Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Tsunami, a wedding, the French woman's weightlifting team and a Christian Jazz festival.

Ablai learning how to make a NZ BBQ.

Arrived in New Zealand last Tuesday from Jakarta for Ruia and Gavin's wedding at Hamner Springs on Friday.

It's ll a.m. on Sunday morning and the big wave generated by the Chilean Tsunami is beginning to hit the East Coast of the North Island and eastern parts of the South Island of New Zealand. Not far from where I am living in Christchurch, waves of up to 3 metres are expected to hit Bank's Peninsula in a few minutes. Large tsunamis affected this part of the NZ coastline twice in the last part of the 19th century, and again in early 20th century.

It's ironical that after working for five years on the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I come home for a break from Tsunami, and a Tsunami lashes New Zealand.

I just spoke to Peter Cameron , who is the regional Manager for Civil defence New Zealand's, South Island. Peter worked with me in 2006 and 2007 in Indonesia on the Tsunami operation so is no stranger to these disasters. He said the tsunami warning system has worked well and he hopes people " will not be tempted to go back to the coastline to have a look."

As I write, the main wave has hit the North Island and it seems from initial reports, it hasn't done much damage.

Ablai and I arrived in Christchurch last Tuesday and travelled to Hamner Springs on Thursday. I have great memories of Hamner where Harry Ayres and Mick Bowie, two of NZ's great mountain guides, retired to. Bob and Ablai, ready for the wedding

Ruia and Gav's wedding went really well and was a great family reunion. We also had a the French women's weightlifting team here, and a Christian Jazz festival in Hamner springs which added further sparkle.

What I have enjoyed very much during the wedding process, is meeting Gavin and Ruia's friends. They are strong and determined farming stock mainly from Southland and Otago. Typical is Gavin's best man, Richard, a giant of a fellow, who farms 35,000 stock units, which includes 30,000 sheep. I also found out that his wife, is the sister of the Southland Ranfurly shield captain, and All Black Jamie MacIntosh.

Richard and his mates put on a massive BBQ yesterday after the wedding, and we had the best lamb, beef and venison available in NZ. And as we drank Speight's Beer and ate delicious food, a Christian Jazz group played superb music next door. Unfortunately the French Women's weightlifting team never turned up, and I am sure they knew they would have been out lifted by these strong, frisky NZ farming lads, or spiritually uplifted by the Christian Jazz groups.

I have gotta run. Heading for Christchurch where we are going to watch the T 20 match between NZ and Oz, hen to Otipua (near Timaru) where Jonts and Anita have a farmlet. Hopefully from there to Mt Cook to take Ablai up the Tasman Glacier and introduce him to the Southern Alps. When we flew over the Alps last Tuesday near Arthur's Pass, Ablai exclaimed " Can we see more of those mountains Dad?" I have a promise to keep !

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Poor old Kipling, they're bashing him again!

I leave for New Zealand tomorrow. I was so relaxed and looking forward to the visit until I came across an article on the BBC website about Rudyard Kipling, saying that plans for a museum in Rudyard Kipling's Mumbai home commemorating the writer have been shelved following concerns that a memorial to the renowned imperialist and chronicler of the British Raj would be politically unpalatable. But is it time for Indians to reappraise him? It certainly is!

I love India and have enjoyed immensely the one and a half decades I have lived there, but I get infuriated when Indian's keep dishing out this Imperialist crap.

Like Ranjit Singh, who butchered millions of innocent people in the name of something, or those who engineered partition and millions were killed yet again, is it not time to accept they were a product of their time and should be accepted as a part of history ? Apart from Tagore, I would like someone to name an Indian historian, poet and writer better than Kipling.

Nearly 75 years after his death, the poet and author Rudyard Kipling remains as celebrated and controversial as ever.
The man who created the popular image - or myth - of the British Raj, has gone through somewhat of a renaissance in modern Britain.
His poem If - for so long virtually ignored by poetry experts and anthologies alike - topped a BBC poll as the greatest poem of all in 1995.
And in 2002, when his works came out of copyright, a flurry of cheap editions of Kipling's poetry and novels proved a popular attraction.
But, for Indians, the man praised by George Orwell as "a good bad poet" remains a divisive figure.

Aravind Adiga: 'Deep ambivalence to Kipling's work in India'
The Indian-born novelist Aravind Adiga, whose debut work The White Tiger garnered a Man Booker prize, is a long-time Kipling devotee. Indeed, he researched him while studying at Oxford.
Photo: Bob Mckerrow, Siliguri Zoo, India, 1972

And now, plans to turn the house in Mumbai where he was born in 1865 into a museum have been abandoned in the face of a huge political row. Kipling's birthplace is instead set to showcase paintings by local artists.
Mukund Gorashkar, who is leading the renovation project for the JSW Foundation, says "if we tried to convert it into a Kipling museum simply because Kipling was born there, that would ruffle quite a few feathers.
"In the political storm, you may find that the conservation effort would be set aside."

Kipling's works were celebrated by the Royal Mail in 2002
Kipling was born in the Dean's bungalow which nestles in the grounds of the JJ School of Art, one of the many jewels of what was then Victorian Bombay.
And his childhood experiences in the city inspired one of Kipling's best-known and loved characters, the boy spy Kim.
Mr Gorashkar said that municipal government officials with whom he had spoken had strongly discouraged him from referring to the building as "Kipling's House", insisting that it should be called by its original name, "Dean's House".
Some of Kipling's work, including lines like "And a woman is only a woman; but a good cigar is a Smoke'', jar with critics today. But the debate surrounding their actual meaning remains active and vigorous.
For instance, one of his most famous poems, which begins: "Take up the White Man's Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed" does not refer to British Imperialism at all but celebrates the US occupation of Cuba and the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War.
It may well be that, as the columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft once put it: "to his detractors, Kipling's real sin isn't that he is politically incorrect so much as that he is so readable".
Even so, it is hard to put any sort of revisionist spin on aphorisms like "a man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race, and breed."
Andrew Lycett, Kipling's biographer and whose latest work, Kipling Abroad, has just hit the bookshops, believes that India has a love-hate relationship with the writer.
"It was the wellspring of his imagination. But I can well understand why Indians look askance at him in this day and age. He was an imperialist. He was not a supporter of Indian nationalism.

Kipling's works were celebrated by the Royal Mail in 2002

"On the other hand, he was the first great Indian writer writer in the English language. He was of English stock.
"The British are still trying to make up their mind about Kipling."

Aravind Adiga: 'Deep ambivalence to Kipling's work in India'
The Indian-born novelist Aravind Adiga, whose debut work The White Tiger garnered a Man Booker prize, is a long-time Kipling devotee. Indeed, he researched him while studying at Oxford.
He believes that "it's odd how little of his work is known in India.
"There has been such an explosion of Indian writing in English that Kipling is not read very much any more," he says, adding that Indian readers today prefer writers like Jeffrey Archer.
"People who study Indian literature at universities whether in India or abroad are very political," he added. "But the people who actually buy books and read them in India don't really care.
"There has always been a deep ambivalence to Kipling because of his dislike of Indians who read and speak in English. His deep antipathy towards people in Calcutta who are university-educated means that he's in trouble because it's those people who now read in English in India."
But Mr Adiga said that Kipling had a "deep love" of India's forests and that his jungle tales presented a picture of "a part of India that is now quickly vanishing".
As Orwell pointed out in an oft-quoted essay, Kipling was not just a writer but someone who added phrases to the English language.
But could it be that, for the man who wrote "what do they know of England who only England know?"; "the female of the species is more deadly than the male" and "you'll be a man, my son", a more lasting theme may be "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"?

Thanks to the BBC for permission to run parts of their article.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Al Lavelle, John Vann and Lamar McFadden "Mac" Prosser, - South Vietnam icons/iconoclasts

Al Lavelle leaning on one of the two aircraft he owned and piloted regularly. Al mastered aerial acrobatics and stunts in his specially designed planes, but some of the best stunts he pulled, was working for USAID in South Vietnam.Al taught me a stunt or two, but above all he taught me to put people first, and deal with the bean counters in HQs later.

I was 22 years old, going 23, when I first met Al Lavelle, in Qui Nhon, South Vietnam in 1971.

Two months earlier I had returned to New Zealand after spending 13 months in Antarctica with three other men, and I was looking for work overseas with a humanitarian organisation. Luckily I was interviewed and accepted to join the 4th New Zealand Red Cross Refugee Welfare Team, working with displaced people in South Vietnam.

Al Lavelle and our New Zealand Red Cross team worked with Montagnard (hill tribes) internally displaced people photographed below.

The photo of our team is above L to R. Simon Evans, Bob Mckerrow, Andrianne Lattimore, John Gordon and Peter Barnes.

I had only been in Qui Nhon a few days when I met Al, a sturdy barrel-chested second generation Irish-American. He wore an Hawaiin shirt, partially buttoned up with a mass of greying hair growing over the top button, and a black hat with a coloured hat-band woven by Montagnard women. Al would have been 51 then and in fine physical shape. Over the next year Al became a sort of guru to me, and introduced me to reality of working in war zones, and what humanitarian aid was, and how the line between aid, politics and war was blurred.

Al was an advisor to USAID on refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). More than anyone else in my life, it was Al who made me realise that the Red Cross with its seven principles which includes neutrality, impartiality and independence, needed to keep a certain distance from gun-slinging USAID workers, and the many US soldiers that surrounded us. He was a generous man with a heart of gold, and found his true calling working with IDPs and refugees.

Saigon i (below)n the 1971, the Paris of the East. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Many children in South Vietnam lost legs and arms by stepping on landmines. Frequently we would find injured children in villages and bring them back to Qui Nhon to have limbs fitted. Here is a young boy I brought back and after two months, was playing football. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I slowly got to know Al Lavelle during 1971, sitting in his trailer hut, sometimes drinking Budweiser or Jack Daniels, or just sitting on the beach and hearing his stories. We did a number of field trips together, to Van Canh and Bong Song where I was supervising the construction of two schools.

The first trip I did with Al was to An Khe, in the central highlands. We were about 5 km from An Khe pass when the US forces launched an all out aerial attack on Vietcong position near the pass. As an array of helicopters swooped in for the attack, Al would excitedly tell me, "That's a Cobra," or " That's a Huey or Chinook." Al would stop his olive green Jeep by the road side and explain to me the intracacies of laying landmines and show me claymores and other booby trap mines..

Another trip I did with Al was from Qui Nhon to Pleiku, where I met the man he admired most, John Vann (photo right), a fellow pilot and an inconoclast like Al.
Vann was an impressive man, a man in a hurry with a mission to right the wrongs of the US Government in South Vietnam.
Lavelle served on staff of the famous John Paul Vann in Southeast Asia working in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. That is when I met Al. He was staunchly loyal to his country but was disenchanted by the direction his Government was taking in Vietnam, and that is why he had a huge amount of respect for, and hope, for John to fix it. I recall the day John Vann became Al's boss when he was appointed commander of II Corp in about April 1971. He excitedly told me " John Vann has just been appointed to get this war back on track, he'll show them."

Montagnard refugees in Pleiku where I first met John Vann in 1971 and where I worked in 1973-74 for one year. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Vann's wit and iconoclasm did not endear him to many military and civilian careerists, but to Al Lavelle and many young civilian and military officers he became a hero as he understood the limits of conventional warfare in the irregular environment of Vietnam, and dare to chellenge his superiors.Vann was assigned to South Vietnam in 1962 as an advisor to Col. Huynh Van Cao, commander of the ARVN 7th Division. In the thick of the anti-guerrilla war against the Viet Cong Vann became aware of the ineptitude with which the war was being prosecuted, in particular the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac, January 2, 1963. Vann, directing the battle from a spotter plane overhead, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in taking enemy fire. He attempted to draw public attention to the problems, through press contacts such as New York Times reporter David Halberstam, focusing much of his ire on the US commander in the country, MACV chief Gen. Paul D. Harkins.

1971 saw a scaling down of US troops, but the roads of South Vietnam were dotted with US military equipment. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Vann was forced from his advisor position in March 1963 and left the Army within a few months. He returned to Vietnam in March 1965 as an official of the Agency for International Development (AID). When I arrived in Vietnam in 1971 Vann was assigned as the senior American advisor in II Corps Military Region when the war was winding down and troops were being withdrawn. For that reason, his new job put him in charge of all United States personnel in his region, where he advised the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Commander to the region and became the first American civilian to command U.S. regular troops in combat. His position was the job of a Major General.

The meeting of man and moment: John Paul Vann (white shirt) and his staff at their Pleiku headquarters

Al Lavelle was thrilled to be working for John Vann again and served him loyally he advising him on internally displaced people and refugees that were noving back and forth between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Al Lavelle knew so much about IDPs, refugees and used to regail me with stories of his work with refugees and quote UN refugee conventions. His hero John Vann was killed after the Battle of Kontum , when his helicopter crashed in 1972. Al Lavelle lost one of his most respected friends and colleague.

Journalist Neil Sheehan wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam history and biography of Vann, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in his book, Sheehan describes Vann as an ardent critic of how the war was fought, both on the part of the Saigon regime, which he viewed as corrupt and incompetent, and, as time went by, increasingly, on the part of the U.S. military. In particular, he was critical of the U.S. military command, especially under William Westmoreland, and their inability to adapt to the fact that they were facing a popular guerrilla movement while backing a corrupt regime. He argued that many of the tactics employed (for example the strategic hamlet relocation) further alienated the population and thus were counterproductive to U.S. objectives. In the late 90's a movie was made about John Vann's time in Vietnam. Al Lavelle used to quote Vann and one of his favourites was
"If it were not for the fact that Vietnam is but a pawn in the larger East-West confrontation, and that our presence here is essential to deny the resources of this area to Communist China, then it would be damned hard to justify our support of the existing government." Like Vann, Al Lavelle was unhappy with the way his Government closed a blind eye to the high levels of corruption and gross inefficiencies of the Government of South Vietnam.

This is a typical village that Al Lavelle and I worked in on the road between Pleiku and An Khe. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Returning from Vietnam, Lavelle became an educator teaching languages and world history for 23 years at Roosevelt High School and at the Junior College level.

He was one of only three U.S. teachers selected to teach in the then Soviet Union during the first year of D├ętente. The exchange was meant to ease tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.


Last night when looking at my Vietnam photos to post with this story, I began to realise most of the montagnard women were topless At the time, I never noticed it. I do now !

He taught at the University of Foreign Languages in Kiev Ukraine in 1975. Lavelle was often called upon to lecture at various colleges and universities because his knowledge of the Soviet Union was quite extensive and at that time few Americans had really been inside the so-called Iron Curtain.

Al Lavelle, my good friend Mac Lama Prossers, myself any many others who worked with the Montagnard people in South Vietnam, were grief stricken to learn that after taking over South Vietnam in 1975,  the communist government had many religious and political Montagnard leaders executed or imprisoned in harsh re-education camps while simultaneously instituting a policy of cultural destruction and forced assimilation on our population. Examples include the Montagnard Senator Ksor Rot who was publicly executed in 1975 and Minister Nay Luett (who was subjected to torture) and died in a re-education (forced labor/concentration) camp in the 1980s.

The origins of the Montagnard persecution stems from several historical factors namely, the alliance many Montagnards had with the United States military during the Vietnam War and the intent by the current communist regime to exploit the ancestral homelands of the Montagnards in the manner that indigenous peoples around the globe have all suffered by modern encroachment. History will show that it was people like Vann who were part of the US military effort that supported the Montagnards. also influenced the North Vietnamese distrust and dislike for the Montagnards.

Al Lavelle and I were close to Nay Luett the then Minister of Ethnic Minorities and I was very proud that on my departure from Vietnam in 1974, Nay Luett presented me the Ethnic minorities medal first class for the work the New Zealand Red Cross team had done in the for the Montagnard people of Central Highlands of Vietnam for many years. Somewhere I have the medal with the head of an elephant on the ribbon.


During his long and active life, Lavelle pursued his hobbies excelling in competitive acrobatic flying, wood working, painting, music, writing his memoires, and contributing his interviews on Vietnam to Texas Tech University – The Vietnam Archives, Special Collections Library, Rm. 108, Lubbock, TX.

Somewhere round 1999 Al had heart surgery, sold his planes, and ended his flying.
It was Al's last wish that there be no flowers, cards, funeral service or memorial service.

He requested that donations be made to a charity of one's choice. His last Hurrah was: God Bless America, Erin Go Braugh (Free Ireland), Help Russia and the Ukraine become Democratic, followed by God Help Us All.

Allen Silberman  a freind of Al's wrote this tribute: Your comments about Al Lavelle accurately portrayed the man and his ability to see through the facade of politics and war. He was a true humanitarian, a dedicated teacher, a true aviation enthusiast, and most of all the best friend I ever had. During our 40 year friendship we flew many hours together, watched night air strikes, walked into Viet Cong villages together, and spent many hours before the war sitting on his front lawn talking politics and sharing flying stories. Thanks for writing the blog. Al had been a special part of our family since the mid 1960's.

He is survived by his wife of 12 years, Margarita T. Belous-Lavelle; daughters: Jean Antoinette Villarreal and husband, Rogelio of San Antonio, TX; Sheila Marie Lavelle and husband, Steven Tysver of Gloucester, MA; Dawn Lee Miyasaki and husband, Mitsuyuki of New York, NY; grandchildren: Laura A. Cross of Knoxville, TN; Ruth Villarreal of Austin, TX and Roger Villarreal of San Antonio, TX.

Allan J. Lavelle
Born in Denver, Colorado on 15 July. 1920
Died Jun. 15, 2008 and resided in San Antonio, Texas.

I met Il Lavelle and John Vann during my first mission to Vietnam in 1971. I was ar an age when I needed mentors and could I have asked for better ?  I came back again in 1973 and stayed fior another year, leaving in September 1974.  By 1973, the American troops had departed. However the CIA and USAID still had large num,bers of staff.

Lamar McFadden "Mac" Prosser

Then I met Lamar McFadden "Mac" Prosser,  another one of these intriguing characters who was on the South Vietnam and Indo China landscape for many years. Born in 1922, Mac as we knew him, was a polished, suave diplomat, whio I first met in Pleiku in 1973.  Mac impressed me with his work for the International Red Cross in the Congo, and a spell pushing papers in Geneva at Red Cross HQ.  He began his military service in 1940 when the South Carolina National Guard was activated. He served in the 760th Tank Battalion in North Africa, Italy and Germany during World War II.

The New Zealand Red Cross IDP team worked in Pleiku for more than two years, and Mac was always there to support, give advice and encourage. He had loved his time working for Red Cross for a few years during a long military and humanitarian career, and was impressed with the community development work we were doing.

I spent many a long evening with Mac, enjoying his never-endingd hospitality and unlimited duty free grog, discussibng thr world's problems. His knowledge on community development was extensive and we learned from him..

Mac served in Italy and we talked about the various battles including Monte Cassino where my Dad fought. Mac was wounded in Italy but returned to duty four months later. After the war, he served in Indochina and then retired from military service in 1961. He immediately joined AID and had assignments in Chad, Geneva, Bangkok and Saigon, and after his stint in Pleiku 1973-74. moved to Saigon as an advisor to the US Ambassador. Mac was happy in Saigon, because his wife was working for the US Embassy. He retired from AID in 1982.

Mac died at the age of 77 of pulmonary disease on July 21, 1998 at Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, D.C. His wife Katherine, died in 1996.

To John Vann, Al Lavelle and Max Prosser. I thank you. From you guys I learned about war, humanity, peace, and above all, putting people first.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Blood and floods - Indonesia

Sadly, we have floods again in Jakarta and late yesterday I visited thousands of homeless people sleeping in makeshift Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) camps, under bridges and on roadsides. The Indonesian Red Cross is out there helping with rescue, accommodation, food and clothing. It was a pleasure to accompany the recently elected Chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) Jusuf Kalla, and to see his commitment to strengthening the PMI nation-wide.

Families evacuated from flooded areas sheltering in an old warehouse in east Jakarta: Photo: Bob McKerrow
PMI volunteers from flood-affected areas of East Jakarta preparing food packages for distribution. Photo: Bob McKerrow
A mother and child who were rescued from the roof of a flooded house by young PMI volunteers (right) in an inflatable boat. Photo: Bob McKerrow

During the last 8 days I have travelled with Jusuf Kalla, new Chairman PMI, Pak Budi secretary general, and a number of board members and staff, to 8 provinces of Indonesia's 33 provinces, on four different islands. We visited Surabaya and Jakarta provinces on Java, Makassar, Mamuju and Kendari on Sulawesi, and Jambi and Riau on Sumatra and the Bangka and Belitung islands, off Sumatra.
Jusuf Kalla has a clear vision as Chairman PMI and that is one of expanding the quantity and quality of the PMI national blood programme and strengthening readiness for disaster response. Jusuf Kalla sees blood as a vital component of risk reduction.

Jusuf Kalla inspecting PMI blood bank in Pangkal Pinang. Photo: Bob McKerrow

He has set a target of 4 x 4 ? No it's not a Land cruiser, but it stands for reaching a target of having 4 million units of blood for four days at any one time, all the time, in Indonesia. Apart from servicing the growing day to day demand for blood, it will provide a huge buffer stock in times of emergencies, which asre frequent in this country which is a Supermarket of disasters.

Blood must be screened and tested with utmost accurancy. The Blood bank in Pangkal Pinang.

In this enormous island nation comprising 17,500 islands , and where it takes seven hours to fly from the eastern extremity to the remotest north western corner, the task ahead of the Chairman is daunting. During the past eight days in travelling with him, I have witnessed a strong compassionate man with a vision, a mission and an iron will to complete things quickly. Like Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Sonia Gandhi, Jusuf Kalla has the walk about charisma. He loves people, he loves his country while keeping a global overview, and with his passion, contacts, networks and business acumen, he has the team to assist him to reshape the humanitarian landscape of Indonesia. Below I have posted a few photographs to illustrate some of the lighter moments of our trip in the past eight days.
Young women greeted us in Bangka Belitung province by throwing flower petals over us and displaying traditional dance. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In Jambi we were welcomed by young dancers in traditional dress. Photo: Wayne Ulrich

On the trip to Sumatra, Jusuf Kalla travelled with his wife. To her surprise, someone produced a birthday cake and we celebrated her birthday. Photo: Bob McKerrow
One of Jusuf Kalla's great strengths is his ability to undertake arduous field trips to motivate Indonesian Red Cross volunteers and to share his vision. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Mosque in Makassar.

The countryside in Sulawesi is green and fertile.

A small party on the plane for Ebu Jusuf Kalla's birthday. Photo: Bob McKerrow

With Jusuf Kalla, in the centre wearing a white shirt. The Ambulance behind, was donated by a local businessman in Pangkal Pinang.

I travelled with Pak Budi SG of the PMI (right) and Peder Damm from the Danish Red Cross (left) and on other trips, colleagues from the French and Canadian Red Cross joined us too.

Gong Xi Fa Chai ! The Year of the Tiger

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height!

William Shakespeare - King Henry V

To all my Chinese and other Asian friends and colleagues out there celebrating the Chinese New Year tonight, Gong Xi Fa Chai
"wishing you enlarge your wealth."

My apartment building has Chinese New Year decorations everywhereand Jakarta is a blaze of colour, awaiting midnight.
It is such an exciting time.

In Chinese Astrology 2010 is The Year of the Tiger. The Year of the Tiger starts on 14 February 2010 and ends on 02 February 2011.

The Chinese Horoscope uses the lunar calendar and the Chinese New Year falls somewhere between late January and mid-February. The Chinese name their years after one of twelve animal signs that follow one another in a specific order, which is repeated over twelve years.

These Chinese Zodiac signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. As with western Astrology, every Chinese Birth Sign has a particular character and qualities and people born in a specific year are believed to take on the character and qualities of the animal after which the year is named.
The Tiger is the third sign in the Chinese Horoscope and signifies bravery. The Tiger was admired by the ancient Chinese as the sign that kept away the three main tragedies of a household, which were fire, thieves and ghosts.

Gong Xi Fa Chai
"wishing you enlarge your wealth."

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Anatoli Boukreev - the mountain iconoclast

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion...I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.

These words written by Anatoli Boukreev are featured on his memorial chorten (above) at the Annapurna base-camp in Nepal, under the peak he died on 25 December 1997 while attempting a bold new route.

During the past six months I have got back into reading about the world’s great mountaineers spanning the 30 years from Herman Buhl, to Reinhold Messner, and from 1986 up until today. On 16 October 1986, when Reinhold Messner stood on the top of Lhotse, he became the first man to stand atop all the world’s 14, 8000 metre peaks. What was there left to do ? If someone asked me "who do you think was the greatest?" I would struggle with my choice, but somehow Anatoli Boukreev would be near the top, possibly on the top, slightly ahead of Messner. It is his sincerity, honesty, humility and simple love of the mountains, when added to his remarkable physical achievements at high altitude, brings him to the forefront of great mountaineers. These qualities that Boukreev possessed, gave him an uncompromising attitude, some saw him as abrasive, to high altitude climbing. The way he looked after himself, monitored his performance, and the performance of others, gave him the ability to care for others under extreme situations.
Anatoli Boukreev lived in a small alpine village, at about 3000 metres, above Almaty in Kazakhstan. The village is home to small farmers and mountaineers and is situated above the famous skifield, Chimbulak. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Brought up in the hard school of Soviet climbing, he developed a resilience which few western mountaineers could match. If you take a look at his ascents in the Soviet Union in the late 80s, in addition to Himalayan ascents in the same years, they are simply remarkable.

Peak Pobeda, First Winter Ascent, 7400 meters
First Solo Speed Ascent, Khan Tengri, 7005 meters
First Solo Speed Ascents, Peak Pobeda, 7439 meters
(Khan Tengri, Peak Pobeda and Peak Lenin) are extremely difficult 'massive mountains')
First Place, Mt. Elbrus speed Ascent, 5642 meters,
Record Time, I hour, 40 minutes

Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan. 7,008 metres.

First Place Mt. Elbrus Speed Ascent, 5642 meters,
Master of Sport with Honors and Order of Personal Courage,
Awarded by President Gorbachev, USSR
1987First Round Trip Speed Ascent of Peak Lenin, 7137 meters, 14 hours.

During this period he was coach of the Russian women's cross country ski team where he honed his scientific training with his knowledge of physiology and got outstanding results.

                                                         Anatoli Boukreev

His extraordinary stamina was demonstrated most dramatically in 1996 on Everest, when he reached the summit as a commercial guide to one of several teams caught by a fierce storm on the evening of 10 May. Despite climbing without supplementary oxygen, Boukreev was moving more strongly than most of his fellow guides and had descended to the shelter of Camp 4 at the South Col before the storm struck. He was later criticised fiercely for abandoning clients and colleagues, four of whom died above the South Col. However, the critics glossed over the fact that later that night Boukreev repeatedly left the safety of his tent, risking his life to fight through the blizzard and rescue another group of climbers stranded a few hundred yards from the tents.

Anatoli Boukreev (l) on the summit of Everest holding the Kazakh flag.

That rescue mission at 8,000 metres, by a man who had just climbed to the summit of Everest without oxygen, was remarkable enough. Even more extraordinary was Boukreev's action the following day, when he climbed back up to 8,400 metres, in a forlorn attempt to help his American colleague Scott Fischer. It was too late, for his friend had already died, but Boukreev was able to bring back some mementos for Fischer's family. After a memorial service at base camp, in one final gesture of defiance, Boukreev demonstrated his phenomenal stamina by speeding back up to make a one-day ascent of Everest's neighbour Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world.
Anatoli Boukreev was born in 1958, in the Russian Urals, but spent much of his life in Kazakhstan, adopting dual citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a mountaineer he made his name in a series of bold, fast ascents in the Caucasus and Tien Shan ranges, whilst earning his living as ski coach to the Russian women's cross-country ski team.
Although he was later to earn a reputation as an individual iconoclast, his first big Himalayan success, in 1989, was as part of a meticulously organised Soviet team on the world's third highest mountain, Kang-chenjunga. The expedition, which received little recognition in the West, made the first continuous traverse of Kangchenjunga's four highest summits.
Boukreev lived in a small village, high above the Medeo alpine skating rink and Chimbulak ski field, in the Tien Shan mountains overlooking the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In the interests of safety, Boukreev and his companions used supplementary oxygen but in subsequent ascents of 10 of the world's 14 8,000-metre peaks, Boukreev eschewed this artificial aid. His refusal to use bottled oxygen even when guiding clients on Everest drew criticism from fellow guides, who argued that this rendered him less fit to help his charges. His bravery on the South Col in 1996 - and his actions in 1995, when he waited two hours on the summit until all his clients had started to descend - would seem to refute those criticisms.

In any case, as he stated in 1997 before leading another team on Everest, no guide can guarantee safety at extreme altitude: "I offer my experience for hire. I will advise a group of people on how to reach the summit and I will help them, but I cannot be responsible for their safety. They understand that."
Those uncompromising words may seem unpalatable, but they are an honest assessment of reality on the world's highest peaks.

After months of coaching a totally inexperienced Indonesian Everest expedition, his training, selection, motivation and coaching, got three pof them to the summit of Everest in early 1997 under his watchful eye. He had moved from guide to mentor and coach.
Anatoli Boukreev seemed to be locked into that world of extreme adventure and on 25 December 1997, his luck ran out when an avalanche swept him to his death. He had just started up a new route, in winter, on the gigantic South Face of Annapurna - a typically audacious project for a man who will be remembered as one of the world's toughest mountaineers.

I met Anatoli Boukreev when I lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, from 1996 to 1999. When in Kazakhstan, Anatoli lived in a small alpine village above the ski field of Chimbulak, at just below 3,000 metres, and not far from peaks posted below.

Talgar Peak, 5017 m, is one of the northernmost peaks in the Tien Shan, the most northern "five-thousand metre" mountain in Asia. Anatoli Bookreev lived in a small alpine village below this range.
This village is a weekend haven for many working mountaineers who live in the foothills of the Tien Shan in Almaty, and every Friday night either walk the four hours to their alpine huts from Almaty or drive.

I fondly recall spending Christmas and New Years day (1996-97) with my good mates Sergy and Yuri,(right) their families and other Kazakh and Russian mountaineers in their club huts ( see photo below) consuming large amounts of Vodka, horse meat and intestines, the staple of Kazakhstan. Outside at least a metre of snow covered the ground offering superb skiing.
It was here I first met Anatoly Boukreev, and was impressed by this strong, quiet mountaineer.
Spending days with Kazakhstani mountaineers and their extended families in the alpine huts in the Tien Shans while blizzards rage outside, was a warm and close experience. It was amazing to find in your midst those who have scaled Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalau, Dhalagauri, and to hear them speaking modestly of significant climbs in most ranges of the world. I was also impressed bt their fanatical approach to fitness and love of speed climbing.
Talgar Peak, near Almaty Kazakhstan. Boukreev did a lot of training on this and surrounding peaks, and being just over 5000 m, offered good altitude training.
A year later when I was in New Zealand, I got the tragic news that Anatoli had been caught in an avalanche on Christmas Day 1997, while on the South Face of Annapurna. Immediately, his fellow Kazakh climbers led by Rinat Khaibullin flew from Almaty - Tashkent - Delhi – Kathmandu and joined a search party. Anatoli’s body was never found. When I returned to Almaty I spoke to Rinat Khaibullin about Anatoli's death and the unsuccessful rescue. It was a great loss for mountaineering in Kazakhstan, Russia and the world. The South face of AnnapurnaWeston DeWalt's who co-authored Boukreev’s book the climb, said this about Boukreev when he died.
I met Anatoli Nikoliavich Boukreev on May 28, 1996, eighteen days after the tragedy on Mount Everest. When I heard his story and those of the other survivors I recalled a quote that I had tacked over my desk more than five years before. The words are those of Andrey Tarkovsky, a Russian film director. He said, "I am interested above all in the character who is capable of sacrificing himself and his way of life — regardless of whether that sacrifice is made in the name of spiritual values, or the sake of someone else, or of his own salvation, or of all these things together. Such behavior precludes, by its very nature, all of those selfish interests that make up a "normal" rationale for action; it refutes the laws of a materialistic world view. It is often absurd and impractical.

And yet — or indeed for that very reason — the man who acts in this way brings about fundamental changes in people's lives and in the course of history. The space he lives in becomes a rare, distinctive point of contrast to the empirical concepts of our experience, an area where reality — I would say — is all the more strongly present."

Anatoli Boukreev, in my experience, was one of those characters, and I am honored to have collaborated in his effort to tell his story.