis’ clutches and through southern France to Spain and eventually Portugal, from where they could reach safety in the U.S. — again, if they had adequate papers and the absolutely necessary entry visa.

Because of Harry Bingham and his false passports and freely issued visas — and sometimes the safe houses and money that Harry also arranged — at least 2,000 people (more likely 2,500) were able to escape Nazi Europe who would not otherwise have survived.

But Harry Bingham’s heroism and humanity were seen as something else by senior diplomats in Washington: They were seen as undiplomatic behaviour and raw insubordination. In 1941 he was ordered out of Marseille, first to Portugal and later to Argentina.

Finally in 1945 — with the war over and his diplomatic career in tatters — Harry Bingham resigned from the U.S. foreign service. But not without one final wave of honourable action: Throughout his final posting in Argentina in 1945, Harry Bingham helped in the hunt for Nazi war criminals who were fleeing the destruction of the Hitler regime in Europe for sanctuary in South America.

And, in a manner quite common to truly noble men and women, Harry Bingham never bragged or even talked about his life-and-death work in Marseille to friends and family back in the United States. (Here’s the link to another Nosey Parker blog post I wrote on another quiet hero back in 2009.)

After his death in 1988, Harry’s family discovered a bundle of letters, photographs and documents he had hidden which detailed his work almost half a century earlier in saving thousands of people from probable death.

Harry Bingham’s children launched a campaign to have their father’s heroic war work recognized. And it was … eventually.

Among the many honours given posthumously to Hiram Bingham IV was a 2002 diplomatic award presented by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and a 2011 Medal of Valor presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

And this 2006 stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service as part of a series honouring distinguished American diplomats.

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And finally — on a completely different note — Hiram Bingham IV exceeded his illustrious father in one other way: While Hiram Bingham III had seven sons, Harry had 11 children.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Adventurer

- March 19th, 2014

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Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece, 1946 

 

I really don’t think they make people like Patrick Leigh Fermor anymore.

“Paddy” (as he was known universally to his legion of friends, lovers and admirers) was that grandest of anachronisms — a Gentleman Adventurer.

Leigh Fermor died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 96 — an unbelievable accomplishment when one considers the number of near-misses he survived during a legendary life spent dancing on the razor’s edge.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor shortly before his death at age 96 in 2011

 

As Robert Macfarlane says in this excellent 2012 profile/book review in Britain’s Guardian newspaper:

“He was car-bombed by communists in Greece, knifed in Bulgaria, and pursued by thousands of Wehrmacht troops across Crete after kidnapping the commander of German forces on the island. Malaria, cancer and traffic accidents failed to claim him.

“He was the target of a long-standing Cretan blood vendetta, which did not deter him from returning to the island, though assassins waited with rifles and binoculars outside the villages he visited. He was beaten into a bloody mess by a gang of pink-coated Irish huntsmen after he asked if they buggered their foxes.

“He smoked 80 cigarettes a day for 30 years, and often set his bed-clothes ablaze after falling asleep with a lit fag in hand. He drank epically, and would “drown hangovers like kittens” in breakfast pints of beer and vodka. As a young SOE agent in Cairo in 1943, the centrepiece of his Christmas lunch was a turkey stuffed with Benzedrine pills; at the age of 69 he swam the Hellespont– and was nearly swept away by the current.”

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Paddy in the 1960s

And that doesn’t even touch on the fact that he is one of the most beautiful and moving writers I’ve ever read.

Here’s more from Robert MacFarlane:

“He might best be imagined as a mixture of Peter Pan, Forrest Gump, James Bond and Thomas Browne. He was elegant as a cat, darkly handsome, unboreable, curious, fearless, fortunate, blessed with a near-eidetic memory, and surely one of the great English prose stylists of his generation.”

The New York Times obituary for Paddy  quotes the BBC making another valiant effort to describe him: “A cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.”

What a guy. None of those comparisons do him justice. He was one of a kind, beyond belief, almost too good to be true — as long as you didn’t happen to be married to him or try to keep up with him on his mad adventures.

As Leigh Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, put it: “What made him so immediately engaging to people was that he shone with joy … The greatest blessing a guest can bring to his host is the right kind of curiosity, and it bubbled out of Paddy like a natural spring.”

His friend, historian Max Hastings, described him as “perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time, wearing his literary light as wings, brimming over with laughter.”

Not everyone was a fan, of course. Somerset Maugham, for example, described him as “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women.”

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Above, the first paperback edition of A Time of Gifts I bought back in the 1970s and, below, a later edition I acquired about 10 years ago 

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I first came across Patrick Leigh Fermor in the late 1970s, when I read his just-published memoir, A Time of Gifts. It was the dazzling reconstruction — written four decades after the events it described — of the first part of a walking journey he made across Europe as a teenager in the mid-1930s.

That sounds simple and straight-forward enough — “a walking journey across Europe” — but think of the enormity of the undertaking in reality; think about the amount of planning and training and preparation that should probably go into the decision to make such a harrowing commitment.

(I know: I’m thinking about walking/cycling/paddling the length of the Rhine if I’m still alive and functional in two years time. And that’s less than a third the distance Patrick Leigh Fermor covered. Even in our present coddled world, it’s a daunting prospect, perhaps too daunting for little old me. And I guarantee you’ll never find me trying to swim the Hellespont. I am, after all, no Patrick Leigh Fermor.)

Paddy was just 18, a wild man-child kicked out of half a dozen boarding schools and a carousing delinquent from Sandhurst military academy, when (more or less on the spur of the moment) he boarded a cross-Channel steamer in December 1933 and began walking — yes, walking! — from Holland to Constantinople (as he always insisted on calling Istanbul). He was almost penniless, I might add, usually surviving on a budget of one pound a week.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 passport photo

 

As one of his former housemasters described the schoolboy who set out from The Hook of Holland, he was “a dangerous mix of sophistication and recklessness.”

The young wanderer kept a diary on that journey but, as Macfarlane points out, the entries now read “like any teenager’s jotting book”:

“Bucharest amazing town … Wandered around ages, soaking it in … Lovely town.”

In contrast, here is Leigh Fermor writing about the plains of Hungary four decades later:

“The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow-motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking.”

He did have, as Robert MacFarlane says, “a near-eidetic memory” and seems to almost be rewinding a film of his 1930s journey in his head as he recreates those lost times and places on paper four and five decades after he experienced them.

He didn’t walk all the way, of course. (Remember that bit about Paddy’s infectious enthusiasm drawing people to him?) He got lifts in Hispano-Suizas and sailed on river barges and rode half-wild Hungarian ponies as often as he walked. And he slept in castles on feather mattresses as often as he slept in shepherd’s huts on piles of straw.

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Above, Patrick Leigh Fermor in Bulgaria in 1934 and, below, in Moldavia in 1935. Old Moldavia, by the way, is now partitioned among Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. What was that Ukraine was saying about territorial integrity? It seems, in Moldavia’s case, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

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The journey would take more than two years to complete and another 80 years to finish telling the story.

That first magical book, A Time of Gifts, took Paddy as far as the Middle Danube separating Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It would be the mid-1980s before the literary journey continued with his second book, Between the Woods and the Water. That one took him through Hungary to the Iron Gates gorge where the Danube formed the boundary between then-Yugoslavia and Romania  — and left him there.

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The above map shows a rough approximation of the route Patrick Leigh Fermor took (with many offshoots) on foot, horse and via various other means of  conveyance from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the mid-1930s. The first part of the journey (A to B) was covered in his book A Time of Gifts. The second part (B to C) was the subject of Between the Woods and the Water. And the final leg (C to D) is wrapped up in the newly published memoir The Broken Road.

 

Before A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor had already written half a dozen earlier books on his travels and sojourns in the Caribbean, France, Greece and Turkey and one novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, also set in the Caribbean.

And, of course, there were other books written about Patrick Leigh Fermor. The most notable of those was 1950′s Ill Met By Moonlight, in which W. Stanley Moss told the story of how he and Leigh Fermor disguised themselves as Wehrmacht soldiers in 1944 and, with Greek partisans, kidnapped Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander on the island of Crete.

(Leigh Fermor had already been in Crete for two years at that point, organizing the island’s resistance to German occupation.)

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Above, Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor in their stolen Wehrmacht uniforms and, below, Billy (left) and Paddy (right) with their prisoner, Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, on the run in the mountains of Crete in 1944, pursued by thousands of German troops

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After being hunted through the mountains of central Crete for several weeks, the two British SOE officers were able to rendezvous with a Royal Navy submarine and triumphantly carry their prisoner off  to Cairo.

Ill Met By Moonlight was made into a film of the same name in 1957 with Dirk Bogarde playing Patrick Leigh Fermor. And Paddy has, of course, often been cited as one of Ian Fleming’s models for James Bond.

The mountain chase in the 1961 movie The Guns of Navarone is also based on that Crete exploit, and the Gregory Peck character, Mallory,  is loosely based on Leigh Fermor. (Unfortunately, so too is the blood vendetta between Anthony Quinn’s character, Stavrou, and Mallory. In retaliation for General Kreipe’s kidnapping, the Germans destroyed two Cretan mountain villages that had assisted the fugitives and many villagers were executed. Survivors blamed Leigh Fermor and Moss for putting the villagers in harm’s way and causing the massacres. Thus the Cretan vendetta described by Robert MacFarlane in the early goings of this piece.)

After Crete, Leigh Fermor joined an airborne reconnaissance force that was, among other things, planning a mass rescue of prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp just before the war ended.

I read all the books I could find by and about Patrick Leigh Fermor during the ’80s and ’90s, but it was the third book of his Time of Gifts trilogy that I waited for, yearned for — the book that would follow young Paddy  through Romania and Bulgaria and Greece to the golden domes of Constantinople.

But I despaired of ever reading that book. Patrick Leigh Fermor was already in his 60s when A Time of Gifts was published and turning 70 when Between the Woods and the Water appeared, and he seemed in no rush to complete his epic literary journey. He complained of writer’s block and cited the changed priorities of frail old age. I assumed he would die long before Part 3 was in any kind of publishable form.

But I hadn’t been counting on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s deceptive vitality and durability.

As Anthony Lane wrote in a 2006 profile in The New Yorker (when Leigh Fermor was already past 90): “If you think you can match him ouzo for ouzo, on a back street in downtown Athens, you’d better think again.”

So I was absolutely delighted to learn a couple of days ago from my friend Marilyn Bellamy, author of the delightful Nag on the Lake blog, that the final instalment of Leigh Fermor’s journey has now been published under the title The Broken Road. (It has apparently been out since last October, unbeknownst to me.)

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Leigh Fermor had, in fact,  completed a substantial working draft of the manuscript before his death. The manuscript, sadly, does not carry him all the way to Istanbul. It ended in mid-sentence  75 km from the Turkish border — thus the title, The Broken Road. But his biographer, Artemis Cooper, and vaunted travel writer Colin Thurbron (both PLF’s literary executors) have spent the last two years filling out the tale with excerpts from Paddy’s 1935 diaries and preparing the existing work for publication. And so The Broken Road has now — finally — made its circuitous way into the wider world.

“It does not always have the gemlike polish of the first two volumes,” according to this recent review in The New York Times. “But it is an unforgettable book, full of strange encounters with a prewar Balkan cast of counts, prostitutes, peasants, priests and castrati. The greatest pleasure of all, as usual, is Leigh Fermor’s own infectious, Rabelaisian hunger for knowledge of almost every kind.”

That’s good enough for me.

And then there’s this fillip from the Times review:

“In some respects this book is even more satisfying than its predecessors because it is less guarded; the narrator emerges as an angrier, more troubled and more persuasive character. ”

Even better.

So I’m a happy man. I’m looking forward with relish — with joy, with gusto! — to reading The Broken Road when next I get someplace that has a decent English-language bookstore.

I hope you go look for it too (but after reading the first two books in the trilogy, of course).

And now I’ll leave you with the gentle words that Artemis Cooper says Paddy scribbled in the margins of a book he was reading just before he died:

“Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness.”

When Climbing Mount Everest Just Isn’t Enough

- March 1st, 2012

 

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Meet Sano Babu Sunuwar, left, and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, the National Geographic Society’s 2012 Adventurers of the Year.

In a world of stupendous feats undertaken by crazy, daring people, how do you win an accolade like Adventurers of the Year?

Well, you start with a first tiny step — at the base of Mount Everest.

Reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain last May was a little ho-hum for Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa — the Nepali climbing guide had been there three times previously.

It was a bigger deal for his pal and climbing companion, Sano Babu Sunuwar, a paragliding instructor who was making the Everest ascent for the first time.

But the unbelievable thing is that the two men’s extraordinary adventure had only begun when they reached the highest point on earth about 8:15 a.m. on May 21, 2011.

 

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How high is the highest point on earth?

 

That’s a good question — and there are at least half a dozen answers.

 

When British surveyor George Everest did the first trigonometric survey of the mountain named after him in 1856, he came up with a height of 8,840 metres (29,002 feet) above sea level.

 

The most recent survey, done by China in 2005, put Everest’s elevation at exactly 8,844.43 metres (29,017 feet) with another 3.55 metres of ice cap on top of that.

 

A survey done by India in 1955 figured the mountain was 7 cm higher than the later Chinese calculation.

 

Wikipedia lists Everest’s height as 8,848 metres (29,029 feet) — which is the 2005 Chinese height including the ice cap.

 

The measurement I prefer (mainly because it’s the highest and techiest) was done by a U.S. team using GPS technology in 1999, coming up with a rockhead elevation of 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) plus another metre of ice on top of that.

 

Nepal, which shares ownership of the mountain with China,  is currently in the middle of a two-year geodesic survey using GPS instruments to determine once and for all exactly how high Everest is. The Nepali team should have a new number for us before Christmas 2013.

 

But no number is ever accurate for long because Everest is growing all the time. Continual upward pressure from the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates grinding together pushes the mountain upward about half a centimetre each year.

 

For that reason, if for no other, I say we go with the nice round 1999 American figure: 8,850 metres (29,035 feet).

 

 

Meanwhile, back on Everest, Lakpa and Babu savoured the view from the top of the world for a few minutes (with his oxygen tank stolen at Camp 4 just before their final push for the summit, Lakpa had been climbing without an oxygen supply for almost an hour at that point) — and then stepped into space.

 

And thus began their record-breaking descent 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) to sea level.

 

Don’t forget, Sano Babu Sunuwar may have been a novice on Everest but he is a professional paragliding instructor.

 

After taking a few photos on top of Everest, the two strapped themselves into a tandem paraglider they had lugged up the world’s highest mountain and launched themselves off Everest.

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It was the third time Everest climbers had jumped off the mountain with a paraglider, but probably the first time anyone sang all the way to their landing 45 minutes later. As they swooped through the frigid Himalayan air over glaciers and sheer rock faces, the two joyous men waved at and serenaded other teams of climbers still making the hard, dangerous ascent.

 

Their landing site was the Sherpa village of Namche Bazar about 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) below the summit of Everest. But in their descent, the pair had flown 8,865 metres (29,084 feet), setting a world record for free flight with a paraglider.

 

So half of their descent from the highest point on earth to sea level took them 45 minutes. The other half would take more than a month.

 

 

Most of the photos in this blog post were taken by Sano Babu Sunuwar and come from the National Geographic Society’s announcement of Babu and Lapka as winners of NatGeo’s 2012 People’s Choice Adventurers of the Year award a few days ago.

 

I’ve used a few shots for illustrative purposes, but here is a link to National Geographic’s full gallery of photos from the May-June 2011 adventure, now known as The Ultimate Descent.

 

Here’s a link to the partial transcript of a National Geographic interview with the pair.

 

 

And here is a link to a video showing their paraglide descent from the top of the world. And also showing what wonderful, real human beings these two guys are.

 

 

 

Once on the ground again, the plan was to bicycle to the headwaters of a mountain stream which flowed into Nepal’s Kosi River which in turn flowed into India’s sacred Ganges River which in turn emptied into the Bay of Bengal, part of the Indian Ocean — sea level, in other words. The river route would be a journey of more than 850 km.

 

This plan was hatched only a few months earlier. Lakpa and Babu had no corporate sponsorship (apart from a little logistical and supply help from the paragliding company that employed Babu) and very little money of their own, but they had guts and expertise in different areas and an incredible spirit.

 

Lapka’s main expertise was in getting the pair to the top of Everest and Babu’s was getting them down to the ground again.

 

Back on the ground, a second area of Babu’s expertise came into play. As well as being a paragliding instructor, Babu is also an expert extreme kayaker. Lakpa, on the other hand, had only been in a kayak a few times under Babu’s tutelage before the Everest ascent and to this day cannot swim.

 

After being feted for a night as heroes by the locals in Namche Bazar, Lakpa and Babu cycled to where their borrowed double kayak was waiting and began a river journey which would end 37 days later, at the Bay of Bengal.

 

The first part of their river ride was down sometimes torrential mountain watercourses with among the most difficult sections of navigable rapids in the world. So for the river part of the journey Babu and Lakpa were accompanied in a second kayak by Babu’s brother, Krishna Sunuwar, who acted as a spotter in rough water.

Kosti-River-rapids

On more than one occasion Krishna pulled Lakpa — who can’t swim, remember — from the raging river while Babu fought the capsized double kayak out of whirlpools and Class V rapids.

 

You’d think that would be the hard part, but in many ways the high-mountain Nepalis found their trip on the relatively placid Ganges more dangerous and disturbing than the Himalayan section of their trek.

 

Here’s what Lapka had to say when asked by National Geographic what he found the most intimidating part of the journey to be:

 

“The bugs. The ants. All animals—so active. Insects—so active. They are all so busy. People so active. In the mountains, all creatures move slowly. In India, all the animals and the people move so fast. They are not still. I did not like the bugs. When we reached the ocean and took the kayaks to shore, the beach was covered in giant red scorpions. I was scared then, but we learned later that they were crabs and harmless. I also had a hard time breathing in the low elevation.”

And then there were the dead bodies and knifepoint robbery.

Lapka: “We were not used to seeing dead bodies. In Nepal, we burn our dead. In India, they are put in the river. We would see two or three bodies a day.”

Sabu: “Sometimes whole villages would come down. We were robbed. They came with knives. We protected the camera, but gave them money. They left, but we paddled very fast. We could hear them coming with a motorboat. We found an island with tall grasses and hid. We slept in the kayaks the whole night.”

But finally on June 27, 2011, Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa reached the Bay of Bengal. They had become the first people to descend under their own power from the highest point on earth to sea level.

Bay-of-Bengal

They’re such amazing guys — and nice, too — as I think you’ll attest when you watch the video of them talking about their adventure.

Congrats, Babu and Lakpa, and good on ya, National Geographic, for sharing their incredible story with us.

 

The Yeti’s Hand, Part 2

- July 11th, 2011

 

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the latest from the BBC (Dec. 27, 2011) on their investigation into the yeti’s hand.

 

hand_yeti2

Now where was I before I was so pleasantly interrupted by wilderness wanderings through islands, woods and waterways?

Oh yeah, the yeti’s hand of Pangboche —  a mysterious relic kept for decades, perhaps centuries,  in a Himalayan temple near Mount Everest before it was stolen in the 1990s.

Everest-closeup

If you haven’t read Part 1, you should probably get up to speed. Here’s a link to the first blog post.

When we left our story at the end of Part 1, explorer and adventurer Peter Byrne (working for American oil tycoon Tom Slick) had just managed to acquire one skeletal finger of the (possible) yeti’s hand — either through duplicity or a charitable contribution, depending on which version of Byrne’s story you want to believe.

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Peter Byrne in the 1970s, above,

and Tom Slick in the 1950s, below

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As we begin Part 2, it is just before Christmas 1958 and Byrne is trying to figure out how to get the yeti finger back to London, England, for study by Slick’s scientific team there. As a possible antiquity or, at least, anthropological oddity, the finger would have to be smuggled out of India somehow.

Let’s let Byrne pick up the story in an excerpt from a letter he recently wrote to New Zealand commercial pilot and adventurer Mike Allsop:

“Another cable arrived from Slick and in it was a further instruction…  go to Calcutta, take the finger with you, get there soon, and plan to meet with a Mr. and Mrs. Stewart at the Grand Hotel, on Chowringhee Road;  they will be expecting you and they will take the finger and get it to Osman Hill in London.

“So I hiked down to the border again, took another train to Calcutta, took a taxi to the Grand and booked in. A few hours later I knocked on the door of an upstairs suite and was warmly greeted by the famous and quite delightful Stewarts, Jimmy and Gloria.

“I handed over the finger, after which we had a most enjoyable evening together and a very good dinner at the Grand’s Casanova restaurant.”

GrandHotelCalcutta

The Grand Hotel in Calcutta (now Kolkata)

Yes, according to Byrne he handed over the fingerbones of an abominable snowman to Hollywood legend James Stewart in a Calcutta restaurant, from whence the movie star — at the height of his fame — and his wife would smuggle the relic out of the Indian subcontinent and on to Europe, like some kind of pre-Indiana Jones fantasy escapade.

The most amazing thing about the story is that it is true.

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Jimmy and Gloria Stewart at Rhein-Main airport in Germany in February 1959 after they had delivered the smuggled yeti finger to London for examination.

Jimmy&GloriaStewart

Years after the event, Stewart recounted the same story in Loren Coleman’s 1989 biography of Tom Slick, the oil man, adventurer, philanthropist, yeti hunter, CIA confidante, pilot, and friend of fellow celebrity pilots like Howard Hughes and Jimmy Stewart.

And Gloria Stewart told the story of how she and Jimmy decided to smuggle the finger out of India in her lingerie case. Yes, as well as smuggling antiquities out of sovereign countries, celebrities and other women of a certain social strata used to travel with special baggage for their undies, etc.

As Gloria later told the story, the lingerie case was missing when the Stewarts finally arrived at the Dorchester Hotel in London. A few days later, Her Majesty’s Customs Service contacted the Stewarts to arrange a meeting.

At the appointed time and place, a young Customs official appeared — with Gloria’s lingerie case in hand. After due courtesies, the awe-struck young movie buff gave Gloria the case, shook the Stewarts’ hands and took his leave from the Hollywood royals.

As he was about to exit, stage left, Gloria impulsively asked the young man: “Did you open my luggage?”

The red-faced official turned, rose on all his official dignity, and addressed the beautiful, rich, influential Hollywood doyen: “No, madam, Her Majesty’s Customs Service would not trifle with a lady’s privates.”

Or words to that effect.

Anyway, the Stewarts  retrieved the finger and turned the specimen over to  Dr. Osman Hill, Britain’s leading primate anatomist, for examination.

Osman Hill was no cryptoscientific quack.

William_Charles_Osman_Hill

Here’s the start of his Wikipedia entry:

William Charles Osman Hill (13 July 1901 – 25 January 1975) was a British anatomist,primatologist, and a leading authority on primate anatomy during the 20th century. He is best known for his nearly completed eight-volume series, Primates: Comparative Anatomy and Taxonomy, which covered all living and extinct primates known at the time in full detail and contained illustrations created by his wife, Yvonne. Schooled at King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys in Birmingham and University of Birmingham, he went on to publish 248 works and accumulated a vast collection of primate specimens that are now stored at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

So, no slouch.

But before we get to Osman Hill’s examination of the finger, let’s finish up with the Stewarts.

The Stewarts had been in India in December 1958 for a little tiger hunting — a grotesque concept now but something considered rather romantic and heroic then — when pal Tom Slick contacted them for a little adventure of the cloak-and-dagger sort.

Stewart’s back-to-back films with Kim Novak — Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo and the romantic comedy (last of Jimmy’s romantic roles) Bell, Book and Candle — had just been released before the India trip and Jimmy needed to get away from it all.

Here’s what he told The Associated Press about his Indian sojourn after dropping off the yeti’s finger in London:

“The idea of taking a vacation and lying in the sun somewhere has never appealed to me. Also, I don’t like the idea of dashing from one foreign city to another.

“I have found that the world’s big cities are mostly alike these days. They are all packed and all of them have traffic problems. The first thing most American tourists do is look for an American-style restaurant or hotel.

“If you’re going to do that, you might as well stay at home. But with hunting and fishing it’s different. You really get to know the people.”

Here’s the link to that Associated Press interview, conducted after the Stewarts left London and visited pre-Wall Berlin, which Jimmy had bombed as a U.S. Air Force pilot during World War II.

And now, as we bid a fond adieu to Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, here’s what Osmond Smith had to say about the (possible) yeti finger dropped in his lap.

Maybe yes. Maybe no. But not human. And not ape. Something in between. Osmond Smith’s  first finding was that the finger bones were “hominid” — the broad anthropological category of upright walkers that includes modern humans and Neanderthals. He later refined that verdict to say the sample was a closer match to Neanderthal than modern human.

Don’t forget, this is  back in 1959 and 1960, loooong before DNA testing.

However, another member of Tom Slick’s scientific team, American anthropologist George Agogino, also received a portion on the Pangboche finger. And in 1991, Agogino turned it over to an NBC program called Unsolved Mysteries — and they did tests.

I’m sorry to say nothing conclusive came from these studies either — not human, not ape — but if you don’t have a yeti to compare your sample to, how ya gonna know it’s a yeti?

Here’s a link to the 1991 Unsolved Mysteries broadcast.

So nothing enlightening came from the Unsolved Mysteries investigation and publicity but something bad did: The yeti hand and skull were stolen from the Pangboche monastery.

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pangboche-monastery

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Photos of Pangboche and its monastery by FELISHJ, courtesy of TravelPod.com

By the 1990s, Everest trek tourism had become big business in Nepal. For every one mountaineer with a permit to climb (or attempt to climb) the highest mountain in the world, hundreds of others got travel permits allowing them to hike into the restricted zone for a one-day (no stay) visit to Everest Base Camp.

***everest_base_camp_trekking

As a result, many more people were making their way up the Lukla-Everest trail, passing through Pangboche, visiting the monastery and seeing the yeti hand and skull. And one day they were gone.

In 1999, either on a klepto whim or to fill an order from an esoteric collector, someone stole the Pangboche yeti relics. They have never been recovered.

Cut to 2007.

Mike Allsop, a mountain climber and commercial pilot for Air New Zealand, was on his way to Everest when he stopped in Pangboche and heard the legend of the yeti’s hand for the first time from the monastery abbot, Lama Gershe.

MikeAllsop

Mike Allsop, Air New Zealand pilot, above,

and Everest mountaineer, below

mikeeverest

Without the yeti hand and skull to attract paying customers,the monastery’s number of visitors had dried up — and so had the income that supported the monastery community.

Allsop continued on to make his unguided ascent of Everest, but he also determined  he would do what he could to find the yeti’s hand and return it to Pangboche.

The public face of Allsop’s mission is a website called  returnthehand.com.

Here’s what Allsop has to say:

“The inspiration for this website is to reach out to anyone who may have the original artifacts or has knowledge of their whereabouts. If they could find it in their hearts to return these original artifacts, the small village of Pangboche would be forever grateful. Lama Gershe had a stroke in September 2010 and is slowly recovering in Kathmandu.  I know he would be very happy if they were returned to their rightful home.

“I can provide a service to collect or personally pick up the artifacts anywhere in the world with absolutely no questions asked. In fact, I’ll buy the beers.

“If you have them please find it in your heart to contact me and return them, good things happen to good people.”

I should point out here that most of Allsop’s focus is on the Pangboche Hand, since photos of the supposed yeti skull show it to be very similar to other Himalayan “yeti” heads which have been identified as the skulls of mountain antelopes. But the hand is a different matter … much more up in the air.

Now I’m going to tell you a story that illustrates just how differently things work in New Zealand than elsewhere in the world:

Early last year, pilot Allsop was sitting around in a pub having a beer with his boss, Rob Fyfe, CEO of Air New Zealand (see what I mean — where else in the world does the CEO of an international corporation go out for after-work drinks with one of the frontline grunts who works for him?).

rob_fyfe__39028974a0

Air New Zealand’s Rob Fyfe

Allsop was explaining that he hoped to have replicas of the hand and skull made so the Pangboch monastery would have something to show until the originals were (hopefully) returned.

And here’s another example of how things work differently in New Zealand: Fyfe picked up the phone and put Allsop in touch with Fyfe’s good friend, Sir Richard Taylor.

Taylor, in case you don’t recognize the name, got his knighthood for creating Weta Workshops — the now-giant artisan design and fabricating operation that produced all the fabulous weapons, armour, costumes, monster masks, claws and other special doodahs for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies. Weta’s craftworks are in high demand around the world for film productions and other special-effect events.

Richard Taylor WETA image (6)

Sir Richard Taylor, centre, with director Peter Jackson, right, and one of Taylor’s Lord of the Rings creatures, left

And Taylor, like Fyfe, became an enthusiastic supporter of Allsop’s mission, putting Weta Workshops on the job of reproducing replicas of the Pangboche hand and skull based on photos taken by the Slick expeditions in the 1950s.

PangbocheHand1

Here’s what they created.

yeti-hand_a

Mike Allsop, above, with the Weta Workshops yeti hand. Below, another view of the hand with the reproduction of the supposed yeti skullcap

yeti2

Allsop began preparing to take the replicas back to the  Himalayas to present them to the Pangboche monastery. With Air Zealand sponsoring the trip, Allsop was also going to take along a group of 15 Air New Zealand employees, including Fyfe, and lead them to Everest Base Camp.

The target date for this expedition was April 2011.

Then nature intervened. Another thing that makes New Zealand different from much of the rest of the world is earthquakes.

And New Zealand had two bad ones only six months apart, a magnitude 7.1 quake that hit the South Island on Sept. 4, 2010, and a 6.3 quake that did even more damage to the city of Christchurch and killed more than 180 people on Feb. 22, 2011.

With the whole country in disaster mode, an expedition to the Himalayas bearing yeti replica artifacts dropped waaaay down the priority list for Allsop, Fyfe and Air New Zealand.

new-zealand-earthquake1

It was about this time that I became aware of  — and started following — Allsop’s quixotic mission. So I waited in vain for more details of the expedition while New Zealand dug itself out of the rubble, mourned its dead and began putting Christchurch back together again.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Allsop was getting his Pangboche expedition back on track — but with virtually no fanfare because it just didn’t seem right, given the enormity of the earthquakes aftermath that New Zealand was still dealing with.

Finally, in early June, I e-mailed Mike Allsop and asked him what was happening.

Here’s Mike’s reply, which I received on Monday, June 6:

Hi Alan,

Last month (May) the replica yeti hand and skullcap were gifted to the Pangboche monastery. We met with the head teaching Lama called Lama Geshe (sic) and asked him for his guidance and blessing.  After a good discussion he liked the idea and thought they would help the monastery attract visits.

We then had a small ceremony at the monastery and presented the replicas to the monastery’s  lama. A few locals had heard that something was going on and turned up. There were a few gasps when the replicas were unveiled.

Hopefully they will attract visitors to the monastery and a few donations.

Regards Mike Allsop

Here are some photos  of the presentation ceremony that Mike sent along.

photo-1

photo

So the Weta Workshops version of the yeti hand is now in the Pangboche monastery, from whence the original was stolen more than a decade ago.

Mike Allsop still hopes to recover the original — and is willing to fly anywhere in the world to pick it up. If you want to give Mike a hand in finding the hand, go to his website, www.returnthehand.com.

As for the future, Mike tells me the BBC has found a portion of the finger acquired by Peter Byrne in 1958, smuggled to England by Jimmy Stewart and examined by William Charles Osman Hill. A BBC radio documentary is in the works.

“Hopefully it (the finger bone) will be returned (to Pangboche) one day,” Mike says in conclusion.

Stay tuned. Something tells me this story is far from over.

The Yeti’s Hand — A True Tale of Himalayan Mystery, Intrigue and Adventure

- June 12th, 2011

UPDATE (SORT OF): Here’s a link to the latest on Mount Everest

hand_yeti2

I will make this story as true as I can.

But that doesn’t mean the existence of the legendary Yeti — the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas — is “true” … necessarily.

What is true is that something or some things is/are out there in the highest mountains of the world. There have been just too many sightings and encounters to dismiss. But “it” could be a Himalayan brown bear, a Tibetan blue bear, a langur monkey, an orang-utan or another high-altitude great ape … or it could be the classic humanoid “missing link” snowman we all really hope “it” is. Or it could be all of the above.

yetiyeti

There is no conclusive evidence either/any way — but there is a lot of disputed evidence which some reputable scientists believe is indicative of a currently unclassified creature genetically related to humans.

(Don’t forget: Europeans considered the African gorilla a native myth until 1847.)

A couple of those pieces of evidence were a yeti skull and skeletal hand kept as honoured relics by the monks of the oldest gompa or Buddhist monastery in the land of the Sherpas below Mount Everest.

Our story revolves around how those relics were “discovered” by Western explorers in the 1950s, how part of the hand made its way to a lab in London in the lingerie case of the wife of a Hollywood movie star, how the whole hand and skull were stolen by another mountaineer in the late 1990s and, finally, what a New Zealand commercial airline pilot and adventurer is doing today to try to set things right.

It’s probably a long story so we better begin … in fact, I’ve just decided to break the story into two parts so we don’t get lost forever in the mountains (of words).

Mount_Everest_by_Kerem_Barut

You won’t find the village of Pangboche on Google Maps.

But it’s there, 3,860 metres above sea level, about halfway between the town of Lukla (which you will see on Google Maps) and Mount Everest (or Everest Base Camp, to be more precise).

GoogleMapEverest

You may have to zoom in on these maps, but in the one above A is the Nepal capital of Kathmandu; B is the town of Lukla a couple of hundred kilometres east of Kathmandu; and C is Mount Everest, about 40 km north of Lukla as the crow flies — but hundreds of kilometres up and down hills and mountains as the human walks. you’ll find the village of Pangboche on the map below showing the trekking trail from Lukla to Everest Base Camp.

***everest_base_camp_trekking

And Pangboche has been there a long time. Not as long as the mountains themselves, of course, but probably as long as the Sherpas have lived in eastern Nepal (they moved from Tibet in the mid-1600s). Pangboche is considered to be oldest village in the Khumbu, the Sherpa region watched over by Sagarmatha, which is what the Sherpas call Everest (and which is what we should probably call it too — either that or Jomolungma, which is what the Tibetans, who own the other side of the mountain, call Everest.)

Now Pangboche doesn’t have much — the people make most of their living by servicing the tourists who have the gumption and stamina to trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp — but they do have a Buddhist monastery, also considered the oldest in the region.

Here’s a link to a Flickr photo gallery of Pangboche taken by a guy named Richard.

The Panboche gompa or monastery is a modest affair, generally overshadowed by the showier Tengboche gompa down the road, but it did once have a claim to fame: The Pangboche Hand.

(NOTE: If the word “gimp” accidentally shows up in this blog post, that’s what the Mac automatic spellcheck on my current laptop seems to want to turn every reference to “gimp” into — this is really funny … I just wrote “gompa”  again and the stupid/oversmart machine turned it into what you see. I have to go back and type in “gompa”  a second time over every instance of  “gimp” to make it stick — I hope, or else this graf just says gimp, gimp,gimp, gimp … and, yes, I snuck a secret “gompa” in there against the wishes of my pushy computer. I think this is a case of technology being too big for its britches. I am really not crazy about a computer (hello HAL) overriding my decisions. Hmmmm, yes, master…. I don’t know if it happens on other systems, but if you own a Mac, try typing “gompa” and see what happens. )

Back to our story …

But first …

The British actually wanted to give Everest its “native” name but there were so many local variations for the world’s highest mountain they gave up in exasperation and resorted to naming it after a colonial bureaucrat (as usual) … who, God bless his soul, objected to the honour because his name could not be written in Hindi and his name was unpronounceable for locals. Despite his objections — “no,no, really, you mustn’t name the highest mountain in the world after me” — Britain’s Royal Geographical Society named the great lump of rock after Sir George Everest in 1865.

Everest-closeup

As for the pronunciation, it’s EV-rest, not EVER-est. Which is funny because George Everest pronounced his own name IV-rist. So I guess Sagarmatha/Jomolungma isn’t named after a British colonial bureaucrat after all.

As I said before, this could go on for a while …

Back to our story …

PangbocheHand1

A photo of the Pangboche Hand taken in 1958 by Peter Byrne

The yeti cropped skull and severed hand at the Pangboche monastery (yes, I’ve given up on gompa/gimp) were not particularly old — perhaps decades-old, not centuries-old when American-European intruders became aware of them in the 1950s. How old? Nobody knows … or is telling, but the best guess seems to be from sometime around 1890-1900 — the time when wacky Europeans first started going crazy over the long-time locally accepted phenomenon of yeti.

European expeditions — mostly British — into the high Himalayas were few and far between back then, but there was a steady drip-drip-drip of reports of unusual creature sightings, which local guides and porters usually explained away as being a yeti “man-bear” or “snowman.”

Here’s a quick illustrated survey of some reported yeti sightings from an article in the December 1957 issue of Popular Science magazine  entitled “Science Closes In on the Abominable Snowman.”

PopScienceIllustrations

MorePopScienceIllistr

AnotherPopScienceillustration

The 1921 expedition, by the way, was the one that produced the phrase “Abominable Snowman” which seemed to capture the public’s fancy more than previous descriptions.

During that expedition, Lt.-Col. Charles Howard-Bury found a trail of footprints which he suspected were made by a loping mountain wolf but which, because of the effect of melt change, he described as “rather like those of a barefoot man.”

When the group got back to its Indian base at Darjeeling, journalist Henry Newman was waiting for them. When he heard about the tracks in the snow, Newman went to the porters for an explanation. They started talking about “metoh-kangmi” — “metoh” supposedly meaning “man-bear” and “kangmi” meaning “snowman” — but Newman (as the story goes) misinterpreted “metoh” as a similar word for “filthy,” substituted “abominable” for “filthy,” came up with “abominable snowman” and sent the story around the world.

(Newman later apparently said he didn’t believe in the yeti “but it made a cracking story.”)

abominable-snowman-movie-(1957)

tintin-au-tibet-c-1960

The 1950s was the golden age of yeti hunting, primarily because of one man: the aptly named Tom Slick Jr.

Slick Senior made a fortune finding oil in Texas, Junior increased that fortune — and then started spending it to set up philanthropic entities like the Southwest Research Institute, the Mind Science Foundation, the Tom Slick Professorship of World Peace … and mounting expeditions to investigate the Loch Ness monster, the yeti, North America’s Bigfoot and so on.

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Tom Slick the oil man and philanthropist, above, and the yeti hunter, below

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In his down time, Slick was also a world-roaming pilot who dabbled in intrigue with the likes of Howard Hughes and the CIA.

Really. All this is true, just as I promised.

Slick financed several Himalayan expeditions in the late 1950s and, when he wasn’t there himself, turned over the quest to fellow adventurer Peter Byrne. Slick died in a mysterious plane crash in 1962 but Byrne is still alive, telling tales of six decades of adventuring.

And one of his tales — supported by independent evidence — is Byrne’s discovery of the Pangboche Hand and later acquisition of a fingerbone from said skeletal yeti hand.

Byrne has actually told two different versions of the tale — the same in many ways but differing in a key component. I’ll tell you both and you decide which one you want to believe.

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Peter Byrne, above when he was hunting Bigfoot in North America a few decades ago and below a recent photo of the grand old adventurer

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Let’s let Byrne tell his story via a letter he wrote to New Zealand commercial pilot, mountaineer and adventurer Mike  Allsop a couple of months ago. (You can find the whole letter at this link, by the way.) We’ll break off when the story hits a fork in the road:

“In 1958, the second year of the three year American Yeti expedition, led by me and financed by Tom Slick of San Antonio, Texas, I and my brother Bryan were camped in a meadow close to the temple of Pangboche, in the Sola Khumbu region of the central Himalaya. One day, while visiting the temple, I heard one of its custodians talking in Nepalese. This caught my attention because lamas in the Himalaya  normally spoke only in the Sherpa dialect. Being fluent in Nepalese,  I introduced myself and we had a chat. Later the man came down to my camp and we had a chat and he told me that he was an ex-soldier of a Gurkha regiment of the British Army of India …  hence his being fluent in Nepalese. Later, when the conversation turned to my search for the Yeti, he told me that there was a hand of one in the temple and that he would  show it to me if I wished. Which of course I did, to where,  later that night, we went up to have a look at it.

The find — of what looked to me like a partially mummified primate hand, black and glistening from the oily smoke of the temple lamps — was very exciting and I immediately sent a runner off to India with a cable to Tom Slick, telling him  about it. Nepal in those days had no mail or cable system and so we used a post and cable office in India, close to the Indo Nepal border and about a hundred miles to the south. It also had no roads or transport of any kind and so all communication was by runners on foot, using the mountain trails. The runner I sent, a tough little Nepalese hill man named Sarbo,  usually took three days to get to the  border, covering the whole 200 mile round trip in six days. In this case , however, I  told him to stay down there and wait for a reply from the US. This  he did, arriving back at Pangboche ten days later with a cable from Tom Slick.

Slick said that it was imperative that we get  the hand and bring it to England, where it could be scientifically examined under controlled conditions. Failing that we should try and get at least one finger and then get it to London where an associate of his, a Dr. Osman Hill, a renowned British primatologist, would examine it and determine its authenticity.

I talked with the Nepalese-speaking lama about borrowing the hand for examination and he consulted with the other custodians. The answer was no. The hand must not leave the temple. Taking it from the temple would disturb the local deities and bring bad luck.”

And here’s where the story diverges.

According to the first version Byrne told decades ago, he solved the problem by getting the monk on duty that night drunk on rum and, when the monk passed out, switching a human fingerbone for one of the bones in the Pangboche Hand.

This is the alternate version Byrne told in his March 2011 letter to Allsop:

“So I made a  counter proposition, which was that they give me a just one finger and that this would suffice. They all sat down and pondered on this for a couple of days and then agreed to my request if two things were done. One, I would have to replace the finger with another finger. And, two, I would  have to make a substantial contribution towards the upkeep of the temple.

I told the custodians that I would have to consult with my expedition people and sent another cable off to Slick in Texas. His reply was an instruction for me to  come to London immediately for consultation with he and Osman Hill. So I sent another cable back saying that I would do this and could be in London in about a week. A few days later, leaving my brother in camp, I hiked down to the Indian border and took a train to Calcutta and from there flew to London.

A week later, at a luncheon meeting at the Regents Park Zoo-of which Osman Hill was Prosector at that time-attended by the Russian (Yeti) author, Odette Tchernine, Ralph Izzard of the Daily Mail, Tom Slick and Osman Hill, we discussed a strategy for getting the finger and replacing it with another one. The problem, of course, was getting a replacement. But this was quickly solved by Osman Hill who had brought a human hand with him…which he produced from a brown paper bag and, to Ms. Tchernine’s horror,  dropped on the luncheon table amongst the silverware. And so off I went, back to Nepal via Calcutta and another train to the border and another 100 mile hike across the rolling ten thousand foot hills of the middle Himalaya, to Pangboche, covering the 100 mile hike in three days.

We made a donation of ten thousand rupees to the temple-only about $160.00 in today’s rate of exchange but a large  amount for a community where the average income might be as little as $15 in a year- and the lamas then gave me a go ahead to take one finger and replace it with another…  from the human hand I had brought back from London. I did this, drilling and wiring the human finger in place of the one which I removed which (?) I believe was the index finger and my plan  then was to hold on to it until the end of  the year, when we were due to take a break, at Christmas, in Katmandu, and then find  someone there to get it to either the US or the UK.”

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where we will leave the story for a day or two.

When we return with Part 2, we will delve into the movie star smuggling the yeti bone back to Europe, what distinguished Dr. Hill had to say about the bone, what happened to the hand (and the the skull) after that, and how pilot and adventurer Mike Allsop ends up becoming the sort of hero of the story.