Three men walk into a bar – two climbers and a writer. The result is their collaborative, breathtaking book Poles Apart
Words: Nancy Richards
It all began in a crowded bar, as only male bonding can, when journalist David Bristow had a chance encounter with a couple of strong-looking lads from Joburg. But, as Bristow discovered, Vaughan de la Harpe, ‘the Somewhat More Dapper One’ and Sean Disney ‘The Taller One’ turned out not be a pair of lycra-clad chancers in the Cape about to try their luck at the Argus Cycle Tour, but two eminent mountaineers, members of the elite global Explorers Grand Slam rock-climbing club of people who have conquered all Seven Summits – the world’s highest – with both North and South Poles thrown in.
“To say we don’t take ourselves seriously would be a lie,” says Disney. “We take mountain climbing and the godforsaken hobby of polar hauling very seriously, but we also like to laugh!” De la Harpe picks up, “Which is why, when we got around to discussing the possibility of David writing a book about what we’ve done, we decided it should be short on machismo, bravado and ego and bigger on truth and humour.”
And because it was the best way to pin them down (these guys travel a lot) and get both their voices heard, it was done interview-style, resulting in one big fabulously entertaining eavesdrop. So, with imaginary crampons and more than a few belly laughs, the reader gets taken up and down the peaks and valleys of Everest, Killi et al, as well as Antarctica and the Arctic. Disney, MD of Adventure Dynamics International (top-dollar expedition organisers) modestly admits to having done 85 expeditions, 42 of them to the Seven Summits, and he’s done Mount Elbrus 12 times. De la Harpe’s impressive record includes having summited all of the Seven, each on his first attempt – something that the rather less ‘capped’ Bristow, who ‘lost my climbing virginity on Table Mountain’, points out, is not common.
With some trepidation, I got ready to talk to these two. What does one ask a person who’s seen all the world below him from its very highest peak. And who, in Vaughan’s case, has stared death in the face from the inside of a blue-black-bottomed crevasse and, in Sean’s, lived to see another day by exercising a swift ice-axe self-arrest manoeuvre hurtling towards a 1 000m cliff.
I opened tentatively with “What do you need to be a mountaineer?” hoping it’d be sufficiently broad. Well, it was a bit like tapping an ice floe with a hot poker. Immediately the two melted into a river of information.
“First your physiological condition needs to be right – some people cope with altitude better than others – then you have to have the mental strength, you have to really want to do it. And there’s absolutely no cutting corners. You need the best – the very best – down sleeping bag, boots, oh and a pee bottle,” grinned De la Harpe. “You don’t want to leave the tent in the dead of night to answer the call of nature.”
This was followed by an avalanche of anecdotes – like the one about the guy who lost two fingers to frostbite and gives a high-three, and how motivating the dead bodies on Everest are. “You don’t want to end up like them, so
you must know when’s the right time to turn back,” says Disney. I’m breathless just listening.
And the next trip? “Next year it’s Mount Damavand in North Tehran.” I later discover it’s a potentially active volcano.
In Poles Apart David Bristow’s style is as easy, witty and accessible as the climbers are infinitely knowledgeable, fascinating and irreverent. ‘And so’, he closes the book, ‘the quest for adventure continues…’
Poles Apart by David Bristow is published by Pan Macmillan (ISBN 978-1-77010-363-4, R230). For more information go to www.panmacmillan.co.za