Making beer on the Savage Mountain

MAKING BEER ON THE SAVAGE MOUNTAIN

Mountaineer Alan Hinkes OBE is the only Brit to have climbed all 14 8,000 metre peaks, and a beer aficionado. He remembers elaborate plots to find beer in Pakistan, and home brewing at 5,300 metres

The region above 8,000m on the highest mountains in the world such as Everest and K2 is known as the ‘death zone’. It is the most inhospitable environment on the planet, impossible for human beings to survive there for more than a couple of days. Life expectancy can be measured in hours. The oxygen-depleted air is too thin, the atmospheric air pressure too low. Being at extreme altitude is unpleasant and dangerous, and the ability to tolerate suffering and hardship is essential. There is very little anyone can do to help or rescue someone from the death zone. It is too high for helicopters. In the death zone you are on your own.

Usually beer is a long way away both physically and in my desires when I am climbing an 8,000-metre mountain. However, back down in base camp, on the trek in or in Kathmandu it is another matter. A relaxing beer can be a tonic to the soul, or a taste of success after a successful climb.

The savage mountain

K2, known as The Savage Mountain because of its tragic reputation, took me three attempts over three years. On the first attempt I abandoned a summit bid to rescue an injured climber whose partner had already died. On the second attempt I backed off five hours from the summit because I thought the conditions were too dangerous and the snow and ice slope was about to avalanche. And it did killing a climber and badly injuring another. I have always said that no mountain is worth a life, coming back is a success and the summit is only a bonus. I climb to live, not to die.

Back in base camp after my success, I shared a few cans of European beer with some Dutch friends on another expedition. They had portered a 25kg load of beer 14 days from the road head to base camp. The cans of Kronenberg and Heineken were very welcome on the bare glacier ice of base camp at 5,200m.

Most ascents of K2 are from the south Pakistan side of the mountain. Pakistan is essentially a beer desert, with no bars or pubs except in the Embassies and High Commissions in Islamabad. Ironically there is still a brewery there. The Murree Brewery was established in 1860 and still produces the Murree Beer. It’s very difficult to procure and the process involves obtaining a permit as a non-Muslim. Sometimes I would visit friends in the diplomatic area and join in Hash House Harrier runs – always ending in a beer session – usually cans of Australian VB, Fosters or, if I was lucky, bottles of Murree. I remember it as a light amber beer in a clear glass pint bottle, easily drinkable and refreshing.

Home brew at 5,200m

My second expedition to K2 was to the North face in China – and there is plenty of good beer available in China. This expedition was in the 1990s and most of the beer was in 600ml green or brown crown-capped bottles, allegedly made with German collaboration. The expedition was to be five months long and involved 12 days of trekking, so we decided to brew our own beer at base camp at 5300m.

We took in home brew kits, some extra hops and powdered malt. The temperature at base camp can drop to -20C but inside the mess tent where we brewed the beer, it could peak over+20C. The logistics of brewing were difficult; we had to boil the wort in batches over kerosene stoves. Once the yeast was pitched, we nurture the fermentation in a big dustbin sized blue barrel, usually used for chemicals and keeping loads dry en route. It was a challenge trying to keep the fermenting beer cool inside the mess tent if it was a hot day and then having to insulate it with spare sleeping bags overnight. It was worth it though and we enjoyed freshly brewed beer in one of the most remote places on the planet, in the Karakoram Mountains of Central Asia. Sir Francis Younghusband and all those chaps playing the Great Game in the late 18th and early 20th century would have been proud of us. Indeed, they were beer fans too.

In 1895, the British mountaineer Albert Mummery was the first to attempt a 8000m peak, Nanga Parbat, which is now in Pakistan. En route to base camp, in the wilds of the Indian sub-continent, he came across an acquaintance Colonel Bruce who had a case of Bass Pale Ale with him. They drank the beer and did what chaps do. Try finding Bass Pale Ale now or any other beer in that part of Pakistan now. How times change!

Not that I’m beyond a bit of willing when it comes to beer. On one expedition, to Makalu the fifth highest mountain in Nepal, I helicoptered a couple of cases of local beer into 5,600m. OK, it wasn’t just a beer drop; I was having food supplied too, but sometimes on a sub-zero night at base camp I would mull over a mug of beer; a relaxing, soporific nightcap at high altitude.

For me, a pint of beer after a day on the fells or rock climbing on the crags is almost an institution. It is refreshing and isotonic, it contains minerals, iron, vitamin B, fluid and carbohydrate (in moderation of course – a gallon of beer will negate any of benefits!). It’s hard to beat a good day out in the hills rounded off by a nice pint of beer, cask or craft – no matter what the altitude.

8,000 Metres: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains by Alan Hinkes is out now, published by Cicerone.