Valerian Albanov (1881-1919)

At the end of the 19th century, the problem of the North-East passage had yet to be resolved.  Explorers and merchants were interested in discovering whether or not there was a way to sail through the ice pack above Russia and Siberia and to access thereby the riches of the orient.  Georgiy Brusilov and his uncle General Boris Brusilov became enthused about the financial opportunities proffered by successfully pioneering such a route and the General stated his willingness to foot the expenses of an expedition directed at that end.

They hired a crew -32 men -acquired a ship, the St. Anne, and left Murmansk in north-western Russia in August, 1912.  Valerian Albanov was employed as navigator.  The voyage was ostensibly purposed as a hunting expedition, as the market for furs of various sorts was a major component of the economy of the times.

Almost immediately the ship was caught in the pack ice.  It drifted north in a zig-zag fashion for a year and half while the crew and officers became more and more lethargic and stultified.  They still had plenty of food but they began to run out of essential materiel with which to maintain the ship and rigging.  Shooting seals and polar bears had supplemented their dietary requirements, but to Albanov the future looked bleak.  So he convinced 22 of the crew members to accompany him, with the captain’s permission, on a sledge/ski attempt to reach Cape Flora on Northbrook island in the Franz Joseph archipelago.  This was a very small sealer’s haven that was regularly visited by hunters and seal oil ships.  It was located about 200 miles south east of their position.

Albanov managed to build seven sledges and seven canoes from wood and iron salvaged from the ship and departed with the others in April, 1914.  Almost immediately the heavy sledges proved immensely difficult to handle.  They were so designed that the canoes were tied on top;  each unit weighing about 400 pounds.  Pressure ridges and jagged, uplifted blocks  impeded progress and frequent open channels and fissures necessitated the expenditure of extra labor to detour around them.  The first day they made three miles, and although they did better afterwords, they never were able to travel much more than 6 or 8 miles in a day.  And the ice continued drifting north.  After trekking for four days and struggling for 22 miles, Albanov’s noon sighting showed they had only attained 3 miles from the last location of the ship.

Accidents occurred in which the stove was lost in a polynya (an open pond) and men began disappearing.  Three of them gave up and returned to the St. Anne and one wandered off, convinced that he saw land on the horizon.  Both compasses broke and the chronometer was damaged, so Albanov was never sure about their exact location.  Snow blindness was common and extremely painful.  Occasionally the pack ice broke up.  On one floe they discovered ski tracks and were disconcerted to realize that they were their own.  Storms were frequent and soggy clothes, dirt and lice made them miserable.

But they  were encouraged by finding sand on one floe and by the increase in bird sightings, particularly gulls that drove them mad with their overwhelming noise.  Men had continued dying, and soon after actually spotting land off to the east, two members of the crew absconded with most of the remaining food and gear, leaving the rest to starve and drown.  But those left managed to reach the land and to climb a steep ice barrier via a vertical crack in order to step onto rocks and dirt after two years of fighting to stay alive on the ice.

Eggs and Eider ducks were abundant and the survivors feasted to repletion.  But they were all so tired and sluggish that they couldn’t decide what to do next.  Cape Flora was their destination, but there was disagreement on how to get there.  Four of the men decided to travel by land, on skis, but Albanov and two others knew that the only hope was to use the canoes, paddling from cape to cape until they arrived.  So one morning the latter woke up to discover that the four had left, taking with them most of the supplies.  The only thing left to do was to start paddling again.  One of strongest remaining crew members was Alexander Konrad.  He was in one canoe and Albanov was in the other.  They faced violent storms, strong currents, aggressive walruses, occasional immersions and constant headaches, but they persevered, fighting their weariness and squeezing the last bit of energy and volition out of themselves until they reached Cape Flora at last.  The last man besides Albanov and Konrad died, but when the two remaining reached their goal they found shacks and cabins in widely varying states of repair, some collapsed, some ruined, but a few in livable condition.  They waited in hope of visitors and at last a ship was sighted in the offing and summoning up their remaining strength they canoed their way to it.

Rescued at last, they were soon discomfited by finding out that the ship was almost out of coal for its steam engine and that it was leaking a lot.  Before they finally arrived at Archangel in north east Russia, they were once again briefly trapped in the ice and worn out from operating the hand pumps 24 hours a day to keep from sinking.  The ship was reduced to a bare skeleton, all the superstructure having disappeared into the maw of the boiler furnace.

Some years later, the diary of Alexander Konrad was found and had some interesting additions to add to the epic story.  It was worded in such a way as to indicate that Konrad had been one of the two mutineers who had left the rest to starve and die on the ice even though he had later returned to help Albanov survive.  Whether this actually the case or not will probably never be known, as it was not specifically stated.  But the truth remains that Konrad was probably, besides Albanov, the most capable and energetic member of the  crew.

One of the symptoms of trichinosis, a parasitic roundworm found in polar bears, is lethargy and weakness.  There’s some speculation that many if not all of the trekkers suffered from this condition, as they were reduced to eating raw meat for the last part of their journey.  Albanov died in 1919, blown up in a railway station while returning to Moscow from Siberia:  apparently related to the Russian Revolution.  Konrad lived on until after the second World War.  The St. Anne and the rest of the crew were never heard from again.



Tobias Smollett (1721-1771)

Fathom was born in a wagon while his mother was transiting between European battles in the early 1700’s.  She made a sort of living by selling gin and underclothes to the soldiers she followed.  The boy was named after her sixth “husband” and he was raised on brandy and camp food.  During a battle in the 1716 war against Turkey Fathom’s mom rescued a colonel from death after a bloody engagement and in gratitude he adopted her and her son and took them to live with him in Prague.

Fathom was raised as one of the family, as a sort of brother to the colonel’s real son, Renaldo.  Fathom early acquired a soft, smooth social talent which enabled him to participate gracefully in public activities, whereas Renaldo, the more intelligent of the two, was rather inept and graceless at communal functions.  They were of the same age, and, at the appropriate time, they were both sent off to university in Vienna.  Renaldo studied and succeeded as a student but Fathom, pursuing his nefarious ways, fell into the hands of card-sharps and learned how to fleece neophyte enthusiasts.  He managed to win most of Renaldo’s money in short order, but gave it back to him just in order to demonstrate his non-existent open-handedness.

Renaldo was called home to join his father in another war, and Fathom was left by himself in the city.  Running low on money, Fathom befriended a jeweler’s daughter, Wilhelmina, and used her to extort money from the parents by various ruses.  One night, he was almost caught in Wilhelmina’s boudoir by her father. He climbed into the chimney to evade detection.  When the old man left he descended into the room, covered with soot causing Wilhelmina to scream at his sudden appearance, convinced that the devil was paying her a visit.  Several episodes of the sort transpire until Fathom, having attained a dubious reputation in the neighborhood, absconded with some of the father’s jewelry and a gold necklace belonging to the daughter.  He traveled to the military camp where Renaldo and his father are preparing to fight the French in another war.  While the father and son behave heroically in the battle, Fathom pretended to be sick.  Soon he was making money with his card-sharpery, and was accidently reunited with his tutor, the reprobate who introduced him into evil ways in Vienna, and, after a siege lasting six weeks, the two, having damaged their mutual characters in the army, deserted to the French.  Unfortunately, French discipline was stricter than what they were used to so that they were actually forced into combat.

Slightly wounded, Fathom and his friend, subsequent to an armistice, journeyed toward Paris with the monies they’d bilked from French soldiers.  While staying overnight in a village, Fathom hid his valuables, mistrusting his friend’s opportunism.  He was alone the next morning but his wealth was apparently untouched.  Fathom proceeded on his way, but got lost in a forest and was benighted in a lonely hovel during a severe storm.  He was locked into an attic with a dead body and realized that had fallen into the hands of murderers and thieves.  Changing clothes with the corpse, he fooled the outlaws and made his escape with his bag of lucre but he soon discovered, upon examining his loot, that his card-sharp friend had actually stolen his acquisitions and replaced them with rusty nails.

Fathom reaches Paris at last with a small amount of money which he uses to entice several British tourists, Sir Stentor and Sir Giles, into card-playing, but he soon realizes that the two are better sharks than he is and they thoroughly fleece him.  Distraught, Fathom lands a job as a violinist (the reader learns at this point that Fathom is an expert violinist and flautist) with the opera orchestra.  One of his boarding house neighbors was Ali Beker, a famished Spaniard who tells him a tragic tale:  he was guilty of poisoning his wife and daughter because he felt dishonored by their rejection of his choice for the daughter’s husband.  He also stabbed the interloper, Orlando, and left him for dead while he fled the country.

Being tired of supporting himself through music, Fathom takes a boat to England where his ventures continue along the same sorts of lines.  Eventually he turns himself into a doctor and does quite well for a while, curing patients by basically leaving them alone (unlike medical practices at the time, which seemed devoted to killing sufferers off in the shortest time possible) and rifling their possessions and money.  Soon his iniquitous behavior begins to darken his status, however, and he’s forced into debt and spends time in King’s Bench prison.

Meanwhile, Renaldo has made his way to London with the love of his life, Monimia.  Fathom, recently released, is welcomed by the pair and is encouraged to continue his medical practice.  Fathom falls for Monimia and does everything in his power to split up the couple so he can have Monimia to himself.  He lies, cheats, steals, and finally manages to make them hate each other, but his pursuit of Monimia is fruitless, as she is rescued by a nice lady, Ms. Clement.  Renaldo has returned to Europe.  Monimia apparently dies from grief and is entombed in a local church.

At length, Renaldo becomes aware of Fathom’s perfidy and hastens back to London to throw himself on his sweetheart’s grave, but (spoiler’s ahead) finds her alive instead.  She was rescued by Ms. Clement and hidden from Fathom’s greedy clutches.  At this point Fathom is on the point of death himself, suffering total rejection by society for his evil ways.

Everything turns out advantageously:  Renaldo marries Monimia and they forgive the repentant Fathom;  Ali Beker turns out to be a Spaniard named Don Diego do Zelos and Renaldo is revealed as Orlando, the victim of Zelos wrath;  Monimia is his daughter;  Zelos marries Ms. Clement, and so forth…

This novel was not like the other ones Smollett wrote.  It was really more of a polemic attack on the society found in London at the time.  Smollett had been a Naval Surgeon in his earlier life and was familiar with the corruption underlying the prevalent medical practices, particularly in the larger cities.  Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and herbalists were all commonly intertwined in defrauding the ill by prolonging treatments and overcharging for services rendered.  In fact, the book was a diatribe on human behavior in general, detailing the widespread dishonesty of the upper classes, in which double-dealing, cheating, blackmail, kickbacks and every conceivable crookedness apparently flourished.  He goes into quite a bit of detail explaining exactly how diverse illegal and immoral practices were perpetrated.  It was quite enlightening and casts a clearer view of society at the time.

Smollett wrote and lived at about the same time as Henry Fielding and some of his rants were redolent of the latter’s fulminations against landowners and politicians.

I can’t say i enjoyed this book as well as some of his others;  i still like Peregrine Pickle the best, although Roderick Random is also delightful.  But it certainly revealed Smollett’s anger over the criminal nature of the urban world he lived in and, perhaps, about human nature in particular.  His diary covering the last year or so of his life was the best indicator of his crankiness, though.  He complained about inns, coaches, people who couldn’t speak English, diseases, vermin, and a host of other discomforts that tormented him in his travels.  But it must be said that he was in poor health, and suffered pain from the terrible roads and inhospitable conditions obtainable at the time.


Lionel Terray (1921-1965), trans. by Geoffrey Sutton

Lionel was obsessed with mountains.  As much as his parents tried to get him to do well in school, it was a hopeless endeavour.  Before he was ten, he was roaming the woods near Grenoble, looking for rats to kill (earning money for their skins) and exploring every nook and cranny beyond the city limits.  Both his parents had been explorers of a sort, his mother having grown up in Brazil as an energetic horsewoman taking delight in penetrating the local jungles and chacos.  His French father was large, bubbling and enthusiastic;  he had a degree in chemical engineering and he met his wife while starting a business in Brazil.  He abandoned the project when the First World War began and returned home to enlist.  Later he obtained a degree in medicine.

When Lionel was twelve his brother became ill and the family, for a change of atmosphere, took a vacation in Chamonix, in the heart of the Alps.  Lionel dashed about the valley, investigating the slopes and glaciers, taking his first hesitant steps toward rock-climbing.  An older cousin arrived, an experienced climber, and the pair ascended the acolyte’s first peak:  the Aiguillette d’Argentiere, a modest pillar of moderate height, which familiarized Lionel with ropes, carabiners, pitons, and permitted his first attempt at rappelling.

Back in Grenoble, the nearby Vercors range drew him like a magnet.  His first experience there was almost the end of his career, though, because the rock is smooth limestone and Lionel made the mistake of trying to climb it in hobnail boots, which slid and scraped over the rock without catching on anything.  He progressed fairly well in spite of this handicap and worked his way up to a vertical crack that had a slight overhang near the top.    He found himself hanging on by his fingers above a long drop, and only survived because he was able to perform a “mantelshelf”:  a move similar to exiting from a swimming pool.

Lionel discovered skiing and devoted himself to the slopes whenever he could escape from school.  At the age of fourteen, though, he was back in Chamonix, thirsting for more climbing opportunities.  He met a friend there, Alan Schmit, and they hired a guide to take them up the Grepon, a lower-skill level ascent commonly climbed by neophytes.  It was a disappointment however, as the guide was in a hurry and didn’t allow the two lads to do any climbing;  he just hauled them up the cliffs, one after another.  Lionel was so chagrined that he didn’t do anymore climbing for five years.  Instead he skied and became so proficient that he won awards and taught later in his life.

His parents separated and Lionel was placed in a boarding school, a severe one, which he managed to get himself expelled from by firing a pistol off at midnight.  After attending another school, he became independent in 1939, at the age of eighteen, and supported himself with casual jobs:  muleteer, porter to high camps, ski instructor, and carpenter.  He joined the Civil Service for a while until the war started, then spent the next four years as a member of an Alpine military squad, climbing and skiing long distances in the process of making life uncomfortable for the Germans and the Italians.  He came under fire several times, but never took the activity very seriously until he happened upon the scene of a mass German-perpetrated slaughter of an entire village in northern Italy.  He didn’t allow himself to be overcome with hatred, however, he just resigned as soon as possible from his unit.

After the war, he continued working in the Civil Service until he was admitted to the official Guide’s organization.  His skill and capabilities greatly improved in short order as he shepherded tourists and professional climbers up most of the popular routes in the Chamonix area.  He had some close calls.  Once, while climbing near Marseilles, he peeled off his handholds and pulled out two pitons on the way down, only being held by the third one on which the carabiner bent until it was just holding him by a mere fraction of an inch.  On the Walker Spur of the North Face of the Grand Jorasses, he achieved a sort of epiphany, when he mastered an overhanging pitch by the use of a tension traverse (a dubious process by which the climber leans laterally against the rope while reaching for a distant handhold).  The elation was so strong that he almost fell off.

Louis Lachenal was a well-known climber with whom Lionel teamed up for scaling some of the hardest climbs in the Alps.  They did the north face of the Eiger with only one bivouac:  only the second time it had ever been climbed, and after numerous climbers had been killed trying to make the ascent.  As of today, 64 have lost their lives trying to climb it.

Terray continued climbing with Lachenal and Gaston Rebuffat until they went to the Himalayas on the 1950 expedition aimed at Annapurna.  It was an arduous trek into the base of the mountain, and even more difficult climbing it.  There was a movie made about the ascent, publicizing the climbers and the mountain perhaps to an egregious extent.  Lachenal and Herzog lost fingers and toes in this first ascent of a 26 thousand foot peak, Lionel suffered from show blindness, but the successful attempt inspired many nations to finance their own expeditions to the area, resulting in an important source of income for the native sherpas and in improving the quality of life of many of the Nepalese in general.

Terray went on more Himalayan expeditions and made victorious ascents in South America and Alaska.  He became a well-known figure, world-wide, and achieved recognition as an intrepid and fearless leader with excellent judgment and ability.  So there was a sense of irony in the fact that he finally was killed falling off a moderately easy climb in the Vercors range, close to the town of his birth.  He and Marc Martinetti were roped together and when they neared the top, for some reason they both fell.  So many climbers are killed by seemingly trivial accidents, it makes one wonder at the courage it must take to pursue such a difficult art.

I don’t know how good a writer Lionel was in the original French, but the translator, Sutton, certainly was an accomplished wordsmith.  His descriptions of the mountains and the various accidents and successes are riveting.  For us armchair mountaineers, he can’t be beat.


Patrick McManus (1933-2018)

This is a collection of the funniest short stories you’ll ever read.  McManus was raised on a small, more-or-less self-supporting farm near Sandpoint Idaho.  He paid his own way through college doing construction work and taught English at Eastern Washington State College for twenty years.  Then he wrote.

The first story features a new teacher at Delmore Blight Grade School, a young and enthusiastic Miss Deets.  One of Pat’s friends, Crazy Eddy Muldoon fell in love with her and at show and tell brought her a garter snake and a handful of night crawlers for a present.  Miss Deets resigned the next day.

Pigs tells the tale of Pat’s first ride on a large hog and goes on to give directions on coping with a station wagon full of stotes, with valuable advice on how to avoid messy and potentially dangerous situations while driving with one hand and fending off feral attacks with the other.  Dealing with police officers who have unreasonable prejudices against livestock in the driver’s seat is another useful explication.

Later we meet old Rancid Crabtree, the inhabitant of a disreputable shack sited at the end of an impassable dirt road, purveyor of valuable advice on fishing, hunting and other vices.  Pat’s grandma, in a weak moment, makes Rancid a nice thermos bottle of chicken noodle soup and has Pat and his friend Retch Sweeney take it to him in Miss Peabody, Pat’s “mountain car”:  a decrepit vehicle named after his first grade teacher.  Ms. Peabody, the teacher, decides to accompany them in order to visit an associate in the same vicinity.  She doesn’t complain at all about sitting on an old apple box while inhaling exhaust fumes from the non-existent muffler, but gets a bit upset about crossing a stream in high water on a bridge which is a foot deep under the raging element.  Later, at Rancid’s shack, Mr. Crabtree becomes irate at the soup because of the worms in it.

One winter Crazy Eddy and Pat manage to persuade Mr. Grogan, owner of the local war surplus store, to sell them a parachute for seven dollars.  He does, even though he’s apprehensive about being a contributing factor in a case of manslaughter.  But that’s not the situation al all;  all Pat and Eddy want to do is hitch the chute to their sled in order to put the constant winter winds to good purpose.  Mr. Crabtree becomes involved by contributing an old truck fender, which they agree would provide a better ride due to decreased friction than a sled would.  Rancid insists on trying out the apparatus first.  He straps the parachute cords around his waist and begins sliding down a hill.  The boys throw up the chute, it fills with wind and Rancid vanishes in a cloud of white.  Later, Eddy and Pat walk home, being treated with hot cocoa and muffins at a farm house when they get too cold.  A bit worried about Crabtree, they return to the shack the next day.  Rancid is lying in bed, covered with scratches and too sore to get up.  All he said was that it was a wonderful ride and he would have made it to the next county if he hadn’t accidentally been halted by a barbwire fence.

Wandering about looking for throwing rocks, Pat and Eddy practice aiming and fortuitously hit upon an abandoned chicken’s nest full of old eggs.  The smell is so powerful they can’t pass up the opportunity of making use of them, so they play war for a while, dodging from tree to tree and whooping whenever an egg splatters against the enemy.  Eddy seems to disappear for a while and Pat, hearing a noise in the brush, hurls his last egg, observing with some alarm, that the target had transformed itself into Eddy’s dad, who’d been looking for him.  Pat quietly practiced his indian skills and vacated the vicinity.

There are a lot more stories in this great book, and in McManus’s other volumes.  In fact, in this unpredictable and uncertain world, every intelligent and sensitive person should have a complete set of McManus’ work on the shelf to ward off and diminish unimportant and intrusive worldly ills.  Also, readers should invest in Mr. McManus’s series about Sheriff Bo Tully and his experiences interpreting the law according to his own lights.  There are six volumes in the latter sequence.   The first one is entitled “The Blight Way”.