Sacred Summits

Sacred Summits

A Climber’s Year, written by Peter Boardman, 1982, published by The Mountaineers, Seattle, Washington

The literature of high mountain exploration has, with few exceptions, not matched the achievements of climbing authors at high altitude. Few topics have more potential for a capti’vating story than the joining of people in a common struggle towards a distant, dangerous goal. Why then, in the last decade, have so few published accounts of these undertakings gone beyond the bland diary style of daytoday progress on the mountain?

One starving editor of mountaineering literature explained why worldclass mountaineers of today are reluctant to trade ice axe for pen. Obligations to write an account of the expedition for climbing journals and newspapers, the maneuvering for lead climbing positions done on large expeditions, and repetitive, postclimb lecture tours do nothing for creative juices. When the time comes to write that glowing book, our promising mountaineering author buries us in the dry details of the expedition’s predictable progress.

Snooze, yawn.

Another problem may be the lack of time to write in between expeditions. Because prior permission is needed from Nepal, India, or Pakistan to climb major peaks in their countries, mountaineers must commit themselves to as many as three expeditions a season. Perhaps zipping from one traumatic 8,000m peak back home, then back again to the awful “death zone” has the unpleasant effect of flavoring the writer’s style with jet lag.

However, one mountaineer has overcome these obstacles to good writing in a book which refuses to let you put it down to go tinkle. Sacred Summits is the autobiography of one year in the life of continent-hopping Peter Boardman. During this period he climbed three sacred mountains: Carstenz Pyramid in New Guinea, Kanchenjunga and Gauri Sankar in the Himalayas. All with the perennial snow caps and double peaks by which they are recognized as divine. For mountaineers, the allure is twofold: “more important than shape, you recognize a sacred mountain by the feelings it evokes: strength, fear, or joy.”

Perhaps the best mountaineering literature of the future will be written by members of small, selfsufficient expeditions who employ a minimum of porters and high altitude Sherpas during the journey. Such is the case in Sacred Summits. On Boardman’s three adventures t lie dangers are more amplified, experiences more varied, and climbing more exacting than on a large expedition. Boardman is more involved in challenge than if he were one of twenty climbers waiting in base camp with little more to describe than the intrigues of doing the expedition laundry.

Boardman must be present at almost every stage of the climb. Teamwork’ and compromise become essential on the mountain. The technical aspects of moving quickly up a big mountain are actually enjoyable to follow. And during progress up the mountain, the danger the small team must share makes for suspenseful moments. One chapter, entitled “Ordeal By Storm,” takes place during a summit push by all four members on Kangchenjunga. They nearly perish:

There was so much ice on our faces we could barely see. Now was the time we could give up, let go the end of our strength and sink to the earth. If only there was time to sleep. Voices filled my head: “Must get down. Must get down. Hurry. Hurry. Now is the time mistakes are made.”

Sacred Summits is as exciting as it is well-researched. Boardman weaves the narratives of early explorers into his book in a special way. More than just their routefinding adventures, it is the way pioneering affects these climbers that fascinates Boardman. A typical expedition book will have the summit team reaching the final overhanging ice tower, at which time they pause to recall the moment on the same mountain in the same spot where a superman from Hitler’s Germany dropped his mitten and stepped off into oblivion to retrieve it. Stretch, scratch, yawn. Boardman, however, quotes pioneers who are concerned with the change that will happen in a person’s life who attempts something unpredictable.

Boardman’s formula for the book is a marvelous blend of extreme adventure and everyday life. The effect the three climbs have on him becomes more evident during his life in between them. At home in New Mills, England, and while working in Leysin, Switzerland, he remembers another kind of setting: “Once a mountaineer has climbed so high, for the rest of his life he dreams of returning.”

Sacred Summits is a welcome addition to the Alpine bookshelf. Sprinkled with British humor and brimming with concise observations, it is simply a classic in mountaineering literature.

A Boardman Sampler

This section was quoted from the book and republished here for your enjoyment.  The story continues on Kangchenjunga, as the party escapes a storm by bivouacing on the lee side of a knifedge ridge. They fall asleep at 26,000 ft.

“I was awakened suddenly by snapping fabric and a world in uproar.
“The wind’s changed.”
I looked at my watch. 1:30 a.m. The tent was shaking and pushing against us. I felt enveloped in comfort and willed it to stop, so that I could travel away again into sleep. But soon we were all wide awake.’ We turned our torches on. The tent was flapping and crabling wildly, throwing frost everywhereand our lives depended on it. Where had this wind come from? Why? Why? Slowly, the danger sank in. At 2:30 a.m., the center hoop snapped and we knew we would have to start fighting for our lives. We held on to the hoop in turns as our fingers number, trying to stop its jagged ends from ripping the tent fabric, taking it in turns to throw on our boots and crampons, fumbling with straps. We shouted curt instructions to each other, cold and disciplined, devoid of emotion, going through the motions of survival detached and playing with the audience of our minds.

“Georges, hold this for a minute!” Only our eyes showed caged terror, sharing the thought that this was probably the end. My mind was racing. Not much chance of getting out of this. Family, loved ones, friends; if I do get out I’ll have terrible frostbite. We haven’t even climbed the mountain. If there is a God, then please stop this wind. Why should he? Am I strong enough for this? Is this the time? Concentrate on yourself, we must all do that. No time to pray.

Short lulls of a few seconds gave false hopes. Doug looked out. “The anchors are pulled. We’re being blown off the ledge, the whole tent’s moved two feet, we’ll have to get out fast!’ He squirmed outside and held on. We were within a second of rolling down and down into the stormy darkness. The wind was at hurricane force, tearing strips of fabric off the tent.

“Don’t leave the gear, don’t abandon.” Georges and I furiously packed the sleeping bags and wriggled out of the tent. We collapsed it, ripped it open with a knife and pulled the remaining equipment out, and the wind snatched the tent away. Dawn was now struggling out of the streaming cloud, rocks the size of dinner plates whipped up from the ridge, were swinging through the turbulence like meteorites. I could not even kneel on the ledge without being knocked over. Georges, then Doug, disappeared up the slope above, pulling the mad tangle of ropes, trying to claw their way to the notch. They made it on their third attempt, and my rope went tight.

A dark shape hurtled past. “God, no, somebody’s fallen.’ It was Georges sack.

I struggled after them, pulled by the ropes, hauling myself through the notch with my ice axe. it was like trying to crawl into a jet engine at full throttle.”


In 1983, the British expedition to the unclimbed East Northeast Ridze of Mt. Everest came to a tragic conclusion with the loss of two members at 8,000m. On May 15th, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker moved out of telescope sight onto the 10,000m. high Kangshung Face (in China). They did not return from this summit attempt.  Sacred Summits was published posthumously.