Life & Culture

How British climber Victor Saunder's Jewish identity helps him summit the world's highest mountains

The mountaineers has what it takes to tackle the world’s highest peaks because of his Jewish heritage, he tells fellow climber David Rose


Two days after the Derbyshire climber Alison Hargreaves became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest without using bottled, supplementary oxygen in May 1995, the then-Times columnist Nigella Lawson wrote a sneering attack on her. There must, she wrote, be “something wrong with her” because she had taken this risk despite having two young children.

As a Jew, Lawson added, she found Hargreaves’s feat especially baffling: “If one were to divide the world into areas of Jewish and gentile achievement the ascent of Everest would have to be put down as a goy activity. Schlepping up mountains just doesn’t seem to be a very Jewish thing.” (Tragically, less than three months later, Hargreaves was to perish on her way down from the summit of the world’s second-highest mountain, K2.)

The British mountaineer Victor Saunders replied to Lawson’s piece on the paper’s letters page. “What do we Jews know about schlepping up mountains?” it began. “Better ask Moses.”

As the son and grandson of Holocaust refugees, Saunders knew what he was talking about — just as he did about mountaineering. A veteran of more than 90 expeditions to the world’s biggest mountains, he is still pioneering challenging new routes at the age of 73, and his climbing record is second to none.

He spoke to me on Zoom from his home near Chamonix at the foot of Mt Blanc, having recently returned from the Himalaya where his attempt on the unclimbed Chombu, “the Matterhorn of Sikkim”, was frustrated by the weather. His Jewish background, he made clear, has always been central to his achievements.

“Being the child of immigrants gave me the ability to accept chaos of the kind you find in climbing. My upbringing gave me an interest in both the physical world and the intellectual one; a curiosity I otherwise might not have. And when I’ve found myself really scared in dangerous places, I’ve made those bargains like soldiers do in foxholes: ‘Please God, get me out of here.’ In my case, the God I’m talking to is Jewish.”

Saunders’s autobiography, Structured Chaos, just out in paperback, develops these ideas more fully. Fascinating and beautifully-written, it doesn’t spend much time on the technical details of this or that climb, focusing instead on the deeper themes of his life. One chapter deals with his father, under the heading “George the adventurer”.

Born George Saloschin in 1921 in Munich, he and his father Victor senior were given sanctuary in Britain in 1936 by a prominent Jew of German origin — the educator Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun school in Scotland, the somewhat Spartan institution later beloved by the Royals, especially the late Duke of Edinburgh. George was given a place at the school, and the rest of the family was also soon able to escape the darkening shadows cast by the Third Reich. This, of course, was not easy.

“I still have my grandmother Traudl’s passport, stamped with its Swastika exit visa, from when she arrived in 1937,” Saunders says. She and Victor senior also loved mountains and, he says, were members of the Austrian Alpine Club — before it was purged of Jews by the fanatical Nazi mountaineer Paul Bauer, who after 1933 was appointed Hitler’s “bergführer”. The family, says Saunders, had been wealthy, and enjoyed an affluent lifestyle: “The high life came to an end. They ended up in Britain penniless — but alive.”

A strong influence on George’s life — he changed his surname to Saunders when he joined the Royal Marine commandos — was his Gordonstoun headmaster, Freddy Spencer Chapman. Shortly before joining the school, accompanied by Sherpa Pasang Dawa, Chapman reached the summit of what, for a time, was the world’s highest climbed mountain, Chomolhari in Bhutan. After many further adventures, George died in 2008. “Every year on the day of his death and his birthday I smoke a big Havana cigar and drink a large glass of whisky,” says Victor, “because that’s how he ended every day of his life.”

Full disclosure: I’m a climber with a Jewish background too, and I’ve known Saunders since 1988, when we were members of a small expedition to Bhutan that made the first ascent of a gorgeous, bird-shaped mountain next to Chomolhari, Jitchu Drake. As we trekked to our basecamp past Chomolhari’s ramparts, I had no idea of its connection, via Chapman, to Victor, nor that Chapman had helped inspire George to become a climber long before his son, and for some time also a ski instructor.

George also had a relationship with God that seems to explain his fearlessness. In the war, Victor writes, “George was mentioned in dispatches and recommended for, but not awarded, the Military Medal”. But published accounts of his unit’s extraordinary exploits behind German lines fail to convey his bravery. Often George would parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe with one or two comrades, accomplish a daring mission and then get extracted by sea. He was “exhausted, wounded [by a grenade shortly after D-Day] but fighting on for a better world for us to live in,” writes his son. “George rarely talked about his wartime experiences; he lost most of his companions and came to believe that God had a personal role in bringing him back from each sortie.”

Thankfully, Victor has not had to deal with the Nazis. But his own exploits over decades have also been extraordinary. Early on, he climbed the “mordwand”, the murder wall — otherwise known as the North Face of the Eiger — in the freezing depths of winter. The year before our Bhutan trip, he and his longstanding climbing partner Mick Fowler, who until retirement combined his career as a mountaineer with a day job as a senior official with the Inland Revenue, completed what remains one of the Himalaya’s hardest routes, the Golden Pillar of Spantik — a relentlessly steep, marble buttress on a 7,027-metre peak in Pakistan.

Back then, Saunders still made his living as an architect. At the age of 44, he packed this in to become a professional mountain guide, which probably accounts for his continuing, astonishing fitness: when conditions permit, he will be out climbing almost every day. Meanwhile, the first ascents of hard, new routes have continued, with trips up other, easier peaks thrown in — such as Mount Everest.

Saunders is not halachically Jewish, and did not have a religious upbringing. Yet Judaism, he says, played a fundamental role in his upbringing. Like his father, he went to Gordonstoun.

By then, he says, it was “a very conservative school where I was surrounded by people who made me feel I was an outsider. But the knowledge of what my father and grandfather went through meant a lot and gave me strength. I thought very carefully about my Jewish heritage and I considered becoming a religious Jew very carefully; I was groping towards religious faith, and if I’d got there, it would have been the faith of my grandfather, Judaism.” Meanwhile, “knowing my family was part of this diaspora helped me make sense of my life”.

Back in Bhutan in 1988, I rapidly appreciated two things about Victor. The first was his warm and generous humour — which somehow enables him to make the occasional waspish comment without causing offence. The second is the apparently bumbling, chaotic approach he takes to everything.

However, if there is a secret to his mountaineering success, it is that while chaos — an unexpected storm, the dropping of a vital piece of equipment — can strike at any time, the mountaineer who survives it will have the strength and internal resilience to deal with it.

The chaos rests on structure. “Nobody has ever had a serious accident climbing with me — yet,” he says. “I suppose the reason for that is that at heart, I’m a real coward”. A typical piece of Saunders self-deprecation which is, of course, seriously misleading.

The “genius” of his longstanding partner, Fowler, six years younger than Saunders, is also “to do everything to make a climb safe. He didn’t mind if that making taking a bit more time. We were always slow in our thirties. Now we’re both very old, so we’re slower still.” They also share their sense of humour. On one recent climb, “I took my first Himalayan fall. I went about 20 metres and was left dangling upside down in my harness. I was physically fine but a bit shaken up. As soon as Mick saw I was ok, he started taking the piss out of me.”

Not only that, but Fowler was afflicted with bowel cancer seven years ago, but has survived, albeit with a stoma. Undaunted, he has returned to climbing at the highest level.

According to Saunders, his condition can have advantages – which became apparent when they both went down with diarrhoea inside a tent perched on a ledge high in the Himalaya. To relieve himself, Victor had to go out into a storm-lashed night. For Fowler, he says with what could almost be envy, matters were much simpler.

My most recent outing with Saunders was in February, when he guided me and my son Daniel, 18, down the Vallée Blanche, the longest off-piste ski run in the Alps, a stunning route that snakes its way through the heart of the Mt Blanc massif from the 3,842-metre summit of the Aiguille de Midi for some 20 kilometres.

It was a perfect, bluebird day with deep, fresh powder snow to glide on beneath our hissing skis. By chance, before we set off, we bumped into two of France’s most famous mountaineers, Patrick Gabarrou and Christophe Profit, Alpine legends with high French media profiles. Both greeted Victor with palpable warmth and enormous respect.
And this was how it should be. Nigella was wrong. Schlepping up mountains can be very Jewish indeed.

Structured Chaos is published by Vertebrate Publishing in hardback, paperback and e-book formats.

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