SHIPTON & TILMAN: THE GREAT DECADE OF HIMALAYAN EXPLORATION. By Jim Perrin. Pp. 424, 2013. (Hutchinson, £ 25).
Jim Perrin has a unique writing style. It’s difficult to confuse a Perrin book with someone else’s. And he chooses his topics carefully: John Menlove Edwards, Don Whillans, and now, Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman. He has been fussing over Shipton and Tilman for many years – just as he did with his previous books – and readers have been patiently waiting.
With unprecedented access to unpublished diaries, letters and journals, and deeply personal, yet amusing conversations with an elderly Bill Tilman, sources which Perrin refers to as “a random harvest of delight”, he presents an unusual story in the genre of mountain exploration: a story of real partnership. Not only partnership in the usual sense of getting the job done, but one that evolves into a unique and productive friendship between two bold, engaging and extremely different characters.
This is the story of the greatest partnership in British exploration history. They lived in that magical era – the golden era – when many of the first western forays into the great ranges took place. In the 1930s Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton pioneered many routes in Africa and the Himalayas and found the key to unlocking Everest. They crossed Africa by bicycle, explored China with Spender and Auden, journeyed down the Oxus River to its source and, with little support, opened up much of the Nepalese Himalaya. In the words of Jim Perrin, 'The journeys of discovery undertaken through two decades by this pair of venturesome ragamuffins are unparalleled in the annals of mountain exploration.'
This book, which arrived on bookstore shelves just in time for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the first ascent of Everest, would logically have Everest front and centre in the story. But remember that Shipton was supposed to lead that expedition before he was “ousted by the shadiest politicking” and, thankfully, the Perrin looks elsewhere for his major themes. He focuses on the 1930s, when this unique partnership was most productive and inspired. The geographical breadth of their wanderings in the Himalaya and Karakorum is mind-boggling, but even more impressive is their style. As uber-alpinist, Slovenian Marko Prezelj often says, “style matters”. It certainly did for these two. Their style not only set them apart from their contemporaries but it inspired future generations of purists. Maybe not “night naked”, as the likes of Erhard Loretan and Voytek Kurtyka managed, but still impressively lean. Decades later, climbers still speak of expeditioning "Shipton- Tilman style". High praise indeed!
Jim Perrin is obviously impressed with that style and, as a climber himself, he understands the value and nuances of their minimalism. But his interest in the two goes far beyond that. He digs much deeper into the warp and weft of the fabric of their characters: their skills, their vision, their humour and their pragmatism.
He is fortunate to have the benefit of the vast repertoire of Shipton’s and Tilman’s writings. As well, both men have been written about extensively and well (although they certainly bear the brunt of Perrin’s tongue-in-cheek criticisms in this volume). But Perrin’s approach was always going to be different and different it is: he is most interested in the dynamics of the partnership rather than the accomplishments of either one or the other. And in exploring the dynamics of that partnership, inevitably, we learn so much more about the individual characters. In the end, we are flabbergasted that they managed to survive each other. Shipton, the handsome romantic, and Tilman, the silent grump. But the humour! What fun they had together. What fun Jim Perrin had in telling their stories. And how much fun it is for us to relive those moments. Shipton, Tilman or Perrin: it’s difficult to say who is the most mischievous.
One of Jim Perrin’s strengths is his knowledge of climbing, which gives him a deep understanding of mountain exploration. He is fully aware of this advantage and is not shy about criticizing and correcting other authors on these topics, describing them as “straw-grasping” and “speculative”. His running commentary with the reader in the footnotes is particularly bitchy, but oh so entertaining. I’ve heard some grumble about the “amount of Perrin” in this book. Okay, I agree, maybe he does sometimes insert himself a bit too much, particularly in those footnotes. But it is always entertaining, extremely well written, right on point, and almost always funny. What’s not to like?
Not to dwell overly much on humour, this book is extremely well researched, written with that witty, literate Perrin style, and recounted with a genuine passion and respect for his subjects. It shouldn’t surprise us that his two main characters, both somewhat subversive in their world, share a clear affinity with Perrin. You may not always agree with his opinions but it’s hard not to respect them. This book is destined to become a classic in the genre of mountaineering literature.
If there was one word of warning to a reader picking up this book it would be – don’t skip the footnotes. They are an integral part of the book and well worth the effort.
MY FATHER, FRANK. By Tony Smythe. Pp. 324, 96 b/w photos, 2013. (Baton Wicks, £20).
Mountain writers fall from fashion, inevitably and often unjustly too. Bill Murray’s a case in point - reputation lacerated by a particularly acerbic generation of “Scotch reviewers”, to use Byron’s terse phrase. It’s pleasing to sense that Murray’s work is once more being enjoyed and taken seriously. The same may soon be true for Frank Smythe’s.
For decades Smythe suffered from the calumnies of T. Graham Brown – his companion on the two great 1920s Brenva Face climbs which launched his mountain career. Brown was godfather to those same Edinburgh reviewers, so Smythe for years has been target of dismissive and jeering comment. This admirable, beautifully written and scrupulously objective biography should change all that and restore Smythe’s writing to its proper status as some of the best we possess. It’s one of the most enjoyable climbing books I’ve read in years.
Witty, exhaustively researched and long overdue, it complements and fills out the fine portrait drawn in Harry Calvert’s Smythe’s Climbs of 1985 – a defence of Smythe that appeared at a time when few listened to its intelligent appraisals. I wish better fortune for Tony Smythe’s act of filial vindication - an exceptionally accomplished book, balanced, judicious, without axes to grind. It’s also – a rarity among present-day mountain-writing, many of the practitioners of which have only the most glancing acquaintance with climbing – written from authentic personal experience. So it grasps the tensions by which disputes arise; is equally understanding and rather gentle about the personal and emotional aspects of his father’s life – a remarkable feat considering how adversely these impacted on the son.
This balanced magnanimity becomes all the more notable when his book’s compared with the recent one by Harriet Tuckey about her Everest oxygen-man father Griffith Pugh, where childhood misery-memoir segues into wholly unjustified displacement of animus onto another father-figure, John Hunt - vilified by Tuckey, unable now to answer slurs which must cause his surviving relatives pain, yet in truth a principled and honorable man of his time, a distinguished soldier and public servant, caught by machiavels and his own ambition in an impossible situation over the leadership of Everest ’53.
I learnt a great deal from My Father, Frank, not least about one of my own biographical subjects Eric Shipton – another recipient of Tuckey’s partisan despite; learnt much too about the politics and practice of 1930s mountaineering from a man who knows his subject by virtue of fingertip acquaintance and empathic wisdom. Tony Smythe must be unique in having published 47 years apart two of the classics in our literature (the first was the evocative Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia of 1966, illustrated with photos by John Cleare). His latest is a wonderful book. I hope we don’t wait 47 years for the next!
First Published in ‘The Great Outdoors’ magazine
8000 METRES – CLIMBING THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MOUNTAINS. By Alan Hinkes. Pp 192, 2 maps, 174 photographs, 2013. (Cicerone, £ 25).
Alan Hinkes’ book should make a fine addition to any library.
Hinkes is the first British mountaineer to have climbed all the fourteen 8000 m peaks. On the Internet, his achievements have sometimes qualified as ‘disputed’ the ascent of Cho Oyu being a case in point. Hinkes mentions reaching the mountain’s vast summit and walking around to ensure that there isn’t any higher to go. All this in semi whiteout conditions with reduced visibility. Therefore views of other major peaks, useful to establish proof of having reached a summit often remain elusive. Hinkes has also been alone at this stage of the climb. “I did not bother to take any photos. There was nothing to see and I was more concerned with finding my way back before I became trapped in a full whiteout or deadly snowstorm,’’ he writes in his book. Among the fourteen 8000 m peaks, Cho Oyu is often described as the easiest. Hinkes’ chapter on Cho Oyu begins thus: Categorizing any 8000 m peak as ‘easy’ or referring to an ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ route to the summit, is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing easy or normal about any 8000 m mountain. Each of the fourteen giants represents a serious undertaking with different characteristics, dangers, difficulties and local weather patterns, and none should be underestimated.
In the eyes of the sport’s high priests, the situation on Cho Oyu may have inspired lack of precision in summit claimed. But it takes nothing away from Hinkes’ book, which strikes a fine balance between a coffee table book and an account of a life in mountaineering, especially that recap of fourteen 8000 m peaks climbed over eighteen years, entailing twenty-seven attempts in all. Towards the end of the book, Hinkes says that the fourteen 8000 m peaks are dangerous, that he climbed them for himself and not for money and therefore even guiding on those peaks for money isn’t worth risking his life again. The only mountains from the fourteen that he may consider climbing again are Everest (to which he returned) and Cho Oyu.
The book’s biggest strength is the sheer simplicity in his telling of his story. It is unpretentious. This is complemented by large and beautiful photographs backed by an uncluttered layout. The images give you a genuine sense of place without complicated camera work to distract from what is being shown. Hinkes’ photography is crisp and clean. The book has a nice architecture in terms of written content. Having devoted the introductory chapter to describing his affection for adventure and the evolution of his career in climbing, Hinkes keeps the accounts of his climbs straightforward and bereft of searching philosophy. He speaks in a matter of fact manner, mostly devoid of the dramatic, adding a touch of drama only where it is relevant. Each story of climbing an 8000 m peak is followed by a smaller chapter on an interesting aside. The latter ranges from the photo of his daughter that he carried to mountain summits (it also gave him something to look forward to after the summit and kept him focused on descending safely), to profiles of Jerzy Kukuczka, Kurt Diemberger and Reinhold Messner, the correct clothing for high altitude mountaineering, his food habits on expeditions, ‘the death zone’ as extreme high altitude is popularly called and dealing with death in a dangerous sport.
We live in an age, where mountaineering narratives are many. The media gaze has spared no landscape. Some would say - as an early victim of media in adventure, the snowy, windswept heights of our planet suffer from a fatigued idiom of expression. If despite that, if we still indulge the media, then it must be conceded that content matters now more than ever before. Details like perspective, craft and lightness of handling, previously overlooked, have emerged as differentiators for our tired senses. This book, at once serious for the subject it handles and enjoyably light in treatment, lives up to that more comfortable aesthetic.
SACRED MOUNTAIN. By Robert Ferguson. Pp. 342, 2013. (Matador, £7.99).
Sacred Mountain is historical fiction. The jacket summary is as follows:
Philip Armitage was 19 when he was sent to fight in Burma as an army officer. Deep behind enemy lines and cut off from his column, he struggled to save the lives of his loyal Gurkha soldiers by leading them safely back to India. Ten years later, haunted by these memories, he arrives in Kathmandu to report for The Times on the 1953 Everest expedition. He finds a city bursting with Tibetan refugees, driven from their homeland by the recent Chinese invasion. Reporters from other papers have also arrived, intent on intercepting The Times exclusive dispatches and scooping the story. Climbing high into the Himalaya, he finds himself the only person able to lead a mission to save one of Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred men, and with him the future of the Tibetan resistance.
The novel, is therefore an account based on two narratives – the common thread being Armitage, the hero. The story spans Burma in 1943 and Everest in 1953, when the historical first ascent happened. Both narratives create a vivid and historically accurate backdrop for this gripping novel.
Of course, the novelist is ambitious – in one sweep over just 350 pages, he covers the politics and consequences of war, the politics of the Tibetan resistance, climbing Everest and the media dispatches of those times.
The plots are well researched and are full of historical details and written in a pleasing and authentic style. It is a good fast paced read, competent and dramatic.
AMONG SECRET BEAUTIES – A MEMOIR OF MOUNTAINEERING IN NEW ZEALAND AND THE HIMALAYAS. By Brian Wilkins. Paperback, Pp 215, Colour & B/W photos, 2013. (Otago University Press, $45).
The 1950s were very significant for the climbing community in New Zealand. Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest and a strong body of world-class New Zealand climbers developed during this decade. It also saw climbers emerging out of the comfort zone of New Zealand’s Alps and coming into the Himalaya. This is an important and dramatic book because Brian Wilkins, who was part of the adventure, shares his experiences of these heady times.
Wilkins was closely associated with Hillary. He climbed with Hillary in the Barun Valley of Eastern Nepal in 1954 where the latter had a couple of near death experiences. Wilkins describes these accidents and rescue in detail and affectionately etches out the character of this legendary figure at the formative stages in the famous climber’s career. Wilkins’ New Zealand climbing includes the first ascent of the northeast ridge of Mt Aspiring, a gripping drama of survival as well as a test of the ethics of mountaineering.Although his love and familiarity for the Southern Alps is evident, the romance of the early explorations, of the years when the Himalaya was still relatively uncharted, is where the charm of the book lies. A great effort by a writer who retired as a lecturer in pharmaceutical chemistry!
DICK ISHERWOOD - MOUNTAINEER. An Anthology compiled by John Ashburner. Pp 248, Colour & B/W photos, 2014. (Fast Print Publishing, $56.95).
Richard (Dick) Isherwood, 1943 – 2013, was an iconic mountaineer, who was born in the UK but lived a large part of his life in South east and South Asia, working with Save the Children. He was a prolific and superb rock climber who turned his attention to the great ranges in 1964 starting with an expedition to Swat and going on to much climbing in the Karakorams and the Nepal mountains.
On retiring he moved to the US and set up house in the North West where remote mountains and sea kayaking were at his doorstep. He died suddenly leaving a huge void for people who knew and loved him. His brother organized a wake in Cumbria, inviting his climbing partners to participate. Overnight the idea of creating an anthology with contributions from friends, unpublished articles, memos and notes as well as Dick’s wonderful articles written for the Alpine and Himalayan Club Journals, was born. John Ashburner, a climber and old friend took on the responsibility of putting it all together. He quotes a piece of Dick’s writing in the preface of this wonderful collection of articles and essays. It is typical of the capacity that Dick had to paint a vivid picture, not devoid of humour, of a situation that can give anyone cold shivers. The piece refers to an episode during a bivouac on K7 West:
“The boots got passed to me at one end and I hung them all by their laces from a big chock placed in a crack – at least I thought I did. We had a surprisingly warm night, though it was a bit cramped. In the morning I carefully passed the boots back and discovered I’d failed to clip in one of Des’s – it had spent the night merely wedged between two others.
I didn’t dare confess to this and sat in silence as Geoff said speculatively: ‘I wonder what would happen if you dropped your boots down from here?’
Des replied: ‘I doubt if you’d get down.’I spent the rest of the climb wondering just what we would have done”.
I spent the rest of the climb wondering just what we would have done”.
This anthology has several articles by Dick himself and it traces how his writing style got better and better as his abilities to climb got better. Also, the flavour of the early crazy climbing days as part of the Cambridge University mountaineering club, climbs in Cumbria and Scotland and eventually the big mountains are well recorded by several voices in the book. Hats off to John Ashburner for digging out the little notes and anecdotes, which would not have otherwise seen the light of day.
A note on the publishing – this is a print on demand book which means that a copy is printed only after it is pre ordered.
TIBET: A HISTORY. By Sam van Schaik. Pp 410, Hardcover 2011. (Amaryllis Publishing, Rs. 695/-).
Sam van Schaik brings the history of Tibet to life by telling the stories of the people involved, from the glory days of the Tibetan empire in the seventh century through to the present day. He explores the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism and the rise of the Dalai Lamas, Tibet's entanglement in the "Great Game" in the early twentieth century, its submission to Chinese Communist rule in the 1950s, and the troubled times of recent decades.
After laying a context of Tibet’s extraordinary history, the book talks about the country's complex relationship with China and explains misunderstood aspects of its culture, such its rituals and monasteries and monks, its philosophy and the role of the Dalai Lama.
The author is an expert on the early history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.
This book is highly recommended as an easy to read, straightforward and concise history of Tibet. The best part is that the book tells stories – it does not have the feel of a dull and boring history textbook. And with the geopolitics of this region being what it is, an understanding of the people who have been refugees in India for half a century is well needed.