A journey back in time – and along a road leading to the roof of the world

John Driskell and David Peckett with their book 'Everest the Old Way'  Picture by Chris Lawton
John Driskell and David Peckett with their book 'Everest the Old Way' Picture by Chris Lawton
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ON November 6, 1967, David Peckett, John Driskell, Les Simms, John Rudd and Pam Archer left Barnsley in a Land Rover to embark on an epic journey that would take them behind the Iron Curtain and into Iran, Afghanistan and India, and on a gruelling trek from Kathmandu to Everest.

The five friends, who had met at Sheffield’s teacher training college (now part of Sheffield Hallam University), had each saved £300 – which paid for the car, petrol, food and all their expenses until they returned to the UK the following summer. Last year, two members of this intrepid expedition, John and David, armed with their original diaries and an ocean of memories returned to Nepal to retrace part of their trek from Kathmandu to Jiri. With the help of photographs they had taken on their initial trip they were able to pinpoint different places they had visited.

When they returned they decided to write about their experiences and last month their self-published book, Everest The Old Way – A Bright Remembering, came out with a foreword from Sir Chris Bonington. “We just wanted it for ourselves really as a record of where we’d been on this incredible journey,” says John. Although the book focuses on their 27-day trek to Everest, their eight-month journey is just as much part of the story. These days such exotic trips aren’t uncommon but in 1967 they certainly were, so much so that even the Yorkshire Post’s People column covered the story noting their departure in “a field car which they bought for £300.”

David and John, in particular, had travelled extensively across Europe and were eager to explore further afield and having saved up for two years they, along with their three friends, had enough money for the trip.

“We were never going to be great explorers and get finance from the Royal Geographical Society so we had to raise the money ourselves. I think we were probably among the first people to take a gap year,” says John.

“The world was opening up. It was very different to what it is today,” explains David. “Suddenly there was a chance to do things and see places that previous generations weren’t able to. Now, you just pick up the phone and you can arrange trips to the most remote places but you couldn’t do that then.”

After crossing the English Channel they made their way across Europe, travelling through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and then across to Istanbul and into Asia.

They stayed in places for a couple of days before moving on. “The journey was the important thing and we were going to travel until our money ran out, that was the aim,” says David. “There was no clear programme until we got to Kathmandu, when it became evident that we could make the trek to Everest.”

The weather they encountered along the way was a far cry from what they were used to in Yorkshire. “We camped in minus 25 degrees centigrade in eastern Turkey and coming back through Lahore it was extremely hot. I showered my sleeping bag so it was wet to get in because it was over 100 degrees.” But if the temperatures were stifling at times, the scenery was awe-inspiring. “We spent Christmas on the Persian Gulf and went to Bandar-Abbas but it was too hot and there were flies pestering us so we decided to head off into the desert and we climbed a peak on Boxing Day where we were completely alone. It was absolutely breathtaking,” says John.

Throughout their journey they were touched by the kindness of strangers. “I loved the deserts, the solitude, the clear night skies and just absorbing the landscape. We met people, times many, who were incredibly kind and helpful, especially in Iran,” says David. “Our journey to the Persian Gulf was on farm tracks. The maximum speed over three days was 10mph and we drove for 10 hours each day, but the scenery was fantastic. The mountains were incredible and we stumbled upon forts in the desert where we camped outside and the soldiers would come out with water for us and in one place they even gave up their beds for us, they were so generous and hospitable.”

No matter where they stayed, whether it was towns and cities or remote deserts, they encountered the same warmth from people. “We just pulled up at the end of the day and put our tents up. In Esfahan they let us put our tents up in the hotel grounds. For an Englishman it was fairly warm but a guy came out and said, ‘it’s much too cold, come inside’ and he didn’t charge us any more for a room than for camping, that kind of thing happened all the time.”

Apart from one incident when they were held for several hours by a group of mujahideen near Kabul they said they never felt threatened.

“We went from Iran through Balochistan, which is now where the Taliban are thought to be, and came back through Afghanistan and camped in the desert.

“One night we saw some lights which turned out to be some tribesmen with these great, weather-beaten faces who came to our camp.

“We couldn’t communicate with them but we gave them some cocoa and we got out our musical instruments and played and sang a little and then they wandered off into the night.”

After reaching Kathmandu in February, 1968, they decided they would trek to Everest. For David this was a particularly tough challenge as he had been struck down with TB as a youngster and spent three years in hospital until he was 15 which had left him with a limp. John admits they weren’t sure how he would cope with the conditions. “I was an Outward Bound instructor and one of the other guys was a PE teacher so you would expect us to have been able to do this trek. Two of the others weren’t into climbing and although David had done some mountain walking in the Alps, we didn’t know whether he’d be up to it day after day without recourse to a hospital. But he got his head down and just did it. In fact, in the end it was the two of us who considered ourselves the fit ones who got altitude sickness.”

They employed a sherpa and a Nepalese porter to help to carry their equipment and after trekking for almost a month they reached Kala Pattar (18,200 ft) on March 5. “This was the place to get the best views of Everest but when we got there it was a grey, murky day and it was like being in the Cairngorms. We all felt quite depressed because we’d come all this way and couldn’t see Everest. Snow was predicted that night but when we woke up the next morning it was crystal clear, it was the clearest day of our whole trip so we were really lucky.”

Because of political friction between India and China, climbing expeditions up Everest were banned at the time which added to the sense of solitude. “When we reached Kala Pattar there wasn’t a sign of human beings having been there,” says John, “but my son went there last year and said it had become a trail with hotels where you can get a bed and en-suite and a hot shower, nothing like when we were there.” Having reached Everest, which had only been conquered 15 years earlier, they felt a sense of euphoria. “We all had our own personal reasons for going on this journey and when you get there and you’re looking at this famous mountain there’s a deep sense of satisfaction.”

But the trek to Everest was also a humbling experience for the five friends. “You realise the fantastic simplicity of people’s lives. Our porter walked around barefoot and he got a matter of pence per day for carrying this huge basket on his head. We gave him cups of tea but his breakfast was just some rolled oats and his evening meal was tsampa and maybe a bit of curry. At night he took off his scarf and laid down on the floor and covered himself. That’s all he had, his life was so simple yet he was such a fabulous man, he was honest and dignified and we all liked him a great deal.”

They finally returned to the UK at the end of June, 1968, and today, more than 40 years later, David and John look back on their remarkable journey with gratitude. “We met incredible kindness, people giving us things without question and inviting us into their homes to share their food. It’s sad, but you couldn’t do that trip today. You couldn’t drive freely through Iran like we did and Pakistan and Afghanistan are too dangerous in the current climate,” says David.

“I have never complained about my lot because I’ve seen people in the world who have nothing,” says John. “We all have mad ideas in life but to find five people who would undertake such a journey and to actually have been part of it was a great privilege.”

chris.bond@ypn.co.uk

Everest The Old Way – A Bright Remembering is priced £25 and available online at Amazon.