Aleister Crowley Feature
Written by John Burns
Meeting the Beast
Ask any climber about Aleister Crowley and those who know a little of the history of this least sensible of sports will be able to dredge some bizarre fact from the dark corners of their memory. You’ll likely be told he was a mad man, that he threatened to shoot a fellow climber who wanted to descend Kanchenjunga or that he broke a Sherpa’s leg with an ice axe. At least those are the more moderate tales, others will tell you that he was a Black Magician who practised child sacrifice and experimented with drugs. They will probably all tell you, however, that he was “The Wickedest Man in the world” who revelled in the nick name “The Beast.”
At least that is what I was told many years ago when I opened the pages of the Inverness Mountaineering Club and found Crowley looking up at me from its pages with his iconic stare. The club had adopted him as a mascot partly because of his reputation for mayhem, which suited the more unorthodox members of the club in those days, and partly because he had lived at Bolsekine House on the shores of Loch Ness only as few miles from the club’s base.
Over the years my interest in the mysterious figure of Crowley grew as I began to learn more about the man. Crowley has a number of biographers yet he remains a difficult figure for any writer. His life is surrounded by myth, lies and half truths. Crowley himself was more than creative with the truth concerning his own life and others, including the Daily Mail, have happily bestowed fantastic tales about his life and helped to build a reputation that is has made Crowley more famous in death than he was in life.
My interest in the man grew to such a point that I decided I wanted to find out something of the man behind the myth and more over to write something that would give others insight into his character. These days I feed my need for an adrenaline fix less on the crags and more by performing stand up and acting. I wanted to come closer to the man and decided that the best way to do that was to become him, at least on the stage if not in the flesh. This is why I’m taking a one man play about Crowley to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, the idea of performing in front of an audience, alone and without even the stand up’s comforting microphone fills me with more terror that any mountain and the challenge of becoming the “The Beast” is as severe a test as anything I’ve ever climbed.
In researching the play I discovered a complex man whose early life as a mountaineer had been as controversial as his later life became when he turned increasingly you the occult. Hi achievements have been largely forgotten but Crowley was certainly one of the foremost mountaineers of his generation. He began climbing in his late teens as a way of escaping the brutality of Victorian public schools. Crowley had been a model pupil but on the death of his father when he was 11 the boy’s life changed forever and the loss of the man he idolised plunged him into dark despair. He became unruly and was expelled from a number of public schools finally being taught by a succession of tutors all of whom struggled to contain their rebellious charge.
In his late teens Crowley discovered a freedom in the outdoors and began his climbing career on the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head. There the friable rock shaped his climbing style and Crowley describes his technique as “One does not climb the cliffs. One hardly even crawls. Trickles or oozes would perhaps be the ideal verbs.” On Beachy Head Crowley pioneered a number of routes one of which he describes in this article he wrote for the SMC Journal.
“We ran up a grassy slope which hid the lower portion of this formidable obstacle, and a fine sight burst upon our astonished eyes. Behold the entire mass of Etheldreda's pinnacle [E.P.], with the cliff, here fissured with the magnificent "Cuillin crack" [C.C.], some 200 feet high, overhanging it, and the distant sea behind; above, a mass of fleecy clouds framing the picture, and gorgeously lit by the afternoon sun. The effect was superb. We stood for a moment entranced.”
His words exude a love of climbing that any climber can empathise with. Soon Crowley was visiting what was then, the closing years on the 19th century, the cradle of British mountaineering Wasdale Head in the Lake District. There he met the pioneers of the day including the Abraham brothers, Sir Martin Conway, Norman Collie and Tom Longstaff who said of Crowley’s ability as a climber, “a fine climber, if an unconventional one”. It was at Wasdale Head that Crowley met the man who was to be the greatest influence upon him as a climber, Oscar Eckenstein. Eckenstein was sixteen years Crowley’s senior and already a Himalayan veteran. Eckenstein, a railway engineer, was almost as eccentric as Crowley and was noted for strolling around the streets of London, his beard wild and unkempt and wearing a pair of straw sandals in all weathers. Despite his eccentricity he was also a man of considerable ability. He is said to have pioneered the technique of balance climbing, a technique we would recognise today. In the Victorian era climbers frequently hugged the rock and used the friction of their tweed suits to keep them in contact with the mountain. Crowley and Eckenstein were also advocates of bouldering as a way of improving climbing skills a practice that was relatively rare at the time. Eckenstein is also credited with developing an early type of crampon.
In 1898 Eckenstein and Crowley began climbing in the Alps where, over a number of summers, Crowley claims to have become an expert Alpinist. Although he made few notable first ascents he was clearly a climber of some ability and was able to repeat many of the toughest routes of the day. It is the prerogative of youth to challenge the preconceptions of the elders and so it was that Crowley came into conflict with the alpine club. Crowley and his companions climbed without guides in contrast to many stalwarts of the Alpine club who relied upon locals to help them find their way to the summit of mountains as was common practice at the time. Crowley poured scorn on their achievements as they had not been achieved without support and as a result was ostracised. Crowley had little regard for the formal structures of such institutions as the Alpine club and, although he was a member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club for a time, is unlikely to have sought membership. It was his growing reputation as an anti-authoritarian figure, coupled with rumours about his magical practices and homosexuality that would mean that his achievements as a mountaineer were never properly acknowledged.
Eckenstein and Crowley began to turn their attention away from the Alps towards the Himalayas and, in preparation for their expedition to K2 and Kanchenjunga; they journeyed to Mexico where they climbed a number of volcanic peaks in record time. On Iztaccihuatl Crowley claimed to have a achieved a world record for the greatest pace uphill over 16,000 ft -4000ft in 1 hour 23 minutes. If indeed he completed such and ascent in that time that would clearly have been no mean feat although I doubt if such records are maintained today. It is a measure of Crowley that he never makes mention in all his climbing accounts that both he and Eckenstein were severely asthmatic. He does talk of his health breaking down at some points but never once discusses his breathing difficulties which must have made high altitude climbing more difficult to endure at times. He relates having to retreat from one active volcano as he and his partner’s boots actually began to melt as a result on the heat from the rock. On another occasion a local journalist cast doubt on the claims he and Eckenstein made for their ascents. As a result they invited the man to join them on a climb. This, of course was a trap. He and Eckenstein tied the man between them on a rope and set off at enormous speed dragging the gasping writer between them. Pausing for only moment at the summit they then dragged their exhausted and now terrified victim down the loose and dangerous mountain at an even greater speed. His pen never challenged their feats after that.
It is for his attempts on Kanchenjunga and K2 that Crowley lays claim to fame. In the 1902 he and Eckenstein joined an expedition to K2. The attempt was dogged from the outset by devisors within the team and the machinations of outside forces keen to frustrate their ambitions. Eckenstein himself was detained in Rawalpindi allegedly as a result of a plot by Sir Conway who had previously been on an expedition with the climber and held a grudge against him. Eventually Crowley gained Eckenstein’s release but it delayed the expedition. There were then arguments between the team one of them caused by Crowley’s baggage far exceeding the specified limit as a result of his instance in bringing a small library of books. After enduring searing heat and bitterly cold temperatures the party established camp 10 at over 18,000 ft and an attempt was made to establish camp 11 at around 20,000 ft. Hear the weather and team morale began to breakdown with fierce arguments about the route they were to take. Crowley later claimed that on K2 he had experienced some of the worst weather in his life and it is certainly the case that he was forced to endure extremes, spending an incredible 65 nights on the Balotoro glacier.
It is on this expedition that the source of one of the great Crowley legends is to be found. I was told he forced a climbing companion to continue climbing when he was exhausted by threatening him with a revolver. The truth is slightly less dramatic. Whilst in his tent and suffering from malaria Crowley began to hallucinate and feared he was being attacked by his companion Knowles who was sleeping in the tent with him. At this point Crowley drew a revolver and Knowles had to overpower him and take the weapon. Why Crowley had a pistol with him on the mountain is never explained. Perhaps the Victorian gentlemen abroad didn’t feel properly dressed without a gun. It is the case that at the turn of the century and at such altitudes they were climbing into unexplored territory and perhaps feared that, lurking in the snow, might be hostile creatures.
On this expedition Crowley did displayed an advanced understanding of the human body’s response to high altitude climbing. One of their party fell seriously ill with pulmonary oedema and the practice at the time would have been to treat him for pneumonia which would have had no effect on his condition. Crowley insisted that the man be taken to lower altitude, a move that saved his life. At the time there was a debate raging amongst mountaineers with the widely held belief that a climber could acclimatise to any altitude, given sufficient time. Crowley maintained the view, held today, that above 20,000 ft the body endures a slow decline and that periods of time above such an altitude should be kept to a minimum. The attempt on K2 was eventually defeated by bad weather.
Crowley’s final attempt at high altitude climbing was an assault on Kanchenjunga. Using the experience e had gained from the expedition to K2 Crowley set about conquering this giant. Significantly Eckenstein declined the invitation to join the party perhaps fearing worst. The team made good progress until tragedy struck and five were killed by an avalanche. Here Crowley’s conduct is controversial as he is alleged to have refused to descend to help his fallen comrades despite hearing their calls for help. That he did not help them is beyond doubt but his motives for doing so are obscure. That Crowley was courageous is, I think beyond doubt, if it was not fear that prevented him from going to their assistance what was it. Here I think Crowley’s belief in the occult plays a part, perhaps he genuinely believed that for those who had fallen he could foresee their fate and could do nothing to change it. Possibly, however, a stronger psychological issue restrained him. Crowley was traumatised by the death of his father and ever since that event found death impossible to face, I believe it was that deep memory that prevented him from going to the aid of those in the party who had perished. He was never to attempt a major climb again.
Despite the fact that Crowley's two major expeditions failed there were considerable achievements at the time and Crowley’s status as a mountaineer should not be overlooked. It was only several decades later that both mountains were conquered when the status of our knowledge of such mountains and how to climb them had increased considerably. In staging the play I relive, as Crowley, his attempt on Kanchenjunga in possibly the most dramatic part of the play. In bringing Crowley to the stage I have gained considerable respect for this man whose reputation was destroyed as much by himself as anyone else. Crowley was many things; a master of the occult, a poet, a traveller, a linguist, his life is surrounded by controversy. What is undeniable is that he was one of the foremost mountaineers of his day.
I will be performing the play Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil
At the Edinburgh Fringe Cvenues 16.15 5th to 28th August (Not 22/23)