ONE DAY AS A TIGER By John Porter. Pp. xii, 230, 48 colour plates (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, £20).
The sub-title to this book is ‘Alex Macintyre and the birth of light and fast alpinism’. Ostensibly a biography of Alex Macintyre (1954-1982), the book is more a treatise on how an important group of British mountaineers – Macintyre himself; Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Dick Renshaw; Alan Rouse, Rab Carrington, the Burgess twins and Brian Hall among them – came to espouse the ‘fast and light is safe and pure’ creed that, though accepted as optimal style in alpinism since before the Great War, came to Himalayan prominence with Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler. By the mid-1970s it was being widely adopted there particularly by Polish and Slovenian mountaineers, the story of its acceptance among whom has been the subject of a magisterial series of books by the pre-eminent Canadian mountain historian Bernadette Macdonald. Though John Porter’s interesting treatment of the British contribution cannot match her diligent, nuanced and meticulous researches, it does have the merit of focusing on one of the most charismatic figures from modern mountaineering history.
Alex Macintyre – his soubriquet of ‘Dirty Alex’, bestowed during his student days, to my mind never seemed quite to fit with a distinctly glamorous and formidably articulate high-achieving persona – was an unusual figure in his time. Brilliant at school, he turned down a place at Cambridge and went north to read Geography initially (he soon changed to Law, which better suited his delightfully combative and disputatious nature) at Leeds University. Why? Because Leeds was nearer the rocks and hills, and had one of the most active university clubs in Britain at the time, of which the luminary was one of the British rock-climbing gods of the early 1970s - John Syrett, perhaps the most majestically gifted cragsman of his time and an ultimately tragic figure around whom Alex orbited in his early Leeds years.
When I look back on that period, over four decades ago now, it’s these two characters around whom memory teases and resolves. Of all the climbers I’ve known who are gone – and they are far too many – Syrett and Macintyre are the ones I most often wish were still here, for the force of their personality, the quality of their conversation, and a sense of ethereal doomed beauty that both trailed in their wake. Syrett was one of the ‘prophets of purism’, a great consolidating figure in the move towards a more refined British free-climbing ethic that had begun in the late 1960s and was becoming well established by the time Macintyre arrived in Leeds and fell under its influence. Although Alex (who became highly proficient on ice) was never an outstandingly good rock-climber – hardly a pre-requisite for the mountain activity of which he became an exemplar - he absorbed some of the ferocious moral momentum that John possessed. He was one of a generation who sought ultimately to re-invent alpinism and greater-ranges mountaineering in the same ethical light.
I spent a considerable amount of time in Leeds in the 1970s, and was often out climbing fierce Pennine gritstone test-pieces with Alex, John and others. I remember one particular weekend when, with another Leeds student, Chris Addy, they piled into my car and we headed off for the Staffordshire outcrops, ending up at Ramshaw Rocks, most brutal of all gritstone crags. John and I, as the senior members, climbed together. Alex I recall as being cool, detached, observant, learning all the time. He may have been an ordinary performer on gritstone at this period - he struggled desperately and noisily to follow Chris up an unnervingly awkward mild extreme called The Untouchable, though in retrospect this may have been defensive comic performance – but somehow, behind the front of exaggerated incompetence, you could see the mental calculations going on: ‘This is not my métier. I can’t compete on this ground. But I’ll apply myself elsewhere. I will become best of the best in the biggest frame…’
He did exactly that and he found the right national and international companions with whom to do it. Teaming up with Nick Colton, a criminally under-rated figure on the British scene of the time, to climb the Colton-Macintyre Route on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses was a case in point: two young lads; the most significant alpine climb of its epoch; a line that had repulsed the likes of Dougal Haston and Chris Bonington. Here were stars in the making. Alex was already moving towards the big stages and the limelight. John Porter’s book covers the stellar climbing career and its sad denouement well, and gives good information as a team member on some of the significant expeditions. His book is not, as he points out, in any sense a ‘pure’ biography. Indeed, there is debate among literary academics as to whether such a thing is possible or even desirable. If you consider some of the greatest achievements of life-writing – Boswell’s Life of Johnson is a case in point – most intelligent biographies are enhanced by a competent author’s implicit espousal of a defined system of values to provide reflexive insight into character. They hence fall into a category the critic Robert Gittings calls ‘impure biography’ (a term which, in neat counterpoint to the climbing-ethics debate, is not remotely pejorative). One Day as a Tiger is distinctly such.
There were things I liked about Porter’s account. It incorporates as much of the slim body of Alex’s own mountain writing as could be found (though the scintillating quality and originality of this does throw into sharp relief the lack of these qualities in Porter’s own prose-style). I liked the frenetic, musical-playlist chapter-headings that provided the beat to these exploits. There is a clear rapport, too, with the women in Alex’s life, who provide humane and human perspectives and come across as a singularly pleasant and stable bunch. And Porter’s treatment of the last expedition to Annapurna South Face, where the projected line was a grand reprise of the Colton-Macintyre that began it all - is almost unbearably poignant and doom-laden. It brought to mind an intense conversation I had with Nick Estcourt just before he left for K2 in 1978 when he made plain his knowledge – I have to use that word - that he would die on the mountain. Other aspects of the book appealed less. A curious faint undercurrent of resentment against Alex became quite marked towards the end. Porter’s desire to state his own claim as a mountaineer on the world’s attention is something at which an attentive editor might justifiably have cavilled (though I’m more inclined to be thankful for it, given how many writers of climbing books – Wade Davis, Harriet Tuckey, Robert Macfarlane et al – have minimal direct experience of an activity their renderings of which can come across as palpably false).
That same putative editor would surely have spared us Porter’s incessant solecisms (‘I was sat’, ‘We were stood’, and so on ad nauseam – whatever happened to the participle in English writing?), and his frequent literal errors (‘Bregalia’ for ‘Bregaglia’, ‘eerie’ for ‘eyrie’, ‘sheepherders’ for ‘shepherds’). Unfortunately, the grand old mountaineering editors – Livia Gollancz, Tony Colwell, Tony Whittome, Maggie Body - who upheld rigorous standards in British mountain literature and shaped and refined so many of its acclaimed texts are all now dead or retired, and we the readers suffer from their lack. Those four might also have seen fit to temper a pervasive and tiresome thread of anti-Russian rhetoric here. It was perhaps to be expected given that Porter is an expatriate American - you can take the boy out of America but you can’t take America out of the boy. But some of the comments in this book, given the consequences we now suffer of American intervention and destabilisation in the Middle East and the Maghreb, are no more than Cold War-crassness, and all the more surprising coming from a self-styled draft-dodger. Equally crass are portraits of some of his fellow-climbers. That fascinating pair, the Burgess twins, for example, are crudely caricatured. If their reputation for violence were truly founded, Porter had better watch out!
Also concerning violence, there is a ‘Don Whillans story’ here – quite a good example of the genre, in fact, and very telling. It’s a rumbustious little anecdote which, on a casual reading, might be thought to imply that Porter had witnessed the occasion in question, though close textual analysis renders that dubious. It supposedly took place at a pub ‘somewhere in Derbyshire’ – the vagueness is telling, in this detail and in other aspects of the tale. The account seems to be a conflation of several well-known ‘Whillans stories’ with others concerning another legendary northern ‘hard man’, Barry Kershaw. Content, syntax and lexis in this tale also suggest an acquaintance with the repertoire of British climbing’s foremost story-teller - the inimitable (best not try, therefore?), the incomparable, the indispensable Vaudevillean Yorkshire guru, ‘Professor’ Dennis Gray. There are also details borrowed from the Mo Anthoine cycle of climbing legends, accounts of equally legendary Alpha Mountaineering Club dinners, and other such episodic accounts of mountain community mayhem.
Nothing much to worry about in any of this – as in most other oral traditions, the folk-history of British climbing operates along such mythopoeic lines. Personally speaking, I’m a great fan and avid collector of such material. Which has its place, and in the hands of raconteurs of the quality of Dennis Gray and John Barry adds immensely to the gaiety of the climbing nation. What is worrying, however, is when a prime example of the tendency is presented without qualification or critical examination in a book with pretensions to serious historical analysis. The ‘unreliable narrator’ has a crucial and liberating role to play in writing imaginative fiction. His or her presence in a biography is the kiss of death for aspirations to authority and integrity.
Though I have serious reservations about it, I’m glad this book has appeared, and retain the hope for a better, more scrupulous and objective one to succeed it. Alex Macintyre deserves that. He deserves proper and respectful remembrance as one of our twentieth-century greats – one of whom I was immensely fond, and whose memory still raises a warm smile.
FAR, FAR THE DISTANT PEAK. By Stewart Hawkins. Pp 334, 42 colour & b/w photos, 2014. (Curban Books, UK, Hardback £25.00)
Wilfrid Noyce is a name that has left a lasting impression in the minds of those interested in Everest lore. He is the man who would have been on top of Everest, had John Hunt managed to put together another summit effort after Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon had failed and Tenzing and Hillary had succeeded. He was the man who, along with faithful Anullu Sherpa, injected energy and morale into a losing team by making his way through the Geneva Spur to the South Col and returning to Camp VII with not a trace of fatigue, calling it one of the most enjoyable day’s mountaineering I have ever had – changing the mood of a failing expedition, thus making the road for history to happen. He was a phenomenally strong and fantastic mountaineer besides being a beloved schoolmaster and a dreamy poet. He was one of the last of the classical scholars, not unlike George Mallory, who was also a Charterhouse schoolmaster. They almost intellectualised their experiences – experimenting with fluidity, not only in movement but also in language and expression of those experiences.
Stewart Hawkins who studied at Charterhouse where he was introduced to climbing by Noyce, has put together a portrait of Noyce from his diaries and other writings and expedition accounts.
Wilfred Noyce’s climbing years were just before World War II and continued in the 40s and 50s. He died in an accident in the Pamirs in 1962, roped to another brilliant climber Robin Smith while descending from a successful summit attempt. This kind of accident was bound to be engulfed in controversy but here is where the author’s tact and sensitivity are on test. Describing the expedition in full detail, with quotes from several expedition members he reveals the circumstances in a manner that makes you weep but not question.
Many climbs in Sikkim, Kashmir, Karakorams; speedy ascents of Alpine peaks; many published books; an enriching teacher’s life, decorated war service (he led the cryptography team that broke a key Japanese code and significantly improved the ability of the allies to understand the plans of the Japanese and to intercept the movements of their forces); participation in community affairs crowded this apparently unassuming man’s life - he died at the age of 44!
In Stewart Hawkin’s narrative, we read a story – linear by chronology, about a short but remarkable life spanning different pre and post war eras of mountaineering and literature. It is a wonder that it has taken over 50 years for someone to do so. But Stewart Hawkins has done full justice: Wilfrid Noyce spent his life trying to understand his own motivations and testing his limits in the surroundings which gave him strength, inspiration and solace. Not only was he a great explorer and mountaineer but also he a gift of putting his emotions and sensibilities into imperishable prose and poetry. His legacy is not only his writings but in the number of young people he has inspired with the love of adventure, the desire to challenge themselves in the hills and mountains and his quiet and reassuring example.
For us at The Himalayan Club, Wilfred Noyce is special. In Hawkins’ book there is one line – …at the end of July he moved from Cambridge back to Grayshott near Hindhead and devoted himself to editing the 1946 edition of the Himalayan Journal.
Post Script – as one editor’s dedication to a predecessor whose giant shoes have to fit, I would like to reproduce the editorial of the sole HJ edited by Wilfred Noyce. The year was 1946. The last volume produced was Volume XII in 1940. Noyce was picking up threads after five war torn years. This is what he wrote:
HJ Editorial, Volume XIII, 1946
The presence and matter of this editorial requires explanation and apology. It has been the custom of the Himalayan Journal to dispense with such aids in the past. But the loss of Kenneth Mason as editor needs an expression of public regret, as does the demand that somebody else should enter the room that he has left. The Himalayan world owes to him an immense debt of gratitude. In the first place the beauty of production of this journal hitherto has made it very easily the most attractive of all mountain periodi¬cals. But more than this, it was also very much more complete, because Kenneth Mason had the art and the knowledge to present the various facets of the Himalaya, and to link each with each. These mountains, more than any others, hold an attraction for every interest that is worthiest in us. It is the often forgotten editorial task to stimulate and to co-ordinate these by a greater knowledge. In this respect Kenneth Mason was the perfect editor, and his loss is irreplaceable.
The journal for 1946 would inevitably be a 'coming to life' number, even if it were edited by a Himalayan expert. There is no point in wasting time regretting the quality of what now fills the mould; but words of explanation are required on the layout of this number adopted under the circumstances. It will be seen at once that there are far too many expedition accounts and far too few articles of general or non-climbing interest. It has not been possible even to approach the informative and scientific value of previous numbers, and this partly because during the war years few expedi¬tions longer than a very brief leave-snatch have been undertaken. And there are fewer still who are prepared to write even of these. Therefore it will be found that there are a very large number of minor journeys described; and yet these, in that they are the type of journey likely to be the only one practicable for the next few years, may be of some interest. If the chances of return to the Himalaya grow, they will grow most profitably from the small, easy and self-planned party, rather than from the heavy and laborious expedition. The men who eventually climb Everest will have then behind them a record of minor achievement and ex¬perience. They will be acclimatized in every sense, and they will not approach a gamble but something more like a scientific problem. There are a number of very obvious virgin peaks to be climbed, to begin with: Nun, the Panch Chuli and Pandim, for instance. It is the climbers of these, and the scientists looking for exploration starting-points, who might find ideas and suggestions from what has been attempted in the war years.
The inclusion of a short story is a novelty in this journal, though it is a feature of other mountaineering publications. It needs defence. The good fortune of securing a story of such quality as the 'Two Griefs' would be almost sufficient. But apart from this, the Himalayan Journal should touch every side of Himalayan life, and it is assuredly worthwhile to experiment in various ways of presenting that life. A bigger apology is demanded for the omission of an adequate account of a good many other odd bits of Himalayan activity, such as the beginnings of Aircrew Mountain Centre, with its aim of physical and 'moral' rehabilitation in Kashmir. Nor has the account yet come in of the activities of the Italian Prisoners of War ' from the camp at Yol. Moreover when it comes to explorations and obituary and other notes over the past six years it is necessary to choose. Much has gone into other journals, such as the Alpine, to which in particular this number will owe a great deal. We would here express our gratitude to the editor for his help, and for making much easier the retracing of the Himalayan journey backwards.
It would be impossible in this one number to make a complete record of all that has happened since the last journal was produced in 1940. Whether another number immediately filling the gaps left by this will be possible seems very doubtful. Paper and other difficulties and expenses make the production of one volume a fairly substantial undertaking, demanding the friendliness and co-operation of Press and contributors. Therefore for the omissions this Journal looks for indulgence, and to the Club for their rectification.
After this volume, as India gained independence, sadly, Noyce edited only one volume. The words of the next editor HW Tobin could have been prophetic:
But, alas, the swift evolution as independent states of India and Pakistan brings in its train the early repatriation of nearly all active members of the Himalayan Club. And the hitherto simple access to the great mountains of India's northern borderlands will be enjoyed only by those who will work in the new states. Conse¬quently, unless, or until, mountaineering is taken up seriously by Hindu, Moslem, Sikh, and others, the very raison d'etre of the Club will be no more.
Nationalization of the Club or its successor will mean production of its Journal by a national editor and a national publication. So it seems that volume XIV is almost certain to be a final issue, which is a tragic thought for all of us members, and perhaps more especially for those who have given so much of their time and their talents to its creation and life.
His dark prediction was proved wrong – Volume XIV was not the last issue. - Ed.
STATEMENT : THE BEN MOON STORY. By Ed Douglas. Pp. xiii, 230; 36 colour plates, half-tone illustrations throughout text, 2014) (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, £20)
Like any other activity that abounds with splinter groups and factions, mountaineering (and I use the term here in its most inclusive sense) can be prejudiced and dismissive towards those not seeming quite to fit with the perfect type. What, then, would the august ranks of the Himalayan Club want with Ben Moon, the great exemplar of sport climbing and of bouldering, and perhaps the most naturally gifted and likeable figure in British climbing since Joe Brown, with whom he shares an innate modesty, a devotion to the craft of climbing, and a dislike of all celebrity and self-promotion?
Well, quite a lot I would think. Its members might, as Ed Douglas suggests in his prologue, ‘change their minds about what climbing can be’. And radically modern as much of this book is, it’s not without more conventional approaches to the mountains. It gives us a scintillatingly vivid and personable portrait of the pre-eminent modernist figure from the last three decades of British climbing history; links him back, through the character of his grandfather Jack Moon, to pre-war Scottish climbing; even lets us accompany him to Tapovan in Garhwal - one of the more surprising venues for the avid contemporary boulderer, above Gaumukh and looking across the Gangotri glacier to the Bhagirathi peaks.
These are side-shows, however, and the main spectacle here is the biography of Ben Moon himself, which Ed Douglas tells enthrallingly well, the text complemented by a lavish quota of colour and monochrome illustration, much of it by the outstanding British climbing photographer Ray Wood, who also took the striking cover portrait.
Sumptuous presentation aside, the book’s thorough-going excellence is based on the interaction between Moon’s own character and the attentive, measured and quietly interrogative manner in which Douglas follows his life story. It’s an exemplary piece of biographical writing, widely intelligent and informed, sharply observant, humanly aware. He’s excellent on the supporting cast here - not only the climbing companions, Jerry offat in particular, but also on the wholly benign and empowering maternal presence of Beth Moon, whose emotional solidity is reflected in Moon himself. And he never detracts from subject by personal assertion or stylistic indulgence.
He’s helped, of course, by the fascinating richness of the subject. If you were ever inclined to dismiss sports climbers and boulderers as one-dimensional, read this book and think again. Just as Buddhism can assume many forms, so can climbing, and the rigorous austerity of the version on offer here resonates with the more rarefied aspects of Zen, into the timeless moment and what can happen when, beyond all effort, you enter the cloud of unknowing and merge with what Ben Moon terms ‘the stillness inside and quietness of mind’. Here he is on a sixmetre problem in Yosemite:
‘I wanted to know things as they are. I wanted to know it all. Perhaps it’s right that I’m unaware of what, when I finally held that swing, I had done differently…’
Ed Douglas writes of how ‘Ben now had moves in his head that he was struggling to find on rock.’ Numbered grades may have been the obsession, but these never held sway over the fluid centrality of practicing for the body’s movement up the most vertiginous and exiguous stone faces. The major revolution in rock-climbing that took place in the 1980s and caused achieved standards world-wide to make the largest jump forwards in the history of the sport succeeded through changing mores, ferocious quasi-religious rituals of discipline in training, and a kind of abstraction that became ever more marked as the revolution progressed and sport-climbing morphed into the ultimate climbing form of bouldering, where supplicants-after-grace prior to action perform conceptually, mimetically, in dance-like ritual before the objects of their desire - and bring a spare new beauty and purity to their activity that is at times strikingly lovely to behold.
It even had an analogue in Ben Moon’s life, as this marvellous biography recounts. His father was the important British abstract artist Jeremy Moon, who was killed in a motor-bike accident when Ben was seven and some of whose most famous works now hang in London’s Tate Gallery and other galleries throughout Britain. To see a line of progression between the powerfully spare, conceptual fineness of the father’s marks on canvas and the same minimal rigour present in the son’s sketched lines across rock is surely not to labour a point too far? Each in his own medium has attained a form of consummate expression, and Ed Douglas does full justice to this extraordinary mirroring in Ben’s life-story. The character of the chief protagonist comes across as endearing, admirable, reflective, industrious, vulnerable at times, but with adamantine reserves of inner strength on which to draw. This is the most satisfying and informative climbing book I’ve read in years - a masterpiece in its own genre. If it doesn’t win every prize going, there’s no justice. But we know that anyway, and perhaps in this sub-lunary world should not even expect it. The book also holds out promise of a future autobiography from Ben Moon, and from the evidence on offer here, that will be a treat indeed, especially given that he’s still climbing at the stratospheric grade of f9a in his fiftieth year.
EVEREST 1953. The Epic Story of the First Ascent. By Mick Conefrey. Pp.301, 15 B/W photos and 13 chapter heading drawings, 2014. (Mountaineers Books, Seattle, $ 19.95)
Mick Conefrey is a well known British filmmaker, with dozens of films to his name: The Misfit and the Matterhorn, The Race for Everest and The Ghosts of K2 among them. His award-winning films are impeccably researched, tell compelling stories and are well edited. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that his writing shares those same qualities, but it never fails to impress when someone moves so successfully between genres. Mick Conefrey does just that in his book, Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent.
The story of the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain is well known, perhaps overly told. But because of newly released diaries, documents and letters, Conefrey brings freshness and a new approach to the story. He reveals some fascinating back story nuggets, proving that far from being the fairy tale expedition of lore, this was an effort that was plagued with controversies, competition, and crises from the very start, and until long after it was over.
Because of Britain’s Everest efforts in the 1920s and 1930s, there seemed to be a tacit presumption that Everest belonged to England. Despite the fact that it wasn’t even located in a British colony, and that there were a number of other countries interested in claiming its first ascent, British climbers were convinced the prize would eventually be theirs. And in a way, it was, if you ignore the citizenship of the two first ascencionists: New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
The road to the top was a long and tortuous one, and Conefrey presents that journey in a dramatic light, using his filmmaker eye to good effect. His dramatic approach is backed up with thorough research that includes dozens of interviews with expedition members and their families, and years spent combing through archives and diaries and letters. His writing style is clear and his sense of timing is perfect, making this sensational tale a difficult one to put down.
Everest 1953 was meant to be led by that legendary mountaineer, Eric Shipton. But due to a series of events, both in the Himalayan peaks and in the backrooms of the Royal Geographical Society, that was not to be. To a certain extent, Shipton was the architect of his own demise. But there was no shortage of schemers and bitter rivals who took advantage of his political fumbling to place people who could be “trusted to deliver the goods” in charge of the expedition.
Exit Stage Left – Eric Shipton. Enter Stage Right – John Hunt.
John Hunt, who became leader of the expedition, was a war hero and officer in the British army. Although outwardly stiff and formal, once appointed to the job, Hunt became passionate about delivering the summit. His planning was meticulous; he worked hard, and he knew how to lead a team of men. Exactly what was expected of him.
What he couldn’t have anticipated was the makeup of the final summit team. Outwardly folksy and easy to get along with, Edmund Hillary emerges in Conefrey’s book as an incredibly competitive man, intent on just one thing – being one of the chosen few to reach the summit. His commitment to that goal is obvious from the very first day of the climb, and his dedication never wavers. Not just competitive, Hillary also appears a strategic climber, understanding early on that his best bet to reach the top would be with Tenzing Norgay as his partner. Tenzing Norgay, who had already been so near the summit with his beloved Swiss, who loved the mountain, and who was as focused on the summit as Hillary. The sheer determination, strength and power of that duo propelled them up the mountain, past all the others.
The timing of their dramatic success could not have been surpassed and no one understood that better than Jan Morris, the young journalist from the Times who was covering the climb and sending back coded dispatches to London. When the arrival of the message coincided with the coronation of Elizabeth II, the boost to British pride was phenomenal. No more World War II. No more rationing. No more suffering. A new British queen, and British success on Everest. The two events would be inseparable from that time on.
Not so much, back in Asia. And it was here that poor Tenzing Norgay became entangled in a labyrinth of claims and counter-claims, some of which he probably didn’t even understand. Manipulated by both the Nepalese and Indian governments to retain some of the glory, his relationship with his teammates became tragically compromised. Tenzing’s story is told unflinchingly by Conefrey and it’s impossible to ignore those early signs of tension between foreign climbers and their Sherpa partners that continue to escalate each year, particularly on the overcrowded slopes of Everest.
The post-Everest years of the three main characters were markedly different. Hillary was knighted, devoted much of his life to helping Nepal through his Himalayan Foundation and eventually became New Zealand’s high commissioner to India. John Hunt was also knighted, but stuck closer to home, running the Duke of Edinburgh Award organization as well as the parole service. Tenzing Norgay was given the George Medal, was more or less deified in Nepal and India, and was appointed as leader of the mountaineering school in Darjeeling. Of the three, he was least equipped to handle fame: after years of struggling with a drinking problem, he died in 1986, depressed and alone.
Everest 1953 is a chronological history of that famous climb, but it’s much more. Conefrey takes his readers into those hidden places: into the minds of the schemers, into the souls of the dreamers and into the hearts of the heroes. We see just how complex and political and messy the whole thing was, and we feel empathy for every one of the characters in this epic tale. Let’s hope that Mick Conefrey continues to split his time between films and writing.
THE GREAT HIMALAYA TRAIL. 1700 Kilometres Across the Roof of the World. By Gerda Pauler. Pp. 218, 40 colour & 78 b/w photos, 2013. (Bâton Wicks, UK, £12.99)
The Great Himalaya Trail is one of those ideas that make such obvious good sense that their existence is inevitable. The fact that several hardy souls had, over the course of the last few decades, forged their own route along the spine of the Himalaya illustrates this. The official trail is simply the smart new clothes of an idea that has never gone out of style.
Conceived as stretching the length of the Himalaya, from Nanga Parbat to Namche Barwa, the Nepal section, some 1700km long, is the first to be fully realised. There are some mighty passes to cross on the ‘GHT’, two over 6,000m and sixteen more over 5,000m, and it explores some of Nepal’s remotest corners where trekkers cannot rely on the creature comforts available in more popular areas.
In her book Great Himalaya Trail, Gerda Pauler recounts her 123-day traverse of the route, undertaken to raise awareness about autism in Nepal. Her tale unfolds with disarming simplicity in a daily journal that has pace and verve. From the start at Kangchenjunga Base Camp to the conclusion at Hilsa on the Tibetan border in Humla, her focus is as much on the people around her, especially her remarkable crew led by the indefatigable Temba Bhoti, as on the jaw-dropping landscape.
Pauler is likeable and curious about the world she walks through. She notices the revolution underway in Nepal, the new road network snaking up previously remote valleys, the hydroelectric schemes, the spread of Chinese influence, the creeping despoliation of pristine landscapes and the uneven distribution of wealth. As a woman she never misses the opportunity to explore the appalling gender inequality that persists in many parts of Nepal.
She has an obvious passion for Tibetan culture, as do I, but the anti-Chinese rhetoric grated after a while. ‘Here are the facts,’ she writes, but too often they are partial or incomplete – or simply opinion. She’s also highly critical of the Nepali government, which has resolutely failed to meet the needs of its people, bogged down in corruption and in-fighting despite shedding its parasitic and half-bored monarchy. That criticism sometimes drifts into an intolerance of Hinduism generally.
One example: Pauler emerges from Dolpo invigorated by her contact with Buddhist monks and smiling Tibetan faces to be immediately depressed by the poverty she witnesses in largely Hindu Mugu, a district I have also visited. Anyone reading her account will be tempted to jog through this region as quickly as possible, but that seems a shame. The GHT was established in part to raise the tourism profile of such remote corners – and Mugu has much to recommend it, despite the appalling development indices and corrosive impact of ill-conceived aid projects and missionaries.
Some of the paradoxes in her account are inevitable; she wants to see cultures preserved but dislikes aspects of those cultures that hold back development. She fears depopulation but is pleased to have access to all those things that fuel it: transportation, the internet, mobile phone networks. She likes the wild but appreciates a hot shower and a cosy trekker’s lodge.
Yet by the time we reached the end of the trail, I was firmly on her side, and found myself mightily impressed at her quiet determination – and rather envious. I would have welcomed a few maps to illustrate her trek, and could have done without the occasional editing glitches, but if you have any interest in trekking through Nepal’s spectacular mountains, then you’ll enjoy sharing this memorable journey.
MOUNTAINS IN MY HEART. A Passion for Climbing. By Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Karin Steinbach Tarnutzer, English Translation: Billi Bierling. Pp. 303, 52 B/W photos, 2014. (The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, $ 21.95)
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is - without contest - the strongest and most talented high altitude female climber of the 20th century, and early 21st century. She is an extraordinary athlete and a remarkable human being. She has after all, achieved what Reinhold Messner (and only 13 other men have) achieved, except without the first ascents. In ‘Mountains in My Heart’ Gerlinde tells of her extra-ordinary climbing achievement: successfully summiting all 14 eight thousand metre peaks - without oxygen and unassisted by traditional support. The book is autobiographical, and as the sub-title suggests, it is about the passion for climbing. And while there is no shortage of good books written by climbers who are passionate about the sport; this book is a treatise on passion itself. Revealed throughout the book is the soul of this exceptional mountaineer, entirely driven by the pure joy of climbing at altitude - nothing more - and this positive obsession plays out through the chapters as pure passion
The reader is introduced to Gerlinde growing up in Kirchdorf an der Krems, Austria. Born Dec. 13, 1970, into a middle class working family, second youngest of five children, she was a very active child who loved sports and outdoor adventure. There were no traumatic emotional incidents in her youth driving her to become an obsessed climber (out of accumulated rage or pain); hers was a whole-some childhood. She spent most of her early hiking and climbing years (age 8 to 15) under the tutelage of Father Tischler, a Catholic priest and climber, who took some of his youthful parishioners on outings to the local mountains. Gerlinde had been an altar girl, and mentions that she enjoyed her religious studies. And while there are no direct references in the book to her Catholicism or Catholic training leaving an indelible mark on her, one suspects that some awareness of the power of faith may have developed as part of her personality during her youth; surfacing later as a critical guiding influence on climbs - part of her passionate nature.
At age fifteen we learn that Gerlinde is enrolled in ‘Social Services School’ in Rottenmann, Styria; a boarding school where she would will live for the next two years. During this time she meets Siegfried Wasserbauer with whom she would will climb a great deal over the next seven years. From Siegfried she learned the basics of technical alpine climbing, and with Siegfried, at age 24 she climbed Broad Peak in June/July 1994, her first 8,000 m peak. They reached the false summit (8027 m), and so Gerlinde would return in 2007 to claim the main summit at 8057 m. Broad Peak was an initiation for Gerlinde, and the seeds of her commitment to high altitude climbing were sown there. On Broad Peak she experienced the first ripples of her deep well of passion. She wrote in her journal after witnessing two deaths (before summiting), ‘It cannot be true that happiness, contentment, and death are so close together’. This crucible of emotional awakening would be repeated many times over the course of her 8000 m journey - each time expanding her experience of her own capacity for passion.
During the next seventeen years, Gerlinde sorted out her professional life and finished nursing school. She engaged in a number of meaningful climbing relationships, finally meeting her future husband, climber Ralf Dujmovits, on Manalsu in 2002 (they married in 2007). And, she chipped away at climbing the highest and in many cases most dangerous peaks on earth, systematically and thoughtfully. As each chapter unfolds in the book, the reader is introduced to another eight thousand metre peak and the inevitable dramas that play out on each mountain; these are never trivial. Gerlinde manages the countless, unthinkable and horrifying tragedies she witnesses on every mountain, with greater and greater depth of knowledge and compassion; ever increasing her awareness and appreciation of her circumstances; constantly tapping deeper into the well.
Gerlinde uses a unique approach to structuring her writing, by titling each chapter based on a different cognitive or emotional circumstance. For example, Chapter 1 is ‘Curiosity’, Chapter 3 is ‘Shock’, Chapter 10 ‘Determination’; every title presumably reflecting an encapsulation of the cognitive and emotional landscape she travelled during the climbs recounted. The final effect of this strategy over the course of the book has the reader witnessing the awakening of a unique individual: the maturing of a high altitude mountaineer from amateur to professional, from raw to refined, from shallow to deep. Gerlinde emerges an extremely proficient high altitude limber, as well as a person of great insight and wisdom. After all, she has returned from this extraordinarily dangerous journey - alive.
The difference between this autobiographical account of mountaineering stories and so many other books in this genre is that we are immersed in a climber’s inner growth, in addition to her technical advancement. We witness the climber evolving, taking on ever more challenging peaks, but always coming back to the centre - the joy, the passion - which is subtly being distilled and refined. Gerlinde’s soul is constantly renewed by her own sense of pure joy overriding all other emotions. Her passion for high altitude climbing being uncensored and pervasive, has the effect of engaging the reader on the very basic level of our first reptilian experience of climbing - joy. Sure we get the usual high adrenaline moments, and the standard terrorising episodes; but the reader finishes feeling satisfied for different reasons with this book. The reader feels happy because the climber has succeeded, but also because she has made us re-experience our basic need in climbing - joy. The fact that the book manages to pull this off, without degenerating into messy or sloppy emotion, has a great deal to do with the superior translation offered by Ms. Bierling. Nothing is lost in translation here and we feel the full force of this climber’s personality without hesitation or secondguessing. Therefore Ms. Bierling is to be congratulated on a fine piece of translation.
‘Mountains in My Heart’ stands among the best of in mountaineering literature.
EVEREST: THE FIRST ASCENT. How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. By Harriet Tuckey. Pp. 402, 31 B/w photos, 2013. (Lyons, Guilford, CT, USA, US $13.99)
Sometimes, one knows within a few pages whether a book is a winner. This describes Harriet Tuckey’s 2013 book and project of nine years. With so many other volumes about Everest, it is the secondary title of this one that is the most interesting and pertinent to the history of Himalayan mountaineering. The UK version has a different second title, Everest - The First Ascent. The Untold Story of Griffith Pugh, the Man Who Made It Possible. (Rider, London 2013). The untold story is about a British champion of science, physiologist Griffith Pugh.
Tuckey’s book covers the dueling theme of establishment personalities versus Pugh’s vision, scientific expertise, and tenacity. Over decades, his subjects ranged from sea level to the Himalaya – it included runners, hill-walkers, swimmers, soldiers at the WWII Cedars Mountain Warfare Training Centre in Lebanon, mountaineers, Antarctic explorers, and athletes at the controversial altitude of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. His overwhelming interest and success was studying the human body under physiological stress. However, it was an uphill battle throughout his professional career to achieve any recognition for his achievements, especially in the area of high-altitude.
Dr Griffith Pugh was often described as difficult for family and some colleagues to live with; an eccentric, a single-minded and absent-minded scientist, a boffin but with a more negative slant. Harriet Tuckey, his daughter, and much of the world, did not know of his ingenuity until years later. Despite the uneasy alliance between science and mountaineering, Pugh’s practical advice converted what had previously been amateur outings in the Himalaya to more scientifically prepared ones, beginning with the British 1952 Cho Oyo expedition.
This was followed by his presence and impact on the 1953 Everest expedition, successfully putting Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary on the top. On Everest, his recommendations about hydration, nutrition, hygiene, metabolism, boots, stoves, acclimatization, oxygen etc. were instrumental in this outcome, and moreover, for the entire golden age of Himalayan climbing. However, the hidebound British establishment including luminaries such as John Hunt and Edmund Hillary often ignored, ostracized, or usurped his contributions. They preferred to keep the spotlight on the glorious and heroic human aspects of the story rather than the science. (Slightly more of the personal aspects are covered in the UK book version.) After Everest in 1960-1961, Pugh and Hillary jointly led the famous nine-month long Silver Hut Expedition near Ama Dablam. Pugh and his team of physiologists performeding seminal medical studies on long-term living at high altitude. Furthermore, it was their action on Makalu that saved the life of Hillary who had a stroke,stroke and their oxygen and evacuation that saved the lives of the other climbers who were also caught in extreme conditionsis.
Harriet Tuckey’s outstanding biography of Pugh utilizes not just his voluminous 1940-1986 scientific papers, many of which were archived by physiologist John West at The University of California-, San Diego, but also newly discovered personal documents saved from the attic of a house under renovation. Tuckey’s acclaimed book tells all of these personality, mountaineering, and medical stories well. It deservedly is the winner of many awards, including the prestigious 2013 Boardman-Tasker and Banff Mountain Festival book prizes for mountain literature.
HARVEY LANKFORD MD
HANGING ON. By Martin Boysen. (Vertebrate Publishing, ISBN 978-1-910240-00-7,£20).
One of the best climbing trips I ever had was in the 1960s with Martin Boysen. We drove up to Glencoe, lived on porridge and bacon cooked outdoors over wood fires, picked off hard classic rock routes of the time – Carnivore on Craig a ’Bhanceir; Jaywalk on Beinn Trilleachan; Totalitarian on Raven Crag Thirlmere on the way home to Manchester. Little incidents from that week often come back to me: stopping mysteriously on the way down Glen Etive, Martin sloping off among the trees and returning with a ball of resin scraped off Scots Pines that gave extra adhesion on the long, bald, unprotected slab pitches awaiting us; Hamish MacInnes racing up to photograph us on Carnivore, so rare was an ascent at that time; the magisterial elegance of Martin’s climbing; or more generally, the range and interest of his conversation, that embraced reflections on Paul Klee’s art, the comic genius of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and humming Thelonious Monk’s Bags’ Groove to himself as he hammered away in dissonant rhythm on the air-piano in perfect, laughing good humour. In the philistine culture of British climbing, Martin was something else!
So too is his book. I’m not a fan of climbing memoirs. All that false-modesty overlay to macho posturing; all that revisionism, cattiness and invention leaves me cold. Yet here’s a book forty years in gestation, from a climbers’ climber, the one undisputed master of his generation, and it’s a rich and dignified treat with a lovely, equable, amused yet passionate tone from start to finish. It works on many levels, too. There’s the human perspective. Martin’s early childhood was spent in Nazi Germany, where his father was a music teacher and not a party member, and was therefore conscripted to the Eastern Front, not to re-appear until 1950, by which time Martin’s mother had returned to her native Kent:
“My father had been politically naïve before the war, but like so many other-worldly intellectuals, he became a devoted Communist [during his internment as PoW in Ukraine] and remained so until his death.”
There is Martin’s induction into climbing on the sandstone Wealden outcrops of the south of England, where his ability and legacy of difficult test-pieces remain legendary. There’s a crucial player’s take on the next great exploratory phase of British rock-climbing after the era of Joe Brown and Don Whillans, in which Martin was responsible for a sheaf of major classic climbs; and a fascinating perspective on the development of British alpine and Himalayan climbing and its major activists in the 1960s and 1970s, in which Martin again was centrally involved, performing selflessly on the significant projects of the time whilst lesser talents were content to self-promote and reap praise for mere participation.
My sense – and it’s one widely shared within the community of British climbing – is that Martin never really received the praise that was his due in those years, as recognition and renewed opportunity for him were subverted by factions more Machiavellian than masterful. My further sense is that he never really cared about this, because his involvement was with the thing itself and the sheer delight of it rather than any celebrity that might ensue (something in which he resembles his good friend and older mentor Joe Brown, greatest of all British climbers). As a remarkably level-headed and informed account of a crucial period in British climbing history and the cast of climbers involved - Brown, Whillans, Bonington, Clough, Haston, Patey, Burke, Estcourt, Nunn, Crew, Anthoine - Hanging On works magnificently. It’s surely one of the most important factual accounts in mountain literature, covering revolutionary developments in the sport, outstanding ascents on British and alpine rock and ice, and epochal expeditions in the Himalayas and elsewhere. It makes most other catalogues of lifetime mountain achievement seem puny by comparison.
It’s also (let the macho men squirm if they will!) underpinned by an enchanting romance, that tells the story of one of the great marriages I’ve been privileged to witness, between Martin and his wife Maggie - an extraordinary and utterly endearing character.
The book’s early chapters, dealing with his 1950s beginnings at those Wealden outcrops of High Rocks, Harrison’s, Eridge Green and Bowles, are the most vivid and engaging depiction of an entry into this weird sport that I know. They alone would elevate the book to classic status. The humour, honesty, restraint and quirky character of the rest confirm it in that. Here he is on an unplanned and shelterless Patagonian bivouac:
“Dan [Reid] and I wrapped round each other to conserve heat and discovered a shared love of Thelonious Monk. We hummed Straight No Chaser and Blue Monk deep into the night to keep our spirits up.”
Unique or what! Get him on Desert Island Discs right away. The man’s a natural, his book’s a gem – one of the crucial mountain memoirs of our time.
HIGHER GROUND. A Mountain Guide’s Life. By Martin Moran. Pp., 61 colour illustrations, 15 maps, 2014. (Sandstone Press, Dingwall, Scotland. Nps)
The first time I heard of Martin Moran was in the Pindar valley – a couple of villagers mentioned his name. When I started frequenting Munsyari, I heard his name mentioned there too.
Later when the first Indian ascent of Changuch happened, Martin’s name was a firm reference point for his expedition had recorded the peak’s first ascent. That in turn, was the fallout of a climbing trip to Nanda Devi East, which he chose to abort and redirect towards Changuch. Before Nanda Devi East, Martin had been up Baljuri and Panwali Dwar.
These are not just engaging mountains. They fall at a junction in geography and spirituality that is important to Garhwal and Kumaun, particularly the latter. Knowing who Martin is and what his body of work is, appeared essential. When the chance to review his book emerged, I was delighted.
Higher Ground – A Mountain Guide’s Life was a mixed package.
It’s strength is that it gives much insight into the subtitle. It is required reading for anyone aspiring to be a mountain guide. If you are imagining a book with details on a plethora of knots and anchor systems – a sort of technical manual, you are mistaken. Martin’s book is his life in guiding, shared. It does not unduly play up the usual lot of technical information, which the term `mountain guide’ evokes. Instead, it provides a taste of how the guide sets up business, works with clients, how much the envelope is pushed for achievement on trips and most important – how even a guide of considerable experience like Martin, won’t hesitate to turn back if conditions on a mountain are bad. If I may say so, there is much relevance for Indian climbers to read this book because in the Indian rat race, the admiration for being superhuman and the compulsion to be superhuman are both high. They are among the strong sentiments that shape our perception of climbing. Ahead of being comfortable with climbing, it is unfortunately seen as achievement. Martin’s book, although unashamedly nurtured on a diet of climbing, does not hesitate to talk of mistakes, accidents, long days that he and clients got away with and mountains that seemed wiser to behold from far.
Altitude isn’t everything. There is much to keep you busy at lower heights. Martin’s book introduced me to peak bagging in Scotland; of clients returning to accomplish the ascent of a cherished number of these peaks. Equally, the book also lays bare how the mountains of Scotland and the Alps of Europe can be a laboratory for eventual success in the Himalaya. You don’t find this said as such; you glean it. Nearly three quarters of the book obsesses with specific routes and climbs in Europe, something that can tire a reader unfamiliar with these environs. But in the end, you see the organic link, the making of competence. You can definitely do the same in the Himalaya (as many from Nepal and India’s mountain states do) but the point is – there is no substitute to being out and climbing. Indeed Martin’s book is a freight train of personal climbs and climbs done with clients. It is sparse on his personal life.
From a reader’s perspective, the book is a challenge given three quarters of the book dwelling on the Scottish highlands and the European Alps (with some mention of Norway in between) and the difference in character between narratives from there and the Himalaya. It is a tough contrast to bridge smoothly. Europe’s mountains, heavily climbed and well known, bristle with technical information. Despite best effort to tell a story, accounts of climbing feel dry. I felt the book’s first three quarters was a stiff narrative that could have been made gentler for folks like me. I started enjoying the book from the last quarter. That’s when Martin reaches the Himalaya. With its unique matrix of mountain dimension, altitude, spirituality and people amid it all, narratives from the Himalaya are by nature different from stories from Europe. Couldn’t Martin have kept the style of narration uniform – either the texture of Scotland and Alps all the way or the texture of the Himalaya all the way (as I would prefer)? Or, mixing up the chapters in a non linear fashion? I wonder. All I will say is – I laboured through the first three quarters of the book and enjoyed the last quarter.
The book’s other weakness is exactly what it delivers as its strength. If you prefer the non commercial context as ideal window to the mountains, then this may not be your cup of tea. It shows in the rather limited ruminations on life and life’s questions that dot the narrative. This book is about work.
It is worth reading, especially if you are mountain guide or aspiring to be one.
CLIMBING RAMABANG. By Gerry Galligan. Pp 287, colour photos, 3 route maps, 2013. (Vicarious Publishing, Dublin, ISBN978-1-909461-03-1 (hdbk) 978-1-909461-04-8 (ebook) €25)
I have known Gerry Galligan for a number of years now, as an active expeditioner, and chairman of the Irish Mountaineering Club. He is a quiet, understated, individual, and I wondered what sort of book he would write.
During a recent promotional lecture tour in my home town for his book, Gerry disclosed a rather directionless, hippie youth, which found an appropriate channel when he discovered mountaineering; a sport with no rules to speak of, and a reason for travel to the sort of places that he would inevitably find fascinating. He was 'a chip off the old block', his father being a consummate traveller who used his trade as an electrical engineer, not only to travel his native Ireland during the rural electrification programme, but to go to far flung places such as Bahrain and Bhutan, and the postcards home were bound to have had an influence on the young Gerard. Before mountaineering, Gerry's travels around Europe, to Australia and the USA appear to be unfocussed and more of an escape from an unhappy period at boarding school, and the economically bleak landscape of Ireland in the 1980s.
Returning to Ireland, he retrained in IT, found a job, and swopped dinghy sailing for mountaineering. It is interesting to note that his inspiration to tackle an unclimbed 6000m peak in India, was the exact same as my own, a lecture tour by Roger McMorrow. Roger put together a small group of relatively inexperienced mountaineers and successfully ascended an unclimbed and unnamed mountain in the Garhwal. If Roger could do it so could Gerry (and me!)
In Climbing Ramabang he describes the planning of a small scale expedition to Spiti, in Himachal Pradesh, a place where previous Irish expeditions have had some success, dating back to the early days of Joss Lynam (the elder statesman of Irish Mountaineering, and an inspiration to many of us!)
But this book is not really about the ascent of a mountain. Whilst the mountain was unclimbed (and previously unnamed), that was not because of any great technical difficulty, and he does not, mercifully, play the 'heroic' card, being totally honest about the straightforward nature of the climb. Is a non technical first ascent any less worthy that a technical first ascent? Only if you are out to prove something I imagine, and Gerry clearly, is not. The ascent takes up very little of the narrative.
He is more interested in the colour of the landscape, and stories of the people he meets on his journey homewards. His original plan had been to buy a motor bike and ride it home, but this proved impossible due to the amount of red tape involved, so he had to settle for public transport. This was probably fortunate, as not only did he live to tell the tale, but he would have had much more interaction with local people, as this is what makes his book special.
His low key, empathetic, inquisitive nature (not uncommon in Irish people) means he can easily engage with the people he meets, and he relates their stories in a very readable entertaining way, together with his own thoughts and observations.
After trekking in Ladakh, (and making a solo first ascent of a 5000m peak), his journey through Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Balkans, is the stuff of a good travelogue, full of fascinating anecdotes and colour.
I will never forget the short film he showed on a Sufi Festival in Pakistan during his lecture tour. I had never seen anything like it, a fact I found amazing, considering the amount of travel material that has been available for many years now on television.
I bought his book, and enjoyed it.
His quote from Rudyard Kipling 'to go and look behind the ranges' is exactly what he has done, and for his first publication, this book is in keeping with the best tradition of Irish travel writers such as Dervla Murphy (a lady who famously travelled to India solo on an old pedal cycle in the 1960s).
CHASING THE PHANTOM. By Eduard Fischer. Pp. 256, 23 colour and 6 black and white photos, 2014. (Singing Dragon, US, US$ 1.75).
The writer writes about his experiences from his first love for the mountains, starting with his travel to Leh in 1985 to his various sojourns in the Himalayan Kingdom and the Himalayas. He is in search of himself as well asthe elusive predator Shan, the Ladakhi name for the Snow Leopard over a period of 25 odd years.
As the name indicates Chasing the Phantom involves not only descriptions about a quest for a glimpse of the snow leopard, the phantom of his dreams, but also a chase within, to find his true self; to let go of his obsession for the snow leopard and his obsession for established values, morals and learnings and his willingness to re-learn everything about life thorough his various trans Himalayan treks and travels.
He speaks about his various trips in and out of Ladakh, his tryst with the world’s major religions - Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam and his experiences and inferences drawn from the teachings that each religion espouses. Though these have no direct relation to his hunt for the snow leopard in a way a wildlife enthusiast or a mountaineer would understand, it has a deeper intricate meaning which is slowly revealed as one reads further.
The book also makes interesting reading if one understands the various nuances and teachings of Buddhism and the symbolism hidden behind its paintings, prayers flags, thangkas and idols. The author keeps swinging back and forth detailing his experiences through various chapters, often diverting focus from the main subject, which is a dampener after the spark of interest created in the first few chapters. One has to consciously get back to the ‘mood’ to understand his writing and where he is coming from and what his ultimate goal is.
We get a glimpse of his vast knowledge about the world's religions; his understanding of the science behind the Hindu and Buddhist religious teachings and the path that must be followed towards understanding oneself. He also weaves a beautiful canvas straddling the western concept of the creation of the world, with the Nataraja pose of Shiva and its symbolism, giving examples of various research on finding clues to indicate the beginning of the Universe.
His book is interspersed with sayings from religious books, philosophers, mountaineers and saints which add depth and beauty to his writing.
This book should not be read with a perspective of a wildlife enthusiast or a mountaineer but as a seeker seeking to understand Shan as an ’attitude’ that encompasses a philosophy reaching inwards and discovering one's role in life as a human being.
LURE OF THE MOUNTAINS: The life of Bentley Beetham, 1924 Everest Expedition Mountaineer. By Michael D. Lowes . Pp 156, 36 B/w photos, 2014. (Vertebrate Publishing, UK, ISBN 978-1-906148-94-2, GBP 12.99).
The book is a very first published biography centered on the life of an ever-young multi-talented mountaineer Bentley Beetham (1886-1963). Beetham was a climber, mountaineer and a profound ornithologist with a sharp sense of photography. He was a school master by profession and was an important part of the famous 1924 mountaineering expedition with a purpose of scaling Mt. Everest. The expedition was amongst the first few attempts and could have been the first ascents to the world’s highest peak. The book provides a detailed overview on the life of Beetham starting from his youth till death.
Beetham lived the life of an influential, energetic and enthusiastic individual in all wakes of his life. He was one of the few people with a never-say-die attitude and has been a motivation for many. The author provides a comprehensive overview of Beetham's life and justifies almost every instance through detailed research and analysis. While most other contemporaries of Beetham's time are covered in some or the other way, it is this book that provides a profound source of detailed information on the life of this great mountaineer, ornithologist, photographer and also a school master.
The book successfully accomplishes educating the reader with a number of motives through a glaring account of incidences well captured throughout Beetham’s life. Predominantly, it shows the level of focus required to make the most of one’s life and overcoming problems and difficulties that one faces. The book projects the Beetham’s qualities in such a way that readers will get inspired enough to go to the crux of being a wilderness enthusiast. The book also provides a great account of difficulties faced by mountaineers in those days compared to what are now relatively easy tasks. The book goes beyond the normal bookish experience so at times, it feels like watching a biopic rather than reading a book.
The author accomplishes a daunting task of narrating the life of a mountaineer for the entirety of the book. This could be particularly difficult considering that the narration includes instances of Beetham’s life which are not always part of any storyline. However, the author manages to keep the reader interested in 'what-happens-next' and succeeds fairly well. The book starts with details of Beetham's home and school years. Further the author leads us to understand the beginnings of his interest in birds and reading habits. The author then very cleverly introduces a raw experience of one of his expeditious voyages to Iceland describing it perfectly well and creating the background required for the bigger challenge that comes later. A short overview of his extremely skilled rock climbing activities in the Borrowdale and other valleys comes sprinkled throughout the book making a perfect recipe for understanding the toughness of this gentleman. The account of his Everest expedition is distributed across two chapters which enlightens my generation on the logistics involved in getting a team even to base camp in those days. The author sums everything up with a final bow in a chapter titled ‘Essence of BB’ – this surely steals the show.
The author has included a number of photographs in this 150+page work which span from birds to boulders that Beetham had captured with limited devices, making the book a rather beautiful memoir.
Finally the book is an intricate ode by Michael D Lowes who happened to be a of Bentley Beetham’s pupil at the Barnard Castle School. He was a member of the Goldsborough Club with which Beetham was also associated. Michael was working towards compiling his in depth research and findings in the form of a book, but sadly succumbed to a long illness. The work was then taken forward by Graham Ratcliffe till completion. Graham Ratcliffe has also worded the foreword to the book and is the first Briton to have summitted Everest from both the North and the South sides.
THE K2 MAN (AND HIS MOLLUSCS) - THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF HAVERSHAM GODWIN AUSTEN. By Catherine Moorehead. Pp. 279, 44 colour photos, 2013. (Neil Wilson Publishing, London, HB £24.99)
Kenneth Mason in his definitive book on mountaineering history (Abode of Snow) stated that Haversham Godwin-Austen (1834-1923) was 'probably the greatest mountaineer of his day'. The details on the jacket are formidable – ‘he found the first way to the 'savage mountain', K2, and went on to be the first serious explorer of the Karakoram, Ladakh, Western Tibet, Bhutan, Northern Burma and Assam. He broke the Asiatic high-altitude summiting record three times, using a 'garden hatchet' as an ice-axe, saw his assistant killed by head hunters and socialised with everyone from his 'coolies' to the Maharajah of Kashmir. He was one of the greatest Natural Historians, a Darwinist collector among collectors of geological and ornithological specimens. His collection of freshwater molluscs forms the basis of all modern science in the subject. And he became one of the UK's greatest surveyors, covering over 22,000 square miles of new territory, including 23 new glaciers and at least two dozen first ascents of peaks over 5000m. Remarkably, he also found time to paint a vast portfolio of watercolours, including the first close sighting of K2, described by the British Library as a 'national treasure'. Several of these watercolours are illustrated in this book.’
Just reading this makes one breathless – one life; one man!
And then his personal life – this leaves one equally breathless - three marriages - to an Afghan landowner's daughter, an English socialite, then a civil servant's daughter 23 years younger than himself - were complicated by religious conversions from Anglicanism to Islam then to Buddhism.
This is the first and authorised biography of this outstanding man. It is a must for every explorer's bookshelf for Haversham Godwin-Austen was pre-eminent among explorers, surveyors and mapmakers. Sadly, he is identified now by a glacier that is named after him on K2.
Catherine Moorehead lays out Godwin-Austen's life in wonderful detail (you get used to the copious footnotes and fine print as you go along). She draws out this colourful man, explorer par excellence, scientist, artist, natural historian with an affectionate and pithy yet insightful pen.
The Scottish Moorehead grew up in the shadow of the Cairngorms. She has taught English and led six expeditions to Central Asia and run the RumDoodle Mountaineering Society. She definitely has complete mastery over her subject thus. A fantastic biography.
LAST HOURS ON EVEREST. By Graham Hoyland. Pp. 310, 38 colour & b/w photos, 2014. (William Collins, London, PB £8.99).
The Gripping Story of Mallory & Irvine's Fatal Ascent’, this book lives up to its subtitle. It is gripping. It also maps Hoyland's own journey – when he became the 15th Briton to reach the summit of Everest in 1993. In his preface, Hoyland says – ‘Mount Everest has been my arena. I have spent over two years of my life on the mountain, returning there again and again. I am drawn back because I see there the extremes of human experience played out in the most dramatic surroundings: greed and betrayal, loyalty and courage, endurance and defeat. It is a moral crucible in which we are tested, and usually found wanting. It has cost me my marriage, my home and half my possessions. Twice Everest has nearly killed me. But I find it utterly addictive. And so did George Mallory’.
These words set the mood and indeed the canvas for the book.
We know from countless accounts how George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared on Everest in 1924. We have also known that the mystery of whether they disappeared on the way up or the way down (after reaching the summit) has been the subject of many a dramatic tale – this is yet another with the added focus of the search for the camera that may put this mystery to rest once and for all.
Hoyland’s romance and his tryst with Everest is heart-warming – definitely a page-turner with charming photographs of charming men in the age of heroism, patriotism and daredevilry.
THE BLACK HILL. By Mamang Dai. Pp. 296, 2014. (Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, Paperback Rs. 395).
Poet and journalist Mamang Dai has woven history (specifically two events in the history of the North East) and some imagination, to weave a piece of fiction. One event is the disappearance of a French priest in the 1850s while walking in the hills and the other is the execution of a man, Kajinsha belonging to the Mishmee tribe for his murder. Mamang Dai has connected these events with fictitious threads, predictably involving a woman from a rival Abor tribe. The relationship between the white man, the woman Gimur and her lover Kanjisha is what the novel is about. The story is predictable – what is more intriguing is the backdrop – unusual and insightful. The final product is however, belaboured.
THE TRAILS LESS TRAVELLED – Trekking the Himachal Himalaya. By Avay Shukla. Pp. 255, colour photographs, 2015. (Niyogi Books, New Delhi, PB Rs. 995)
Avay Shukla, belonging to the Indian Administrative Service has served in Himachal for 30 years. His life has been an enviable idyllic tramp through the beautiful trails of Shimla, Kinnaur, Kangra, Lahaul and Spiti and Kullu districts. This trek guide reflects his inspiration and describes twelve lesser known trekking routes in the region. A typical chapter begins with a clear hand drawn line map, and goes on to describe the route, filled with information on flora and fauna, culture and local legends, personal reflections and anecdotes. All this is interspersed with beautiful photographs that give a graphic idea of the terrain. All in all it is definitely a book to add to your bookshelf and then drop into your ruck sack whenever you can steal time off.
SIKKIM – REQUIEM FOR A HIMALAYAN KINGDOM. By Andrew Duff. Pp. 380, 16 colour & 16 b/w plates, 2015. (Random House, Gurgaon, HB Rs 599)
Andrew Duff is a UK based journalist who got interested in the geo politics of the Indian subcontinent, specifically the beautiful Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim. This region had stayed independent through the centuries of the British Raj but, according to him, ‘got annexed’ by India in 1975, when Indira Gandhi decided that this was necessary for India’s security. Andrew Duff has researched and documented the story at the time of ‘annexation’ and the events that led to it. The spotlight is on Thondup Namgyal, the last King of Sikkim, and his American wife, Hope Cooke, as they sought support for Sikkim's independence after their 'fairy tale' wedding in 1963. Intrigue, CIA connections, the Cold War between India and China, the 70s jostling for power in this region, the declaration of Emergency in India and the need to show it’s might – all contribute to an exciting and informative glimpse into this riveting piece of non – fiction. An interesting tale is that of the author’s grandfather who made a journey to this exotic land way back in 1922.
BRAHMAPUTRA AND THE ASSAM VALLEY. By Ranjita Biswas. Photographs by Prasanta Sarkar, Pp. 162, 2013. (Niyogi Books, New Delhi, HB Rs. 1495).
The Brahmaputra has many names here – Luit, Lohit, Sriluit – it is the heart of the Assam valley. For its people, the Brahmaputra is more than just a river. It is their very life with its many tributaries and streams. This book is an illustrated journey in the company of the mighty river as it intertwines itself with the life of Assam. The river begins in Tibet as Tsangpo and then travels east through Arunachal Pradesh and finally Assam. As it enters the land through the eastern Himalayan foothills and flows into the sea in the west, it tells stories of kings and queens, of heroism and poetry and of festivals and dance. Telling these stories are journalist and writer Ranjita through words and Prasanta through photographs. They have together managed a very nice and easy account of early explorations and history of the area, its music and its textiles and its people. The format too is coffee table plus readable, covering the regions of Kaziranga, Majuli, Tezpur, Guwahati and Golpara among others.