THE SLENDER THREAD. By Stephen Venables. Pp. 208, 61 colour and b/w illustrations, 2 maps, 2000. (Hutchinson, London, £ 17.99).
‘Marvellous thing – gravity’, Stephen Venables’ exact words at a lecture in Bombay describing how little time he took to get down from to the South Col from the summit of Everest. The same irresistible force that guided him off the highest summit in the world would nearly kill him on Panch Chuli V. Venables’ book The Slender Thread is a mountaineering classic not only for its account of a daunting mountaineering adventure but for the immediacy with which it brings the reader into the inner world and mind of the extreme mountaineer . It deals with the Indian British expedition to the remote Panch Chuli peaks in the Kumaun Himalaya, led by the Indo-British duo of Harish Kapadia and Sir Chris Bonington. The book starts dramatically, describing the fall sustained by Venables and which ended with two broken legs. It harks back to his early formative years spent in the Swiss alps. Of his first climb on rock outside the delightful town of Pontresina in Switzerland before he graduated to more serious stuff on expeditions through Afghanistan and in Pakistan. His first expedition to Rimo with Harish Kapadia in 1985 was to forge a strong and long lasting friendship which endures to date. The briefest of mentions is given to his epic ascent of the Kangshung Face of Everest.
Masterfully interwoven into the thread of the story are amusing interludes of his first meeting with Bonington , of his guilt at leaving his wife and child to wander the distant peaks, and the transparent delight of discovery around the next bend. His deep love of the mountains he climbs – and their history – are displayed in a narrative that never drags. His description of Harish Kapadia is so uncannily accurate that those of us who are fortunate to know him cannot help but smile and occasionally guffaw. A minor irritant is the inaccurate transcription of the Indian word “Acha” meaning OK, to “Achar” meaning pickle!
On the mountain , the narrative is spell binding. I can recall of no thriller that reads with as much pace and punch. Ruthlessly honest, it does not hide the disagreements between the climbers. None better illustrated than when all are on a slope prone to avalanche danger, Bonington feels uncomfortable and wants to retreat, but the single mindedness of Venables blinds him to reason and he explodes with anger that shocks the others.
What is endearing though, is how comfortable the team is with each others’ foibles – and the rock solid confidence they have in each others capabilities. No wonder; they must have probably been the most formidably experienced rope in the Himalaya on that day.
Venables’ accident is described in breathtaking detail and is as close as any reader will ever come to recounting a near death experience. How the author remembers in graphic detail the agony of no more than 30 seconds is a feat in itself. The rescue by his mates is nothing short of heroic. The professional way in which he was lowered to the shelter of the tents. Bonington’s narrow escape and fall notwithstanding, leaves one wondering at the reserves of human sinew and spirit.
Equally audacious was the helicopter rescue of Venables by the two Indian Air Force pilots. This desperate flight must go down in the annals of mountain rescue as one of the most hair raising ever. Venables owes his life as much to the mountaineering skill of his British comrades as to the tremendous efforts put in by the Indian contingent of the expedition and the pilots of the Indian Air Force.
In short, we have a book which is an exhilarating read, and which leaves the reader awestruck with its prose, content and character.
Dr. Burjor Banaji
SNOW IN THE KINGDOM. My Storm Years on Everest. By Ed Webster. Pp 579, many color, b/w photographs, maps, 2000. (Mountain Imagery, USA, $29.95).
Himalayan history is filled with accounts of valiant deeds under exceptional circumstances and the dramatic finales one encounters in mountaineering books. Snow in the Kingdom is a block buster written by Ed Webster. It is a sensitive account of his ‘Storm years on the Everest’. The central theme of the book is a brilliant insights into the travails of a mountaineer, the sufferings, the ever changing relationships with his fellow climbers, the guilt over the death of a dear one, are some of the riveting incidents that appear in the book.
The journey is an autobiography of a man who has lived on the edge of extreme mountaineering and his experiences in the Himalaya., the three expeditions to Mount Everest between 1985 and 1988. Ed attempted three sides of the Everest, the West Ridge Direct from Nepal, Changtse, North face from Tibet and the Kangshung, the East Face from Tibet.
After the loss of his beloved one in a climbing expedition the author’s view on the fragility of life is aptly reflected in the following, ‘Death could be a serene conclusion to life – but death can also be hated, cold, hated and unfathomable’. Grief had pushed him beyond the brink of caring. He embarked on the first of the expeditions, the West Ridge Expedition, then followed by the solo climb of the Changtse and finally Ed Webster attempted a new route on the mysterious and probably the most dangerous climb the Kangshung face.
The mountaineering great George Mallory who had done a reconnaissance in1921 for the British Mount Everest expedition later wrote, ‘other men, less wise, would attempt this way if they would, but, emphatically, it was not us’.
In the gripping narrative of these climbs which Webster through his vivid writing style and supplemented by some breathtaking photographs one learns to appreciate the mountain terrain and the environment. Each of us approaches the sport from our own perspective and feel perceptible change affecting our lives by the experiences. Mountaineering imbibes skills of team building, ability to withstand hardships, introspection, trust and how to temper ambition with prudence and knowledge of our own limitations. Examples of all these qualities are abundantly portrayed in the book.
Webster has brilliantly used the conversation he had with the legendary Lord Hunt, ‘If we are going to succeed on Everest, I need to do three things. Pick people who are experts in their field: good on rock, good on ice, good at high altitude; assign them their various duties before the expedition began: to organize the food, climbing equipment and logistics and finally above all other considerations, make sure we got along well together.’ A sure shot recipe for success! Then that twist in the tale about the legendary Sherpa Tensing Norgay’s origins, all add to the charm of this book.
Snow in the Kingdom is a superb book, attractive suitably designed, expensively produced in high quality coated paper well illustrated by some brilliant photographs both black and white as well as colour which complements the text, includes some rare unpublished photographs of the legendary George Mallory. The selection of photographs is the only fault I can pick in this book, the author must surely be having an enviable collection of those visual delights that only some of them could have been included in the book.
The text is authoritative and at the same time does not have the monotony of a expedition log book. It is written in a lucid style with verve and compassion emphasizing the author’s lifelong obsession with the mountains.
ACROSS THE FROZEN HIMALAYA. By Harish Kohli. Pp 296, 10 b/w sketch maps, 48 colour prints, 2000. (Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi, Rs 595).
Some of us have dreams to visit far off places and to explore new lands. Harish Kohli is one of them. His ski-traverse from Karakoram pass to Lipu Lekh pass, a journey of 2000 kms across the Himalaya in winter has opened up new avenues for adventure.
The author wanted to be the first one to cross Antarctica alone and unaided but had to give up on this plan due to the expenses involved. As he was pondering on new adventures he got a call from HIMEX, a unit of the Indian army, and a new idea was born.
The journey begins from the historic Karakoram pass and continues south along the ancient trade route, also known as the ‘skeleton trail’, which used to connect Yarkand in central Asia to Leh. Disaster strikes early and two members had to be evacuated after the first day on the trail. The route continues over the Depsang plains and into the Shyok valley. The team had made sledges, improvised from their skis when the route went over frozen rivers and lakes. After crossing the vastness of Ladakh they entered the narrow gorges Spiti across Parang la. Once in Kinnaur, at Chhitkul seven members from the American, Australian and British armies join them. Towards the end of the journey they make a detour and reach Lipu Lekh pass via a new route and discover three new passes in the process. However his suggestion to name these passes after his sponsor and late Prime Minister of India should certainly be avoided.
The traverse lasted for 97 days, through the most difficult terrain with average loads carried by them was up to 37 kgs, which made skiing very dangerous. Almost every morning brought bad weather and combined with the altitude it was like fighting a small battle daily until the war was over. ‘Sultan S’aid’, the last great king of Yarkand and Kashgar, had appeared to the author in a dream during the first night near the Karakoram pass. Maybe his sprit was with them!
The tale is said with good humour and the teamwork and discipline of the members are worthy of emulation. The only flip side to the book is the tendency of the author to make several narrations as a bureaucratic leader. But this is a minor aberration in this well- researched book which is informative on the history of the area and the early explorers.
Huzefa A. Electricwala
MOUNTAIN MEN. Tall Tales and High Adventure. By Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan. Pp 208, 20 colour illustrations, 14 black & white illustrations, 2 sketch maps, 2001. (Boxtree, London, £15.99)
With the characteristic eye for details that any BBC enterprise is marked with, the Mountain Men series, presented in a book form by the series producer Mick Conefrey draws an effulgent saga of high adventure and man’s eternal quest for immortality through perilous deeds. The brilliantly photographed and edited high-voltage documentary- drama is offered in all its stark and grim reality even for those who might not have viewed the series.
The book faithfully chronicles the travails and traumas of the pioneering climbers, primarily through the history of three of the most prominent mountains in the world: Matterhorn, Mt. Mckinley, and the formidable K2. The eccentric and the fanatically obsessed men who lay siege relentlessly on these great mountain massifs, risking life, failure, social ridicule and often financial bankruptcy added as much colour and vibrancy to the lofty summits as did their geophysical characteristics. Mountain Men proves amply that mountain folklore owes its magnetism equally to the men who choose to pitch in their lives against the icy dungeons.
All the three summits that form the core of the book are seeped into controversies and unbelievable tales of courage of the men who gave rise to them. Compared to the modern climbing outfits that one takes almost for granted, those early climbers often assailed the lofty echelons with nothing more than crude hemp ropes, elementary leather boots, improvised crampons and wooden ice-axes of unsavoury proportions. It’s no less than a miracle that they even reached anywhere, leave aside the unassailable summits. These indomitable men of iron will and steely constitution paved and charted the routes over which the future mankind would continue to embark on arduous missions. Mountain Men not only serves as a grim reminder to our pedantic forefathers to whom we owe so much but it also tells us where these great achievers went astray in their single-minded pursuit, and therefore serves a climber’s charter of forewarning, to which any intrepid mountaineer must pay adequate heed.
The chapters describing Edward Whymper’s fatalistic obsession with Matterhorn, Dr Frederick Cook’s misplaced fixation with Mt Mckinley, Maurice Wilson’s maddening solo bid on Everest headed for doom since inception, Fritz Wiessner’s K2 adventures, etc flow like unputdownable thrillers leading the readers from one summit to another in a breathless rush of adrenalin.
The concluding chapter of Mountain Men, titled: ‘Why Climb?’ is a delight in itself. With philosophical insights into the world of mountaineering and first hand views of some of the greatest mountaineers of all times, it attempts to unravel the eternal enigma that why a man of sanity and proper upbringing must leave his comfortable shores to take on the challenges of the mightiest and the most violent forces of nature. It might or might not have succeeded in quenching every individual mountaineer’s point of view but it definitely unfurls the magnificent panorama of cause and effects that forms the complete lure of mountain magic.
Satyabrata Dam (Lt. Cdr.)
WAR AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet. By Eric Margolis. Pp. 250, 1 map, 2000. (Routlege, New York, $ 22). ISBN: 0415927129
When Rudyard Kipling gave the famous name, ‘The Great Game’ he may not have realised that the game will continue into the next Century and will turn so bloody. The conflict in the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges between three countries today should be of interest to mountaineers and readers of the Himalayan Journal.
The Himalayan watershed of South Asia is an area of intense tension Potential flashpoints could lead to regional conflagrations that test the nuclear threshold. Geopolitical and internal disputes have created a belt of uncertainty from the Karakorams to the Eastern Himalaya which shades off into the Burmese Highlands. This stretch of mountains host some of the most inhospitable terrains in the world, whose challenge and beauty are a mountaineer’s dream. Sadly, because these regions happen to be disputed frontiers, vast areas remain closed.
This area of the Himalaya between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China has been the focus of attention in some recent books. One of these is Humphrey Huxley’s Dragon Fire, a fictionalised account of conflict in this belt that steadily builds up to nuclear climax involving China, India and Pakistan. Huxley’ deft handling of geopolitical and military realities makes his account a very credible one. And Dragon Fire does not pretend to be anything other than a plausible work of fiction. In contrast to this is War at the Top of the World by Eric Margolis, which outlines a similar scenario but presents it as an analysis of the real situation based on a study of facts. Yet, in many ways Margolis’ description of his travels and his ifuturistic predictions sounds more fantastic than Huxley’s fiction. If Margolis lacks Huxley sure touch it is surely because of his inadequate grasp of regional geopolitics and perhaps also of even elementary facts.
Eric Margolis’ attempt is primarily intended as a strategic analysis of the on going disputes and their likely trajectory. The book’s claim to authenticity of analysis and credibility rests on his experiences of brief visits to some areas of this Himalayan belt. But a study of this kind, based on personal travels, as the author claims to have done, requires in the first place the capacity for dispassionate analysis, if it is to be credible. Moreover, since this is an area which many have visited, a place where armies camp, much has already written about it. Consequently, any study of it must be based on meticulous observation scrupulous adherence to known and incontrovertable facts. Unfortunately, Margolis seems to have dispensed with both these requirements. The book is deeply flawed by coloured judgment and factual errors. One reads the book as though through a cracked mirror because at the core of this misjudgement is his evident and palpable dislike of India.
It is likely that in his perambulations Margolis had an encounter with the ubiquitous Indian “Babu”, which perhaps soured his disposition. The book is replete with disparaging remarks of all things Indian, a country he describes as “quaint, exotic and a third world derelict”. He delights in characterising Indian politicians as “local warlords, powerful feudal land owners, caste based party bosses and gangsters”. The vibrancy of the Indian democracy is casually written off in a few phrases. The police forces are “undisciplined thugs of little military value”, the temples are “pornographic”, the roads are death traps and Indian airline pilots are “notorious for drink and incompetence”. In fact very little tht is Indian misses his jaundiced and baleful eye. On the other hand, the “Islamic Warrior” is his brother deserving of constant praise “tall, true, fierce, ferocious formidable”. There are stories of “Fadil the Kurd”, “Musa the Warrior” (“I like to fight wherever there are Indians”), “Commander Nadji the Egyptian”. Only Mr K.P. S. Gill finds favourable mention and even that is back handed. Perhaps, he badly frightened the man.
Because Margolis has deliberately failed to understand India, his assessments tend to goawry. The shallowness of his knowledge is evident in his comments on the caste system, where he commits the common mistake of all pseudo- intellectuals of equating class with caste. Margolis should have read research on caste by such authorities as Ashley Montague and Andre Betteille. His account is tendetious in other matters as well. Despite evidence to the contrary, the author continues to portray the Kargil War as an incursion by 800 motivated Mujahadeen. There is no disputing the courage of the Afghan and the Pakhtoon, and their success against the Russian juggernaut. But these redoubtable warriors and their mercenary brethren have failed in Kashmir, a fact grudgingly acknowledged by the author, who attributes it to skilful Indian diplomacy in isolating the Mujahaddin, overwhelming Indian troop presence in the area, Israeli help to India in sealing the borders, and the brutal repression of Kashmiris, among other reasons.
He starts with a cursory visit to Afghanistan after which he turns to Kashmir, particularly the role of Afghanis in this state. His narration of accounts of alleged Indian repression in Kashmir is particularly merciless. He also makes the entire Himalayan region an area of dispute vis-a-vis India. For example, in one sentence he talks of “Chinese Sinkiang and India held Ladakh”. The ‘occupation’ of the latter he compares with the Chinese annexation of Tibet. It is obvious that Margolis has not heard of the famed Ladakh Scouts, sons of the soil, one of the most highly decorated regiments of the Indian Army, willing and successful defenders of Ladakh in all of India’s wars. Can he find a Tibetan army fighting for the Chinese?
Eric Margolis, subtly and not so subtly, draws attention throughout the book to his vast travels and his reportage of the various conflicts that plague the globe. His smug conclusions are based on this experience. But his experience clearly lacks depth, and as one ploughs through the book, one cannot help the feeling that he does not know his geography at all. A major faux pass is in the chapters narrating his visit to the Siachen glacier. He is clearly taken on a merry go round by the Pakistanis and this is evident in his description of his travels through Baltistan with one Capt Aziz.
The first giveaway is his belief that K2 and Godwin Austin are different peaks (enough to put off anyone from the mountain climbing fraternity). More amazingly, in two days, over atrocious roads he seems to cover the greater part of the conflict areas of Baltistan, including Kargil and Siachen. In this dream journey Capt Aziz and Margolis leave Skardu at dawn and cross Gol and Khapalu before lunch. After an afternoon nap, they drive along the Shyok river on an atrocious dirt track till they reach the crest of the Ladakh range from where he is given a glimpse of Kargil. Here the author makes the interesting observation that from Kargil a road leads on to the Nubra valley. Thereafter, the drive takes them over the “Bila fond Pass” (sic) at 15,600 feet, followed by a night halt in “a demented village”. The next day’s drive is again over a terrible dirt track which leads them to the Army Base at Dansam at the ‘foot of the mighty Siachen Glacier a 50 mile river of ice’. Here of course he meets his boon companion of old days, Col Youssef, a strapping Pathan from Peshawar who reminiscences about Skendberg, Albania (the country of author’s mother).
The next day they drive to the 25 Punjab Regiment base, where he is received by Colonel Musa, who reminds him of the Ottoman Sultan in GK Chesterton’s poem “Lepanto” (“there is laughter like the fountain in that face of all men feared”). Here the author is given a demonstration, which includes firing by 130 mm guns. The guns succeed in destroying an Indian artillery position, as reported by the Forward Observation Posts. Colonel Musa points out a commanding peak, held by them, which the Indian Army has been unsuccessfully trying to capture, in one instance being driven off by an officer who had rappelled down to the top of a peak from a helicopter. The author is then taken to Conway Saddle where he gets a glimpse of Indian positions a kilometre away. At the end of this chapter, the author observes, ‘no hatred I have ever encountered, save that held by Serbs and Greeks for Muslims, equalled the vitriolic detestation between Indians and Pakistanis”.
I have spent some time on these particular chapters as, they are of interest to the average Himalayan traveller. They also containd glaring inaccuracies. Throughout the drive the author makes no mention of encountering any traffic on a road which is the lifeline of a brigade plus of Pakistani troops. The road obviously could not be in the atrocious condition described by the writer. More to the point, Bilafond Pass is not on this road. In fact, Bilafond Pass and Conway Saddle are difficult to reach even for experienced mountaineers. And with the Indian army positions overlooking these passes any attempt to reach there would have resulted in disaster for the visitors.
It is fairly obvious that Capt Aziz took the author some distance along Shyok valley and not to the crest of Ladakh Range from where he claims he got a glimpse of Kargil. Aziz and his superiors must be laughing up their “ferocious” beards, for what he indicated as Kargil to the author was probably an Indian or even a Pakistan village in the Shyok valley. This is further corroborated by the fact that the approach to the Nubra is along the Shyok valley, and not, as Margolis claims, from Kargil from where a good road goes to Leh and thereafter winds up to Khardung la before twisting down to the Shyok valley and Nubra. Dansam is on the Dansam river which is fed by the Kondus, Bilafond, Chumik, Gyong and Chulung glaciers and not the Siachen glacier, which feeds the Nubra on the Indian side.
It is most likely that the author was taken along the Bilafond glacier, where 25 Punjab Regiment’s posts are located. The peak shown by Colonel Musa is most likely the former ‘Qaid’ Peak, captured in a fine feat of arms by Subedar Major Bana Singh and men of 8 jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry in 1986. This was the backbone of Pakistani defences. They have never reconciled themselves to its loss and the Pakistani public still remains unaware of this debacle. The helicopter incident actually happened in 1992 in the Chulung Complex, where a brave Pakistani officer tried to reach a commanding height by helicopter and perished in the attempt. That particular battle resulted in the death of a Pakistani Brigadier. There is no Indian artillery gun position under observation by Pakistan, for the simple fact is that in the Siachen, despite horrendous odds, the Indian army holds the heights. Pakistani forces do not have any view of the Siachen glacier, let alone driving jeeps with Margolis there !
The “hatred for Hindus” that Margolis repeatedly talks about is not reciprocated by the Indians. The Indian Army has enrolled a fair number of Muslims who have fought most gallantly on the Siachen and won gallantry awards. The Indian army motivation is based on other factors, hatred of Muslims is definitely not one of them. This is war between two nations and not two communities.
In another passage the author turns the rationale of the Siachen conflict on its head by claiming that Indian mountaineering expeditions triggered Pakistani army activity on Siachen, whereas the entire mountaineering fraternity knows foreign expeditions to the glacier mounted from Pakistan, fourteen in all, combined with cartographic aggression, provoked India into occupying Siachen.
The expeditions, accompanied by Pakistani liason officers, were the grounds on which Pakistan had laid claim to the glacier. Maps began to be published in Europe showing the extended ”Line of Control” joining the Karakoram Pass in the east following the Pakistani claim. These maps conceded the entire Siachen glacier to Pakistan, and showed Pakistan and China sharing a long common border to the east of Siachen. When in 1984, Pakistan gave permission to a Japanese expedition to attempt Rimo, a peak located in a side valley east of the Siachen and overlooking Aksai Chin, which would have linked Pakistani controlled Kashmir with China, along the historic trade route that leads to Chinese Turkestan over the Karakoram Pass, the Indian army occupied the Siachen.
It is also worth remembering that any solution to the border dispute in the Himalayan frontiers would ultimately rest on the watershed principle. All Himalayan borders, since the MacMahon Line was drawn, follow the ridge from where all rivers flowing south go to India, and rivers flowing north go to China (Tibet). In Siachen the Saltoro Ridge, which is the dividing line, rivers that flow west and south from the ridge will be with Pakistan and east and south with India. This is a principle the author conveniently ignores.
The latter part of the book is devoted to the Tibetan conflict. The Chinese occupied Tibet for which the author continuously puts the blames on India! In his tirades Sikkim (a state of India), Bhutan and Nepal also feel threatened by Indians. His prejudiced narration of events constantly stresses that it is India which wanted to control Tibet. And after considering various aspects of Chinese history and its leadership he speculates about the possible break up of China, like the Soviet Empire did, and who will grab which areas in such an eventuality; as if nations are available for peanuts. He titles his last chapter “The Fate of Asia”. What he forgets is that the fate of Asia, whichever way it goes, will now be decided by Asians and no amount of sermonising by westerners will have any effect. In fact India has asserted its democratic independence forcefully – all talk of the “foreign hand” is looked down on with disdain.
Eric Margolis has based his book on cursory personal experiences, which seem to only reinforce his stereotyped predetermined prejudices. It is exactly such a skewed view of the region and its conflicts, that the world should be wary of. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
(I am grateful to Maj. Gen. Randhir Sinh for several inputs and suggestions)
FACING UP: A Remarkable Journey to the Summit of Everest.
By Bear Grylle. Pp. 289, 2000. (Macmillan, London, £ 14.99 ).
Does the lure of Everest lie in its status as a metaphor for psychic wholeness, uniting our masculine and feminine sides? Although the world’s highest peak is always bruited abroad as a hard macho challenge to human endurance (as opposed to technical climbing skill) this overlooks the reality that the masculine image is only a hundred years old. For a millennium before European surveyors and alpinists imposed the name for Colonel George Everest the peak was (and still is) known to Tibetans as the female deity Chomolungma, goddess mother of the world. And as everyone knows when it comes to human endurance ladies often outshine men in the stamina it takes. To underline the androgynous persona of the mountain there is the timely conundrum of Jan Morris’s identity, doyenne of travel writers. She started out her career as james Morris the London Times correspondent who broke the news to the world of the mountain’s first ascent in 1953. Morris, long before his sex change operation had found the masculine approach to Everest by Hunt’s expedition akin to military manoeuvres that signified nothing.
Bear Gryll’s unique selling point is his status as Britain’s youngest topper of Everest at the age of 23 but the significance of his book lies elsewhere. A hint of its value may be detected in the unusual subtitle. A Journey to the Summit of Everest. (Macho climbers unusually prefer “ascent.”) Young, handsome and as dashing as a Sloane Ranger, Bear declines a commission in the Guards and joins the army as a survival instructor, displaying the same kind of common touch and charisma that Lady Di counted among her gifts. Bear is like a Habbit, both tough and sensitive and understands (like few Everest climbers before him that his strength allows him to be gentle with others including the mountain herself. The significance of Bear’s book, it seems to me, is that for the first time a climber has understood why he is there. Uncannily you get the feeling from the number of times the Goddess Mother lets this innocent off the hook (he has a series of close shaves with death) that the mountain recognises in this intruder a pilgrim poet whose footsteps help redeem the ugly behaviour of modern climbers who have sullied the reputation of Everest by their selfishness.
My first glance at the gimmicky jacket (showing a classic Freudian face off between groping climber and icy cleft “(British Hero Subduing Virgin Wilderness?)” gave rise to “Oh gawd! Not another boring ascent of Big E. by stiff upper Brits.” Ominously the foreword is by a public school chaplain and to make matters worse the blurb includes a recommendation from the rarefied altitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s pulpit. I remember how odious it was to read of an American astronaut to the moon whose first act on landing was to perform Mass whereby the lifeless orb was spiritually annexed to the “living church”. I find such communal aggrandisement a mark of neurosis more than true religion and devoutly prayed that “Gladly my Cross-Eyed Bear” would avoid the trap of waxing evangelistic on the top of Everest. After Chairman Maos bust, all we need is the “Allelujah brother” of Jesus freaks.
It is a mark of Bear’s sturdiness of character that he never allows his personal convictions to overhelm either his narrative or his friends. Here is a well balanced climber with a remarkable story to tell and he just gets on with the job of telling it. He writes with the simple joy of John Bunyan’s pilgrim and for someone so young Bear possesses an extraordinary fund of commonsensical insights that translate into practical wisdom on Everest. “Strength is often hidden in absurdity.” “Mountains are climbed by Injuns not Chiefs.” “The draw of the mountains is their simplicity.” “The mountains like the sea demand our deep respect.”
It is this respect for Everest that makes Facing Up so different and so much more readable than most accounts. Rheinhold Messner, the phenomenal athlete who climbed all fourteen of the world’s 8000 meter peaks, lacks this quality of respect and his books are more about what a helluva guy he is. Because Messner puts toughness before gentleness he loses out in imaginative appraisal of the peaks he has “knocked off.” Bear’s equation with Everest is both masculine and feminine and this emerges from the chaplain’s foreward. When asked by Eton schoolboys what it felt like to have conquered Everest Bear replies “Everest allowed us to reach her summit by the skin of our teeth. She has never been, nor ever will be, conquered.”
Because Everest draws to its flanks many more power seekers than poets, this credo of love for the peak helps atone for the political and commercial abuse that the mountain has been subjected to. From imperial flagwavers to communist party committee meetings, the top of Everest has hosted a wild array of motivation. In 1996 the exploitation of the summit’s magical potential by commercial guided tours resulted in appalling casualties as rich Americans queued up under the summit for their $65,000 moment of glory, only to be wiped out by the storm they all knew was imminent.
So great is the lure of the summit that many Everest addicts betray suicidal tendencies, vainly hoping to find wholeness through annihilation.
Bear’s book makes it clear that no mountain is worth losing fingers and toes for, let alone sacrificing your life. How come then that this young man beat all the statistics and emerged unscathed on his first attempt? The answer is “he pushed and pushed hard” to get there even he had pushed too hard and died of exhaustion. A year after this “youngest British ascent” another climber, younger, achieved the summit; but he tragically died on the descent. Those who argue that Mallory may well have been the first summiteer before he died (when they found his body his wife’s photograph-that he had promised to place on the top-was missing from his wallet) overlook the argument that to really lay claim to a peak you must return to base. Even there death may lurk to catch the unwary. After the long catalogue of near misses Bear almost loses his life in a helicopter crash.
It is clear a lot of grace was at work in this unorthodox and very laid-back ascent of Everest. Bear’s journey starts while still in the army, when his parachute fails to open on a training jump and he breaks his back, not to mention his career. Amazingly he claws his way back thanks to a remarkable life-affirming philosophy of High Anglican non-logical positivism plus a strict regime of self-discipline. He decides to climb Everest to fulfil a personal dream and teams up with three old friends to ride piggy back with a professional set-up who (for a price) will arrange for Sherpas to place reserve oxygen at the upper camps, the most crucial input after a correct reading of the weather. Two weeks before departure the dreamer still has to raise $20,000 and suddenly as he cycles past an office he notes the magical name “Everest.” Incredibly this is a family film descended from the great Surveyor General who “just happen” to be on the lookout for someone to advertise their product (coffee;)
As with sponsors so with the weather, Everest conspires to make straight the way of Bear. After months of getting fit by running around the Brecon Beacons with rocks and Shakespeare’s Collected Works on his back, the hardest part now would be hanging around for another three months acclimatizing near the Khumbu icefall waiting for the magical moment when the onset of the monsoon would deflect the killing windstream and leave the summit for a brief few days climbable. You had to be fit and ready for that moment as well as prepared for the heartbreak of the weather changing back to its killer mode. Bear fails to make the first attempt, having contracted a virus, but his friends nearing the summit have the chagrin of finding their equipment buried and irretrievable and there is no rope for the crucial Hillary
Step. Bear wills his body to take the next opportunity “striving valiantly and daring greatly” and the mountain seems to lend him strength. “With tears creeping down my cheeks the summit of Mount Everest opened her arms and welcomed me. It was as if she now considered me somehow worthy of this (scared) place.”
Like that other instant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, Bear makes it safely home to his family. He is greeted by his mother who reminds him that just because he has climbed Everest doesn’t mean he can put his feet up and loll around the house. It seems Bear has yet to learn that for an only son it is easier to climb Everest than escape the thrall of a loving Mums
TIBET. Tsarist Russia and the Great Game. By Tatiana Shaumian.
Pp. 223, 2000. (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Rs. 545).
Tatiana Shaumian is deputy director at the Centre of Indian Studies in Moscow, Tibet-Tsarist Russia and the Great Game is a correspondingly scholarly work. The book deals with the drama of politics, diplomacy and espionage being played across high Asia through the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. Shaumian chooses to concentrate almost completely on the question of Tibet, caught in the middle of a power struggle between three great empires – Manchu China, Tsarist Russia and Imperial Britain. Tibet was one of the most crucial issues in Anglo-Russian relations during the period. Today with the collapse of the soviet union, emergence of the new central Asian republics, and efforts by the people’s Republic to bring the region into the Chinese ‘mainstream’, Tibet has assumed a new geopolitical significance.
Like other writers before her, the best known being Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game, Trespassers on the Roof of the World), Shaumian brings admirable depth of research to her subject matter. She has drawn extensively from documents in Russia’s foreign policy archives, the National Archives of India, and a host of newspaper reports of the age. To the extent that Hopkirk looks towards Tibet from the west, Shaumian provides the view from the East – particularly with regard to the role that Tibet played in Russia’s foreign policy thinking. Shaumian refutes the idea that Russia ever contemplated a direct military intervention; or that there were any grand designs on India. Her view is that the Tsars wanted to use pressure on the Tibet issue to gain British concessions in other areas – the ‘Roof of the World’ as a bargaining chip. Shaumian examines the backroom diplomacy between Russia, Tibet and China – to the exclusion of Britain, leading up the Anglo-Russian convention in 1907 and the Shimla conferences of 1913-14; as well as the Russian reaction to Younghusband’s terrible invasion. By looking at Manchu China’s gradually hardening stand and the changes effected by the 1911 revolution, the author also provides fascinating glimpse of Chinese attitudes – attitudes that seemed to have inexorably led to the eventual occupation.
Shaumian also introduces us to one of the most fascinating players in the Great Game – Ngvang Losang Dorjieff, a Buryat from the Trans-Baikal region who travelled to Tibet for a Buddhist education. Disguised as a Mongol, Dorjieff became a religious scholar of the highest rank at the Drepung monastery; he was also a classic diplomatic spy. Dorjieff spoke eight languages, became a confidante of the young Dalai Lama and used his influence to convince Tibetan leadership that an alliance with Russia would prevent their country from falling into British hands. Shaumian describes Dorjieff s visits to Moscow as an envoy, but the reader is left frustrated at the lack of detail.
This is not the gripping narrative that Hopkirk provides in his books, nor does it provide a similarly exciting cast of characters. Although relatively short, Tibet has an essentially academic tone. It is a satisfying read for any Great Game enthusiast, and is particularly valuable as counter-point to Hopkirk’s inevitably Anglo-Saxon view of things.
CLIMBING EVEREST. A meditation on mountaineering and the spirit of adventure. By Pat Ament, Pp 146, 2001 (Ragged Mountain Press, London, £ 12.99).
Pat Ament is a veteran rock climber and boulderer. He is also a well known writer, illustrator and poet. All these talents come together in this book, which is not so much about climbing as about life itself. Ament takes us on an imaginary journey up Everest, a mountain he has not climbed himself -’I speak as though an Everest veteran. For the length of this book, I must permit myself – and you must permit me – to imagine It is so’.
The journey is arduous and dangerous, but relieved of the need to provide a step-by-step account of the climb, Ament can take time to talk about the metaphors that this mountain stands for. To climb Everest is not about reaching the pinnacle, for clearly that is not an impossible thing to do. ‘The reason we are here is more along the lines of a respect for Everest, that we should gain insight into it, with the assumption that we will gain some modest look at ourselves also, from inside out, as it were, or upside down, and some parts of us may prove accessible only on Everest’.
The climbing of Everest is a chastising process. At the end, no one can remain unchanged. And it is not the power and the glory that makes the change but the realisation that very often that which you seek in life is already with you. Ament’s reflections are interspersed with whimsical and truly witty cartoons that surely deserve a book for themselves. However, sometimes you feel the book, like the mountain it talks about, just goes on and on. It could have been a five-page article, not necessarily such an expensive book. All things said, if only for its illustrations, Climbing Everest is an evocative, uplifting book that reasserts the miracle of existence.
LIFE AND DEATH ON MT. EVEREST. By Sherry B. Orther. Pp. 375, illustrated, 2000 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Rs. 495)
It may seem strange to HC readers that a book with this title is not really about mountain ascents and descents, about routes, camps and summits. Nor is it about life and death on Everest alone. The title is catchy. The theme is very dispersed and ethnographic. It is an anthropologist’s account of Sahibs and Sherpas, latterly Memsahibs and Sherpanis also; about the changing perceptions, attitudes, values, behaviour, styles and relationships; with inter-perceptions of each group in a long story through the decades of the 20th century. The scenarios cover Everest, other peaks in the Nepal Himalaya, Sola Khombu, farm and monastic life, tourist Darjeeling and Kathmandu, life and death in the Himalaya, and life off mountains. It is a moving Kaleidoscope over the century, and that is what fascinates. The human situation is never static. In the charming diversities of human beings, there are no stereotypes. Sahibs and Sherpas both change over time. What climbers may find most interesting is the probing – again never fixed or static – into the various responses to the old question, why climb? Why do Sahibs climb? Why do Sherpas climb? Or for that matter, Memsahibs and Sherpanis? The answers range from the romantic, the mystical, to the mercenary and, not least, prestige. Even subtler psycho-social reasons in each case.
The author bases her study on two field visits in 1968 and 1990, on the autobiographies of the Angtharkay and Tensing, on other ethnographic accounts, especially of the pioneer studies of Christoph Van Haimendorf. All seen through two basic themes; the theme of “meaning” of the anthropologist, and the theme of “power” of Said and Foucalt. Such intellectuals are like Einstein’s god, “subtle” but not harsh, insightful, but not judgemental.
Right through the book, it is fascinating how the author’s intellect weaves warp and woof in the “games” of so many actors from different cultures. But for the convenience of the reader in the short space of a review, I might break that skilled weaving into four periods; the colonial (say till 1950) and largely British-Sherpa relations); the post-colonial, and the widening of Sherpa-Sahib relations to sahibs from many countries; the inter-cultural in which the Sherpa slowly asserts equality and fellowship (post 1970); and finally, what the author calls “Reconfigurations” (in the ’80′s and ’90′s), in which Memsahibs and Sherpanis also climb. Naturally, each flows into the next. It is like watching a flow of people down a street for a century, with changing dresses, attitudes, styles, from the British bowler hot to the hippie shirt.
In the first period, largely of British Sahibdom, Himalayan climbing was one off-shoot of a wide range of imperial interests in the Himalaya and trans-Himalaya, political, trade scientific, and what may be called oriental spiritualism. The sahibs were the leaders, the master race, the “Guardians” of the ICS tradition. The Sherpas were looked upon as loyal, brave, cheerful load-careers, essentially children with child like qualities of fun, sometimes lacking discipline, especially when helped by ‘chang’. These were, of course, stereotypes. These were many individual differences both of Sahibs and Sherpas. The neo-socialist Mallory could not stand the elite leader, Howard Bury, Etonian of the illustrious Howard family, Earls of Suffork. The sahibs saw themselves as exemplars of “masculinity”, “adventure”, those who “reached the limits of life”. Mountaineering was about testing and refining oneself, about finding oneself in high places far from the madding crowd. For Tilman, “when a man has to start inhaling oxygen his spirit has already been conquered by the mountain”. For the other school, mountaineering was like war, with expressions like siege, assault, conquest. Even in this colonial period, after 1939, Sherpas were emerging as autonomous leaders, the ‘Tigers’ Angtharkay, Tensing, and Wangdi Norbu. It also began to be realised that the Sherpa high level acclimatisation alone did not count. The physician Houston found “Sherpas don’t have more hemoglobin than their sea-level cohorts, and when the chips are down, will power, motivation, spirit are probably more powerful spurs to summit Everest, than is a slightly better level of acclimatisation.” But the Sherpa capacity to carry heavy loads at high attitude was unmatched by the sahibs, white, yellow or brown.
Through three indigenous Sherpa words the author reveals Sherpa values. The first is “zhindak” or patron/protector, whose duty it was to facilitate achieving, helping the hero to help himself. This was not the subservience or dependency of caste. It was at the root of the Sherpa achievement process, and was derived from their indigenous Sola Khombu Society in which “zhindak” obliged the ‘big’ man to get the best out of the ‘small’ man. The second was “thip”, or a notion of “pollution”, such as contact with death, disorderly behaviour, mensis(??) on the mountain. Those made for states of human mind, and the displeasure of the gods. The third was the ideal of “Tulku”, or compassion, derived from Mahayana Buddhist monks. From it, Sherpas derived a sense of goodness, kindness, service, like high quality lamas. In deference to this last General Bruce decided not to kill any animals for food within 20 miles of a monastery. The Sherpas mobilise religion… as a system of protection and help, amplifying human efforts with the power of the gods. In these ways, they unconsciously managed the sahibs, who were sometimes puzzled by behaviour standards different to theirs. Three expeditions seemed to break the colonial ice in the second phase of post-colonial climbing, and the evolution of the Sahib-Sherpa relations. In 1950, the French Annapurna expedition decided to treat Sherpas as full “climbing partners”. The second was the 1950 Swiss Nanga Parbat expedition, followed by the Swiss attempt on Everest, in which Tensing and Lombert established a very close relationship. Hunt’s 1953 Everest expedition was regarded as militarist, not quite in keeping with the spirit of the French and Swiss. In 1963, the Sherpas (with Tensing) founded their own Sherpa Climbers Association. In this context, HC members may be interested to read the author’s impression of the club in the earlier years. “The British in Darjeeling had run something called the Himalayan Club, which served as a kind of contracting organisation funnelling Sherpas to expeditions, settling wages and so forth.” The author probably never saw a copy of the H. J., with its clear objectives beyond contracting; or she would have known that “something called”, was Asia’s first Mountain Club.
By and large, the ’50′s and ’60′s were seen as a period of mega expeditions with macho aspirations; while the monk in the Sola Khombu were pacifying and elevating Sherpa Buddhism. In this spectrum the Sherpas acquired greater self-consciousness, became more sensitive to in equalities, and formed a kind of labour unionism.
Then the counter culture of the sahibs came from the liberalising West, symbolised by Dong Scott and Reinhold Messner, with Alpine style climbing, disclaiming chauvinism and sahibdom, more collective decisions, more than team spirit, more humane and sensitive approach, disliking the militarism and hierarchy of the old days. Hippie trekkers discarded sahibdom, its dress and and its attitudes. Sola Khombu was undergoing a social revolution too after the ’70s, with Hillary’s educational efforts, increasing mountain tourism, and Sherpas modernising with money and becoming mountain travel entrepreneurs, as well as supporter of monasteries. Whilst Sherpas always climbed for money as a hard fact of life of the small man in Sola Khombu, Sherpa Nirma thought climbing for holidays as Westerners did, “Kind of silly”. The ’80′s and ’90′s saw the end of the Sahibs, and the evolution of the Sherpa as a climbing, first name calling mate, as a mountain entrepreneur in his own right. There was a new link between Sherpas and the growing clientele of Memsahibs, sometimes in wedlock, otherwise in what the author calls “adventure sex”. In the eyes of the West, the Sherpas were now “deromanticised”. By 1991, there was an all-Sherpa Everest expedition. The newfound Sherpa wealth also created a higher Buddhist monastic religion; the days of ‘impure’ married ritual-making monks were over. Monasticism and mountaineering were transfigured. After all the “reconfigurations”, perhaps the most significant sentence in the book is: “If the Sherpas have been defined by mountaineering, they have also defined it.” A book to be read carefully by those who thought Himalayan mountaineering was all about techno gymnastics and logistics, sahibs and porters in the old style. Through this micro world of Himalayan climbing, the anthropologist author teaches a 20th century lesson, that there is no such thing as the status quo. It is flux-us quo.
A. D. Moddie
BOUNDLESS HORIZONS. By Sir Chris Bonington. Pp. 687, 28 colour and 43 b/w illustrations, 34 maps and diagrams, 2000. (Widenfeld and Nicholson, London, nps).
‘He is obviously and outstandingly the public face, the ambassador, for our sport.’ Thus the dustjacket blurb for this new omnibus edition of Sir Chris Bonington’s three volumes of autobiography. ‘Public face’ – yes: he is the uncontested household name of mountaineering. But ‘sport’? How many professional whackers and kickers of balls can even string a few sentences together, let alone 650 pages of fluent engaging prose? Mountain exploration has a long and distinguished literary tradition because it encompasses a breadth of experience that reaches far beyond the confines of ‘sport’ and it attracts a healthily disparate collection of mavericks, iconoclasts and dreamers, with a sprinkling of very good minds.
Within this tradition Bonington may not have the refinement of, say, H W Tilman, but his writing is lucid, fast paced, highly readable and, above all, honest. As he remarked a few years ago, ‘I don’t want to leave lots of dirt for the biographers to dig up’. When Jim Curran’s excellent biography did finally appear last year there was indeed little startling revelation. There was new detail on Bonington’s rather lonely Bohemian upbringing and there was an affectionate account of the last fifteen years; but for the intervening period from the eager schoolboy’s first Welsh rock climbs in 1951 to the fifty-year- old’s triumph on Everest in 1985 there was not much to add to the existing three autobiographies.
Like Tilman, Bonington is able to laugh at his own foibles; unlike the terse veteran of the Western Front, he is also prepared to bare his soul. He is an emotional man and is not afraid to mourn publicly the inevitable loss of friends in the mountains, particularly Nick Estcourt, for whose death on K2 he felt responsible. Even the trauma of hearing about the death of his first child, while he was thousands of miles away in the Andean jungle, is described in all its agony. Awkward relationships with fellow climbers such as Doug Scott and Joe Tasker are not glossed over. His notorious tendency for changing his mind is discussed, most revealingly in 1971 when he agonises over the International Everest Expedition, joining and leaving the team several times before deciding eventually to stay at home.
That particular expedition proved to be a vituperative shambles, confirming Bonington’s gut instinct not to get involved in projects outside his control. He has nearly always been a master of his own destiny and, even if he has been lucky, he has earned that luck. The first British ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1962 came at just the right time to launch his career, with a commission from Livia Gollancz to write a book; but he only achieved the climb after several failed attempts, one of which was abandoned to rescue a stranger. Even with his Eiger fame, it was still a bold decision for an ex-army officer working for Unilever, to abandon the corporate world and live out the title of the first book – I Chose to Climb.
That first volume, celebrating the obsessive passion of his early adventures, sings with youthful exuberance. The second, The Next Horizon, is to my mind the most interesting because it describes what actually happens when you decide to be a ‘professional mountaineer’. The book advance runs out when you are still on chapter one. You drive a punishing schedule round the lecture circuit. You spend a whole summer filming in Zermatt but no-one buys the film. And so on. Except that, through sheer perseverance, Bonington turned things around and began to make money. He diversified into photo-journalism, joining the pioneering heyday of the Sunday colour supplements before they degenerated into celebrity worship and ‘lifestyle’. He visited some fantastic places, but grew tired eventually of just observing and decided to return centre stage, where he belonged, on the world’s most beautiful and difficult unclimbed mountain walls and summits.
The Everest Years describes the four expeditions to the mountain which he led and co-led. However, much of the real adventure during those thirteen years was on other, more shapely peaks, such as the soaring spire of Changabang and the monumental Ogre, where Bonington suffered the only serious injury of his career, breaking two ribs to match the two ankles Doug Scott had snapped on the summit tower. With their two uninjured companions they survived a truly epic retreat but Bonington pays perceptive tribute to Nick Estcourt, waiting agonisingly at base camp: his predicament required 3greater moral courage and fortitude than [our] direct involvement in a crisis where the struggle for personal survival has a stimulus of its own.2
True words. However, despite the close shaves and occasional sad deaths, it should be pointed out that most of Bonington’s expeditions have not ended in tragedy. Charting the progress from awkward teenager to mellow, assured, elder statesman, these volumes are the joyful offering of a man who loves to share the enthusiasms of his chosen way of life.
(Reproduced by kind permission of The Daily Telegraph)
SILK ROAD ON WHEELS. By Akhil Bakshi. Pp. 324, 21 colour and 90 b/w illustrations, 1 map, paperback, 2000. (Odyssey Books, New Delhi, nps).
In 1994 Akhil Bakshi decided to drive across high asia with a group of European, Chinese and Indian companions. Their chosen method of transport was the Mahindra Armada, a vehicle that is a common sight on Indian roads and owes its ancestry to the Jeep. The journey would take Bakshi across Uzbekistan, Kazakhastan, Kirghizstan, Chinese Turkestan and Tibet and the Mahindras would clock 12,000 kilometres along the most legendary overland trade-route in the world.
Bakshi rejoices in the physical beauty of the lakes, mountains, deserts and grasslands. By stringing together a series of anecdotes, he introduces the reader to each of the sights, sounds and smells that he encounters on his motorised Odyssey. Like many great travelogues, Silk Road on wheels makes the reader want to pack his bags as well. Bakshi also displays a keen historical awareness, his ‘guides’ are Timur-i-Leng, Genghis Khan, Huen Tsang and Milarepa – the men who made the Silk Route such an important line in the historical atlas.
Bakshi took the opportunity to live out a boyhood fantasy – the joy he got from the experience is clearly palpable.
TREKKING AND CLIMBING IN NEPAL. By Steve Razzetti (Climbing Consultant, Victor Saunders). Pp 176, 110 colour photos, 31 maps, 25 strip maps, 2000. (New Holland Publishers, London, £ 13.99).
Divided into five sections, from West to East Nepal, Trekking and Climbing in Nepal presents 25 beautiful treks plus several climbing peaks, chosen because they are accessible during the course of a trek. This book is impressively laid out. It begins with general information on Nepal and tips for the traveller. A typical section contains: the main text consisting of details about the trek, photographs ranging from good to excellent, strip maps of the route indicating trail and altitude, boxes with vital information and very good maps. Apart from the classic tea-house treks, Razetti has covered newly charted expedition style routes and peaks, which form a natural high point of some of these treks.
This is a most welcome addition to new genre of guidebooks wherein a good deal of information is given but at the same time much is left for the trekkers to discover themselves. It is a different format than most other guide books where in each route is described stage wise. The suggestions for climbing should be very helpful.
Notes on ecological issues, minimal impact trekking and mountain photography are included. It is a good reference book for a trekker. The book is useful for back packs of trekkers, climbers and for coffee tables.
THE HUNGARIAN WHO WALKED TO HEAVEN – ALEXANDER CSOMA DE KOROS 1784 – 1842. By Edward Fox. Pp 95, 2001 (Short Books, Surrey, £ 4.99).
Alexander Csoma de Koros led an astonishing life. He set out at the age of 35 to discover the origins of the Magyar people, believing they were descendants of Genghis Khan from Central Asia. He travelled on foot from Hungary to Macedonia and from there to Syria, across Iran, Afghanistan and finally to India. Spending a life of scholarly masochism, Koros subjugated everything else to his study. He spent years in the freezing cells of Himalayan Buddhist monasteries, he poured over ancient Tibetan texts compiling the first dictionary and grammar of the Tibetan language.
What is truly astonishing about Alexander Csoma de Koros and his journey is that the only account written by his hand was ordered at the insistence of a British captain in Himachal Pradesh who suspected that he might be a spy. The result was a terse eight- page narrative that covered five years of travel and study. Edward Fox, in this slender volume, recounts the extraordinary events of an extraordinary life. A life of punishing self discipline and purpose. A life convinced of its superior destiny. Alexander Csoma de Koros is today revered for introducing Tibetan culture to the west – a glory he had hoped to achieve in his lifetime.
SOLDIER SAHIBS. The Men Who Made the North – West Frontier. By Charles Allen. Pp 368, 23 black & white illustrations, 2 sketch maps, 2000 (John Murray, London, £22.50).
To silence any critics it is imperative to clarify at the beginning that the sole qualification of the book under review to merit inclusion in an otherwise Himalayan periodical is its location in space, if not necessarily in time. The Northwest frontier of the Indian subcontinent is a rugged mountainous zone where great battles of deceit, greed, treachery and blood-laden conquests have been won and lost since time immemorial.
The Mongolian invasions, Alexander’s march, the great game, the volatile and violent skirmishes among rebellious kingdoms and bandit warlords have bathed the northwest provinces for centuries in blood and brutality. Between July 1839 and September 1857, the period the book under review chiefly covers, British East India Company with some of its bloodiest campaigns extended its conquests to the very edge of the northwest frontiers.
The military campaigns told principally through the lives of four British war heroes: John Nicholson, Harry Lumsden, Herbert Edwardes, and James Abbot, describe the uprisings in Afghanistan, Peshawar, and Greater Punjab. Meticulous research work based on archival materials by the author, who is a world authority in imperial history, confers the book a different flavour than those dealing in history. Besides being a faithful reproduction of the events Soldier Sahibs catches the reader’s imagination right from the prologue. As the chapters progress we are also told of the political coups and triumphs of the military strategists who won many frontiers with shrewd pragmatism rather than with their sword.
The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny has been highlighted adequately and it is interesting to note an Englishman’s non-prejudicial views about the tumultuous event that led to such severe massacres. Anyone with even a passing interest into the geopolitical issues of northern frontiers involving the British Raj, comprising mainly of Afghanistan and Punjab would find Soldier Sahibs a worthy pursuit.
Satyabrata Dam (Lt. Cdr.)
THE WORLDS HUNDRED GREATEST MOUNTAINS -1. By Yoshikazu Shirakawa. Pp 175, 85 colour photographs, 2001. (Shogakukan Inc, Tokyo, nps).
Almost two years ago the project of producing the book of photographs of the ’100 Best Mountains in the World’ was launched by Y. Shirakawa. After selecting a list of such peaks from the Japanese mountaineers, few leading mountaineers of the world were asked to give their recommendations. The final selection of such peaks are photographed painstakingly as part of the celebrations for the new millennium.
A pictorial delight — that is how this first book can simply be described. This is the first in a series of 3 books by Shirakawa , undoubtedly one of the best mountain photographers. This book has some astonishing shots of mountains from the air in different angles, moods and colours. Its starts with some amazing shots of Everest and the list of stupendous photos goes on and on with every page. Most of the pictures are taken from air.
This first volume starts with photos of the Nepal Himalaya with views of the 8000ers from all the different angles, then it moves on to Alaska and the Rockies. The final set of photos are of the Andes, with peaks like Yerupaja, Aconcagua and Fitz Roy well covered.
This book also has great reference value for anyone aspiring to be in these mountains. Shirakawa has used his brilliance to produce one of the best pictorial books of the worlds greatest mountains.
One can only wait to see the other volumes.
MOUNTAINEERING MAPS OF THE KARAKORUM AND HINDU- KUSH. By Tsuneo Miyamori, 13 maps.
A STUDY OF KARAKORUM AND HINDUKUSH MOUNTAINS. Edited by Tsuneo Miyamori and Sadeo Karibe, Pp 371, several b/w photographs, 2001. (Nakanishiya Shuppan Co LTd, Japan, Yen 33,000).
This is a two part study of the Karakoram and Hindu-Kush mountains. The study has details and photographs of most of the important peaks in these ranges divided into 13 areas. The book contains some brilliant pictures of the peaks on the Siachen glacier and other areas from angles rarely seen before. This study has a great reference value, but rather unfortunately, a good part of the text is in Japanese. Fortunately the names, heights and locations of peaks are also mentioned in English. Care has been taken to caption all the photos in English.
Thirteen maps which form a major part of the study, are in English and are fairly detailed. This is an invaluable reference material on the Karakoram and Hindu-Kush areas.
A PASSAGE TO HIMALAYA. Edited by Harish Kapadia. Pp. 351, 55 b/w photos, 2001. (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Rs. 500).
FOR HILLS TO CLIMB. Edited by Aamir Ali. Pp. 441, 35 b/w illustrations, 11 maps, 2001. (Doon School Old Boys’ Society, New Delhi, nps).
Two institutions that have been at the centre of mountain exploration in India over the decades are the Himalayan Club, founded in 1928, and the Doon School in Dehra Dun, founded in 1935. These two volumes, bringing together some of the best of the writing in the Himalayan Journal and from diverse sources where teachers and alumni of the Doon School published, represent not so much a journey of nostalgia as an important narration of the exploration of the Himalaya. Both editors are to be complimented on putting together books that will be valuable additions to any mountaineering library, though this reviewer has to admit to a certain bias, having been a life member of the Himalayan Club since 1962 and a contributor to the Doon School volume.
A Passage to Himalaya was put together to coincide with a Millennium Meet in Mumbai, also the 73rd birth anniversary of the Himalayan Club. For Hills to Climb commemorated the 50th anniversary of the third ascent of Trisul, the first by an Indian, Gurdial Singh, an event widely regarded as the start of serious Indian mountaineering.
Anniversaries, however, are all that the two volumes have in common. The Himalayan Club has been the record keeper, if you will, of Himalayan exploration and the writing there is by the leading lights of the past three-quarter century. There are great climbs — Hermann Buhl on Nanga Parbat, Doug Scott on the Everest South-West face, Roger Marshall solo on Kangchenjunga — and there is nostalgia, there are accidents and there is poignancy, such as Tilman writing his friend Shipton’s obituary. Major Himalayan climbers are remembered, early days of exploration — dating back to Babar’s crossing of the Zirrin Pass in 1506 — are recalled, and we get a flavour of climbing then and now.
Culling material from 56 volumes of the HJ, as it is known, couldn’t have been easy and undoubtedly readers will quibble about the selection, but all said and done, this is a fine effort that should provide plenty of fascinating browsing. The editor of the Doon School book had it easier in that there was a far smaller body of work to select from. But the material sometimes needed editorial filtering not to mention annotating.
Doon School authors, with a few notable exceptions like R. L. Holdsworth, Gurdial Singh and Nandu Jayal, were not leading explorers. But there is a character to this volume, the writing in it, which recalls a more relaxed, less frenetic era of climbing. There are some notable achievements, of course, but on the whole the writing is more about people enjoying themselves rather than straining every fibre to get to the top, first! Garhwal was the Doon School’s backyard and students, teachers and old boys did justice to its wonderful, inviting ranges.
A small word of caution: these will not be easy books to get hold of. Their sleeves give no price and readers interested will have to write to the Himalayan Club or the Doon School Old Boys’ Society to find them.
CONQUISTADORS OF THE USELESS. By Lionel Terray, Pp 370, 69 b/w photos, 10 sketch maps, 1961 & 2001. (Baton Wicks, London, £ 10.99).
First published first in 1961, this great mountaineering classic has been republished several times, often under different titles. It is the autobiography of a great mountaineer in post war France, Lionel Terray and translated by Geoffrey Sutton. Terray was a central figure in post war climbing in France – one of the greatest Alpinists and a pioneering French expeditioner, playing a major role in Maurice Herzog’s first ascent of Annapurna in 1950. How true that classics are timeless and that when reading a fresh publication, the feeling of contemporariness in style, language and content make for you to forget that you are reading about adventurers of fifty years ago when the Himalaya were a remote and mysterious land.
In this book, Terray describes his climbs in the Alps, Alaska, Andes and Patagonia and his experiences on some of the highest mountains such as Annapurna, Makalu, ChomoLonzo and Jannu. In his classic Annapurna, Maurice Herzog described Terray thus: “Although the son of a doctor, and a highly cultured man, he liked to be thought a well meaning tough, all brawn and nothing more. It was pure love that brought him to climbing, and he was entirely happy as a guide ”
As in all classics, this book reveals so much more than an account of adventures. It talks about life, survival, friendship and the spirit of man. The approach is matter of fact. For example, in his classic, Annapurna, Herzog gave a blow-by-blow account of this expedition.
He talked about Terray as a man who played a key role in helping Lachenal to reach the summit. He, it could be said, was a real hero who sacrificed his own summit ambition for the team’s success. In Terray’s account, however, this is never stated. You realise more than anything, what friendship meant to this man, what his climbing companion, Lachenal meant to him.
His brilliant climbing life was cut short by his sudden death in the Vercors in 1965 when he was only 44, but his prolific career exemplifies the energetic spirit of Alpinism during its greatest periods. Truly, Conquistadors transports you, it is an insight into the life of the mad, charismatic, hyper energetic ski champion, alpine guide, mountain climber; it is an ode to the human spirit without ever trying to be.
It is undoubtedly, a great mountain autobiography. As Herzog said in Annapurna ‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.’ There were several in the life of Lionel Terray.
SHISHA PANGMA. The Alpine style first ascent of the southwest face. By Doug Scott and Alex Maclntyre. Pp 320, 50 b/w, 13 colour photos, 6 maps 1984 and 2000 (Baton Wicks,London, £ 12.99).
This book, which won the first Boardman Tasker award for mountain literature, recounts the history of one of the world’s highest and most interesting mountains. It describes the first ascent in 1982 of Shisha Pangma’s Southwest Face.
The book is interspersed with comments from all the team members on vital issues and differences that arose. This style lends flavour and presents a complete picture of what happened on the mountain. The final team climbed the Face and descended via the Pungpa Ri, a neighbouring mountain.
It is clear that Alex and Roger had an aggressive approach, while Doug, the leader was affable and democratic. The clash of these personalities is strongly reflected in the book, working positively for them, probably because they met with success.
The book is honest and shows the maturity and understanding between the main climbers. There is no attempt to gloss over or camouflage feelings towards each other. Written in a style that is both candid and witty, a wry humour finally overrides the event and all that transpired.
FRANK SMYTHE – THE SIX ALPINE/ HIMALAYAN CLIMBING BOOKS. Pp. 944, 106 b/w, 12 colour photos, 13 maps, 2000. (Baton Wicks, London, £ 18.99).
“This omnibus edition comprises the main expedition and alpine climbing narratives of the eminent British mountaineer Frank Smythe.” (Quote from the blurb by the publishers) A very British way of introducing one of the world’s prolific climbers; but Frank Smythe is the stuff legends are made of; myths are woven around. The omnibus consists of six of Smythe’s finest books: Climbs and Ski Runs, The Kangchenjunga Adventure, Kamet Conquered, Camp Six, The Valley of Flowers, and Mountaineering Holiday.
Smythe, it could easily be said, was one of the first professional climbers. He provided for his needs through lectures, journalism, photography and authoring books, a trend taken up later by others. There were many writers in his era, notably, Shipton and Tilman but each had such a different style. Smythe was the most romantic and thus most enjoyable to read for armchair mountaineers. He shared every tense moment, every storm, every flower, every colour in the sky with you. Considering the scale of his publishing, (he wrote 27 books in 20 years having had a short active life as he died at the age of 49), his writing matched his mountaineering ability.
It is obvious that much though he loved the Alps, Smythe found his true calling in expedition and high altitude climbing. As a result, books about his Himalayan experiences are also superior. Kamet Conquered is about the highest peak to be climbed by 1931. ‘Conquered’ is obviously a reluctant term used by a man who rejected conquests but the rapid and very exacting climb demanded such a title. But even right after this he had his special attitude as is reflected in his evocative final passage in this book:
A few mornings later I saw the Himalayas for the last time. The forest was whispering the secrets of the slow dawn wind; the call of the cuckoo came joyously from a distant ridge. Day was already fashioning her distant pillars of cloud. Into the stainless air and at an immeasurable distance from the common things of earth rose the everlasting hills.
HOW THE ENGLISH MADE THE ALPS. By Jim Ring. Pp. 287, 24 b/w photos, 1 map, index. (John Murray, London, £ 19.99).
No-one today questions the suitability of the Matterhorn as an adornment for chocolate boxes. Mountain scenery is part of the aesthetic lingua franca, as universal and as cliched as the Taj Mahal or Vivaldi. Mountains are beautiful, period. In the case of our own, European, Alps, they are also a playground. We climb over them, slide down them and festoon them with steel cables. Ruskin was already lamenting in 1864 that we ‘had made racecourses of the cathedrals of the earth’. What would he make of today’s polluted mayhem in Chamonix, kitsch-stuffed shop windows in Zermatt or the concrete brutalism of Tignes? We have almost loved the Alps to death, and the sobering truth explored in Jim Ring’s fascinating overview is that this has all happened quite recently and that we, the English, are largely responsible.
Joseph Addison called Europe’s towering watershed ‘this most misshapen scenery’, and it was only with Thomas Gray’s Alpine tour of 1739 that the mountains began to be celebrated as a ‘romantic’ phenomenon. By the time Wordsworth arrived in 1790, he could view the Alps as a sublime manifestation of the divine; for Shelley the atheist, ‘the immensity of these aerial summits excited .. a sentiment of ecstatic wonder not unallied to madness’. By 1820, when the first regular cross channel ferry service started, the Alps were becoming seriously fashionable. As Jim Ring points out, the English, at a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, invented tourism. English visitors, with their insistence on the evening table d’hote and newfangled water closets, were the catalyst for the Swiss hotel industry. English engineers built the mountain railways which opened up the steep narrow valleys and made possible the first of Thomas Cook’s alpine tours in 1863. With that classic Victorian blend of entrepreneurial energy and high-mindedness Cook saw travel as a medium to further the temperance movement, while his rival Henry Lunn had an educational agenda. The road to Verbier was paved with noble intentions.
The popularised glamour of the Alps was enhanced by the select band of mountaineers who strayed deliberately onto the high peaks. This too was a largely English phenomenon. Ring notes wisely that some of the great peaks, such as Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau, fell to other nationalities; but during the ‘Golden Age’, starting with Alfred Wills’s ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854, an astonishing number of first ascents were made by English mountaineers, nearly all of them well-connected professionals. Wills was a high court judge destined to preside over the Oscar Wilde case; A.W.Moore became Randolph Churchill’s private secretary; Leslie Stephen founded the National Dictionary of Biography and married Thackeray’s daughter, who gave birth to Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
The history of those early pioneers is well-worked territory. Ring acknowledges his debt to Ronald Clark’s masterly ‘The Alps’ (now out of print) and inevitably borrows some of the same quotes. Apart from repeated use of the shorthand ‘conquer’, with its misleading triumphal connotations, he is excellent on what really motivated the climbers beyond mere fresh air and exercise. For Wills, like Wordsworth, the Alps were evidence of the Divine; for Stephen, renouncing holy orders in 1870, mountains were an alternative source of solace and inspiration: ‘mountain scenery is the antithesis not so much of the plains as the commonplace. It’s charm lies in its vigorous originality.’
I was glad to be reminded by Ring both how eloquent and how funny Stephen can be. For, amidst all the intellectual rigour, those Victorian pioneers had a sense of fun. It was the same at the winter spas of St Moritz and Davos: while Thomas Mann’s hypochondriacs philosophised, the English residents invented new eccentric ways to amuse themselves. Amongst Ring’s roll call of celebrities, R.L.Stephenson extols the joys of tobganning and Arthur Conan Doyle prophecies that the new sport of skiing will soon take on in a big way.
It was Henry Lunn’s son Arnold who spearheaded the development of skiing during the twenties and thirties, campaigning to include downhill and slalom racing in the winter Olympics. While he innovated on the ski slopes, his colleagues were denouncing the ‘recklessness and folly’ of the young continental climbers besieging the North Face of the Eiger. Ring overstates the English case, exaggerating the part played by the climbers’ fascist rulers; nevertheless mountaineers were manipulated to some extent by politics and skiing was also affected, prompting Lunn to remind Hitler at the 1936 Winter Olympics that ‘there are still people who ski for fun.’ The book ends on an elegiac note as another European war seals off the beloved Alps and the English bow out, never to return to the centre stage.
(Reproduced by kind permission of The Daily Telegraph)
ANNAPURNA. 50 Years of Mountaineering in the Death Zone. By Reinhold Messner. Translated by Tim Carruthens. Pp. 172, illustrated. map, 2000. (The Mountaineer Books, Seattle, $ 24.95).
Reinhold Messner has written a book that details some of the most significant climbing efforts in the Himalaya and provides a complete mountaineering history of Annapurna. In 1950 Maurice Herzog pushed his way up the mountain from the Sickle Glacier and became the first to deal successfully with the ‘death zone’ summit an 8,000 meter peak. The claim did not go unchallenged but there is absolutely no doubt in Messner’s mind – he lends Herzog strident support. Also included, naturally, is an account his own first ascent of the north-west face – replete with the crazily angled photographs he has become known for.
The book is essentially a rehash of climbing and expedition accounts, to which Messner has added his take. They are a collection of gripping mountain stories that have been bound together basically to sell a book. Whether we needed one that deal exclusively with the history of this mountain is debatable – as breathtaking as Annapurna certainly is. For anyone with a special interest in this wonderful mountain, it would be well worth a buy, although it is not nearly detailed enough to function as an authoritative guide. Anyone who is looking for great mountain literature, or great pictures, without a specific Annapurna fixation, could probably do quite well without it. Messner is a truly remarkable climber, but this is a very unremarkable book
(By Nandini Purandare)
KIDS OF KHUMBU. By Kurt Lager, Pp 128, 2000. (Eco Himal/ Mandala Book Point, Kathmandu, nps).
Eco Himal, an Austrian based NGO has been working on several grass root level projects in the Himalaya since 1972. This NGO is involved in several projects in Nepal, particularly in remote regions such as Namche Bazar and Khumbu. Kids is a sensitive study of the Khumbu youth, written with a great deal of affection. It speaks of their aspirations, their lifestyle, their leisure and their apprehensions. It is a useful study for anthropologists/ social psychologists and especially the traveller in the Everest area, who would definitely have a Pasang or a Dawa to carry his load. These are the kids of Khumbu. The book is a human face of Everest.
A LEGEND IN HIS OWN TIME – COL. CHEWANG RINCHEN. Memoirs edited by Dr. Virendra Sharma. Pp 172, 27 b/w, 5 maps, 1998. (Young India Publications, Dehra Dun, Rs. 180).
Col. Chewang Rinchen is a legend. A Ladakhi, he joined the army as a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) at the age of 17. Over the years of his exemplary army career, he won two Mahavir Chakras (MVCs) – one of the highest awards of the Indian army, and fought in all the four wars after independence. After his first fight when he stopped the Pakistani forces against all odds, a remrimand was heard in the wireless intercepts; ‘What you were stopped by a seventeen year old boy!”
Dr Virendra Verma has edited his memoirs. Although an unimpressive publication, it would make interesting reading for an army buff. It brings forth values that this generation would be enriched by _ those of leadership and valour. Most of all, it is a study for mountaineers. Here was a man who rejected big expeditions and went on night assaults with his light capped, light footed, light armed and light baggaged jawans, some alpinist this!
STORMS AND SUNSETS IN THE HIMALAYAS. By P.M. Das. Pp 184 105 b/w, 19 colour photos, 8 maps, 2000. (Lotus Publishers, Jalandhar, Punjab, Rs. 250).
Parash Moni Das, a Police officer by profession, is also an adventurer and climber in the Himalaya for almost 25 years. The book is an account of these travels. Unfortunately the bureaucrat in Das shows up ever so often, sometimes in his longwinded flowery language.
The photographs are of poor quality, in all respects; caption, content and choice. One does not get an insight into a man, a climber and his relationship with any fellow climbers or the mountains.
THE TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO UTTARAKHAND. By K.S. Fonia. Pp 187, 10 colour photos, 1 map, revised in1998. (Garuda Books, Joshimath, Rs. 175).
The title says it all: it is a good handbook about one of the most beautiful Indian states, rich in mythology and folklore, which has been extensively covered in the book.
You come to realise that every temple and every town in Uttarakhand has so many stories. Pilgrimage, whether, of temples or mountains, finds a meeting place in this land where every experience is spiritual.
It is a useful handbook for the traveller and tourist alike, with distances, route details and accommodation spelt out in a no-nonsense, reader friendly fashion.
TOURISM AS DEVELOPMENT – CASE STUDIES FROM THE HIMALAYA. Edited by Pitamber Sharma, Pp. 179, 6 b/w, 6 maps, 2000. (Himal Books, Kathmandu, nps).
“Sustainable Development”, “Eco Tourism”, “Development Intervention” and so on… these contemporary catch phrases apart, Pitamber Sharma has produced a well laid out book with case studies on tourism as a tool for development. A range of such cases, from Pokhara, a dense tourism area to Mustang, a remote trek area, from urban management in Shimla to pilgrim management in Badrinath, are presented in the study. These cases are pointers, their solutions applicable in many areas of the Himalaya, where a crying need has begun to be felt to alleviate poverty and prevent environmental degradation.
The approach is simple and readable, a good guide for field workers, policy makers, NGOs and students.
Other books (Reprints) received from Baton and Wicks, London are as under.
- Kurt Diemberger Omnibus. By Kurt Diemberger.
- Himalaya Alpine Style. By Stephen Venables and Andy Fanshawe.
- Everest Expedition to Ultimate. By R. Messner.
- Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage. Hermann Buhl
- Nanda Devi, Exploration and Ascent. Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton
- Mirrors in the Cliffs. By Jim Perrin
 See map with article 13 in this volume.