Hitting the High Note

by Larry Stolte

Everest -- the very name strikes fear in the hearts of climbers and musicians everywhere. Many lives has the great mountain taken. One of the great murderers of all time, and yet she remains unincarcerated. But she has been conquered; Edmund Hillary took her cherry in 1953. (Though he needed some help from Tenzing Norkay at the climax.)

Since then, others have climbed her. Many have died trying. But now, a brave few have set out to do what many consider to be the ultimate challenge, not only in the world of mountain climbing, but also in the music industry. That's right, for the first time in history, a jazz band will attempt to reach the summit. At the top, they will perform "The Moontrane," a Woody Shaw composition with arrangement by Slide Hampton, weather permitting.

This will be the first attempt on Mt. Everest by musicians since the New York Philharmonic tried it in 1963, when they were to perform "Rhapsody in Blue" at the summit. They made their way along the North East ridge, a move which drew -- at best -- mixed reviews from the music critics, though most expert climbers agree that tragedy probably wouldn't have been averted even if a different approach had been chosen. They lost the entire string section on the North face. The journey was no kinder to the other climbers, either. Only Melmick Selmon, a French horn player, was to make it to the summit. He played quite well, especially the wind instruments, but simply couldn't make up for all the lost musicians, and the judges finally stopped him when he started humming the decrescendos. This meant, of course, that they didn't get credit for the climb. The tragedy still fresh in everyone's mind, none dared make the trek until now.

Why would anyone agree to this torturous ascent? Extortion, in my case. By trade, I am a music critic for the New York Times. Opera and symphonies, rather than jazz, are more my style. Climbing is my hobby (I have the second highest mountain in the world, K2, under my belt), so my editor asked if I would be the official reporter for this historic undertaking. While I was thinking about it, he informed me that if I declined the offer, I would have to cover the country music awards in Nashville. I had no choice. But I love jazz and keep telling myself that death is a natural function of life.

We are going up the hard way -- the South West face. This has only been done once before, and not by musicians. But our leader, Miles Coleman, has never taken anything other than the hard way. Miles, a trumpet and guitar player from New Orleans, selected twenty-four musicians to start the trip, which originates in Katmandu. This number will be whittled down, as some climbers will be dropped off at camps along the way. Only a handful of musicians will know the thrill of playing at the top. Miles will choose the select few along the way.

Included in the starting twenty-four are:

Whenever you climb a large mountain or tall building, you need experienced guides of some kind. In the Himalayas, it's the Sherpas -- a people of Tibetan stock who reside between 12,000 and 17,000 feet. They can be spotted easily; they're the ones with the nosebleeds.

In this case, we needed more than guides for our climb; we needed people to set up and carry the instruments, and they had to be pros. Yes, we needed roadies. We needed combination Sherpa-roadies. There were only three in existence, and one was doing promotional work in Europe. We managed to nab the remaining two as they were wrapping up their New Zealand tour with the Rolling Stones. They agreed to sign up with us after we agreed to give them a cashier's check for a tad less than my lifetime salary. So we were blessed with two Sherpa-roadies and nameless other Sherpas.

The original climb was scheduled for August, 1982, but had to be postponed because many of the principals had previous engagements at the Summer Jazz Fest in Monterey. They tried to get the mountain one year later, but it was booked up.

This is not unusual, as the Nepalese allow only one expedition at a time on the great mountain since the fiasco of '72 when two climbing teams were eaten by a third on the South West ridge during a harsh monsoon. If you can prove to the official mountain keepers, however, that your mission is of great worldly importance or a musical emergency, they may choose to expedite it. Proof is usually in the form of shelling out large bills or name dropping. It was the bills in our case.

August 1, 1984 -- under 10,000 feet: The first day was total confusion. We left Katmandu and headed for base camp amidst dozens of musicians, load carrying, befuddled yaks, and Sherpas betting on the baseball games. Free jazz was the main course for the day, though bebop and dixieland were audible, also.

17,000 feet: Two weeks have passed. The base camp is history. We deposited some of the players there. We are now in the middle of the Ice Fall, a treacherous gateway to Everest from the South. It is a solid river of ice broken into huge blocks, thrust downwards by a glacier or very large Yeti. Ice towers and walls can collapse at any time, and it is virtually impossible to eliminate the risk of death or bad acoustics.

18,000 feet: I fear that the Sherpa-roadies are getting restless. I think the thing that bothers them the most is that we decided to bring the piano along. But Miles thought that if The Moontrane were to be played at the summit, it couldn't be done without the piano. Miles chose the very best pianist in the business in Cootie Ervin and determined that his blindness would prove to be no handicap on this outing. How was Miles to know that the Sherpas would use Cootie's seeing-eye dog, Ziggy, as their main dish on Saturday night? Though I feel guilty about it now, I have to admit that man's best friend is also man's best-tasting friend, when sauteed with onions and followed by a couple of belts of chang, which is fermented rice or millet. Cootie accepted the Sherpas' apology and also their gift, a replacement for Ziggy in the form of a yak.

18,500 feet: A bitter cold day here in the Ice Fall. Delbert, the drummer, kept mentioning that he missed his wife, and I noticed that he was eyeing the seeing-eye yak in an unnatural way. I thought the alto sax was played particularly well today; the other instruments were nothing to write home about. The packs seemed especially heavy. We've covered a lot of ground, and I'm very tired. It was so nice to just relax this evening -- guzzling chang and listening to Cootie perform what I, talking shop, could only refer to as a portamento, as his fingers glide so quickly it seems he must be touching a waffle iron instead of a piano. God, he is good. His performance dwindled to a retardando, however, as the extreme cold was stiffening his fingers. He solved his problem and returned to finish his toccata, but he sounded like a rhinoceros doing Jerry Falwell imitations, and Bones informed him that maybe the mittens weren't such a good idea.

19,000 feet: Tragedy strikes. You come to expect it on these expeditions, yet somehow you're always unprepared. The yak hurled Cootie into a 200-foot crevasse. There could have been no pain for him with a fall like that. Bones commented that we should send Cootie's instrument down with him because that's the way he would have wanted it. I'm not sure he would have wanted it to land on him, though, the piano squashing him like a June bug under a size sixteen shoe. The Sherpa-roadies were ecstatic, however, and told jokes throughout the evening, while each of us nodded speciously, not really listening. I had a dream about barbecuing a yak as some sort of retribution. The Moontrane is definitely out now for the summit.

21,000 feet: August and tragedy are behind us. The passing through the Western Cwm was uneventful, and I guess that's good news. Throughout the day, I kept thinking about the first time I heard the word "cwm." It was in college; somebody laid down that apparent aggregation of letters when we were playing strip Scrabble, and I challenged it. But there it was, big as you please, in the Scrabble Dictionary, and there I was in my underwear. After that, I used the Scrabble Dictionary to prop up the short leg on the couch. How I can laugh at that now! Tomorrow, Miles will announce his choices for musicians who will go on to the summit. Everything is back to normal, but I can tell that the yak is returning Delbert's glances.

22,000 feet: Other than the Sherpa-roadies and myself, Miles has selected Bones, Charlie, Blackie, Willie (alto sax), Benny (bass), Sam (clarinet), and himself for the attack on the Great Central Gully and eventually the summit. His peremptory choices are excellent from a climbing standpoint, though I question the total lack of percussion. (But admittedly, I do not recall seeing Delbert or the yak at all today.)

22,500 feet: Morale was quite high, until an incident earlier this morning. Charlie was in the lead, and, though he has never had a climbing accident in twenty years in his home state of Florida, he fell just shy of the Left Hand Gully. He rebounded down to a ledge where, luckily, Benny's bass cushioned his fall. Nothing cushioned the blows to his face, however, as Benny unloaded with a left jab and right hook when he saw that his prize bass was totaled. Benny then stormed off, leaving us with two problems: getting to camp six with heavy winds approaching and keeping in rhythm without the rhythmic backbone of the group. I also found out that it was Benny who was furnishing the cocaine to the band, and it was unlikely that they would find another supplier at this altitude.

24,000 feet: Things sure change in a hurry -- both the weather and peoples' attitudes. Blackie kept saying something about snow being everywhere and not a drop to snort.

26,000 feet: We started using our oxygen cylinders for sleeping because of the altitude.

27,000 feet: Today we entered a section of the mountain called the Rock Band, and luck was not with the jazz band. A mild fall left Sam with a bruised ego and a clarinet enema. Before extrication of his instrument, though, someone noted that his flatulence could produce sounds reminiscent of the Benny Goodman swing era. This evening, Willie was wailing out his true feelings on sax, enough to bring tears to our eyes and screams to our lips, when we noticed that his playing had caused an avalanche. Willie expounded that now famous phrase, "Oh shit!" but it was too late. He was buried, and there was no trace of him. We searched and searched, fearing the inevitable. We then went on, because Willie would have wanted it that way. If this had been a movie, there would have been a sax wailing in the background. But this wasn't a movie, so why was there a sax wailing in the background? Willie! Willie, buried somewhere, was actually playing free jazz in reverse, which means inhaling instead of blowing. It had to be Willie. No one else could suck up that kind of sound at this altitude, and through that much snow. After we shoveled him out with what remained of the bass, he appeared to be in excellent condition, with the minor exception that his lips froze to the embouchure (or vice versa, no one is sure), and he had to go through the rest of the day with his instrument as his Siamese twin. In fact, that night he had some trouble hooking up his oxygen cylinder to his saxophone, and through the tent walls I heard him utter that phrase he is famous for, "Ooo Pfft!"

27,500 feet: Willie and his sax are separate entities again, and all jamming has been proscribed due to avalanche fear. Though we are very close to the summit, I question our being here. Things simply are not going our way. The altitude has done something to Sam; he thinks he is Christopher Columbus. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he is leading our every move perfectly. However, he tends to stop every half hour or so and peer through his clarinet as if it were some sort of telescope. But in some ways, he seems to be saner than the others. Blackie and Willie quarrel every chance they get over the relative importance of alto or tenor sax. Each one keeps trying to convince the other that his instrument carries the most weight in the band. Willie proved how much weight the alto sax carried by propelling it against Blackie's chin, sending him fifteen feet through the air, flattening Bones. Bones then tried to feed Willie an ice piton, intravenously. They all made up, though I noticed that no one wanted to be below any of the others during the climb.

28,000 feet: Miles couldn't get a hold of any footing earlier today during the ascent and accidentally stepped on my head with the spiked crampons on his feet. Fortunately, due to the numbing cold, I couldn't feel the top of my head, anyway. I'm very worried about how news of this journey will be limned to others, if I don't make it. Basically, my fellow climbers have high school educations or third grade educations, whichever comes first. And though I'm sure that none of them would have any trouble writing a letter, at least A through R inclusive, a diary of events here would read like "A Conceptual History of Sirius the Dog Star." Blackie kept stuffing snow up his nose, and though I pleaded with him to stop, I must admit that he appeared to be getting a buzz.

28,500 feet: Bones blew off the mountain. A snow drift padded his fall, and if it had been about 2,000 feet higher, it might have saved him. I am now going to write a note to his family and his tuba player, explaining everything. I know they will be proud of Bones back at the Flute and Tuba.

29,028 feet: Sam, while looking through his clarinet, yelled "Land Ahoy," and he was right. The summit was rapidly approaching.

They played well at the top, and, though I saw a chairlift coming up the adjacent side, indicating we had the wrong mountain, I'd have to say that they played with a spiritual fervor and formal completeness heretofore unachieved in jazz.

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