Mountain man Al Read, 87Remembering the pioneer of Himalayan rafting, trekking and mountaineering
Our Mountain Travel office was located in the grounds of Gen Shamrajya Rana’s splendid but crumbling palace in Naxal. The walled garden bustled with activity, bright tents and sleeping bags spread on the grass to dry in the Himalayan sun. Prayer flags fluttered from the eaves, and inside the rooms were high-ceilinged and airy, icy in winter.
This was the domain of Al Read, Managing Director of Mountain Travel from 1973 to 1984. With craggy good looks, bearded and burly, (he later became affectionately known at the Great Yak of Moose Wyoming), Al brimmed with a contained energy and the calm confidence of a crisis manager. The consummate mountain man, Al brought to Mountain Travel a background of first ascents, ski instructor roles and mountain guide qualifications.
Perched on a hard chair in his imposing office, I felt like he would rather be striding towards a Himalayan peak with rope coiled over his shoulder or navigating a white water rapid in one of Nepal’s lesser-known rivers. A typical visit from my own office in Darbar Marg might mean running into hairy trek leaders, celebrity climbers, record-holding speed-skiers, record-seeking balloonists, world-class kayakers, high altitude medics or National Geographic filmmakers.
Or Al might be briefing one of the superstars who flocked to Nepal’s trekking trails in those days: Robert Redford, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, John J Kennedy Jr., Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Bruce Chatwin and of course King Charles III on the 1980 Royal Trek with Prince Dhirendra.
Al spent three years at the American Embassy Kathmandu following a posting in Calcutta before he was persuaded to take over the management of Nepal’s first trekking company which had just joined forces with Tiger Tops.
He arrived wreathed in rumour of CIA connections at a time when all foreign residents were routinely alleged to have spook associations. Although in his case, history has revealed them to be true.
It must have been a courageous decision to leave the security of State Department life to run Mountain Travel for its pioneering but quixotic owners Col Jimmy Roberts and AV Jim Edwards.
But Al was never short of courage. His established mountain integrity, people skills, solid safety protocols and entrenched US networks strengthened and expanded Mountain Travel at a period when 40% of all clients came from North America and only a handful of trek companies were registered in Nepal.
With his flair for logistics, Al led the Mountain Travel team of Col Jimmy’s highly trained Khumbu Sherpas and skilled Nepali office staff to organise expedition support for climbers such as Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner, and to deliver fully equipped treks throughout Nepal for as many as 300 trekkers at any one time.
Al’s sporty dark-haired wife Jennifer would lead treks and host Mountain Travel groups in their historic Dhobighat home with its mud floors and wonderfully overgrown garden. With Jennifer, I trekked the Annapurna circuit in the days before roads penetrated the high valleys.
Crossing Thorong La, we were horrified to encounter a frozen body emerging from a snowdrift, probably a porter tragically lost in a previous winter storm.
Al and Jennifer’s daughter was born December 1974 in Kathmandu and named Kristen Annapurna. Today Kristen writes: ‘I have such fond memories growing up … it really was such an extraordinary place and time in the history of early tourism and travel in Nepal… I loved popcorn and hot lemon in Tiger Tops lodge after riding elephants.’
Every off-season during the Nepal monsoon the Read family disappeared to run the Exum Guide Service in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park where Al had guided since 1959, rubbing shoulders with America’s mountaineering elite.
With friends, he eventually purchased the Exum concession and as president employed some of the most accomplished mountaineers, building it into a renowned and highly respected guide service.
As a child Al had accompanied his father, a respected paleo-botanist and geologist, on horseback to the Navajo Nation Reservation of northern New Mexico. Brought up in Colorado, his enduring love of mountains bloomed in Denver whilst at the University of Colorado in Boulder. A master’s degree at Georgetown in international relations was followed by a stint with the Peace Corps in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Nicaragua.
Al Read’s US climbing record included the first ascent of the East Buttress of Denali in Alaska and many Teton summits in Wyoming. As new peaks became permitted in Nepal and later Tibet, Al relished this period of Himalayan exploration.
As deputy expedition leader, he survived the ill-fated 1969 attempt on the challenging South East Ridge of Dhaulagiri in which five Americans and two Sherpas were killed by an avalanche on the upper slopes.
The collapse of the wall sent a thunder of tumbling death into half the American Dhaulagiri Expedition, crushing and burying…’ wrote Al, who had earlier collapsed unconscious with advanced pulmonary edema. Jim Morrissey his friend the team doctor carried him to lower elevations, thereby saving both their lives.
Al’s Nepal ‘adventure-life’ as he called it, involved not only arranging logistics for Mountain Travel client, but as base camp manager he personally coordinated Dhaulagiri in 1973, Gauri Shankar in 1979 and the first ascent of Cholatse by the southwest ridge in 1982. He led some of the first treks to Tibet, and managed expeditions to Minya Konka in Sichuan in 1980 and on the north ridge of Everest in 1986.
One of Al’s most enduring achievements was the exploration and establishment of river running in Nepal, a Colorado-perfected sport that was little known outside North America at that time. I remember him vanishing for weekend jaunts to investigate rivers in newly-imported rubber rafts with other thrill-seeking expats that included Johan Reinhard, Skip Horner, Gabriel Campbell and Ed McCarthy.
Close shaves included the first upset in ‘Upset’ rapid on the Trisuli and flipping in a waterfall on the Sun Kosi during a monsoon run. In November 1975, Al led the first descent of the Trisuli River from Trisuli Bazar to the Indian border, stopping over at Tiger Tops Chitwan.
Himalayan River Exploration (HRE) was the first river company in Nepal, set up as part of the Tiger Tops Mountain Travel group by Jim Edwards with help from Col John Blashford Snell. Al invited Mike Yager, an experienced rafting guide from Jackson Hole, to set the safety standards and train the eager local ‘river rats’.
Anthropologist Johan Reinhard writes: ‘Few people are aware that Al Read and Mike Yager are the fathers of commercial rafting in Nepal.’
In 1982, Al helped to establish InnerAsia, a San Francisco-based adventure travel company known today as Geographic Expeditions or GeoEx. He battled to preserve the sanctity of the Mountain Travel Nepal name, negotiating an out of court settlement with Mountain Travel USA which is still operating at MT Sobek.
Soon after, in 1984 the Reads left Nepal for California and Wyoming. Although we kept in touch, I seldom saw Al and his second wife Susan after that. With my small sons we visited them in the Tetons one summer and enjoyed a consulting mission together on a tourism strategy for Kyrgyzstan. We galloped along the shores of Issykul Lake and tracked snow leopards in the wilds of the Tien Shan range.
When I heard the news of Al’s death last month in San Francisco, my thoughts went to the day in November 1976 when I crashed on landing at Meghauli airstrip in a Royal Nepal Airlines Twin Otter.
He had asked me to escort Himalayan-hero Eric Shipton from Pokhara but the plane was wrecked, mercifully with no fatalities, so we never reached. Rescued back to Kathmandu that afternoon, I walked straight through the crowds at the airport arriving shaken and weak-kneed to report to Al Read in his huge office – shock was setting in.
Rising from his desk, he handed me a hot drink and hugged me: “I was told you were dead!” The rumour mill had been buzzing. “But you know what they say.’ grinned Al. ‘Any landing that you walk away from is a good one!”
This incident seemed to exemplify everything about Al’s endearing reliability, his humour and humanity. He lived a full and vibrant life in pursuit of adventure, calculating risks, forging friendships, and contributing at a crucial period to establish Nepal as a leading and responsible mountain tourism destination.