Journey to ‘the Abode of God’

Colonel John Blashford-Snell on the slopes of Mt Xixabangma, Tibet
Colonel John Blashford-Snell on the slopes of Mt Xixabangma, Tibet

In September 1987 the Scientific Exploration Society sent a team of scientists and mountaineers to climb Mount Xixabangma in Tibet, and study the flora and fauna. Being over 26,000 feet, this was the 14th highest peak in the world.

It had taken a while to get permission from the Chinese to climb the remote mountain.
We were always keen to go to Tibet and originally wanted to make the first descent of the turbulent Brahmaputra river which runs through a series of deep gorges before plunging into Assam. However, when we approached the Chinese authorities they demanded a fee of $1million. “But we don’t want to buy the river,” we retorted, so the Chinese offered to let us climb Mount Xixabangma for $7,000.

Colonel John Blashford-Snell on the slopes of Mt Xixabangma, Tibet, and with daughter Emma, now nursing in Yeovil.
Colonel John Blashford-Snell on the slopes of Mt Xixabangma, Tibet, and with daughter Emma, now nursing in Yeovil.

Thus in September 1987 our science and mountaineering teams set out from Kathmandu by bus. I led the science team, which included young scientists and my pal Dr John Davis from Cornwall. Nearing the frontier, the road was blocked by rockfalls, which meant we were at least able to acclimatise well to the altitude by having to march northward over the mountains. British climber Julian Freeman-Atwood, together with Army Lance Corporals John House of the Devon and Dorset Regiment and Jim Kimber, goaded on the 178 porters carrying our four tons of stores up the narrow paths. Each man bore a large box labelled ‘Jade Venture’ – the expedition title – and an ICI logo.
Filing up a narrow mountain path, we came upon some American tourists, who watched the procession with interest. “Tell me, sir,” enquired one elderly gentleman, “what’s ICKY?” I looked puzzled for a moment until I realised he was referring to the ICI logo. I quickly explained that ICI were our sponsors and manufactured, among other things, fertilisers and explosives.
“Looks as if you have enough to fertilise the whole of China, then blow it up,” retorted the American. At this point John House happened to walk past carrying a steam lance to be used to drill holes in glaciers for the purpose of making scientific measurements. The evil-looking lance bore a strong resemblance to a weapon from Star Wars and displayed the words ‘Made by British Aerospace’, which also manufactures missiles. To contribute to the confusion, John wore a T-shirt inscribed ‘Jade Venture – The Empire Strikes Back’. “Oh, I get it,” the American winked. “The CIA has companies like ICKY. Good luck to you, young fellow.”
Perspiration poured off us as we continued to climb up the high, steep slopes, picking off tenacious leeches which dropped from every bush. It was a fit, lean group that finally reached the border with Tibet and met our Chinese liaison officers, sent to keep an eye on us.

Leaches on foot
As we threaded our way across a recent rockfall there was a distant rumble. “Hully, hully…” cried the liaison officers as we ran and stumbled over the loose scree dodging rocks falling from a landslide.
We just reached safety as boulders the size of houses came crashing down the mountain and it started to rain. Through the gloom we could make out the precipitous gorges known as ‘The Gates of Hell’ that led deeper into Tibet. Mount Xixabangma is known as ‘the Abode of God’!

Autographed copies of Colonel John Blashford-Snell’s new anthology of his adventures and exploration From Utmost East to Utmost West will be available from the Scientific Exploration Society from
1 October. Price including postage and packing is £19. Email or phone 01747 854456.

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