Wednesday, 24 June 2009
The one question I want to ask Bill Goodland (pictured in red at the top of the world's highest mountain) when we sit down for coffee is so obvious I can’t bring myself to do it. Luckily, I don’t have to. “Everyone’s been asking how it feels to reach the summit of Everest,” he says, which he did on May 19 this year. “Relief. It’s overwhelming: in that moment you’re excused from all the pressure you’ve put yourself under to reach the top. I'd told all my friends about my trip – so to know I wouldn’t have to be forever explaining why I didn’t quite make it was a huge relief.”
We’d been discussing his fellow climbers. Was there any awkwardness after he made it and some of them didn’t? “Yes. We tiptoed around each other for 24 hours, and many who hadn’t summited left early. It was a bittersweet experience.”
But social pressure and post-climb etiquette aside, how does it feel to stand on top of the world? “You get to sit down. You get to stop walking. It’s sort of that simple.”
Climbing Everest involves a lot of walking up and down the mountain to acclimatise to the altitude. You inch up, camp by camp, back and forth, until you adjust. Then, when you’re within sight of the summit at Camp Three, you head all the way back down, past Base Camp, to relax, build up your strength for the final climb and wait for good weather.
Goodland found this frustrating. “This way of climbing, the way [Edmund] Hillary did it, doesn’t suit most people. Altitude saps your strength, but acclimatisation makes the climb gradually easier. At some point, the two cross – ideally at the summit.
“For me, it happened about two weeks before that. The first time I reached Camp Three, I felt great and was ready to go on. The second time was worse, but that’s when I continued up to the top.” What would he do differently? “I’d start the climb later in the season. I’d be surprised if, in 20 years time, things aren’t done that way.”
Everest is well-chronicled: the cold, the wind, the frostbite – “That was one of my biggest fears, losing my nose or something.” What you don’t hear so much about is the boredom. Before the final push, the team holed up in a village called Pheriche, below Base Camp. “There is absolutely nothing to do apart from walk round the village one way, then the other way, then go and talk to the yaks," wrote Goodland in his excellent blog of the trip. “Luckily the next village along has a tiny internet cafe in a shed (from where I'm typing this), so my daily routine (after discussions with the yaks), includes a walk over the mountain for a couple of minutes online.”
The summit team was accompanied as far as Base Camp by a lively group of trekkers (I met them all in Snowdonia in February. We laughed a lot and they drank everyone else under the table.) “I was very sorry when they left,” he says. “They were a broader mix of people and ages, and more interesting than [us climbers]. We were quite similar: mid-life crisis single men who work in IT.”
What was the highlight of his trip? “The icefall was fun,” he says – great stacks of ice that shift around, pitted with crevasses. "You clamber over it, like a giant adventure playground." Wasn’t he scared? “You’d have to be jolly unlucky to be squashed by a falling piece of ice.”
But his favourite moment was on summit day, just before dawn. His group set off for the top in the dark. “When the sun rose, over Tibet, you could actually see the curvature of the earth. Sunrise also meant we were nearly there."
And his secret for climbing the world’s highest mountain? “Think only of the day ahead. You need a sort of Zen-like understanding of what the climb involves – and that even when you’re going down instead of up, it’s still part of the journey.”
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Christiane and Ulf Beuck were young, in love, living behind the Berlin Wall under East Germany’s repressive regime and dreaming of escape. In June 1989, exactly 20 years ago, they took action. “We were never politically active,” says Christiane, who I interviewed while researching a piece on the Stasi, the East German secret police. “We were too scared of the reprisals. Besides, we didn’t think we could make a difference. But we did decide to escape. If that sounds contradictory, well, it was easier to try to flee the state than be political.”
She was 21, Ulf 22. They planned to escape into Austria – the west – via Hungary: the Austrian/Hungarian border was being dismantled, so they knew it was their only way out.
“We arrived at the border three days before our attempt, and walked up to the fence to check it out,” says Christiane. “Beyond were a wood and a steep hill, in Austria. The next morning, we chose a spot near a border guard tower – so we could keep an eye on it – and took cover, aiming to wait until it got dark. But at around 3pm a huge storm broke. ‘This is our chance,’ we thought. We assumed the guard would take shelter.”
Ulf cut through the fence with a pair of shears. “We crawled under and ran up the steep hill. After a short while, I noticed someone was behind us,” she says. “Then I heard shots – it was the guard. I didn’t know if he was aiming at us or just shooting in the air to scare us. Either way, from then on I felt crippled. Ulf was screaming at me to keep going, but I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.”
“The guard caught up with us. We tried to reason with him, offered him money. But he couldn’t help, he said, otherwise – and he drew his finger across his throat. After a while another, tougher, guard joined him. He was pretty pissed off at having to climb the hill in the rain. He forced Ulf on to the ground with his hands behind his head, and held a gun at his neck. I saw stars, I screamed, I cried, ‘Don’t shoot!’ They put us in a jeep and took us to a nearby barracks. After our arrest we were sent back to East Germany, to a jail for political prisoners. Our trial was set for August 18, 1989 but it never took place: the political situation was changing, and East Germany was forced to release any political prisoners who’d been caught at the Hungarian border.”
“But we were still stuck in the east,” says Christiane. “So we lodged a request to move to the west. Two months later it was accepted, and a date set: November 10. The night before, the Berlin Wall came down, all the borders opened, so we passed through legally, along with everyone else. If we’d known that, we’d never have tried to escape. But if it wasn’t for people like us, the borders might never have opened. So, maybe, in our own tiny way, we contributed to that.”
Photograph: Michael Danner (michaeldanner.com)