Adventures at Sea and on Ice

by Regina Velázquez

Michael Robbins ’49, anticipating his 95th birthday in November, is planning a big party, complete with printed copies of some of his stories. And he has stories to tell. 

He talks about the time when, as a college student in 1945, he was hitchhiking in Bennington, Vt., and was picked up by a man who ran a steamship. The man offered Robbins a job at sea, working in the galley and out on the deck. At the time, young men were encouraged to stay in college throughout the summer “because of returning soldiers” [from World War II], so Robbins had to approach Dean Brooks to ask for permission to go. Brooks said, “I suppose you think you’ll get a better education out at sea than here in college,” and Robbins responded, “Yes, sir!” Dean Brooks said, “Well, go on, then.”

Robbins reports that he boarded the big black ship in Newport News, Va., and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The ship almost capsized near the end of the journey, “but I got back in time for classes,” he says.

Later, Robbins went to Nepal twice, climbing in the Breithorn mountain range there up to 20,000 feet and hoping to enter Tibet, which was closed at the time. He said he had a desire to go to Nepal and, both times, asked around until he found a friend who was also interested. On his second trip, he went with his neighbor Peter, who had been in the Peace Corps and had connections who could help them hire Sherpas and porters. 

He tells about stumbling upon a ceremony in a Buddhist monastery as they hiked. They could hear the monks drumming and singing, and the sound of “high horns—horns with their mouths on the floor, so long that only the youngsters could blow hard enough to make them sing.” They saw statues glaring down at them from an altar and smelled incense in the air. Just as they reached a pinnacle, the sun came out. Robbins discovered that the reason for the ceremony that morning was because “a bear had come down into the town, and bears weren’t expected, so the priests propitiated the god; I guess the bear skedaddled!”

Prior to his climbing adventure in Nepal, he had climbed mountains in Wales and throughout New Hampshire. Despite his experience in mountain-climbing, he had some scares. At one point, he was walking at the top of a “hanging valley”—ice and snow that protrude over a cliff. “The hanging valleys fall when the warm weather and rain come in the spring. It sounds like a rifle crack, and then God help anybody who’s below it.” He mistakenly stepped in a fissure that was opening and got his ice axe across the aperture just in time, but he still found himself hanging by his armpits. Eventually he managed to climb back up, though he had been very tired just moments before. “It was quite an adventure,” he says. When asked if he was concerned about his safety at the time, he says, “We didn’t think about that much.”

Currently living in the Brookline, Mass., house he was born in, Robbins says he’s still very active and goes into his office at Mayflower Advisors in Boston once a week or so, “enough to keep the wolves from the door.” He counts his remaining classmates as he reminisces. “There are 32 or so left in my class,” he says; then he adds cheerily, “I’m still here!”

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