Reliving the big adventure

David Peckett (left) and John Driskell with their book and scrapbooks.
David Peckett (left) and John Driskell with their book and scrapbooks.

ON a cold Sheffield afternoon, John Driskell and David Peckett were marvelling at the photograph of their Land Rover and their companions taken 44 years ago showing Christmas Day in the desert sun.

John, David and three fellow teachers spent Christmas night ‘camping out completely alone beneath the incredible night skies of the Iranian desert.’

Their photo forms part of the story of the nine-month journey of five students of Sheffield Training College, who after graduation resolved to save a quarter of their salary every month for three years to fund an adventure across the world.

“We saved £10 a month out of our salary of £40,” said John Driskell. “It stopped me drinking!”

The cost of £300 each funded the Land Rover, petrol, food and all the travel expenses for the five teachers (David, John, Less Simms, Pam Archer and Johnny Rudd) from the farm just outside Barnsley, where David Peckett lived, to the base camp at the foot of Mount Everest.

“We went through the Iron Curtain, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal and the poverty was mind-boggling,” said John. “We experienced living in the Middle Ages but it was a thrill from start to finish.”

In 2010, John and David had an email correspondence: “They now have luxury trekking lodges in the Himalaya,’ John noted. “And there’s a road... which must cross the path we trekked several times. What do you think? I’m getting a little excited!”

“You have ruined my life if you’re suggesting what I think you are!” responded David. “I’m an old man thinking my travelling days are over and then you come up with something irresistible.”

The result of those emails was that David joined Les Simms and John and their wives Chris and Jill to revisit the final 300-mile return trek of 1967/68, from Kathmandu to the Everest base camp.

They took new photographs of the locations they visited almost half a century ago, and digitised their original slides and diaries, and it’s now all now come together in a book (officially published in February) Everest The Old Way, which uses the original diaries to describe the nature of Nepal and Himalayan trekking in the 1960s. ‘A unique record of its time’ says Sir Chris Bonington in the foreword.

“We thought old age has arrived and wow, I’ve got to do it now,” said David. “And we thought the book would provide continual interest for us, if no-one else.”

In fact, the book has already gone into its second reprint, attracting interest from trekkers old and new, since that journey has turned into a tourist route. “We saw four other trekkers in the month we went but now there might be 1,000 people when you get to base camp,” said David.

David and John took a folder of old photos during their visit in 2010.

“Everywhere we went, they flocked round, because they’d never seen photos of their village in the past,” said David, who recently won a national newspaper travel writing competition with his account of the two journeys.

His own achievement in 1967/68 were remarkable: as a boy he’d spent three years in hospital after an injury on his parents’ farm which left him with one leg shorter than the other and no movement in one hip. He started each day of the 300-mile Himalayan trek early and spent much of his time looking down, checking his footing.

“I looked at a lot of mica crystals,” he said. “But when I got there I could stand at base camp and say I’d overcome it. I haven’t played for England or played for Yorkshire at cricket but by God I’m stood here at the foot of Everest in 1968, and very few people could say that.”

The diaries record in detail the life of the trekkers and the people they visited in the mountain villages of Nepal, and the ‘little medieval city of Kathmandu’, which, said John, you could easily walk across in 1968, but has now grown 50 or 60 times to a ‘mammoth urban sprawl.’

In 1967, there were no mod cons. “No electricity, no beds, no toilets, no running water, often no glass in the windows.”

The party were supported by Sherpas who found them a hut every night, sometimes sleeping with the animals, or, if they were lucky, in an upstairs room with everyone else: 21 people in one case.

The Sherpa and porter were an important part of the story and John found the porter, Kamen, inspirational.

“He was a tremendous bloke, and had such a simple life. All he had was a jacket, a pullover and trousers. He would carry 80lbs for us, barefoot through the snow, up and down ridges one and half times as high as Ben Nevis, with no complaining.”

The party would go to bed at dusk and rise again at six (sometimes after a cockerel perched above their head began crowing two hours earlier).

Food was simple – increasing quantities of rice as the trek continued, porridge, tea, occasional eggs and ‘pot-a-twos’ and ‘tom-a-twos’ (potatoes and tomatoes).

Their final arrival at the foot of Everest was marred by altitude sickness but something none of the party would forget.

As John Driskell noted in his diary: “We felt thoroughly exhausted but nonetheless sat there spellbound.”

lA Bright Remembering – Everest The Old Way is published by Bannister Publishing at £25. Tel: 01709 872710.