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Boots Beyond Compare

I promised Wahab my boots. They were splendid boots, boots beyond compare … the best of boots; I had a lot of fun in them. 
–Peter Fleming, at the conclusion of ‘News from Tartary’ (1936)

Boots are important. While preparing to come live and work in Nepal for the first time, I needed to invest in a good pair. I was in Oregon at the time; logging country. Loggers wear boots. So a friend and I visited a local boot maker and each ordered a pair of logger boots to bring with us. My friend said he’d give his left knee cap for a pair of ‘Peter Limmers’-probably best hand-crafted boots in America; but beggars can’t be choosers.

But, logger boots for Nepal? Crazy! And it took only one short walk to realize it. They may have been fine for the soft duff in the Oregon woods, but much too heavy and clumsy for the hard packed trails of Nepal.

I have no memory of what became of them. (Did I give them away), or did I merely toss them aside? Are they still out there in some village, locked away in a tin box up under the eaves in a spider-infested attic?

Live and learn, then go find a shoe shop to buy something better. In those days (the early 1960s) there was a Bata shoe store on Kathmandu’s New Road. What happened to me there is almost identical to what had happened a decade earlier to a British journalist in India who was also trying to buy boots.

In 1953, Ralph Izzard of London’s Daily Mail was assigned to cover the British Mount Everest Expedition in Nepal. In preparation for what he knew would be a long trek to Base Camp and back, he went shopping for boots in New Delhi. “Being a large-footed man in a neat-footed nation,” he later wrote, “I could find no boot or shoe to fit me in any shape or form except a single pair of sneakers or tennis shoes in a Bata store. These I bought as slippers to wear about camp, but in the end I marched nearly 400 miles in them, over the roughest possible going, before finally throwing them away (they were retrieved by one of my coolies who is probably still wearing them).”

My experience was similar, but instead of sneakers I bought the largest pair of Indian Army green canvas-&-rubber jungle boots that I could find. Even then they were snug, so I cut the rubber toes out with my Swiss Army knife. Wallah!- air conditioning. For close to a year I put more miles on them than Izzard did in his.

I don’t remember how or where I eventually found a decent pair of comfortable leather hiking boots. But I remember with satisfaction how well they fit. They wore well on a month-long trek through the mountains of Mustang and Manang, up north beyond the Annapurnas.

Over the years I have tried a variety of footwear. Once it was Italian Dolomites, but they were uncomfortably narrow. Years later at an outfitter’s store I discovered the REI brand and after breaking them in I knew that I had found something good. They survived three years of wear and tear in the Cascades and in the Nepalese and Bhutanese Himalayas. We parted, my REIs and I, after tripping along for days on sharp rocks, boulders and ice, and over a high pass in the eastern Himals. On the last day at the end of the trail, they died. I left them hanging from their bright red laces on a guesthouse porch as a memento of the trip. They may still be there, sprouting wildflowers.

Today I wear light-weight, nice-fitting, sandal-like Keen’s made of soft leather with mesh openings (air conditioning again) and reinforced rubber toe pads. Rain or shine, they keep me going. They’re comfortable and they wear well enough to write about. No more big boots for me.

Ralph Izzard writes about trying to buy boots in Delhi in his book, An Innocent on Everest (1954). Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary (1936) is about a 3,500 mile trip overland from Peking to Kashmir.

Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal magazine. His friend Bruce ‘Boots’ Morrison provided some of the inspiration for this essay. Guest essays pertinent to Nepal are also welcome 650-700 words long, with an appropriate illustration. Send them to don.editor@gmail.com for consideration.