One of the three or four greatest Alpine-style mountain climbers in the world flew into town the other day and ran up and down the Carderock Wall on his way in from the airport.
In 1975, Doug Scott became the first Englishman to climb Mount Everest. He spent a night up there, without sleeping bag or oxygen, 300 feet from the summit.
On 19 expeditions to the Himalayas, he has forged new routes up many of the peaks, has climbed in every mountainous continent except South America, has done Yosemite's El Capitan "four or five times" and has written a book about the epic conquest of the virgin southwest face of Tibet's Shishapangma, more than 26,300 feet high.
He visited Washington to promote "The Shishapangma Expedition," which he wrote with Alex McIntyre, a brilliant young climber who was killed, at the age of 28, two years ago by falling rock on Annapurna.
"Three of my friends have died just after writing books," Scott said. Scanning a page of portraits of the 30 climbers on the Everest expedition, he pointed to "this one . . . this one . . . this one," picking out nine young men who have died since then.
Death is always close in Doug Scott's world.
"Every trip, something happens. Two weeks ago, on Vancouver Island, I was sliding down a face and a rock bounded down and hit the rope. I didn't know it. Afterward I found one strand cut nearly through. There's always something like that."
Death takes a different form now than it did in the old days when a Himalayan climb meant dozens of Sherpas, elaborately stocked camps all the way up and a network of fixed ropes. Today, with nearly all the great peaks already climbed (except Namcha Barwa, 25,700 feet, which the Chinese are reserving for themselves, having tried and failed three times so far), mountaineers try for new and harder routes, as well as faster times, forever narrowing the safety margin.
What this means is that they are going up the Himalayas in Alpine style: no fixed ropes, no masses of equipment, no series of fixed bases. It is, Scott said, more like a commando raid than the army invasion that early Himalayan attempts resembled in the days of Leigh-Mallory and Irvine.
"People used to get killed in avalanches and falling off the mountain, things like that," he said. "Now we have more experience and better technique. Now they die of edemas, lung or brain edemas caused by going up too far too fast. It has to do with the Alpine style -- you have to climb faster because you carry less food."
Not that the early climbers weren't just as committed and courageous as the new breed. Fixed-rope climbing can be dangerous, too, since one might pass a hazardous spot a dozen times in relaying supplies up the mountain, while Alpine climbers would pass it only twice.
"Ever since the southwest face of Everest was done," said the quiet, bespectacled Scott, modestly using the passive form, "it was realized that if you had enough men, materials and money, and a break in the weather, you could climb anything. And when I spent the night on Everest [the highest bivouac in history], I realized I can go anywhere I want."
Future climbing in the Himalayas, he said, will concentrate on steeper faces, ever higher on the massif. "Up to now, no significant technological climbing has been done much above 24,000 feet. There are routes on K2 and Makalu still to be done."
Scott himself has made three attempts at one of those "unclimbable" routes up K2.
"I want to try K2 again in '86. But it's getting so complicated. I already had to send them $2,000 in advance for royalties. When you do a climb in Nepal they send you a 48-page book of rules." Mountaineering has become so popular recently that mountains have to be booked, and frequently one runs into other groups at the base camps and even on the slopes.
In fact, the new trend is to "bring along your friends and family" on Himalayan climbs.In a relaxed atmosphere an expedition can set up a base, try two or three warm-up climbs in the neighborhood -- also in the Alpine tradition -- and gradually adapt both body and mind to the cruel altitude, where the air contains one-third of the oxygen most of us are accustomed to.
"I'm right into the thing of having women in it," Scott said. "I've lost so many friends in the last few years, it didn't stop me from wanting to go but it did make me think. I take risks still, but I'm not blinkered by ambition. Women help with this, I think. They help to give some balance, so the lads don't go off the deep end with their aggressiveness."
A retired teacher, the 43-year-old native of Nottingham, England, is married to a teacher and has a 21-year-old son. Money for expeditions comes from lectures, articles and the occasional construction job. Scott is a vegetarian ("You adapt to altitude faster. Meat seems to take the liquids out of the body") but only last year gave up smoking. The lungs are the most important thing, he says.
He doesn't bother to mention the conditioning that enables him to dangle by his fingertips on a rock face or spend the night in a hammock swung from two pitons a few thousand feet in the air.
"I do a rock climb at least once or twice a week, preferably every day. Six or seven hours up a rock gives you a great feeling. You eat and sleep better. It takes you out of yourself."
He climbs constantly. He is on his way to try some peaks at Banff in the Canadian Rockies, and later will return east to climb Mount Washington. But always, the Himalayas are waiting for him.
"I can't tell you," he said. "When you get up there in the sky . . . the expanse, the distances . . . you can see everywhere, everywhere. Just to be there. I don't know . . . "