Eric Shipton: Mapping the Blank
Eric Shipton: Mapping the Blank
The territory west of the Shaksgam river in northern Pakistan—the Sarpo Laggo and Shimshal valleys, the Baltoro, Biafo, Hispar, and Braldu glaciers, and the Aghil range—is Shipton country, severely contoured, and with the highest concentration of 7,000- and 8,000 m peaks in the world. For the climber-explorer E. E. Shipton, whose 1937 and 1939 Shaksgam expeditions spent months surveying some 1,800 square miles of mountain territory in the Karakoram, it was the blank space on his map temptingly marked “UNEXPLORED”.
The son of a British tea-planter, Eric Earle Shipton was born in Ceylon in 1907. His father died when he was only three, and the family finally settled in England for the sake of the two children’s schooling. By the time he was in prep school, a hearty reading diet of early mountain travel writers such as Edward Whymper had persuaded Shipton that “all this climbing business” was infinitely preferable to mugging up dreary Latin primers. Obviously, “real climbing involved hanging by fingernails over giddy drops”—an excellent way of life.
Shipton began climbing in earnest in the Dauphiné region of the Alps in the 1920s. He subsequently settled in East Africa to try his luck as a tea-planter, singularly pleased at the thought that his new home was just twenty miles from the foot of Mount Kenya (to the amusement of his house servants, he arrived at his farm with an ice axe, climbing boots, and several hundred feet of rope). In 1930, he received a letter from a British compatriot, H. W. Tilman, asking for advice on climbing in the mountains of East Africa. Their subsequent meeting and ascent of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya fused together one of the most important partnerships in twentieth century mountain travel and exploration.
Shipton made the first ascent of Kamet (India) in 1931, the highest peak to have been climbed at the time. In 1932, he was invited to join an expedition to Everest, the fourth European team to attempt the 8,848-m peak, following the disappearance of climbers Mallory and Irvine in 1924. Although the 1932 expedition and a subsequent attempt the following year were both unsuccessful, two important developments took place in Shipton’s personal career as a mountaineer. One was the thought, “Why not spend the rest of my life doing this sort of thing?”; the other was a growing feeling that Himalayan climbing had been beleaguered by the idea that a potentially successful expedition required colonising base camps with a “small town of tents”, hundreds of porters, and up to three reserve climbers for every man expected to attempt the summit. It was Lilliput laying siege to Gulliver by sheer force of numbers.
But Shipton and Tilman developed a far simpler approach to climbing, cutting down drastically on unnecessary personal equipment and food not worth its value in weight. (During preparations for the Shaksgam expedition to the Karakoram in 1937, Tilman was strongly opposed to taking plates at all, insisting that they could eat and drink everything out of a mug. Fortunately for their party, Shipton decided in favour of the extra weight of four plates). More importantly, however, he felt strongly that no member of an expedition should be superfluous. Every person had a distinct and clearly defined role. There was no such thing as a “reserve” climber.
Shipton and Tilman applied what became known later as “British Alpinism” to all their subsequent expeditions. They explored approaches to the seemingly impenetrable amphitheatre encircling Nanda Devi (India) in 1934 and mapped and explored the remote glacial regions of the Karakoram in 1937 and 1939. Shipton himself was a key expedition member in four attempts on Everest. During the Second World War, he served as a diplomat in Persia, Hungary, and China, but by 1951, he was back in the Himalaya, leading the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, the first to attempt the southern face of the mountain by climbing the treacherous Khumbu Icefall (the attempt was pivotal to Edmund Hilary’s successful ascent in 1953). Unfortunately, palace intrigues within the Himalayan Committee led to Shipton being ousted from the leadership of the 1953 expedition in favour of John Hunt, who, although an experienced mountaineer, was relatively unknown at the time. Shipton was bitterly disappointed, but swallowed the setback with dignity. It freed him, perhaps, from the fame that he had always disparaged as violating the spirit of mountaineering. Shipton spent his latter years wandering through the mountains of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in South America; he probably owned little more than what he could carry on his back. He died in 1977 at the home of a friend in Wiltshire, England.
Both Shipton and his more phlegmatic companion, Tilman, were inveterate travel writers, but their accounts are seasoned with the dry humour of people who do not confuse their passion for climbing and exploration with a tendency to take themselves too seriously. In Blank on the Map (1938), Shipton recalls walking with blistered feet on the long, dry march to Skardu, complaining bitterly and thinking dejectedly of beer, while an equally morose Tilman declared that, at this rate, they would “certainly be turned out of any self-respecting hiking club in England”.
Shipton’s preference for small, tightly knit expeditions that could be ready to go at very little notice did not mean that his expeditions were planned entirely off the cuff. His contagious enthusiasm for chalking out in painstaking detail the preparations for an expedition was undeterred by the fact that there may have been very little chance of carrying out the project at all. Indeed nothing was impossible that couldn’t be planned out—in the famously misquoted phrase attributed to Tilman—“in half an hour on the back of an envelope”. While on the 1936 Everest expedition, ensconced in his sleeping bag while waiting for a snowstorm to end, Shipton drew up a painstakingly detailed plan for the exploration of a remote mountain range in New Guinea. The plan effectively involved relaying eighteen months’ worth of supplies over three-hundred miles of ridge and swamp, accompanied by a dozen Sherpas (and, indeed, their wives, to allow for the contingency of homesickness), and planting crops in the foothills to ensure a steady supply of food. (The expedition to New Guinea never materialised.)
It is a geographer’s curiosity more than a mountaineer’s desire to climb for the sake of a summit that marks most of Shipton’s writing. Although his Everest detractors may have rather snidely attributed this philosophy to sour grapes, Shipton had begun to argue about the “real value of climbing” long before the 1953 Everest scandal. When people allowed the cut and thrust of competition or money or fame to drive their activities, he felt, they stood to lose the values that made anything worth doing.
“…it is not yet time to climb these mountains”, he wrote. “With so much of the vast Himalaya still a blank on the map, our first privilege is to explore rather than to climb.”