Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

In January of 1992 I was sharing a flat in London with Stephen Kelsey, Graham Wittaker and his girlfriend Carolyn. On the wall of our room I found a poem that struck a cord with me, and I made a copy which I have kept ever since. It was a poem written by Mike Thexton for his brother Pete, a British climber killed while attempting Broad Peak in Pakistan. (More details below.)

When the following year Carolyn found the bodies of Stephen and Graham lying at the foot of the west face of Salcante in Peru, I returned to this poem. When my friend and climbing partner Bruce Herrod was killed on my first Everest expedition, I returned to it again.

It is the best explanation I have found of what allows us, climbers, to mourn the passing of our friends and yet still accept the risks that they, and we, take.

I see you still, in my dreams and strangers’ faces,
In some expression of my morning mirror;
But cannot reach you in your solitude,
Nor breathe the same thin air that laid you down.
You grow not old, as I am left to grow old;
I age, wane weary, am condemned by years –
Whilst you lie eternal,
Frozen in the beauty of your strength.

I never will again hold back on love;
Love’s object may not stay to share tomorrow –
Life, like a welcome guest, too soon departing.
I would give all my world to have you back,
Remember you not in a photograph
But in your smiling eyes and wild ideal.
And yet, I would not pay a price too high:
I would not think of asking you to change.

And though your rope is cut and worlds have fallen,
And though the pain will grip me through the years,
If you were with me now, I would still help
Encourage you to reach for mountain tops:
Would watch you strive for where you should not go;
And you would go again, and die again,
And I would cry – but cry how much more
If you should ever cease to be yourself.

By Mike Thexton

So who was Pete Thexton?

The details that follow were kindly supplied to me by his brother, Mike Thexton, who contacted me after finding I had this poem up on this website.

Pete was a mountaineer and a doctor, in that order. He graduated from climbing in the British Isles to the Alps, and went to the Himalayas for the first time in 1978 (Kulu in India, then Karakoram, to try unsuccessfully to climb Latok II – an expedition on which one of his friends fell into the Braldu river and died while Pete was trying to pull him out). In 1980 he was part of a winter expedition on Everest West Ridge, described by Joe Tasker in Everest The Cruel Way (unsuccessful). After a while doing more rock climbing in Europe and America, he went back to the Karakoram in 1983 on an expedition led by Doug Scott and Al Rouse. The objectives were Broad Peak and K2.

Pete, Doug and Greg Child climbed Lobsang Spire as part of the warm up, and then the whole team attempted to climb Broad Peak. Pete was climbing with Greg Child near the summit when Greg developed symptoms of acute mountain sickness, and they started down. On the way down to the top camp, Greg got better and Pete got worse, and when they reached the tents at about 2am Greg was carrying him down in the darkness. Don Whillans and a local guide were at the camp, about 24,000′. Pete died of pulmonary oedema in his sleep, and was buried in a crevasse on the mountain. It is all described in Greg Child’s book Thin Air.

Some members of the St Mary’s Hospital Medical School Mountaineering Club, of which Pete had been a leading light while studying, decided to hold an annual expedition in memory of Pete, and they went to Kenya in 1985, the Karakoram in 1986 and Peru in 1987. The expeditions did some climbing and also medical research into altitude sickness. In 1987, two members died in Peru, and the Pete Thexton Memorial Expeditions were discontinued.

  1. Dear Cathy

    I grew up with Pete as our mums were close friends. As young boys we learned to abseil from the tower at hs home, Richmond College (much to the annoyance of hs Dad, the resident tutor) and later shared many happy weekends in the Llanberis Pass improving our (mainly his) skills. On one memorable occasion (probably in 69), we were hitching from the camp site half way up the valley into town for a meal at Wendy’s and were picked up by a scruffy looking guy in a plumbers van. We climbed in the back and Pete whispered to me “do you recognise him?” It was our hero Joe Brown.

    Pete went on to much greater feats of climbing than I ever aspired to and ended up teaming with many of the greats, including Joe’s great partner Don Whillans.

    This year is the 30th anniversary of Pete’s passing and the year when we would have been sharing our 60th birthdays. I am looking forward to a commemorative game of golf with Mike, who’s poem I still carry with me because it sums up Pete’s attitude to life so well – and, as you say explains so well why mountains – as well as oceans and other remote places – hold such fascination for humans to see what they can do.

    Enjoy the journey – it’s so worth it

    • Dear David, thanking for taking the time to reach out to me. Although I never knew Pete, that poem and the understanding it contains of why climbers do these things had stayed with me through 25 years of adventures. And it had led me to speak to a couple of people like yourself who remember him. It is a tribute to him that his influence has echoed down the years this way. Raise a glass to all the crazy adventures on your 60th!

  2. Terry Robinson says:

    I am not a climber of any sought though I did once have a personal experience many years ago climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, for the last week I have been reading about the exploits of many famous climbers and to be very honest I don’t for the life of me understand why they do it, for it is no more than a spin of a coin as to if they are going to come back again. its almost as if they are unhappy people with a death wish, please don’t get me wrong I know they are wonderul people but inside they must be very lonely.

    • Thanks for commenting. I am sorry you didn’t get more out of your Kilimanjaro experience. “It is no more than a spin of a coin as to if they are going to come back again.” This is so clearly untrue that it is hard to say anything in reply to you. Although it is worth remembering that expeditions where everything went according to plan generally don’t make interest books, possibly your reading list has not be representative of the average experience of climbers, even at the elite level.

  3. I remember Peter Thexton well when I was a young boy and he was several years older. My family and his used to holiday on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel off the Devon coast. I must have been about 10 and Peter would have be a young man, climbing such features as The Devil’s Lime Kiln and The Devil’s Slide – the clue is in the title. Peter’s brother, Mike is a deeply humble and wonderful man – and my brother’s best friend. Mike Thexton of course has a rich story of his own, surviving the Pan Am hijacking in Pakistan with a gun held in his mouth – Mike too is a motivational speaker and I believe a trainer in security, and an author of the book “What Happened To The Hippy Man? Hijack Hostage Survivor”.

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