Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.
Reading Elaine Pagels’s new book, Why Religion? A Personal Story, brought back memories of my friendship with her husband Heinz Pagels. I met him in 1966 when he arrived at the Rockefeller University. I had no knowledge of his work but he struck me as a golden boy. He was very handsome and looked more like someone who might sing folk songs for a living than a theoretical physicist. He had been born in New York City in 1939 and attended Princeton. He then went to Stanford for his graduate work and took his PhD in 1965 under the direction of Sidney Drell. I recently looked at the paper they published and it still holds up. Heinz then spent a brief time at the University of North Carolina. I do not know how he found his way to the Rockefeller but there he was.
As an undergraduate at Oxford I came across a gang of mischief-makers who liked nothing better than to climb in and out of places they weren’t welcome. A dangerous activity and not my thing at all. But once, once, they got me drunk enough to join them. Wearing black tie, high on egg-nog and P.G. Wodehouse, we gatecrashed the Corpus Christi College ball by climbing in over a wall that backs onto Christ Church Meadow. I can’t remember quite how we managed it. There was a straining of a groin, a tearing of a tuxedo, a collapsing in a dishevelled heap on the ground. We then spent a paranoid couple of hours running away from bouncers – a terrible evening, all things considered. But for those goatier of foot, and hardier of soul, Oxford is a playground of drainpipes and dormers, chimneys and stanchions. Cambridge too – more famously so,