ERIC SHIPTON : EVEREST AND BEYOND. By Peter Steele. Pp. 288, 27 photos, 21 maps, 1998. (The Mountaineers, Seattle, $24.95).
As a pre-teenager dabbling in trekking during school breaks, I was given a copy of Eric Shipton’s Nanda Devi, the story of his exploration, with Tilman and three Sherpas, of the Rishi ganga and the great sanctuary surrounding that mountain. Shipton immediately became my hero, stirring my imagination as nothing had before — or since. His brand of exploration and mountain climbing, his wilderness values, became mine. My adulation soared during my very first real mountaineering expedition, fortuitously to Nanda Devi and appropriately low budget and simple. Among the most memorable moments in those two months in and around the Sanctuary was reaching the summit of Maiktoli, 27 years after he made the first ascent. On the way up we looked down on Sunderdhunga Col from where he and Tilman exited the Sanctuary after their second exploration of it.
But Shipton was already a historical person by the time I had come to maturity, and remained a distant and then fading figure, overtaken by the accomplishments of a new, more vigorous, technically proficient form of mountaineering. The blanks on the maps had been filled, Alpine-style climbing had come to the Himalaya, and the nature of the challenge had evolved from exploration and route-making and first ascents of summits to finding new, more difficult routes up them and then to creating portfolios of difficult feats. Shipton was in danger of being forgotten.
Peter Steele’s lively account of his life makes sure that will not happen. Shipton ‘never received the public recognition he deserved, but did not seek,’ he writes, almost as if setting out to put the record straight. Though Shipton wrote several books about his travels as well as two autobiographies, the absence of a biography on someone so central to mountain travel in the years between the two world wars has been a curious lacuna in the literature. Dr. Steele began work on one almost two decades ago, but put it aside, to return to it only recently after the death of his wife, Sarah, in 1995.
Had Shipton been a run-of-the-mill climber, the absence of a biography wouldn’t have mattered. But he was probably the foremost explorer of his time, a moving force who pushed the limits. In time he became a somewhat controversial person, standing apart from the elders of the sport, certainly the older establishment that ran the major expeditions — mostly to Everest of the day. After the string of expeditions and explorations of the 1930s, which gave him unprecedented stature among his contemporaries, he more or less disappeared from public view. First the hiatus of World War II and then his manipulated ejection from the leadership of the 1953 Everest expedition conspired to do more than damage his mountaineering career.
As with other aspects of Shipton’s life and climbs, Dr. Steele’s telling of this episode is direct and objective, based on a review of the literature and the archives, and conversations with many of those involved. He takes no sides, but details meticulously the events, pressures and manoeuverings that led to Shipton’s eleventh hour replacement by John Hunt. It is a gripping, almost racy account, and if at the end of it one is left with more than a sneaking sympathy for Shipton, it is only because a man of character and ability seemed clearly to have been deprived of his destiny.
Sadly, the Everest crossroads saw Shipton’s life take altogether an unhappy turn. The contrast is disturbing. From his earliest days in Africa, where he was farming and exploring, through the 1930s, when he rose to become the most valued Everester around, and then as a diplomat — some believed a spy — Shipton had displayed unmatched verve and energy. A catalogue of his exploits and ascents would run to several pages. He ranged the length and breadth of the Karakoram and the Himalaya, visiting valleys and mountain ranges no human had trodden before. Though he wasn’t driven by a desire to bag summits — exploration being his forte — he nevertheless reached uncounted virgin summits of over 20,000 ft/6000 m. As leader of the southern reconnaissance of Everest in 1951, he helped find the key to the world’s highest mountain.
In the midst of all this, he also found time for numerous affairs, and was constantly in and out of love, presenting the occasional departing lady with an ice axe. He evolved a distinctive, spartan approach to life and the mountains — amply borne out by amusing incidents Dr. Steele peppers his book with — and held firm to his views and beliefs in the face of advancing change. ‘If I had another life,’ he once told a climbing companion, ‘I’d like to be a Yaghan Indian; just take a pot and matches and go fishing.’ (The reference was to the inhabitants of Patagonia, where the remark was made.) True, he neglected his two sons and had few life-long friends, but at least till the Everest tumult he had a full and purposeful life.
Thereafter, Shipton seems to have gone downhill for a while, starting with the very public collapse of his marriage to Diana when he was Warden of the Outward Bound Mountain School in Eskdale. His wilderness activities paused. But driven by great strength and resilience he bounced back, and in his 50s and 60s undertook what Dr. Steele describes — in a chapter appropriately called ‘Essays in Masochism’ — some of his most demanding explorations, in the bleak and inhospitable region of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. At an age when most people would gladly hang up their snow boots, he made the first complete traverse of the Chilean ice cap.
Illustrated Note 1
Kusum Kanguru (6370 m) East Face : first ascent.
Yashushi Yamanoi (Japan) climbed a new route solo. Starting from BC (4600 m) at 4 a.m. on 24 April 1998, he reached the summit in 22 hours. First 600 m was steep rock wall and rest steep snow. He named it 'Never Ending Story'.
Illustrated Note 2
Panch Chuli Group, Kumaun.
A team from the Indian army (Col. V. K. Bhatt) attempted Peak III (right) in summer 1998. A rope of members slipped on the summit slopes and were lucky to be saved. The expedition also undertook para-gliding and river rafting.
Illustrated Note 3
Shigri Parvat (6526 m)
A team from Parvat Abhiyatri Sangh, Calcutta (Shyamal Sarkar) made an ascent of this peak of 11 August 1998. They approached from the Bara Shigri glacier.
Illustrated Note 4
Pk. 5915 m (Near Shingo la, Lahaul)
A team from Shailbrahmar, Bombay (Ashok Pawar) climbed this virgin peak on 6 August 1998. Three members reached the summit via south ridge. The peak is situated in a side valley from route to Shingo la.
Dr. Steele was a personal friend of Shipton’s; their paths crossed several times in ways that managed to contribute to the writing of this biography. A student at the Outward Bound School in Shipton’s days and a doctor on recent Everest expeditions, Dr. Steele once filled in for Shipton in guiding visitors retracing his steps in the Karakorams. On another occasion, he sailed around Shipton’s latter-day stomping grounds, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. (Unfortunately, owing to two-decade old restrictions, Dr. Steele couldn’t follow the Shipton-Tilman route into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.) Along with a wealth of anecdotes, all this adds immediacy and flavour to the book.
Parts of Shipton’s life remain ill-documented. In his autobiographies, he curiously disposes of some key episodes in a few terse sentences or paragraphs. Perhaps typical of the class of pioneers and explorers to which he belonged, he was also an unusually impenetrable personality, his life confessedly divided into compartments with no one outsider gaining a full understanding of the totality. Not even Diana, his wife of 12 years, nor Pamela Freston, the closest anyone came to being a life-long friend, managed to break all the barriers. Yet Dr. Steele brings Shipton to life, warts and all. We are witness to a life that so often rose to the heights of the mountains in which he thrived and fell sometimes to depths that would have tested the strongest of characters. But it was a life, at all times, which had more fullness, variety and accomplishment than most of us are given to experience.
MEETING THE MOUNTAINS. By Harish Kapadia, Pp. 398, 49 b/w photos, 30 maps, 1998. (Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi, Rs. 500).
Appetite-whetting seems a highly suitable epithet to apply to a book by Harish Kapadia whose love of the puris and mangoes along life’s trek is well documented by himself and others. Meeting the Mountains fleshes out the world of his earlier book, Exploring the Hidden Himalaya, co-authored with the late and lamented Soli Mehta. It ranges from the Garhwal and Kumaon north to Ladakh, with a swoop east into Sikkim and Nepal. It touches nearly three decades of trekking and climbing from his student days, making first forays into as yet undeveloped valleys, to his present busy life which manages to fit joint Indian-British expeditions with such luminaries as Nunn, Venables or Bonington in between editing the Himalayan Journal.
Into his narrative is woven the climbing history of each area, stories of the presiding deities from the Pandavas to the elusive dawn goddess, Usha, who eluded him and Bonington in Kinnaur. He walks with shepherds whose lives have been equally unaffected by Independence and by its fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and talks to temple priests about the possibility of proving the famous priestly claim of a day crossing from Kedarnath to Badrinath. He discusses the theory of tourist drains with Jimmy Roberts; recommends the quality of Saryu valley porters; demonstrates how to play the bureaucratic contacts game on the Inner Line; considers the pros and cons of opening up Ladakh; and urges the Indian government to permit more expeditions into the Siachen.
Whether he is finding fresh words to sing the praises of Nanda Devi or recommending an unexplored valley beyond Panch Chuli II, Harish Kapadia combines the topographical curiosity of a Shipton with the unquenchable enthusiasm of a Bonington, and in so doing opens up a world of possibilities to the trekker, the climber or simply the armchair Himalayan book devourer. With its generous supply of sketch maps and its beckoning black and white ranges (alas no colour), here is a book to put on the shelf beside the Himalayan Journal’s first editor’s Abode of Snow.
Harish Kapadia’s versatility doesn’t cease to amaze. Among India’s best known and most regular climbers, he manages to make it into the mountains every year, usually more than once. When he is not in the Himalaya, he can be found scrambling about in the hills that rise behind Mumbai. To the delight of others who are not able to combine, as he does, a successful career with mountain excursions on this scale, he also manages to communicate his experiences with a fresh and light pen, which makes his books such a valued addition to every climber’s library. But if there is one value I would put to his work it is in its encyclopaedic character. The diversity and frequency of his expeditions render his books excellent reference material for the first time visitor or reader and to experienced explorers looking for new regions to visit.
Meeting the Mountains is Kapadia’s second collection of the accounts of his travels. His first, High Himalaya, Unknown Valleys, encompassed the years 1969 to 1991. The second, mainly taking in the period 1993 to 1997, but with the addition of several treks done at other times, is of similar size, revealing an increased pace of activity. In addition, Kapadia has recounted his excursions in Spiti, an area he seems to particularly favour, in a separate volume, and has two other books to his credit, one on the Sahyadris, a range in the Western Ghats, and the other jointly authored with the late Soli Mehta. Not unexpectedly, then, there is some element of duplication but not such as to detract from the merits of the separate volumes.
Meeting the Mountains is actually an eclectic compendium of writings. Kapadia reproduces his address to the Alpine Club in 1996 ‘a review of Indian climbing history’ the story of the Himalayan Journal, and profiles of several people who have contributed to the Himalayan Club or Journal. This also includes obituaries of some well known mountain personalities who also happened to be friends or, like N. E. Odell, chance acquaintances. In addition, he has included reference notes on the different regions of the Himalaya, major passes and guidance for foreigners wishing to climb in India.
The meat of the book, however, is to be found in the accounts of Kapadia’s treks and climbing expeditions. He summarises his personal history, so to speak, in an impressive table, encompassing 35 years of trekking and climbing, at the end of the book. The variety of regions visited and the nature of excursions from simple treks to first ascents alone make this a unique anthology. A beginner looking for a first taste of the high hills will find an abundance of inviting choices. The experienced trekker, who wants new horizons, will be able to sample descriptions of walks done from Ladakh to Sikkim. And the mountaineer, who is looking for summits that range from challenging, like Panch Chuli II, to leisurely, like the Rupshu peaks, will find an abundance of footsteps to follow.
Kapadia’s expeditions have had their share of problems and ill luck. The joint Indo-British group ‘led by Kapadia and Chris Bonington’ to Panch Chuli had a fair share of good climbs, pioneering a new route on the highest of the five summits and a first ascent of Panch Chuli V. But noted British climber Steve Venables was almost killed in an accident and was lucky to be plucked off the mountain by a helicopter. Then, in 1996, an expedition to the Siachen area was terminated by the army when members had already reached the Terong glacier.
What comes across, however, most vividly is the great sense of enjoyment that runs through the telling. Here are stories of friends banding together to explore hidden valleys, family excursions into out of the way places, and camaraderie in high places. These are experiences for the most part open to anyone with a spirited sense of adventure, a dedication to the outdoors and the persistence to make them happen. And there can be no easier first step to getting there than walking the pages of this and Kapadia’s other books.
A STRANGER IN TIBET. The Adventures of a Zen Monk. By Scott Berry. Pp. 309, illustrated, 1992 (second impression). (Indus, An Imprint of Harper Collins, New Delhi, Rs. 80).
The Zen monk in the title of this book could alarm anyone familiar with the solemn but amorphous nonsense that was popular in the flower-power sixties and seventies. A Stranger in Tibet: The Adventures of a Zen Monk, however, is literally the true-life adventures of the ‘solitary wandering scholar’ Kawaguchi Ekai who wanted to read, and perhaps acquire, Tibetan translations of Buddhist manuscripts that were known to exist in Lhasa.
But this was the late 19th century when Tibetans simply wanted to be left alone. An undeterred Kawaguchi went from Japan to Calcutta to Darjeeling where he met Surat Chandra Das, supposedly the original of Hurree Babu in Kipling’s Kim, something Berry doubts. Das, unlike Hurree Babu, was robustly lively. Scholar and British agent whom the Tibetans hated, Das tried to dissuade Kawaguchi from his mad venture, but he also introduced him to someone who could teach Kawaguchi Tibetan.
After a year in Darjeeling, Kawaguchi pushed off to Nepal, the first Japanese to visit it, as he would later be the first Japanese to enter Tibet, as well as the first foreigner to circumambulate Kailash (Sven Hedin was the second). He spent another year learning Tibetan ways in Tsarang (3570 m), a small village in the kingdom of Lo, with Dhaulagiri looming over it.
Realising it would be dangerous to travel as himself, Kawaguchi travelled as a Tibetan monk. His disguise was more than a change of clothes and a smattering of Tibetan. Though he wrote with distaste about Tibetan hygiene, he even adopted Tibetan practices (there was a moment of worry when local Tibetans wondered why he washed his face every few days). Although, as Berry says, there is a cultural distance between Japan and Tibet in this matter, many of Kawaguchi’s comments about Tibetan hygiene were probably sensationalised for the Japanese press. His account of his travels was first published as newspaper articles.
When Kawaguchi discovered a ‘plot’ to keep him in Tsarang so that he could marry his host’s daughter, he escaped to Dolpo (4880 m). Here, in spite of his disciplined dislike of fleshly indulgences — which he had used to make his Japanese friends promise to give up alcohol, tobacco and fishing — he plied a bunch of smugglers with booze and encouraged them to talk about routes into Tibet. All the known routes, he had heard, were heavily guarded.
Two and a half years after he left Japan, he entered Tibet in 1900 and spent three years there. His ‘flawed’ account of his stay was published in Madras in 1909 and later in London, but wasn’t reprinted until 1979. Kawaguchi eventually reached Lhasa via Mansarovar and Kailash in the extreme west. Berry believes that the practical reason behind the apparent madness of this detour was that every other traveller headed for Lhasa as soon as he set foot in Tibet, only to have the Tibetans actively discourage him from achieving his goal. Kawaguchi was in no hurry. He continued being the pilgrim, and Kailash was a logical choice for a devout Buddhist. Of course, it was also a love of adventure that took him to Kailash-Mansarovar. This son of a bucket and barrel maker had become a monk because learning was an adventure for him. That same love of adventure had brought him to Tibet. Now, in the presence of the holiest of holies, he made ‘scientific’ observations.
One of these was that the rivers arising from the lakes flowed in exactly the opposite direction to what more experienced geographers had said. He also castigated Western geographers for not noticing that Mansarovar was shaped like a lotus. It was this side of Kawaguchi which made Surat Chandra Das observe that his friend was ‘a truthful narrator . ..but not a scientific discoverer.’
Berry and the reader are astonished and amused that Kawaguchi ever got to Lhasa. He seemed to get hopelessly lost every time he was on his own. He also seemed bent on exposing the very secrecy he had so carefully built up, writing letters to Surat Chandra Das and sending them trustingly through travellers returning to India. There were other demonic forces that should have prevented him from ever reaching Lhasa — marriages arranged on the sly, the rages he flew into, his tactless criticism of those he depended on for succour, almost freezing to death while crossing rivers with his two sheep and so on. One gets the strong feeling that he was being watched over by benign spirits. There is no other explanation for his success. What makes Kawaguchi unique among explorers of Tibet is that he actually lived with the local people. Although he did so for practical reasons, there often seems to have been genuine mutual affection between him and the local people.
Now for reviewer’s problems. Firstly, one must be honest about the book. In spite of its maps, brilliant introduction, and refreshing lack of hagiographic hype, this one has a couple of glitches. Berry writes of Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism after the battle of Kalinga as a ‘legend’ (p.32). In fact, Ashoka recorded his conversion in an inscription. It is thus history, not legend.
Berry also writes of the ‘plains of the Hindus and Muslims to the south’ (p. 66). This is like saying that Urdu is a Muslim language and Sanskrit a Hindu one. How can language or geography be identified with religion? Even if Pakistan is a theocratic state and India is definitely not, alphabetically, Adivasis with their variety of religions, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Jews, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians are also citizens of the subcontinental plains.
Secondly, one is tempted to say everything about a really interesting book, but there’s a fierce editor.... Perhaps one should simply recommend A Stranger in Tibet to anyone remotely interested in travel writing. After all, Bruce Chatwin also liked it.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharjee
WORLD MOUNTAINEERING. General editor Audrey Salkeld, forward by Sir Chris Bonington. Pp. 304, 350 b&w and colour photos, route maps. (Bulfinch Press, U.K. $ 50.00).
This book is a classic; and as the cover says, it is by the world’s great mountaineers about the world’s greatest mountains. It covers more than 50 high mountains from the equator to the poles. Each chapter has a mountain dedicated to it and is very comprehensive in the information it provides. From route variations of modern day climbing, the book traces the climbing history to the first attempts/ascents of these mountains. Each chapter ends with the essentials: how to get there, rescue information, red tape, local language, maps, when to climb etc.
Compliments to the editor for compiling information in such detail. While information on mountains like Everest and K2 are easier to come by, information on the lesser known mountains in Africa, Canada, Europe and Indonesia are a welcome treat. Authors provide rare insights of the area from their personal experiences and bring you the atmosphere, exhilaration and danger involved in some of the toughest climbs. Each chapter ends with a paragraph on ‘future climbing’ which provides ample food for thought on new routes.
The strengths of World Mountaineering lies in the generous space provided for each of the mountains, allowing detail where available, including the history of each variation of the route climbed. I also liked the mix of writing that the book provides. From ‘hard core’ climbs in Patagonia to the more ‘mountain travel’ episodes of climbs in Indonesia and Africa, the book is amazing in the spectrum of what it accomplishes. Though the contents of the book are only a token of what is out there, it is a celebration of mountaineering and the world’s mountains.
Audrey Salkeld is a respected and experienced mountaineering writer and historian. She has also translated books by Reinhold Messner and Kurt Diemberger, written scripts for television documentaries and edited a large number of anthologies, including Great Climbs with Sir Chris Bonington.
THE LAST BARBARIANS. The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong in Tibet. By Michael Piessel. Pp. 253, 17 Colour, illustrations, 2 sketch-maps, 1997. (Souvenir Press, London, 9 11.95).
Lat. 33° 16' 534 N
Long. 93° 52' 929 E
On the surface of these numbers were the entire purpose of our venture, the figures necessary to be able to pinpoint the source of any map of the World. This was what geography and exploration were all about. Just a few numbers, yet what a struggle to record them - how much blood, tears and sweat. (Michel Peissel on discovering the source of Asia’s third largest river, the Mekong on September 17, 1994.
A slow delight and excitement seized us, and even Ling, generally so dour, was literally bubbling with enthusiasm. Here, we were at last, we had made it, we had conquered, we had reached that spot where water, earth and sky met and merged, where myth was one with reality.
Michel Peissel has been roaming Tibet for forty years. This book is a laughter - and - tears account of his adventure in tracing the source of the Mekong.
The story of this river expedition begins in the bureaucratic mazes of Beijing. The author, an old hand at dealing with the authorities, had discovered earlier, that the study of horses (he organised his first equine expedition to Tibet in 1992) was not looked upon with suspicion by the Chinese Government. Peissel used the same explanation to gain entry into areas normally closed to foreigners and could therefore explore the upper reaches of the Mekong river.
In a leisurely and witty manner the book records the history and culture of the proud, free spirited people who roam the ‘roof of the world’. It is the story of remote and various tribes, the terrain in which they live and the undying spirit which they exhibit in their continuous quest to be free.
Peissel and his motley companions travelled through the high plateaus by jeep and later on, on horseback. Going through the largely unexplored kingdom of Nangchen, the nomadic life of the twentyfive or so tribes that live here is described in detail. Peissel questions his own visit to these forbidden parts which could definitely begin a process of destruction of the fragile social and eco system that exists here. He laments :
Today in Lhasa or Yushu, and even in remote places like our next stop, Zadoi, Tibetan youth in black sunglasses are wasting their time playing billiards and drinking Chinese imported Coca Cola. These handsome and clever boys, sent to town to join the local monasteries, have become a major problem in Lhasa in particular. Having nothing productive to do, they form a large uneducated, unstable population that may prove China’s best ally yet in obliterating Tibetan society and culture.
The words of this romantic adventurer are worth savouring and reading again and again. Like this, his first view of the Mekong.
Slowly, as we began to sway around endless hairpin turns, darkness descended until it was practically night when we came upon the edge of the great river. Hardly visible, a black expanse in the dark night, yet moving, it flowed swiftly, mysteriously, not with a roar, but with a rustle that broke in swirling twirls upon the surface - tokens of great strength, of great depth, that spoke of urgency, as the water ran past us in the dark on its long long road to the sea.
The book also includes the account of another success. In the following year, Peissel found the living fossil of a Riwoche horse. He discovered a breed of horses that were very ancient. The species is unknown to contemporary zoology and as the jacket says, may prove to be the missing link in the equine revolution.
Michel Peissel has led 26 expeditions to remote Tibetan regions. He has written books with affection and wit on these travels without ever losing heart, warmth, naivete and freshness.
CHOMOLUNGMA SINGS THE BLUES. Travels Around Everest. By Ed Douglas. Pp. 226, illustrated, 1997. (Constable and Company, London, 9 18.95).
Ed Douglas, climber, journalist, and (in 1997 when this book was published) associate editor of Climber magazine, discovered soon after he began to climb that he would never be very good at it. So he began to write about it.
Chomolungma Sings the Blues is primarily an intervention in the Everest industry. What has been the effect of the 1953 ascent on western climbers and Nepal? The cross hope of early mountaineers that everyone could get back to ‘sunny vagabondage’ didn’t materialise. Instead, this King Charles’ head has got in the way of conversation (‘Climber, are you? Have you climbed Everest?’), difficult ascents of more elegant peaks, as well as the culture, ecology and economy of the region. How exactly Nepal has benefited, if at all, is the interesting and largest part of the book.
The Blues is sometimes a patchwork of information capsules (acclimatisation, mountaineering accidents, Sherpa culture). Among his many sources is Himal magazine, which is reliable on the developmental issues of the area.
Douglas is annoyed by the western (and white generally) appropriation of Chomolungma — from changing its name to writing about climbs by naming the white climbers but leaving out the Sherpas or not naming them or calling them porters when they have been guides. But others Want To Do Something for the place. The worst among these think western modes of development : giant hydro-electric plants will be good for Nepal.
The Blues begins with crotchety political incorrectness as Douglas comes down the Friendship Highway from Tibet to Nepal. Tibetan hotels are the worst (no Khumbu shithouse, however dismal, creates the same hatred); Han Chinese are inscrutable, yellow and slant-eyed (Douglas doesn’t use quite these words, but that’s what he feels, this Free Tibet enthusiast). He can’t wait to fall at the feet of Chomolungma.
The better part of The Blues in every way is the Khumbu tramp as Dachhiri patiently guides Douglas from lodge to lodge. The poorest have mud floors, the swankiest has a menu card and serves potato croquettes. The difference is the money Everestourism brings in.
The worst Everestourist is the commercial climber who pays to be hauled up. Scott Fischer was one of two leaders of commercial tours who died in 1996. In many western minds, the guides, the Russian Boukreev and Sherpa Lobsang Jangbu, were responsible, thanks to accounts like Sandy Hill Pittman’s which failed to mention how one of the guides got her to the summit and two others saved her life. ‘But,’ Douglas says, ‘the obvious question that was barely asked in the tragedy’s aftermath was whether it is even possible to guide inexperienced or weaker climbers to the summit of Everest.’
726 people had climbed Everest by the summer of 1997, though there were 932 ascents because ‘a few westerners and many Sherpas’ have climbed it more than once. 150 have died, 100 in the last twenty years. More Sherpas have died because they go to and fro preparing the way for the ‘real’ climber. So why climb it? Douglas’ cynically lists reasons — so that it can be ticked off Greg Child’s ‘to do’ list is my favourite.
The Blues is part travelogue, a lot of ethnography, and wholly readable.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharjee
EXPLORING PANGI HIMALAYA. A world beyond civilisation. By Minakshi Chaudhry. Pp. 326, 28 Colour illustrations, 28 sketch- maps, 1998. (Indus Publishing Co., New Delhi, Rs. 500).
Pangi, the administrative sub-division of Chamba District, is a forlorn world. Time and space acquire a new dimension in this snow-bound, landlocked, narrow valley sandwiched between the mighty Pir Panjal and Zanskar ranges of the Himalaya. It is located in the mid-Himalayan region known as the Pangi range, spread between north latitude 32° 11' 30'’ and 33° 13' 06'’ and east longitude 75° 45' and 77° 03' 33'’.
Thus begins the most complete study on the Pangi valley, which in a leisurely way goes on to describes the features, approaches, crops, flora and fauna, the Chandrabhaga river that flows through it, the administration and the development projects. And all this, only in the first chapter.
This is followed by an interesting section on the history of the Pangwals. The book affectionately describes the Pangwal society, their culture, tradition and lifestyle. The best part of this section are the legends, which make interesting reading. This book is a treasure-house for sociologists, geologists and explorers.
The book is well divided into sections that can be separately referred to, in case one is more interested in any one of these aspects. My favourites are the chapters on Sub-valley, ‘Places of Interest’, ‘Gateways to the Valley’ and ‘Trek Routes in the Valley.’ The author has travelled on most of the routes and crossed the passes before documenting facts for nature seekers and adventures lovers. The maps are detailed and well plotted.
There is a whole chapter about winters in the snow-bound valley which is an ode to the spirit of human survival against forces of nature. The valley is snowbound and cut off from the world during December to April. The jeepable road to Killar (the valley’s headquarters) is open for only two months in the year. Pangwals, unlike many other hill tribes do not migrate in the winter. Their life revolves around preparing for the long winter during the short summer months.
Although there are several books on the tribal areas of H.P., few cover so many aspects in such detail as Minakshi’s book. There is a chapter on local temples and another on fairs and festivals. The latter includes several songs with translations.
The book concludes with a well written insight on the ‘Changing Scenario’. This documents change and development that has come to this valley during the last decade after centuries of being a completely closed system.
The book, it may be said, is a pretty dry account, lacking in the humour that we have come to expect in great exploration accounts. The style is often monotonous and sometimes one gets the feeling that Government Reports and Gazeteers form large chunks of the text. No complaints, however on the contents.
The text is interspersed with good sketches and illustrations, maps and photographs - definitely an encyclopaedia on the Pangi valley and its people.
Minakshi Chaudhry, who has a background of journalism, was presented with an opportunity, through circumstances, to live in this remote valley for two years and she did the best she could do in the circumstances : she wrote a book.
REAL MEN DON’T PICK PEONIES (ON AN ALPINE-STYLE ASCENT). By Sirish Rao. Pp. 151, 19 illustrations, b/w photos, sketch-maps, diagrams, 1998. (Tara Press, Chennai, Rs. 185).
A first novel from a promising young author, this book presents a thinly fictionalised account of an expedition. The narrator is a young climber who joins a small party of strange and funny characters attempting an alpine style first ascent of a major peak. Rao’s language is clear and straightforward, offering an enjoyable read with plenty of originality and local flavour. (SOUND HORN OKAY TATA) His characterisations, though sometimes lacking in depth, are drawn with a sympathetic humour which renders them memorable and endearing.
Story aside, the book describes a human and psychological journey. Rao explores the relation between man and mountain from the angle of each of his characters - the gonzo soldier, Lal (‘Now we are tandoori chicken, baba’), the lama (‘What do you look for up there?’) the reverent, humble expedition leader, Pasang Sherpa, and so on.
Instead of focusing on technical details and athletic feats, Rao homes in on the changing perceptions - the growing up - that each character experiences on a challenging expedition. He shows how by taking time out for the peonies - the aesthetic, spiritual details of the mountain - the climber becomes more of a ‘real man’.
Much of the book’s appeal comes from its smart, graphic ‘scrap-book’ style lay-out on which the author extensively collaborated with illustrator Ratna Ramanathan. Well-picked black and white photos exactly capture the mood of each chapter. The text is interspersed with clever collages, apt quotes, clear sketch maps and diagrams. The playful yet serious approach, the clear explanations of mountaineering basics, the easy-going narration all combine to make this a different type of mountaineering book from the standard, more technical account. As such, it can appeal to climbers and non-climbers alike, potentially inspiring talented neophytes to take up the sport.
CROWN OF HIMALAYA. 14 x 8000. By Krzysztof Wielicki. Translated in English by Jerzy Kopacz. Pp. 140, Illustrated book, many maps, graphs, 1997. (Wydawnictwo, Krakow, nps).
As the name suggests this is a book which records climbing of all the fourteen 8000 m peaks. This pictorial book with aid of minimum text and maps, illustrates the highest peaks in the world and their ascents by Wielicki, a leading climber from Poland.
SPIRITS OF PLACE. By Jim Perrin. Pp. 250, many b/w photos, 1997. (Gomer Press, Ceredigion, nps).
A collection of articles contributed by the author to various English magazines. It covers many outings to the Wales and deals with ideas and points associated with British climbing. One chapter is devoted to Shivling in the Gangotri Himalaya. The books contains many beautiful black and white photos, a nearly lost art now a days.
Reflections Himalaya. By Erhard Loretan. Translated from the French by Trevor Braham. Pp. 135, many colour photos, 1998. (Paulusverlag, Freiburg, nps).
In this part of the world, in the Himalayan countries, we have heard of many British mountaineers and Reinhold Messner. This was mainly because their climbs were available to be referred to in the English language. Many European and the Japanese mountaineers are not so well known simply because one could not read about them. Trevor Braham has done a great service to mountaineering historians by this wonderful translation about the life, views and climbs of Europe’s leading mountaineer, Erhard Loretan.
This book contains one of the most elegant layouts I have ever seen. The pictures, stories and the printing is absolutely top class. It makes a wonderful reading by way of small paragraphs and easy narration. The photos speak for themselves and cover almost all the activities a mountaineer undertakes : camps, climbing, summits and people: we have them all. The colour photos are well arranged and makes for a beautiful viewing. As author states:
My adventures have turned me into something of a fatalist. Treading the boundaries of risk is my chosen life-style. A short vigorous life attracts me more than a long eventful one. I am frequently asked why I climb. The answer can be found in the pictures which fill this book.
The text gives author’s views on varied subjects: acclimatisations, food, advanced techniques, photography, roped climbing, pollution, sponsorship and everything concerned with mountaineering. Without being pretentious it gives Loretan’s views on these subjects and much more.
Loretan is the third person to have climbed all the 8000 m peaks. It is no doubt a great achievement, but as this book shows that Loretan is not only a hard climber but also a sensitive mountaineer. To view the Himalaya through his pictures is a treat, as much as to admire his climbs. This book is a beautiful tribute to Loretan’s life, thoughts and climbs. We now know who is the real Erhard Loretan : same thoughts again.
Living intensely, hand in hand with risk, is my chosen life-style, I prefer a life that may be brief, but powered by vigorous activity, to one that is spiritless and long-lived.
As he says in caption to some wonderful photographs of sunsets on mountains : ‘Looking at such scenes... ...is it really necessary to ask why ?’