OURAY – The most famous Himalayan expeditions to which Kelvin Kent was attached were the successful 1970 attempt on the south face of Annapurna and the 1972 siege (unsuccessful, it turned out, due to high winds and extreme cold) of the southwest face of Mount Everest.
“I was a scrambler,” Kent told me by phone from his home above Ouray. “Not one of the featured climbers. I could carry loads. I speak Nepali. My strength was logistics.”
As base camp command officer for the Sir Chris Bonington-led expeditions, Kent didn’t summit either peak, but he did carry loads to 23,000 feet on Annapurna and to 25,000 feet on Everest. Men died on both expeditions. Kent suffered severe frostbite on Everest. But he came away with a wealth of stories and photos that he is about to share on Saturday night, Oct. 9 at the Wright Opera House in Ouray.
The program Kent has put together will feature never-before-seen images from both climbs, some slides he took, and some taken by sponsored photographers whose work is only now free of copyright. The evening, which begins at 7:30, is both a benefit for the preservation of the Opera House and a warm-up for Kent, who has been asked to present the program in London to a joint meeting of the Royal Geographical Society and the British Alpine Club.
The British are celebrating two Annapurna anniversaries. The first marks the first-ever summiting of an 8,000-meter peak, in 1950, by French climbers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal. The second is Bonington’s pioneering of the south face, in 1970, still considered one of the hardest climbs in the Himalaya.
“These (Bonington) climbs were among the last logistic sieges,” Kent told me. “Before the era of fast-and-light alpine climbing. We had 800 porters. Fourteen tons of equipment. We weren’t exactly Mallory and Irvine, but there was no technology: no cell phones, no satellite communications, no nearby airports.” Both peaks had been scaled, but not by these extremely difficult and dangerous routes. “This was the era of ‘the last great problem,’ the so-called ‘unclimbable route.’”
Kent was indispensable to Bonington because of his background. He had spent seven years in Nepal as a member of the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas. He spoke the language. He knew who and how much to bribe local officials. In those days, “fifty percent of all expeditions to Everest or Annapurna never got past Katmandu.”
Now Kent is turning his organizational skills to helping the nonprofit Friends of the Wright Opera House meet their fundraising goal of $750,000 by the end of October. “We are approaching $600,000 now.” The sellers, Larry and Alice Leeper, have reduced the sale price of the 122-year-old, metal-front building to $750,000. But the purchase must be made this year.
“I offered to put on a presentation,” said Kent, who is the author of the 1993 guide, Ouray Hiking Trails. “I don’t do this often. If I can fill the Opera House, that’ll be $5,000 for preserving the building” and its heritage as an arts performance and education space.
Tickets are $15 each and are available at Buckskin Booksellers and Cimarron Books & Coffee as well as the Wright Opera House ticket office at the Blue Pear. For more information, call Joyce Linn at 325-4235.