THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN : A MOUNTAINEER'S TALE. By W. H. Murray. Pp. 352, 2002. (Baton Wicks, London £20).
This is the most beautiful book on the mountains I have read. The title says it all. Gravely sensitive the author is one of those rare beings who is, as the villagers of the Indian Himalaya would put it, 'a man as opposed to a pair of trousers'.
Significantly of all foreign climbers he is the most generous in bestowing worth on these Pahari porters. He finds they embody the finest qualities of mankind.
What a contrast from Tilman's writing where the same feelings may exist but the warmth is not conveyed. Scots have always been more egalitarian than their English neighbours and Murray is the quintessential Scot-thrawn, canny and fey, a person whose deeply-layered but driving values none would dare meddle with. But more than the craggy individualism of the Caledonian is his universal instinct to discern what is lasting in the beauty of nature and the wider movement of life. On top of this his pen is winged enough to convey these indelible impressions of the mountains on his being. The result is this sampling of a conscious lifelong love affair with the peaks and their environment in his backyard and some further afield.
Until this (unfinished) autobiography Murray was renowned in the Ben Nevis region as a rock and ice specialist though his writings in the Himalayan Journal indicate that he shared Shipton's passion for exploring as much as summiting. Twice he manages to stray into China - no wonder he didn't last with the Union Bank! Like Sir Chris Bonington the author sacrificed a paying professional career and found fulfillment in his chosen sport. It is in the detailing of what that fulfillment consists of that this book excels.
Because of its unfinished state the autobiography is unevenly structured and in lesser authors this would have been held against them. Murray's pen is so powerful and exquisite that the trappings of format hardly matter. He made a crucial choice in marrying a poet who, understanding that there was a voice of vision, took the risk of publishing and being damned. Instead the reader blesses Anne Murray. How deprived the world would have remained had Murray's profound, original and essential discernment of our human strivings been allowed to linger in the limbo of manuscript. To both the art of writing and the sport of climbing mountains Murray has contributed 'a simple act of human fineness.' As with the wonder of Changabang, the reader gives thanks that this book should be.
FATAL MOUNTAINEER. The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend. By Robert Roper. Pp. 306, 13 colour and 11 b/w photos, 2002. (St. Martin's Press, New York, USD 25.95).
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Thus reads the epitaph of a great man, a dramatic mountaineer, whose final exit is what he would have scripted for himself, perfect...a showman's exit. Yet most of Willi Unsoeld's life was filled with tragedy and pain, but faced with equanimity, even humour, that made him a hero to emulate. This book is about Willi Unsoeld. Do not read it like a biography; read it like a thriller or better, read it if you can work with a multiple set of backdrops to understand the various levels on which Roper has attempted to analyse this man's life and succeeded to a great extent. In short, read it if you can keep pace with the complex energy that was Willi Unsoeld.
The book, on one level, studies what makes men climb mountains? What are the responsibilities of heros, of cult figures? What was the philosophy and guiding force of the charismatic Willi Unsoeld?
It explores the changing ethos of climbing from the sixties to the seventies, when the 'me' decade finally arrived and the story of a man who could not come to terms with this change.
On another level, it delves into relationships, against the magnificent Nanda Devi and the Everest, the relationship of an aging father (Willi) and his beautiful daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, the equations of different generations of climbers, set to achieve one goal and the impact that Willi had on people, his students, his audiences and now the reader of this mind-blowing peeping tom of a book! Truly, the power of the book is that it makes one privy to very private lives, and there are no apologies.
For the uninitiated, Willi Unsoeld was an American legend, a cult hero in the Kennedy years, which were also the Himalayan golden years. He was a charismatic professor of theology (he almost became a priest), a great philosopher and mystic but essentially, a people's man. He had a great need to reach out directly to people of all ages, which explains his fame as a one who mesmerized people by his talks rather than books. He was the pioneer of outdoor education in America. He was also a magnificent climber. Robert Roper has tried to tell us about the mind of this man and the forces that drove him. He has managed to do this rather well.
The first part of the book describes the Nanda Devi expedition. It was an expedition that ended in tragedy, with Willi's beloved daughter dying near the summit of her namesake. Roper bares the details of this mess of an expedition, killing any romance of team spirit, indicating the change in approach to mountaineering from we are going to climb this mountain to I am going to climb this mountain.
Then, cut to Everest 1963, in flashback. This was the famous first west ridge ascent by Tom Hornbien and Willi Unsoeld. This expedition was dogged by strife and controversy. Norman Dhyrenfurth led this all American expedition that put America on the climbing map of the world. It was a 70mm (or IMAX if you like) spectacle with no expenses spared. Here were two climbers who wanted to do something different versus the rest of the team who just wanted to reach the top of the mountain. The world was watching them and they could not afford to take the risks that an unknown route offered. Thus came about the war between the 'ridgers' and the 'colers'. Limited time and resources on the mountain meant that sacrifices of intent would have to be made. Tom fought doggedly with Willi's rock like support and they made it up west ridge to the peak. The others climbed via the traditional South Col route as well and the Americans showed the world that they could climb mountains. Willi emerged a hero but came back without nine toes, an accident from which he would never fully recover. Many versions of this account have been written over the years but Roper puts Willi in focus, who was the rock-like strength for this team of two, where as in many other accounts, Tom Hornbien emerges as the face of this heroic twosome. This is an account, above all, of the friendship that existed between these two men, that made them want to climb together, their utter faith in each other and their collective rhythm that made it possible.
Back to 1976 and Nanda Devi. Here, Willi, on his stumpy toeless feet, at the age of forty-nine, led an expedition to the tallest mountain in India. His first meeting of this mountain, when he was twenty-one, he described thus: I went wandering up on a windy ridge, and from afar off I saw this superb peak, and I was absolutely smitten by its symmetry and its mystery. And the thought occurred to me, twenty-one years old and a little retarded, 'you know I need a wife', a logical first step in the acquisition of a daughter. Because I suddenly wanted a daughter so badly, I wanted her so that I could name her after that captivating mountain.
He did have a daughter and he did name her Nanda Devi and he brought her to climb this mountain when she was a beautiful 22-year- old girl with golden hair. It was doomed from the start, with two factions again. Hardliners like the brilliant climber John Roskelly who wanted to climb the mountain at any cost and Nanda Devi who wanted to experience the mountain, were thrown together, scrapping every step of the way. It seems that Willi Unsoeld thrived on this situation.. .as Roper analyses, 'there's something promising about getting people of wildly different temperaments together and forcing them to deal with stark utter fear'. An expedition had to be shadowed by uncertainty on various levels to make you come intensely alive. Here was a group of people who 'would be attempting to climb this awesome peak while hating each other's guts'. How far would they succeed?
The author does a wonderful job of describing this mess of an expedition, including pages on the argument on whether toilet paper should be used, toilet paper being a metaphor for different approaches to life and living.
Interspersed with these two stories is an analysis of Willi's life, his deeply spiritual philosophies and his early influences.
The book makes one wonder, I am unable to decide, is a subjective first person account more credible than an outsider's interpretation of events? Particularly, in this case as the book is not merely the story of two expeditions but much more. In fact the stories are backdrops, mere tools to analyse a man that the author did not even meet. It is not a biography. In fact there is a well-researched biography by Lawrence Leamer, Ascent that has been widely quoted and acknowledged as an important resource in this book.
Also, the book sorely lacks details on Willi's family. His wife and other children are mentioned only in passing. How important they were in his life and their influences on him seem to have been left out but with no explanation. These are mere observations, as on completing the book such things leave the reader with a sense of something not quite right, not quite revealed. Am I being picky? Read the book and let me know.
The book introduces itself with Willi's death in 1979 at age fifty-two on Mount Rainier, a mountain that he had climbed 200 times before. He was doing what he loved best; leading his students on a climb, teaching them about climbing, testing his own abilities after a recent hip replacement surgery... the book ends with a descriptor of this event, when, leading the team off the mountain, an avalanche buried him and a young student in the snow. What a life and what a way to go! It was by all accounts a tragic life, a life that touched thousands of souls, a bustling energetic life but filled with a feeling of tragedy for the reader to experience in every page of this riveting book.
Robert Roper is a story teller, he tells his story well. Read it to its nail-biting finish and somebody, please make a film!
THE BECKONING SILENCE. By Joe Simpson. Pp. 290, 23 colour photos, 14 b/w photos, 2002. (Jonathan Cape, Random House, London, GBP 17.99).
The title itself beckons.
And yes silence does. Some silences have a siren call about them. The silence of the mountains is but one such silence that allures, tantalises, beckons man (and 'man' of course includes 'woman!') to glory or death.
This, essentially, is a book about Death ... encountering death, coping with death, seeing death happen around oneself, coming to terms with the ultimate inevitability of Death ...
It is also, of course, about climbing — and what goads man to test the limits of his strength, stamina, endurance and sheer staying power, to dare death-defying summits, again and again and again!
This is a book as much about the paradox of human nature, as about the whimsicality of nature, the ephemeral quality of just about everything, even mountain faces that appear rock solid, but which may be transformed by one spectacular storm, the turn of the weather, a sudden avalanche provoked by the Lord knows what!
It is, above all, a book beautifully written, mesmerisingly readable, gut-wrenching in its emotive power, and, most importantly, honest — ruthlessly, uncompromisingly honest, especially for a book written in the first person. The mountaineer-author, Joe Simpson spares nothing and no one, least of all himself, as he lays bare his soul, his innermost feelings, his most base (in his own estimation!) thoughts to the pitiless perception of the anonymous reader even as the mountainside lays bare its every crack and crevasse to the relentlessly revealing rays of the morning sun. Candour comes through in every utterance. Here is a mountaineer who is not blase about Death or the fear of Death. Rather, he is refreshingly honest in voicing his terror of the ultimate Unknown. Also, the dilemma of whether it's better to save life, or save face:
... I had just made the most stupid judgment call of my life ... Why? The answer was obvious. I hadn't wanted to break down a second time in front of Tat. Not wanting to appear weak or frightened, I had risked everything to save face. This was not how decisions should be made and I knew I was a fool.
I was torn between anger and joy ... I had to ... watch the rest of my life determined by the shaky adhesion of a few millimetres of frail, melting ice and the dubious friction of a tiny point of metal scratching against a flake of rock. ... This was where you defined yourself, balanced tenuously between life and death. As I stood shakily on the fragile ledge of frozen vegetation all my justifications for climbing seemed suddenly meaningless.
This was on the climb with Ian (Tat) Tattersall, (to whom the book is dedicated, and who, ironically died of a paragliding accident in Greece, not while on a climb!), on the first pitch of Alea Jacta Est, a 500-foot grade V climb looming above the valley of La Grave in the Hautes Alpes, France.
Alea Jacta Est, appropriately, if ironically, translates as 'the die is cast,' meaning a gamble, a wager . believed to have been first uttered by Julius Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon, a river that no Roman General was allowed to cross as it was tantamount to a revolt against the Republic — by crossing the river, Julius knew the die was cast, and he had no choice but to press on, ahead and overthrow the Republic and set up his Imperium. For a mountaineer, the die is cast virtually with the first step on the mountain!
Simpson's description of this climb also drives home the point that there are no absolutes to anything, that even solid mountains are not always 'solid', and that no route is static, uniformly 'good' or 'bad' — a good, safe, route can suddenly turn devilishly dangerous, and the vice versa, depending on a variety of factors.
However, knowing the risks, aware of all pitfalls, mountaineers cannot stay away from the mountains. Simpson articulates this ambivalence, this dilemma:
There is something about mountains that moves the soul. They arouse a powerful sense of spiritual awareness and a notion of our own transient and fragile mortality and our insignificant place in the universe. They have about them an ethereal, evocative addiction that I find impossible to resist. They are an infuriating and fascinating contradiction. Climbing rarely makes sense but nearly always feels right. As Syd Marty, the Canadian mountain poet, wrote in his poem Abbot
Men fall off mountains because
They have no business being there
That's why they go, that's why they die
It made a strangely beautiful sort of sense to me. I almost understand it but it fades quickly. Like the thread that makes the cloth I can never tease it all out without it unravelling and losing the deeper meaning. It can only be lived.
The paradoxical lure of climbing, Simpson likens to also the dangerous fascination for paragliding that seemed to have gripped so many of his climbing buddies, including Ian Tattersall:
... There was something mesmerising about climbing extreme mountain faces.
It was the same with paragliding. I could sense the lure of it dragging me forward like the hypnotic attraction that great drops induce when you stand close to the edge of a chasm. I wanted to go with it and see where it would take me and I was scared of its attraction. The heady mixture of anticipation and dread was common to mountaineering.
And ... 'Like climbers, pilots had a black sense of humour not as a wayward disregard for danger, but as a way of coping with it.'
How true! Often, the best way to cope with the macabre, the gruesome, even an unexpected eventuality, was with a joke!
Glimpses emerge also of Simpson's amazing courage, despite physical handicaps (shattered ankle, osteo-arthritis, etc.,), which did not deter him from demanding, dangerous climbs. And these glimpses emerge more by what he leaves unsaid, rather than categorical assertions or patting himself of the back. A wry, though not-so-black humour leavens the entire book, where you turn pages almost with the alacrity and anticipation as of the raciest thriller. This is no dry tome on mountaineering, unappealing and incomprehensible to a lay reader, a non-climber. Rather, reading it makes one keen to attempt at least a simple trek, if not a technical climb. And for those who dare not or cannot venture even that, it's a glimpse into a world very special, rather remote, but made intimately accessible by Simpson's easy style and graphic word pictures, to every reader, climber or non-climber.
The final part of the book deals with Simpson's attempt to climb the Eiger with Ray Delaney — a ruthlessly honest, personally unsparing account.
This is not a book that ends on a note of success. Simpson and Delaney abandoned their attempt to reach the summit of the Eiger, after learning of the fatal accident of two other climbers just above them, and getting reports of worsening weather conditions. But that failure, somehow, enhances the poignant appeal of the book, which triumphant success may perhaps not have been able to evoke. As you come to the last page, you do not feel the despair of failure. On the contrary, you are invigorated by hope for the future, applauding a wise decision made in the nick of time, and perhaps a realization, that the time was not right, then, to press on to the summit.
A realisation, also, that success is not always measured by summits actually scaled — it can also be measured by the attempt made, and the spirit and bravery with which such an attempt is made.
A must-read, not only for climbing enthusiasts, but also for those exercised by the enigmas of Life — and the dilemmas of Death.
EVEREST THE MAN AND THE MOUNTAIN. By J. R. Smith. Pp. 306, 1999. (Whittles Publishing, Caithness, Scotland, £ 37.50).
Published to commemorate the Everest bicentenary this compendium of biographical and geodesic detail should prove a valuable sourcebook of Survey of India history though it adds little to the controversy that rages around the character of Sir George Everest. The author uncritically takes on the Survey version of things and seems too unfamiliar with the Indian scene to sound authentic when he does arrive at a judgment. Where the book scores is in the amassing of data both about the Survey under Everest and concerning his family matters. Perhaps the most intriguing comment in the whole book comes from Everest's somewhat moony-sounding niece written in 1905 who confesses that all the family records were destroyed- though she doesn't say why. In view of Sir George's penchant for publicity this sounds baffling. Was there a skeleton in the family cupboard or a loony at large? Just as baffling is the niece's claim that her famous uncle was, behind his stem Victorian facade a closet Hindu mystic whose mathematical genius was derived from brahmanical beliefs! Clearly there is much more to the Everest family than has been given out by the Survey. Either that or his niece is a spiritually inventive writer.
Unfortunately her recollections of her uncle are highly subjective and seem to contradict everything we know about his public behaviour in India. Smith's book is dedicated to those of the Survey who have 'Upheld the professional standards of care and integrity generated by Everest' To indicate backsliders do exist, the foreword by a Surveyor General tells us Everest was responsible for measuring 'a Meridonal Arc from Kanya Kumari to Banog' (sic). Official mindlessness thus strikes the reader from page one. At least J. R. Smith is more scientific about Lambton's stature and gives him his due as a geodesist.
On the naming controversy he quotes the evidence from both sides but gives the game away when he concludes magisterially "The time has surely come to resist more alternatives and accept 'Everest' as the English language version". But this ignores the need first for the Survey to admit its error and accept that 'Everest' is indeed the English version of a Tibetan peak whose name they continue to feign does not exit.
The book has excellent appendices on surveying and it seems the young survey students who will profit from this valuable information will alongside have to swallow the discredited myths about Sir George. But at least the author's comprehensive approach will enable them to discern some of the warts. Smith tells us that on two separate occasions Everest canvassed for himself' in soliciting awards from the government, brazenly pointing out how much better he deserved the honour than those included in the Queen's list. Not surprisingly both requests were turned down. Among his many 'gifts' it seems Everest had an abnormally thick skin! Which is wildly at odds with his niece's suggestion that he was sensitive to-and sacrificed himself for — others.
HIMALAYAN VIGNETTES. By Kekoo Naoroji. Pp. 236, fully illustrated, 5 maps, 2003. (The Himalayan Club and Mapin Publishing, Mumbai, Rs. 2000).
Coffee table books on the mountains are a standard genre, and for the most part they are usually not worth much more than a casual look. But once in a very occasional while, there comes a volume that stands in its own class and offers itself as a necessary addition to any self- respecting collection or library. Kekoo Naoroji's collection of vintage photographs, dating from almost half a century ago, is surely one such, a treasure trove, as Stephen Venables says in his foreword, of nostalgia.
This is a collection of mainly black and white photographs dating from a long-gone era, when Himalayan exploration was beginning to revive after the hiatus of World War II. Unlike in pictures one sees today, there are no people beyond a few villagers and porters. This is not surprising, since Naoroji trekked only in the company of porters and Sherpas. Even so, he allows tents, people or any extraneous elements only in a handful of his pictures. The is a book about the mountains, and both literally and metaphorically, they are portrayed in the best light.
Naoroji, a one-time President of the Himalayan Club, an amateur violinist and corporate executive, spent two months exploring Garhwal in the post-monsoon season in 1952. This was a time when Indian mountaineering was in its infancy; Gurdial Singh (and two others) had made the third ascent of Trisul a year earlier. Tenzing's electrifying ascent of Everest was still a year away, and Nandu Jayal had just made his mark on an unsuccessful expedition to Kamet.
Naoroji's pictures of this trek mark the first half of the book. This was also long before roads snaked their way into the inner Himalayan valleys and Joshimath was still a small village rather than the bustling hill town and tourist centre, en route to Badrinath, that it has now become. In these two months, he crossed the Kuari pass, with its magnificent views, visited Satopanth tal, the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund, entered the Bagini basin and walked up to Lata Kharak and Dharansi pass, which now marks the entrance to the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.
Not all the pictures from this expedition are sharp and perfect (perhaps some have been enlarged beyond their capability), but almost without exception they evoke a sense of timelessness, landscapes frozen in perpetuity and faces and figures still vivid decades later. In some, we step back into the past. In Hemkund for instance, the small, old shrine (which is what this reviewer saw in 1966) has been replaced by a large gurdwara and the solitude revealed in these half-century old photographs is a marked contrast with the jathas of pilgrims that now make the trip.
The second trek featured in Himalayan Vignettes was six years later, in 1958, a month-long visit to western and northern Sikkim. This time, half the pictures are, as before, in black and white, but a whole section in colour gives this section a more contemporary feel. Naoroji kept a diary during most of this walk, and it makes for far more interesting reading than much of the prose that passes for expedition reports these days. This journey took him into the lap of some of the world's grandest and most beautiful mountains, and he managed to climb quite high, reaching almost 6000 m just below Nepal Gap. The exploration of the Zemu valley was followed by a crossing of the Thieu la (5495 m) into the trans-Himalayan region of the Goma chu.
Trekking today is an industry, and most trails are crowded, especially in season, during school and college vacations or the Puja holidays. Few venture out on their own, large bandobast being the order of the day. Naoroji was a mountain traveller of a different vintage, an increasingly rare vintage, and it is just as well that we have a record, a very individual one at that, of an approach and a practice of mountain exploration which is fast becoming impossible if not extinct.
Letter from Bill Aitken about the book HIMALAYAN VIGNETTES.
Dear Rishad Naoroji,
I have just received Kekoo's Himalayan Vignettes and can think of no finer 75th birthday present for the Himalayan Club. Superb quality — content and production.
Normally such hefty tomes please only the high altitude climber or the technical photographer but Kekoo has achieved what everyman looks for — the authentic flavour of the high places recollected with artistic feeling at the awesome privilege conferred on his efforts.
I had no idea he had been so original! How rare to find a non-trumpeter-from-the housetops! I've only been through the Garhwal portfolio and find this is the very best exposure to the character of the peaks I have seen. The black and white compositions leap out at you — both inviting and forbidding — exactly the mood created in their presence when the weather veers from kind to killer.
This is a collection I will treasure for the depth of impact the photographs make — and which only a large format provides. Each plate brings back a host of fond memories of worthwhile moments in one's life. This project is a blessing for those of us oldies who think twice about venturing beyond Mussoorie.
Many thanks and warm congratulations.
SIACHEN: CONFLICT WITHOUT END. By Lt. Gen. V.R. Raghavan. Pp. 240, 2 sketches, 17 colour photos, 2002. (Viking, New Delhi Rs. 395).
There have been many articles and books about the Siachen situation. As Gen. Raghavan says, (for foreign correspondents) a trip to the area and a major article on the conflict is equivalent to an initiation ceremony in tribal societies. For Indian correspondents, things are a little easier. They are taken in groups as part of the government's media management exercise. Not surprisingly, the General is scathing about the camera wielding, biro-pointing, notepad-shuffling bunch of reporters.
No one could accuse Gen. Raghavan of bearing any resemblance to these. His book is a serious study by a military officer who was Director General of Military Operations until 1992, who was Commanding General in the Siachen and Kargil sectors, who was on the Indian team in at least four of the seven rounds of talks between India and Pakistan between 1986 and November 1992, who is obviously as familiar with the nuts and bolts of the operation as with the wider political and military aspects. He writes clearly and objectively, occasionally allowing himself to wax poetical. As for instance when describing landing at Thoise air strip. Nothing, not even bungee jumping, can match the excitement of the massive aircraft landing. The reverse thrust of the engines, the shuddering slowing down of the aircraft, and the presence of the Nubra river within a hundred metres of the runway make an incredible impact. The change from New Delhi .... is so staggering as to belie belief.
Let me say at once that this is an excellent book. Two features make it specially valuable: first, Raghavan puts the 'mad military' operations in their true political context and debunks a number of myths; and second, he shows the evolution of the political and military situation as it changed over the years, explaining for instance why the moves towards a demilitarized zone during the Indo-Pakistani talks in 1988 were unhappily dissipated in the 1989 talks nine months later.
'Siachen', the glacier - incidentally, one of the longest mountain glaciers in the world - has become a shorthand term for the whole area. The military action has not been on the Siachen; it has been and continues to be on the Saltoro ridge with the Indians on the northern slopes and ridge, and the Pakistanis on the south, separated from the Siachen glacier by the 6100-6700 m ridge. The use of the term 'Siachen' for anything to do with the conflict is convenient but confusing; so talk about fighting on the Siachen, VIPs visiting the troops stationed on the Siachen, Pakistani politicians and journalists coming to the Siachen, has led to confusion among the public and armchair strategists.
The basic facts of the situation are well known: the ceasefire agreement of 1949 and the Line of Control of 1972 demarcated the line to a well defined point: NJ 9842. Beyond, as there were neither troops nor habitation, the agreement merely said and "thence North to the glaciers." These five little words caused no problem for 35 years; in April 1984, the Indians pre-empted a Pakistan plan to occupy the Saltoro ridge and since then the two armies have faced each other. There has been bloody skirmishing, artillery fire, daring attacks and ripostes - and there has been much hindsight wisdom about the folly of those five little words. Both sides recognise the absurdity of this 'highest battlefield in the world', but seven rounds of Indo-Pakistani talks have not led to any solution. To Pakistan, the 'north to the glaciers' means a straight line from NJ 9842 running north-eastwards to the Karakoram Pass. To India, the obvious line is the watershed along the 80 km long Saltoro ridge; anyway, a straight line in a mountainous area is absurd. French and British imperialists might have drawn such simple lines on the map of Africa, dividing tribes without a second thought, but to do this in a mountainous region, ignoring all geographical features is unrealistic.
Raghavan debunks a number of popular myths such as the one about Pakistan and China launching a pincer movement from the north, or the one that fears that should Pakistan get access to the glacier, it will cut off India's route to the Karakoram pass.
When India decided to occupy the main passes - the Sia la and the Bilafond la - across the Saltoro ridge and thus forestall any Pakistani attempt to cross over on to the Siachen, how did they manage to get troops up to those inhospitable heights at over 6100 m turning scores of soldiers into instant mountaineers? What about supplies? Food and fuel? Logistics? Clothes and equipment? A hundred consequences to be worked out on terra incognita. There was anxiety about whether troops could be inducted and sustained in severe weather conditions at the passes. As Lt. Gen. (retd) M.L. Chibber wrote, it was considered, on balance, that it would be easier to fight the elements than a determined enemy.
The Cheetah, the Indian version of the Alouette helicopter, could just about reach the required heights but carrying not more than two soldiers at a time. The effort to get aviation fuel, technical support and minimal landing and holding facilities ready before 13 April was in itself a major enterprise, since there was no infrastructure of any kind existing on or near the glacier at the time...... The first platoon was put down 3 km short of Bilafond la.... It required great courage from the first three men, including an officer, who jumped from the hovering machines.... They quickly located safe places for subsequent helicopters to touch down. Some sacks of flour were used to get a firm touchdown spot....... It needed 17 sorties to ferry across men and equipment.
The Sia la was further and higher and 32 sorties were needed to put troops down 5 km from the pass.
The Pakistanis spotted the Indians on the passes and on 25 April, the elite Burzil Force started a firefight with small arms and machine guns. The military conflict between the two countries for the control of the Saltoro ridge had started.
Anyone who knows the high mountains must be lost in wonder and admiration at the thought of men climbing or being helicoptered to those heights, their acclimatisation, their accelerated training, living there for days and weeks; of being supplied by air. And of occasionally having to engage the opposition in severe fighting. Casualties due to altitude, cold and mountain conditions were immensely high. No tribute can be excessive for the thousands of men who have lived and fought in incredibly difficult conditions.
Why do men continue to obey orders, to volunteer, to fight? Raghavan has a thoughtful chapter on leadership and its role in such combat, and indeed what he says has wide application to leadership in all fields of activity. Particularly interesting, since the Himalaya are the abode of the gods, is what he says about spiritual support. Faith in divine providence and grace play an important part in the lives of soldiers. The army encourages soldiers to be devout without being superstitious. The Saltoro has placed a special demand on such spiritual support arrangements. The religious teachers trained with the men, climbed with them, and provided spiritual counselling even at the forward posts. Cave temples contain pictures and idols and icons of different religions. Hindu gods and goddesses, the Holy Mecca, the Buddha, the Virgin Mother and Jesus on the Cross, share the same roof. To the soldier, they are all keepers of his soul. No soldier checks his colleague's religion before going into battle.
As the two armies consolidated their positions, exchange of artillery fire became the preferred form of engagement. The flying in of disassembled guns - inevitably some of the parts were lost in air drops - their re-assembling, positioning and use, all make an epic of its own.
For Pakistan it became a political imperative to get a foothold somewhere on the ridge at any price; for India it was equally imperative to deny this though Pakistan would have gained no tactical advantage nor made any headway in its claims. Siachen had now entered the political lexicon and defending every part of the ridge became a political necessity, even if it was militarily unnecessary or went against military logic. National honour was being staked on ten soldiers fighting at 5500 m with the minimum of military support. It was poor strategy, conducted with an inadequate doctrine, and entrusted to an inadequately provisioned army.
And, perhaps inevitably, it happened. In 1987, by a fine mountaineering feat, Pakistan established a post on the Saltoro. They skillfully used a rope and ladder to climb the vertical rock face. From this post, which they named 'Quaid', the Pakistani troops overlooked the Bilafond la and could direct artillery fire there, and attack Indian helicopters supplying the Indian post or evacuating casualties; their own supply lines were not visible to the Indians. The post was unacceptable militarily and an embarrassment politically.
To capture that post was not a question of a long range artillery attack; it was a handful of soldiers on a daring mission, the very stuff of adventure stories. A patrol of nine men was sent to find out the size of the Pakistani post; it moved at night and climbed the wall on the north face. They fixed ropes and prepared a ledge for stores. The men then moved along the ridge towards the post; heavy machine gun fire killed five of them including the officer; the remaining four managed to get back to their post though one of them died later of his wounds.
The next attack was carried out by an all-volunteer force of 60 men. One group attacked the post, the other went for the administrative base some 120 m lower. The approach had to be at night and the men were prepared to be out in the open for up to 96 hours. The ropes were hidden by fresh snow and so the search had finally to be undertaken in daylight; they were seen and fired at and had to fall back.
On the night of 25 June, a Junior Commissioned Officer and six soldiers inched forward to the Quaid's forward positions. They launched an attack with grenades and small arms, some soldiers were killed and the radio operator rolled down on the enemy's side of the mountain. The attack had come to a halt. The force Commander then decided to mount an assault from another direction. There were hardly six men available for that task, but that attack, or rather a crawl-and-fire assault, was undertaken in daylight, around midday. As the small group closed in and threw grenades at what looked like the command post on the Quaid, some Pakistanis ran out and attacked them. Some were bayoneted. The others jumped down to their death. The ropes to Quaid from the Pakistani side were then cut. The 'thorn in our flesh' had been removed.
The post was re-named Bana, after Naib Subedar Bana Singh who led the final assault; he was later awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
It is impossible to read the account of the army's performance on the Saltoro heights without immense admiration. Everything had to be learnt and practised from scratch for there were no precedents, no manuals. It was a question of improvisation and innovation, determination and courage. It is difficult even for those who know the mountains to realise fully the difficulties that were faced and overcome.
As the months and the years passed, both sides were dug in and it was obvious that there was not going to be a military decision either way. The honour of both countries was fully engaged, and 'when honour's at the stake' there never seems to be room for accommodation or agreement. However, both countries were anxious to end this seemingly absurd standoff, so costly in men and resources. Raghavan details the seven rounds of Indo-Pakistani talks between 1986 and 1998; it is a story of widely divergent interpretations of the 'north to the glaciers', of steps forward towards disengagement and steps back again as if afraid of any real agreement, of the heavy weight of political compulsions emanating from the two capitals. And with the armed insurgency and infiltration of militants in Kashmir, the 13 December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, and the 14 May 2002 attack in Jammu, any talk of a Siachen solution faded away.
As one might expect from this far-sighted general, Raghavan's suggestions for ending the conflict seem like sound common sense and in tune with reality. A summary risks being distorted but here it is:
Raghavan deals with every aspect of the Siachen conflict - except one. That is the ecological damage being done to this magnificent mountain area and the pollution caused by the permanent presence of thousands of men. There are two passing references to this aspect. While decrying the 'experts' - dieticians, meat suppliers, vegetable contractors, dry fruit vendors and canned food makers, tetra-pack juice manufacturers, garbage and human excreta management experts, battery- operated heating devices makers, even psychologists, - who all have plentiful advice to give but little inclination to come and try their wares and skills on the Saltoro (emphasis added). Listing measures taken to provide logistic support to troops, there is 'Installation of bio-digestor for disposal of human waste.' It is a pity that there is no explanation of what this might be.
The second reference is contained in the suggestions for ending the conflict. After demilitarization, the glaciated region would be left undisturbed and the ecological damage done to the area by twenty years of human, particularly military presence, would need at least twice that long to recover. It would be possible after the demilitarization to let the area be a nature preserve for half a century.
This fits in perfectly with the concept of a transboundary park, the Siachen Peace Park (SPP), which has been aired recently in the Himalayan Journal and at meetings organized by the Himalayan Club, the Banff Mountain Festival and others. The editor of the Journal has written and lectured widely in India and abroad about it, so have others. Raghavan does not mention a Peace Park, but that is what his proposal leads to: a nature reserve between two powers. It would follow the example of the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, which has become a de facto nature reserve. Raghavan suggests half a century of being left alone as a nature reserve; we would say forever.
The SPP concept focuses on the ecological protection of the Siachen- Saltoro area; it would give an additional positive purpose to demilitarization and would make technical monitoring more readily acceptable. Would not meshing this idea with Raghavan's suggested steps strengthen the latter and make it easier to rally public opinion? Both India and Pakistan would be contributing to the protection of mountains, and helping to preserve a superb, spectacular region of the Himalayas that would be the heritage of both countries.
FOOTLOOSE IN THE HIMALAYA. By Bill Aitken. Pp. 258, 2003. (Permanent Black, Delhi, Rs. 450).
Mountain travellers come in many guises. There are the intrepid ones who push the envelope of exploration, and the hard ones, who take mountaineering to new heights. Then there are the tourists, who will taste the wilderness if they can do so without abandoning creature comforts. And, of course, we have the pilgrims who since centuries have sought salvation through visiting the mountain shrines. Bill Aitken is none of these: he stands in a class by himself, part explorer, part seeker of salvation, a person who searches for the spirit of the mountains, who wants to understand their magnetism that draws spiritual seekers to them, and along the way, to find himself.
That is what makes his book thoroughly readable and hugely satisfying. There is no posturing, no agenda, and no great achievements to report save one, and that is to have forged a relationship with the Himalaya, particularly Uttarakhand, which if not unique has to be given to very, very few. This is a book that many of us who love the mountains in a very personal sense will wish they could have written, and his journeys they could have made. It is for anyone who can recognizes that the Himalaya are more than a beautiful, awesome or inviting combination of snow, rock, forest, river and summit, however alluring they might be. It points toward the mystical soul of the great ranges.
Aitken tells as much of himself in these pages as he does of the walks he does, the people he encounters, the sights he sees, the experiences he has. A young man from Scotland escaping failed love more than 40 years ago, he finds himself in Calcutta and is urged to visit an ashram in Kumaun. That's the beginning of a life-long affair with Uttarakhand and a spiritual quest that takes him to Sarla Behn's school in Kausani and the Mirtola ashram east of Almora for several years each before he is claimed by more worldly desires and moves to Mussoorie. Along the way he explores his adopted hill world, responding to its spirituality at least as much as to its physical appeal.
In doing so, he finds that the Himalaya 'unlocks the treasures of our inner being.' Perhaps contemporary attitudes are changing, but it is gratifying in this day of high ambition and environmental degradation to know that there is someone who can still say: 'I have always responded to the village view that we are here as mehman, guests of the gods, visitors on the planet, not proprietors.'
Aitken knows what he likes and his writing make his likes infectious. 'Every hill walker soon discovers his level of plenitude,' he writes. 'Mine has always been rambling along the trails of the lesser range where leaves carpet the bridle path and you slosh through the bounty of Vallombrosia with the rustle of a hundred autumns.' His preference is to confine himself to the sub-alpine region, below the 3500 meters level, where pastures and forests rule. Not for him the summits and crags that mountain climbers seek, though along the way he does try and scale a 6000 m peak (Stok Kangri near Leh) stopping a short way below the top.
That doesn't mean, though, that his walks and explorations have been easy. Preferring to use his feet to taking vehicles, he has walked up and down the middle ranges of Kumaun and Garhwal, and later Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and elsewhere, often along little-known and barely frequented routes, sometimes just ridge lines following his instincts as much as identifiable paths. Though he doesn't write about it in this book, Aitken has three times visited the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (during the1970s, when it was open to climbers and trekkers) and hiked the long trail from Lahul to Zanskar. His Nanda Devi Affair is related in an eponymous book and other travels have been featured in greater detail in other places.
What makes this such a compelling read is its down to earth sincerity, its candour, its occasional understated humour, and the sheer joy it exudes over everyday, ordinary encounters with people, with nature, and indeed with himself! There are some unexpected bits of information, such as the origin of the gurdwara at Hemkund and the real nature of Heinrich Harrer's activities in India. But the heart of the writing is in the way Aitken savours the mountains, and spells out simple pleasures that awaken our own memories: 'Nothing really beats a night out under the stars with the wind sifting the grass around.' Scattered sentences like this abound and they ring so true.
His hasn't always been an easy journey. The early years particularly were difficult, starting with the harsh shattering of delusions, what he calls an unmasking process with real pain. We're not sure if Aitken has found what he has been looking for, but even if the book describes the external manifestation of what was evolving within, the journey he describes seems to have been highly rewarding. Now, if only he'd included some photographs and an index.
TENZING AND THE SHERPAS OF EVEREST. By Judy and Tashi Tenzing. Pp. 211, 27 colour and 58 b/w pictures, 1 sketch map, 2002. (Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi, INR 395.00)
The book under review is primarily an effort to understand and seek the obvious relationship between two of the most significant and profound phenomenon of the mountaineering world: Everest and the Sherpas, and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in particular who brought his community to the forefront of the mountaineering world with his momentous feat of ascending Everest in 1953.
The literal apex of the world, Everest has always been awe inspiring, despite having been climbed by people who paid their way to the top, and despite the gimmicks and records that have been enacted (all against the mountaineering ethics) for individual quest for immortality. The mountain and its legend, involving years of exploration, mysticism, ascents, culture and mythology thrive on regardless, for Sagarmatha remains the ultimate quest for every aspiring mountaineer.
Though several Sherpas, Tenzing Norgay primarily among them, have often been feted for their endeavours and mountaineering feats by the world at large, the rest of the Sherpa community has escaped notice. It would be unfair to only admire those who climbed Everest since a Sherpa is not only an integral part of any expedition but is also an essential element of the entire enterprise for ensuring success subsequently. They have often been termed as the most remarkable group of mountain people in the world, with a natural ability to adjust and excel in the higher mountains. What made them even more endearing was their sense of loyalty, humour, resourcefulness, and rustic charm. It is widely accepted that they are the finest companions in the mountains. The story of these brave and sturdy people has been magically weaved by the authors within the backdrop and confines of Everest and provide us with rare glimpses into the life and travails of the Sherpas.
The book is an outstanding work of ethnology and genealogy highlighting the finer aspects of the Sherpa people, whom the world generally tend to forget once the climb and the felicitations was over. The humane aspect of their ordinary existence away from all the richly deserved glory and how would the Sherpa (including Tenzing Norgay) come to terms with it all, is a rare saga of courage, resilience and pride that opens our eyes to the real lives of these legendary community. Though the main focus remains Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the community has not been overlooked or overshadowed in any manner. Rich tributes have been paid to the other Tiger Badge holding Sherpas and several others whose life were a source of inspiration for mountaineers all over the world.
The documentation is crisply written and reads like an adventure epic, which it essentially is. It makes an interesting and all round read since it not only tells of the climbing Sherpas but also relates the tales of those of them who took up other fields of pursuit and excelled equally well. It also makes a sincere effort, with remarkable success, in portraying the Sherpa as an ordinary human being with common aspirations and goals, stripped of all the legend, myth, misconceptions and wonders that the world generally associate them with.
The book pays the long-overdue homage to the Sherpa community and their contribution to the mankind in its quest for the impossible Himalayan summits, and is a must read for all who has ever been inspired and awed by the icy summits and all those who make it possible. It would be apt to conclude the review with the views of Bill Tilman : To be their (Sherpas) companion was a delight, to lead them an honour.
Lt. Cdr. Satyabrata Dam
TIGERS OF THE SNOW. By Jonathan Neale. Pp. 337, 25 colour and b/w photos, 5 maps, 2002. (Little, Brown, UK, GBP 18.99).
They had started on Everest, in 1921, coolies who pulled white tourists up and down the steep lanes of Darjeeling. Year after year, mountain after mountain, one man after another had carried an extra load, helped a sahib over a difficult stretch, laughed, and made the tea. They had risked their lives, lost fingers and toes, and often died. In doing that they changed their own understanding of who they were and what they could accomplish. Then they changed the sahibs' understanding too. Tenzing was there because of the particular individual he was. But he was also there because he was a Sherpa.
And that is what this book is about. There have been stories about great climbs and stories about great white climbers. The stories of the Sherpas had slipped somewhere between the cracks and crevices of the mountains. This book rescues those stories.
The central narrative revolves around one particular expedition. But that story is set against a backdrop of mountaineering history and the haunting happenings in Germany in the 1930s.
In 1934, a heavily funded German-led team set off to climb the west Himalayan peak of Nanga Parbat. At 26,620 feet, it is the ninth highest mountain on earth. A Germany reeling from World War I placed tremendous pressure on the climbers to succeed. This pressure, coupled with a complete lack of knowledge about altitude sickness led to the expedition's ultimate doom. When a hurricane hit the leading party just short of the summit, the Germans broke the unwritten rule of Himalayan mountaineering and headed down leaving their porters alone to face certain death. It was something the surviving Sherpas on that expedition and Sherpas everywhere else remembered forever more. From that point on, their attitudes towards the white climbers and their knowledge about their own abilities changed.
Neale goes back in time to the early Himalayan expeditions. Some of the Sherpas he has spoken to were actually there on that ill- conceived expedition and others afterwards. He has reconstructed the tales from their memories coupled with western diaries and publications. Don't expect to know much about Sherpa families and home life and the thoughts and deeds of the women as they waited for their men to return. What do emerge are the thoughts of the Sherpas as they carried their loads and risked their lives for someone else's glory. The Sherpas and other porters were treated badly, underfed and poorly clothed. Early attitudes of paternalistic concern and treating them like inferior children slowly gave way to a grudging respect and only much later to an acceptance as mountaineering equals. The early climbers were 'gentlemen' for whom most of their own countrymen would have been inferior — the natives many times more so.
Jonathan Neale has written an interesting book. Also, it is hardbound with a large pleasing type face. I did find however that the structure is sometimes confusing. The author, in the middle of a narrative often detours to other places, people and expeditions. When he comes back to the original narrative you are left saying 'Hang on! What was he talking about just now?' It doesn't help that a lot of the Sherpas and Nepalese have the same names.
All in all Tigers of the Snow is a long overdue tribute to a richly deserving group of people.
K2: ONE WOMAN'S QUEST FOR THE SUMMIT. By Heidi Howkins. Pp. vii + 270, 2001. (National Geographic, Adventure Press, Washington, D.C. US$ 26, £18.99; ISBN 0792279964).
LAST BREATH: CAUTIONARY TALES FROM THE LIMITS OF HUMAN ENDURANCE. By Peter Stark. Pp. xv + 301, 2002. (Macmillan, hardback London £16.99; ISBN 0-333-90570-9).
Why anyone would want to risk everything to reach the summit of K2? Heidi Howkins, who summited Gasherbrum II in a two-day push from base camp (1996), setting a new standard for 'female alpinists,' and has led expeditions to Everest and K2, says it's because 'When you get there, there's nowhere left to go. You've succeeded against the world's toughest mountain. There is a cessation of passion, of the desire to move forever upwards. There is emptiness, and the closure of a circle. You are back where you started. And you are at peace. K2, terrifying, remote, magnificent, has been much written about. A problem with any kind of travel writing, even with specialised mountain writing, is how to avoid cliches and be interesting. But K2 should not need the flying buttresses Howkins has given it—a long car journey in the a US winter, a hitchhiker who is recipient of Howkins's narrative which has become this book, or so we are meant to believe, vague references to men in her life who seemed to have been worse than a trip to K2, mystifying lights and labyrinths. There's a bit about being a single mother and a climber (gender's a real issue, but here it seems to have been put in as a fashionable item). With all this stylistic blocking of the narrative I am still not sure if Howkins ever climbed K2. From the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, travel writing was full of meaty detail about plans, maps, people, equipment, journeys, and goals. It can still be outstanding, but alas, One Woman's Quest has been blighted by self-consciousness, or perhaps by creative writing classes. What's more, the chapters seem to have been published elsewhere before this, or why does Howkins refer to Alison Hargreaves on p. 85 as if she has not been mentioned earlier? Still, the book has nice pictures and some zippy epigraphs, especially Thoreau's 'Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes'. The National Geographic Society was Howkins's main sponsor, and gets upper case treatment. I have no problem with that. Moneyed folk should spread their largesse for marginal activities, or how will the world remain interesting for armchair travellers like me?
Peter Stark's Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance could legitimately have taken stylistic liberties since it's mostly fiction. But I was riveted by it. Why mountaineers and adherents of other adventure sports want to court disaster and death has bewildered me for decades. Stark's eleven cautionary tales aren't all of them about those who voluntarily embrace extreme cold, heat, water and so on, but he has them very much in mind. Starting with 'I fear death,' he says that his intention was to produce a sort of Ars Moriendo for those who engage in adventurous, eminently rewarding, often risky, and sometimes fatal activities such as climbing, whitewater paddling, extreme skiing or snowboarding, and remote travel, although the themes of risk, death, and enlightenment addressed n these chapters should pertain to many others who don't necessarily pursue these outdoor activities.
Based on medical research and real life stories, Stark's book is informative and readable. If its style is familiar, that's because by his own admission Reader's Digest's Drama in Real Life hovers behind it. Like the prototype, human beings are the focus of these stories that are told without any mystification.
Occasionally, an unexpected, vivid detail enters, as in 'Drowning,' set on the Yangste. Before this, no one had even attempted to kayak down Tiger's Leap gorge because it was too tough. Commerce and politics have opened up the place, in this case to Americans, who have brought 'adventure' to a place that the locals for centuries have known is lethally dangerous. Stark, however, merely records the reaction of the Chinese without noting that there may be sense in traditional wisdom. But that's compensated for by the statistics about drowning, its 'literary' quality (Virginia Woolf, Harriet Shelley, and Shelley all drowned); and the history of resuscitation (electricity was used to revive drowned persons from 1819). As Stark says, 'many of these techniques were abandoned or lost and not rediscovered and refined by researchers until the 1950s. Today they are used routinely'.
This is a book well worth reading.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji
GREAT HIMALAYA: TOURISM AND THE DYNAMICS OF CHANGE IN NEPAL. By Sanjay K. Nepal, Thomas Kohler and B. R. Banzhaf 2002. (The Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, nps.)
This publication has been prepared in collaboration with The University of Bern, whose Centre for Development & Environment provided scientific support for a 5-Year Nepal Tourism Project, during which studies were made for five Masters Degrees and one Ph.D. The book is described by Jurg Marnet, president of the Swiss Foundation, as its contribution to the International Year of Mountains 2002. It owes its appearance to financial support from the Foundation itself, Binding Foundation and three private donors. It is co-authored by Sanjay K. Nepal, who chose the subject for his thesis at Bern University, Thomas Kohler, a lecturer at the University; and B. R. Banzhaf of Saas Fee, who has been involved with trekking and touring in Nepal for several years. During fieldwork in Nepal, vital to the authors' research, they collaborated closely with local officials, project directors, conservation workers, field research assistants, village committees, owners of tourist lodges, ordinary villagers, porters, and others in the Khumbu, Annapurna, and Mustang regions. Although the studies were confined largely to areas most deeply affected by tourism, they provide a broad picture of a new order of development which has swept across the country in a relatively short period — causing a doubling of firewood consumption during the tourist season when the population density rises to 34.45 persons per sq km for the Annapurna areas; and 10.80 for Khumbu. Some traditions of the ancient culture of the inhabitants, as well as a large part of their activities, have altered to a degree that would have seemed unbelievable to the limited numbers of persons who were granted permission to enter the country before the gates were thrown wide open to tourists.
A few years after the Chinese entered Tibet in November 1950 which threatened to bring to an end the Sherpas' traditional trading activities, and as a direct outcome of Sir Edmund Hillary's pioneering initiatives in the fields of education and health, dramatic changes began to emerge in the lives and livelihood of the essentialy religious Sherpa communities settled in Khumbu for five centuries, involving their adaptation from the tranquility of their former existence as agriculturists and traders to a form of urbanisation (Footnote: I quote from the book's text, 'tourist shops dominate the streets of Namche Bazar'). A review of this book is no place to attempt to balance the economic and material gains against the social, cultural, and ecological effects resulting from those changes. The latter have given rise to other considerations such as degradation of forests, protection of the environment, and the spread of aspects of Western Culture. The map on page 15 of the book indicates the existence of 8 National Parks and 4 Conservation Areas. Logically such demarcated zones should provide adequate opportunities for local employment of trained personnel under competent management, thereby serving the dual purpose of promoting their tourist appeal. The authors quote the World Tourist Organisation definition of 'sustainable tourism' as a form that improves the quality of life of the host community, maintaining the quality of the environment, and providing a worthwhile experience for the tourist, without which mountain tourism could be a short-term enterprise of boom and bust. Regrettably, at the current stage of development the authors' research has shown that in popular areas such as Khumbu and Annapurna tourists greatly outnumber the local populations resulting in higher prices for basic goods, benefiting external interests at the expense of local communities, and widening the gap between rich and poor.
The book's four sections deal respectively with Nepal's social, economic, and historical background, followed by the complexity of problems facing planners if the future of tourism, which has expanded six-fold in the past two decades, is to be sustained at an economically viable level. Next comes the Impact of Mountain tourism, containing the main meat of the book, which details the manner in which many communities have adapted their lives, retaining their traditional activities whilst participating in the benefits brought by tourism, a picture that is not always rosy, but one that reveals the initiative and ingenuity of men and women largely unsupported by official incentives or encouragement. Finally, there are suggestions directed at planners and administrators, researchers and scientists, national and international agencies, emphasizing the strengths and weaknesses revealed by studies carried out so far. The development of tourism is an on-going process, which can only thrive and endure if lessons learnt from past endeavours are heeded.
In spite of the gloomy note on which the book ends, as a result of political unrest in the year 2002 which cause a dramatic decline in the number of tourists, this seems to be an appropriate moment at which to set on record, as the authors have done in this well- researched treatise, the overall effects of tourism in a country with scant other resources and therefore heavily dependent upon its success. To quote a Khumbu lodge-owner, 'there is no problem for the future of tourism, as long as Mount Everest remains in place people will continue to come here.' Yes - but it is important to take stock during the present hiatus and, benefiting from knowledge gained, to ensure that prospects for the long-term future are built on sound foundations.
The publication, as one would expect from the Swiss Foundation, is of high quality, lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and maps. Two minor quibbles. The map of Nepal on page fifteen refers to the High Himalaya, although the book's title adopts the term Great Himalaya. Nepal Himalaya would be more appropriate for the former, whilst the latter describes the Mountain range which stretches from Bhutan in the east to Kashmir in the northwest. The opening of Nepal to mountaineers did not commence when Arnold Heim flew over Dhaulagiri on 18 October 1949 (page 26), but when H.W. Tilman set out with a small group on foot from Kathmandu on 29 May 1949 on his first pioneering expeditions, followed by his second exploratory expedition in 1950, the latter terminating with the first visit by foreigners, including Charles Houston, and his father Oscar, through Khumbu to the south side of Everest.
TOURNAMENT OF SHADOW: THE GREAT GAME AND THE RACE FOR THE EMPIRE IN CENTRAL ASIA. By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. Pp xxv + 646, 9 sketch maps, 38 b/w photos, 1999. (Counterpoint, Washington D.C., US$ 35, Hardcover; ISBN 1-58243-028-4).
This book is a new addition to the Great Game bibliographia. It is written by an American couple: Karl E. Meyer is a journalist by blood (his father and grandfather were journalists too) and has a doctorate degree in politics; Shareen Blair Brysac has a degree in archaeology and is a contributor to the Archaeology magazine.
The Great Game denotes the rivalry between Britain, Russia, France and (to some degree) China during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century to gain control of strategic and rich lands in central- south Asia. It was the nineteenth-century cold war. The term Great Game was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel, Kim (1901), but it was first used by Captain Arthur Conolly in his letters to friends. Conolly wished to play a leading role in 'a great game, a noble game' in Central Asia. He decided to go to Bokhara, where another British officer, Colonel Charles Soddart had been sent by the East India Company to arrange an alliance with the Emir of Bokhara against the Russians. Conolly wanted to befriend the Emir and save Soddart's life. But the Emir decided otherwise, and ordered to imprison and finally behead the two British officers. That was 1842.
Where and when should we set the stage for analyzing the Great Game? My opinion is that the Great Game began in 1765 when the Indian Mogul emperor, Shah Alam, was forced to surrender the sovereign rights ('Diwan') of Bengal to Captain Robert Clive. Unfortunately, this book does not begin at the beginning. It opens with William Moorcroft exploring the western Himalaya in 1811. In this respect and also in narrating the story of the Great Game through the lives and works of its players, Meyer and Brysac have followed Peter Hopkirk's footsteps. Hopkirk's more famous book, The Great Game (1990), also begins in the 1810s after the British had overtaken most of India. This scheme of Great Game historiography gives the wrong impression that Britain's role in the Great Game was merely to 'defend India' from the Russian or French invasion.
Readers with a serious interest in the detailed history of the Great Game should also consult other books in this genre, including The Great Game in Asia 1800-1844 (by H.W.C. Davis, 1926), The Struggle for Asia 1828-1914 (by David Gillard, 1977), Playing the Great Game: A Victorian Cold War (by Michael Edwards, 1975), and the three volumes by Edward Ingram: The Beginnings of the Great Game in Asia 1828-1834 (1979), Commitment to Empire: Prophesies of the Great Game in Asia 1797-1800 (1981), and In Defence of British India: Great Britain in the Middle East 1775-1842 (1984).
The book contains 32 chapters arranged in three chronological parts: Part 1 (chapters 1-6) from William Moorcroft to the Indian Mutiny (Sepy War) of 1857-58; Part II (chapters 7-15) from Lord Lytton (the first Viceroy in India) to the British invasion of Tibet by Younghusband in 1904 and its consequences for the exploration and treasure-hunting in Central Asia (exemplified in the persons of Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein); and Part III (chapters 16-22) covering the twentieth-century vicissitudes and personae during the lives of the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth (the present) Dalai Lama of Tibet. All in all, readers meet the major players of the Great Game in various chapters of this book introduced in a language that is both charming and informative. The Notes and Sources (43 pages) at the end of the book should quench the thirst of the more serious and scholastic readers.
'This book,' writes Meyer in the prologue, 'had its inception on a sunny December morning in 1990 when my wife Shareen and I found ourselves on the far side of the Khyber Pass gazing down at Afghanistan ... from the moment I first learned of it some decades ago, I have been fascinated by the original Great Game.' Of course, these reasons cannot justify to write yet another book on the Great Game. The important contribution of this book is that the little known American players in the Great Game enter the scene.
I did not know, for example, that Josiah Harlan (a Quaker from Pennsylvania) commanded the Afghan army of Dost Mohammad Khan in 1838-41. I did know, however (thanks to Grey's European Adventurers of Northern India, 1929), that the American Alexander Gardiner served in the army of the Punjab rulers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, Gardiner's more important story does not find a place in Meyer's and Brysac's book (nor does Grey's book in the references). The New York Herald journalist Januarius MacGahan helped ignite the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. The diplomat-explorer William Rockhill befriended the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. The US Office of Strategic Services sent a mission led by Illia Tolstoy (a grandson of the famous Russian novelist) and Brooke Dohan to carry Franklin D. Roosevelt's message to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in Lhasa. And finally, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1956, the CIA helped Tibetan guerrillas for years. Perhaps the inclusion of the stories of the American journalist Lowell Thomas, senior, and his son, Lowell Thomas, Jr. (author of Out of This World into Forbidden Tibet, 1954) and the Judge William O. Douglas (author of Beyond the High Himalayas, 1952) would have completed the American circle.
Another novel aspect of the book is that it highlights the continuity of the Great Game to the present time ('Now it threatens to happen all over again,' p. xxiii). What were the consequences of the Great Game? Perhaps an analysis of this question would itself fill another book. The colonization of central-south Asian nations and lands by the world powers, the spread of the English and Russian languages, geographic surveys and scientific explorations, and (at least in the case of India) parliamentary democracy are some of the main themes that come to mind. Nevertheless, as the authors note in the Epilogue, both the British and Russian empires finally collapsed (the Russian empire collapsed twice from within and the British demise was gradual and less dramatic). 'We can look back as well with genuine admiration at the courage, energy, and intelligence of all the competitors in the Great Game, Asian and European, notwithstanding the presumptuous arrogance and careless confusions of imperial politics. Still, it would seem that Harry Hodson [British journalist and diplomat, who chronicled the demise of the British Raj in The Great Divide: Britain, India and Pakistan, 1969], 'The Great Game really was a game, with scores but no substantive prizes.'
TRUE SUMMIT. By David Roberts. Pp. 239, 10 b/w photos, 2 maps, 2001. (Constable, UK, GBP 16.99).
True Summit is a detailed research into what truly happened on the 1950 Annapurna expedition when a French team became the first ever to climb any 8000 m peak. The classic Annapurna written by Maurice Herzog was a book which has ignited mountaineering passion for over a generation. It was the story of how an extremely cohesive and well-knit team had placed complete confidence and faith in its leader and how team spirit, self-sacrifice and a desire for national glory led to the success despite all odds. This timeless classic is explored and the myths about Maurice Herzog and what truly happened on the Annapurna expedition are exposed in glaring reality.
Detailed research and an engaging style has brought to life the true achievements and contribution of three of the most important members of the 1950 Annapurna expedition. The book is an endeavour to give long overdue recognition to all other members of the team, more particularly the three great French climbers, Lionel Terray, Gaston Rebuffat and Louis Lachenal.
The author has extensively researched diaries, books and publications of these three French climbers. The picture that finally emerges is quite different from the picture portrayed in the book Annapurna.
In an engaging and racy style, David Roberts exposes the various fallacies and falsehood contained in the original expedition report, the sharp contrast between the three genuine mountain lovers and true mountaineers as against a combine of Maurice Herzog and Lucien Devies, the machinations that went on in the planning of the expedition, which included an oath of obedience and a last minute clause in the contract restraining members from publishing or writing any account of the expedition independently.
The author vividly demonstrates how each one of these climbers feel cheated, betrayed or humiliated. What the book really highlights, however, is not only the flawed version contained in the original report but the larger than life characters and personalities of the three mountaineers. Each of them shines as the epitome of what a true mountaineer should be. Despite various disappointments, disagreements and moments of distrust with their leader, each of these men have shown what true grit, determination and commitment to fellow climbers is all about. Lachenal makes a condensed statement of his truth with all laconic eloquence, saying, 'That march to the summit was not a matter of national glory. It was une affaire de cordeé
The vivid character sketches of the three mountaineers Lionel Terray, Gaston Rebuffat and Louis Lachenal is in sharp contrast to the approach and personality of Maurice Herzog and the establishment.
However, the report is extremely balanced as the author gives due credit to Maurice Herzog for his wonderous achievement. In fact, it is interesting to know that the three mountaineers had themselves given Herzog credit wherever due.
All in all, the book is well written. It also comments upon the changing style and approach of mountaineers towards the sport. Terray, Rebuffat and Lachenal were genuine alpinists and true visionaries of their time.
If there is need for criticism, then the mere absence of photographs could be mentioned. After successfully making heroes of Lionel Terray, Gaston Rebuffat and Louis Lachenal, the fans would at least expect a single photograph with which we could identify these heroes. Read this book, even if, only to understand what an epic Annapurna was.
A FINE KIND OF MADNESS - MOUNTAIN ADVENTURES TALL AND TRUE. By Laura and Guy Waterman. Pp. 206, 2000. (The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, $ 16.95).
Laura and Guy Waterman quit their city jobs while still in their 30's to move to a remote wooded area in the hills of Vermont. Here, they built their own house, grew their food, collected their firewood and lived, happily, without electricity, plumbing, telephones or roads.
For over thirty years they did the things they liked best — writing, climbing and advocating for the environment. A Fine Kind of Madness is a selection from the rich and varied writings they produced both individually and as a team during this period.
Did I say varied? This book is a veritable smorgasbord of mountain tales. There is something here to suit almost every palate. The stories deal with people and their zest for climbing in ways that are straightforward, poignant or devilishly funny. From the life sketches of pioneering climbers, to the fictional rivalry between two celebrated mountaineering women; from a backpack that repeats an ascent 60 years later to a really short farce on climbing; from lessons of wisdom drawn from ice-climbing in winter to a ghost story involving Mallory and Irvine; from a suicide witnessed by an inexperienced climber to a spectral dog, haunting a mist-shrouded mountainside; from a spoof on Nero Wolfe to the relevance of Dr. Suess - these are some of the trips A Fine Kind of Madness takes us on.
My personal favourite is a fictional piece called The Lioness at Dusk. It is the incredibly touching tale of a disintegrating mind and a stout heart. For this one story alone I would buy this book.
A LIFE ON THE EDGE - MEMOIRS OF EVEREST AND BEYOND. By Jim Whittaker. Pp. 271, 55 b/w photos, 41 colour plates, 4 maps, 1999. (The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, $ 16.95).
This autobiography is a walk down memory lane by one of the leading climbers of our time and the first American to step on top of Everest. It is in a way, a piece of American climbing history and the country during the wars.
Whittaker opens with the classic fear of all first timers' exposure to rock, and his attempts at overcoming it. He goes through his upbringing and the formative years with the Boy Scouts during World War II and learning the ropes under the early mountaineering pioneers with Mt. Rainer as backdrop. The consolidating years follow, with his induction into the Ski Patrol and the Mountain Rescue Council and stint as instructor at the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command.
His marriage, guiding and REI, the outlet store, were his mainstays for some time to come before he was invited to be a member of Norman Dyhrenfurth's American Everest expedition in 1963. He dwells concisely on the expedition that catapulted him to fame as being the 'First American on Everest'. He speaks in depth of his rapport with Nawang Gombu and team interplay.
The 'Kennedy years' involving a close acquaintance to Senator Robert Kennedy after the climb to Mt Kennedy, led him onto the campaign trail. Being at the forefront of campaigning for Kennedy as Presidential candidate was a brief episode but an important part of his life.
He lays bare his ups and downs, his success at REI and personal trauma, the widening gap between him and his wife Blanche, and their subsequent divorce. New financial opportunities came his way and he finally met Dianne Roberts, whom he proposed to and married; these sum up the middle years.
Almost immediately after their marriage, came an invitation to lead an expedition to K2. The account of the expedition, living at high altitude for extended periods of time, personal experiences and group dynamics are well described.
The concluding chapters focus on spending time with his wife and two sons, and his eulogy on the 'good life' that most crave for but never realise.
The book reads easily and most people can relate to the situations that he speaks about - just like the guy next door. One gets the impression of the largeness of the man, in his achievements and actions and in his relations with people, throughout the book. He seems to ride financial success and ruin with the same composed attitude. The Year of the Handicapped expedition to Mt. Rainer, and the Peace Summit of three of the most powerful nations in the world, these speak of his commitment to people and peace. His sense of 'fairness' comes through during his time spent at the helm of REI, his attitude towards his employees and customers. The special relationship he shared with Nawang Gombu also speaks volumes about this man.
Being exposed to the outdoors and physical activity, conditions were extremely favourable towards his mountaineering goals right from the start - with the Boy Scouts, the Ski Patrol and the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command. He credits his strong sense of ethics, 'environment consciousness' and an individual identity to these early years.
The K2 episode brings forth Whittaker as being a strong 'team' man, necessary criteria for any cooperative venture, as opposed to the highly individualistic climbers of today. That he came back for a second attempt on the mountain and achieved his goal speaks highly of his motivation and consistence. His concept of giving back what one has taken from the world sums it all up for a life well lived.
BEYOND THE SKY AND THE EARTH - A JOURNEY INTO BHUTAN. By Jamie zeppa, Pp. 342, 2000. (Pan Books, GBP 6.99).
Beyond the Sky and the Earth recounts the journey of a small town Canadian student to the remote Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. 23-year-old Jamie zeppa, who had never been anywhere 'except for a week on a beach in Cuba', applies on a whim, as a volunteer teacher in a remote school in Bhutan.
The two-year assignment takes her through a personal journey of exploration and discovery, not only of a new land and culture, but also unknown facets of her own self and being.
The chronicle begins with the statement 'I had gained intellectual skills and tools, but what did I know? I wanted to throw myself into an experience that was too big for me and learn in a way that cost me something'.
Jamie chronicles her varied experiences—from the purely physical hardships, to the subtly spiritual and emotional awakenings, in a land her grandfather ominously dismissed off as 'Over There'. Writing with humour and sensitivity, Jamie describes the travails of everyday life that are offset by the generosity and warmth that emanates from the local people, especially the students.
She candidly describes what it is to be a white woman in an Eastern culture, from preoccupation with western concerns and comforts to the realisation that life is possible and beautiful with minimal extraneous trappings, where people, not things really matter.
As Jamie gets drawn in further and further into Bhutanese concerns and issues - including the political tensions of the period - she manages to describe the confusions and contradictions, the dilemmas between development and romanticism, with remarkable objectivity and clarity—A real place with real history, real people with real problems—not just a fairy tale hidden valley.
The book is written with a lucidity and simplicity of style that is personal and yet universally appealing. The awe-inspiring majesty of the Himalayan landscape comes to life through her pen pictures. Interwoven through this, unobtrusively, is a sound portrayal of the political, economic, social and religious strands that make up the tapestry of this Himalayan Kingdom.
That Jamie herself gets inextricably woven into this tapestry is demonstrated by her conversion to Buddhism, and the fact that she ended up spending 10 years in Bhutan. And her dedication: Namé Samé Kadin Chhé—thanks beyond the sky and the earth.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a warm, pleasant read - a travel book that undertakes several journeys in one - from the physical to the human. It succeeds in capturing what Jamie describes - 'arrival is physical and happens all at once - like a train. Entering takes longer. You cross over slowly, in bits and pieces. It is like an awakening slowly. One morning you are finally here'.
HERMANN BUHL - CLIMBING WITHOUT COMPROMISE. By Reinhold Messner & Horst Hofler. Pp. 204, 2000. (The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, $ 24.95)
Hermann Buhl is a legend that keeps on growing. His Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, written in co-operation with Kurt Maix makes him out to be a character larger than life.
Here, Messner & Hofler show Hermann Buhl as he actually was, a fantastic climber. Herman Buhl was always pushing himself to do faster and harder routes. Yet surprisingly in the Alps, western as well as central, he has few first ascents. Most of the routes that Herman Buhl had climbed have been repeats of earlier routes — but they are faster — Much Faster. Given the technology available to the climber in those days, it is a very creditable achievement. In the Himalaya, apart from his first ascent of Nanga Parbat, Buhl led a pioneering alpine style expedition to another 8000er, Broad Peak, which he climbed. A few days later, Buhl was last seen descending Chogolisa, 400 m below the summit, when he stepped out onto a cornice in a sudden snowstorm and fell into emptiness. Buhl was a professional climber and made a living directly or indirectly through top alpine achievements, when none other even dreamed it possible. Buhl was a modern mountaineer, a pioneer looking to the future. Writes Messner, 'had Buhl been born forty years later, he would surely have been one of the leading sports climbers, a classic mountaineer without any equal.' But this was not to be. He turned into a legend, alas, too soon.
As a human being, Buhl was essentially a loner, but utterly optimistic and sometimes even extroverted. Among friends, he could be funny and would sing and play the guitar. That Buhl had rough edges is obvious, as is the fact that he made mistakes in his dealings with people in general and with his adversaries in particular. He was not a wholehearted family man, but an individualist with a need for a family. He was not the kind of father who was madly in love with his children. He was a figure of authority and a father who wanted to be proud of his children.
It is a pleasure to read this biography, even if, for its layout in which almost each page has photographs in the margin, recreating that period of this legends life. An excellent book, written by Messner (who himself pushed the limits of climbing and credits Buhl for inspiring him) and Hofler, it is a must read for every student of the history of climbing.
JUST FOR THE LOVE OF IT. By O'Dowd C. Pp. 320, 118 illus, 1999. (Free to Decide Ltd., Gallo Manor, GBP 20).
Cathy O'Dowd achieved notoriety in 1996 as the first South African woman to climb Everest. That expedition, led by Ian Woodall, put six people on the summit, but only five returned to base camp (HJ, 2000, Vol. 56, pp. 247 — 249). Since then Miss O'Dowd has returned twice to Everest with Ian Woodall et al, but not with the other members of the 1996 expedition. She has achieved the notable distinction of becoming the first woman to climb Everest from both south and north sides.
The first seven chapters are devoted to the controversial 1996 expedition and throw further light onto its unfortunate disaffections. We are told that one of the three experienced climbers who deserted from base camp had 'a big mouth and a lot of attitude. He could ... be very nasty.' On the other hand, none of the three 'took well to Ian's (Woodall) blunt style'; and it was 'a not well-adjusted team' which left for Nepal. The sacked expedition doctor is described as having 'erratic and self-centered behaviour', and is accused of temporarily leaving the expedition, and of being inappropriately dressed. The lesson to be learned is that such expeditions are best manned by people who have known each other for a long time. Woodall advertised for members, and then organised lesser expeditions to select the successful applicants.
On the other hand sponsors, especially major ones, have to be humoured. Such sponsors' nominees cannot be treated in such a cavalier fashion. The (Johannesburg) Sunday Times was the principal sponsor of the 1996 expedition, yet its Editor is described as belligerent, 'chauvinist and racist'. The reporter assigned to the expedition was a 'loud, overweight, hopelessly unfit, inept poor journalist who had done no research into the Himalaya and who had no insight into expedition conditions. With hindsight it is not surprising that the expedition was plagued with difficulties, and that the major sponsor withdrew. It is remarkable that five members reached the top.
The second half of the book is devoted to an unremarkable account of their subsequent 1998, and successful 1999, expeditions up the north face. The illustrations are superb.
Although the authoress did not intend it, the book is not without its humourous moments. We are entertained to several brief romantic incidents high on the slopes of Everest. Miss Cathy O'Dowd has since become Mrs. Ian Woodall. There must be easier and cheaper ways of finding a husband than supporting three expeditions to the world's highest mountain.
S. A. Craven
MOUNTAIN MEN. By Mick Conefry and Tim Jordan. Pp. 208, 33 colour and 13 b/w photos, 3 maps, 2001. (Boxtree, UK, nps).
Why Climb? The last chapter of Mountain Men by Mick Conefry and Tim Jordan tries to provide answers to this question that nags many who are unable to understand the fascination that the mountains hold for the climber. But what precedes this chapter is a fascinating account of the climbing exploits of some of the finest climbers in the world.
The writers make their purpose clear at the very beginning — it is to 'tell stories about the men rather than mountains or the technicalities of climbing' — and they do a marvellous job of it. The stories cover a period of over a hundred years beginning in the nineteenth century when the craze of alpinism was at its height and end in the 1950s with the conquest of some of the great Himalayan peaks. As the stories unfold, we get a glimpse into a world of men driven by an obsessive compulsion, to reach to the top of a mountain - to risk all they had - just to stand on a bit of hallowed ground, the summit.
The motives which drove the climbers were many: patriotism, desire for fame and money, spirit of adventure or even as one climber felt, the need to prove to a local barman that he 'was neither to old nor fat to climb', or as another did, to prove to the world that 'he could pray his way to the top'. Whatever the motives, the figures of the climbers stand etched in our memory, long after we put the book down.
Meet Edward Whymper, the Victorian climber who spent several years trying to climb the Matterhorn and the rest of his life wishing he could forget it; the Duke of Abruzzi, heir to the throne of Italy and one of the greatest explorers in the world, who attempted to take on the K2, the second highest mountain in the world and gave up the attempt doubting that the mountain would ever be climbed. (Forty-five years later, two other Italians, Campagnoni and Lacedelli proved him wrong when they stood on K2 thus fulfilling Abruzzi's life long ambition), Fredrick Cook who manipulated evidence to claim the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, Maurice Wilson, the maverick adventurer who tried to climb Everest alone and died in the attempt and whose touching epitaph reads 'Faith is not the faith that wavers when its prayers remain unanswered.' Fritz Wistner who was forced to turn back just 800 ft from the top of K2 and others — some who made it to the top and some who didn't.
The book is a fascinating collage of men, motives, ambitions, success, death and above all the triumph of the human spirit against the backdrop of some of the greatest mountains in the world — Matterhorn, which rises spectacularly from the border between Italy and Switzerland, described by a climber as 'a black savage tattoo with streaks of snow' full of 'moral savagery, wild untamed ferocity', Mount McKinley, a 'vast dome of ice and snow', K2, 'a killer mountain', Everest — the world's highest mountain...The stories of men and mountains are an absorbing narration of the joys and travails of mountain climbing, the triumphs and disappointments of men who strove to reach the mountaintops. These are stories of human endurance, will, strength and courage, elation, disappointment and tough choices that one needs to make in a hostile environment where survival is at stake.
Why climb? The authors ask some climbers and here are some of the replies. 'for an aesthetic experience', 'a sense of living intensely, being intensely alive', 'the unrisked life is not worth living', and the best of all, 'If you need to ask, you will never know and if you already know, you'll never need to ask'.
Read the book. As you put it down, you feel as one climber did, on reaching the summit 'after that, most things will seem trivial'.
(By Nandini Purandare)
OREAD MOUNTAINEERING CLUB 50th ANNIVERSARY JOURNAL. Edited by Harry Pretty. Pp. 322, 14 colour, 92 b/w photos, 6 sketches, 1999. (Oread Mountaineering Club, UK).
This publication, spanning the club's fifty years, from 1949 — 1999, is a collector's item. Definitely for those who have been part of the British climbing scene over the last fifty years and young climbers for whom these people are legends. The Oread M.C. although younger than several clubs, is said to have carved itself a niche in the history of climbing. It witnessed the demise of the insularity that marked many of the pre-war mountaineering clubs and became a sort of pioneer in spreading egalitarian principles in the climbing world. The sahib mentality was probably discouraged! The book is a wonderfully edited and compiled collection of members' writings over the last fifty years. Editorials, accounts, stories, poetry, philosophy, divided into sections, decade —wise, make up this wonderful publication.
A CENTURY OF AMERICAN ALPINISM 2002. By Fay, Bent, Palmer, Thorington, Kauffman & Putnam. Pp. 196, 32 b/w photos, 2002. (American Alpine Club, USA).
This club has just begun its second century. By virtue of this alone, it's publication is teaming with history about, debatably, America's most exciting years of climbing. The Club's past president, William Putnam, is also its historian and has been a driving force behind several of the Club's publications. This one is a chronicle of the first hundred years of American alpinism, and truly a labour of love. The other authors are what the book is about: Charles Earnest Fay, 1846¬1931, Mr. American Mountaineer of his day and others, many of them scholars of alpine literature rather than alpinists themselves. The book is an inside look into the world of American club climbing. Of course, in our context, it may not be of great interest except for reference purposes.
THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS OF THE BRITISH MOUNTAINEERING COUNCIL - A POLITICAL HISTORY. Edited by Geoff Milburn with Derek Walker and Ken Wilson. Pp. 321, 5 colour, 275 b/w photos, 1997. (British Mountaineering Council, UK,GBP 16.99).
This book, as described on the jacket flap, 'describes the political actions and struggles that have taken place in Britain in order to maintain the seemingly tranquil activity of mountaineering'. It surely is a great tribute to the people behind this struggle. Geoffery Winthrop Young brought into being the British Mountaineering Council in 1944 in order to give wartime mountaineering advice to the authorities but developed other idealistic aspirations in the post-war period. The BMC grew to become one of the most powerful and influential mountaineering bodies, the world over. This book chronicles its first fifty years, with contributions from various authors. In any case, to a die-hard fan of British writing, the wry, candid humour in any form is always appealing. Here you get much of it. Significantly, the milestones of climbing history and controversies at each milestone are well documented, the latest one being the final induction into the garish world of formalized competitions. Definitely worth a read.
THE ENCHANTING HIMALAYAS - A PILGRIMAGE TO LAHAUL AND SPITI. By Kiranshankar Maitra. Pp. 80, 14 b/w and colour illustrations, 2002. (Mittal Publications, India, Rs. 250).
Whew! Thank God this is a mention review! Mr. Maitra, a seasoned traveller and writer has on this occasion put together a book on the enchanted but less known areas of Lahaul-Spiti. It covers the lay of the land, its people, culture, sociology, mysticism and in general all that you would like to know, in a textbook kind of style. It is a ready reckoner for this area, but not much else. The quality of photographs is indifferent but that can be attributed to the economies of publishing.
To describe the book as on the jacket is telling 'the author has an exquisitely interesting style with a fictional fragrance which will keep the reader infatuated till they finish the book'. And his dedication is even more telling 'Dedicated to my youngest sister Amiyakana, who is proud of me and my literary works'! You can see that Mr. Maitra does not need a book reviewer, leave alone a critical one. Not much need be said about this book.
INTO THE HIGH RANGES — THE PENGUIN BOOK OF MOUNTAIN WRITINGS. By Ravina Aggarwal. Pp. 239, 2002. (Penguin Books India, Rs. 250).
This is a book worth having on every mountain lovers shelf. It is a wonderful collection of essays, fiction and creative works by a range of authors but with a backdrop of India's mountainscapes. The Himalaya, the Vindhyas, the Nilgiris, they are all there but this is the only common thread. Stories, ranging from very personal essays to burning environmental issues, local lore to war, even songs from the heart of Kashmir have a place here. The editor, Ravina Aggarwal, has sensitively put together this collection, which the reader can pick up any time and read any page.
There are essays by Ruskin Bond, Allan Sealy, Suketu Mehta, Gita Mehta, Harish Kapadia, Jamling Norgay and Agha Shahid Ali to name only some of them. A small observation here. many of the essayists seem to be Indian professors, teaching in American universities. Nothing wrong per say but is it not telling that with such a large range of mountains, we find such few writers of any caliber. It maybe interesting however to put together a book of traditional/ local mountain writings, from a son-of-the-soil point of view.