People liked Eric Shipton. He made friends easily and kept the ones he made. Although he married only once, many women were drawn to him. Admirer Beatrice Weir was just 17 when she met him at a garden party in India. "Suddenly," she later said, "there appeared this extraordinary brown-faced man, fairly small, with strong legs and a strong body, a shock of hair and slightly weak chin. He had blazing blue eyes everyone used to talk about; he just sat and looked. It was indefinable. I melted like an ice cube."
Yet there was something distant about him, as if he held an important part of himself in reserve, as remote and wild as the mountains he loved so much. His greatest pleasure came from journeys into unknown, unmapped terrain, and he preferred to take the simplest way possible. Dismayed by the massive scale of a typical Everest expedition, he scorned the "small town of tents that sprung up each evening, the noise and racket of each fresh start, the sight of a huge army invading the peaceful valleys."
Instead, Shipton and his climbing partner, Bill Tilman, joked that they could "organise a Himalayan expedition in half an hour on the back of an envelope." Unusual in the 1930s, their no-frills style has since become the standard—lightweight, low impact, self-propelled, culturally sensitive, and motivated by the sheer joy of exploration.
All this was on my mind last May when Mark Newcomb, Nancy Feagin, Sam Lightner, Jr., Gordon Wiltsie, and I arrived in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, with plans for our adventure—friends on a lighthearted, lightly ladened excursion to the far side of the planet. Our admiration for Shipton, and curiosity about his arch, had brought us together. We tried to imagine Kashgar as he would have seen it in 1940, when he arrived there to assume his post as British consul.
Among Britain's most remote diplomatic posts, Kashgar was Shipton's kind of place. Isolated, difficult to reach, steeped in the romance of Central Asia, the city lies on the edge of the vast Taklimakan Desert in the shadow of the continent's greatest mountain ranges. For some 2,000 years it served as a way station and trading center on the Silk Road. It was also a strategic vantage point for players in the "Great Game"—the political struggle for Asian dominance between Britain and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the junction of shifting empires, the region was controlled by China, but rebellions, civil war, and conquest often tested that control. During Shipton's time there was no telling who might win.
By all accounts Shipton was an effective diplomat. He led excursions into the surrounding country, where he climbed mountains and combined hunting with exploring and even some amateur spying. Every month he sent to India secret reports filled with political analysis and information on rebellions, intrigues, troop movements, and Soviet activities in the region.