BECOMING A MOUNTAIN. By Stephen Alter. Pp. 288, 2015 (Arcade Publishing India, Hardcover 2015, INR 1250.00)
Becoming a Mountain by Stephen Alter was the jury’s unanimous choice for the Kekoo Naoroji Award for Himalayan Literature in 2015. The following was the brief jury statement about Becoming a Mountain as they made their final deliberations :
This was a book that completely held the jury’s attention, even though there was little of the heart-stopping, palm-sweating climbing narrative that everyone has come to expect in mountain literature. Instead, Alter took the reader on a more intimate journey through the mountains, both physically and spiritually. A very personal account, the reader is transported from the brutal assault on the author and his wife by a quiet inner strength that motivates him to find peace and acceptance in the mountains. Not many people who love the high hills write like this.
It’s unusual to arrive at unanimous decisions in situations like this, but Becoming a Mountain made the process easy.
This is not a happy story. It’s not even a heroic story. It’s a quiet, self-contained and dignified story of shock, grief, comprehension and compassion. And it’s a story about a love affair. An affair with mountains.
The germ of this book began in panic : fear for the author’s and his wife’s life. It started when Stephen Alter and his wife Ameeta were attacked by armed intruders in their Mussoorie home in the wee hours of 3 July 2008. Neither Stephen nor Ameeta were strangers to Mussoorie. They weren’t travellers to the region. They weren’t even tourists, passing through. This was their beloved home, and it had been for a very long time. Stephen was born and raised in India, son of missionaries. He spent most of his childhood in the tiny British Raj hill station of Landour, just above Mussoorie. His father was principal at the Woodstock School on the slopes of Landour and it was the Woodstock School that became Stephen’s Alma Mater. He went on to advanced degrees, and later, he taught creative writing at MIT in Boston and the American University in Cairo. He received numerous prestigious honours for his writing, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the East-West Centre in Hawaii, and the Fulbright Program. Even after having published 15 books of fiction and non-fiction, Stephen Alter continued to live in the family home on the pine-clad slopes of Landour overlooking Mussoorie.
So what could have happened at that elegant and comfortable country home that initiated this wonderfully moving yet disturbing book? One night, a group of attackers rushed into their remote refuge, assaulted them brutally and left them for dead. Stephen and Ameeta survived, but barely. The physical wounds eventually healed, but the vicious attack left his soul permanently scarred. The attackers were never properly accused and sentenced, and this ensured that there was no closure for the two. In an instant, Stephen Alter was made to feel like an alien in the hill station where he had been raised. He felt like a foreigner in that warm and comfortable place that his grandfather had chosen to spend summers almost a century back. Suddenly, Stephen, the self-confessed atheist, began to question his existence amongst the sacred mountains that had defined his very existence. The mountains in which he had grown up climbing and scrambling and wandering.
What does a writer, a climber and trekker and great admirer of the mountains do in such a crisis? Alter decided to reclaim his place in the landscape that had defined him, and to stitch the emotional gashes that lacerated him, by taking a journey to the higher Himalayas. He was not looking for some kind of euphoric joy or spiritual bliss, but the “simple contentment that frees us from terror, anguish, and anxiety…the absence of sadness, a release from melancholy.”
This is the journey that found its way to the pages of Becoming a Mountain. “Of course, it was cathartic,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I would be able to walk or write again.”
Luckily for Stephen Alter, and for the reader, he was able to do both. In Becoming a Mountain, he delves deeply into the bigger meaning of mountains. “Himalayas have the most sublime appearance because on one hand they are beautiful and ethereal while on the other, they have the most terrifying presence. This is what makes them sublime. That is why so many mythical tales have been woven around them,” he muses.
As Stephen scaled peak after peak, he experienced a kind of transcendence. “I reminded myself that these hills are made of the same material as my body and they existed much before any religion appeared. Instead of defining a mountain in human terms, we must allow ourselves to be defined by mountains. Only then will we begin to comprehend the greater mystery of our tenuous existence.”
With a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s pen, this victim of violence looked to the Himalayas for healing. With clarity and lyricism, he brings to life the Himalayas in all their glory : the flora and fauna; the geology; the sounds and smells. He makes specific observations – subtle and profound. He doesn’t preach. He doesn’t even philosophize. He just tells a simply story of wandering, of reading and observing, of absorbing and of healing. As he writes, “to lose something, or everything, sharpens our vision and gives us an acute awareness of what remains”.
A deeply personal book, Becoming a Mountain is a book that you will read and read and read again. A classic.
By Nadir Godrej
Now most of you’ve been here before
And usually what is in store
Are some determined people bent
On one more dangerous ascent.
The hand of death is never far away
A price they are prepared to pay.
And readers readily hold their breath
At every near brush with death.
But this year’s award winning tale
Takes us all on a different trail.
The mountain trails here are serene.
That’s not the case with the opening scene.
The usual case is turned on its head.
The Mountain’s deadly is what’s said.
But here it’s a severe attack,
Enough to make the strongest crack.
But Steve is made of sterner stuff.
For even this was not enough.
The religious may find it somewhat odd
That Steve did not cry out to God.
But in this book we are told by Steve
That he’s an atheist and doesn’t believe.
While strangely nothing much was grabbed
Ameeta and Steve were badly stabbed.
At first he could barely feel
But slowly he began to heal.
The healing came on mountain trails.
The mountain cure never fails.
And then of course at a later time
He found the sacred and sublime.
For an atheist to use these words is strange
But while you’re in the mountain range
You can ponder on it at length
And draw upon your inner strength.
And Nanda Devi the perfect peak
Will gently guide all those who seek
And within ourselves in good time
We’ll find the sacred and sublime.
This story shows us Steve’s a fighter
But he always was a writer.
Adversity can build a man
And now we know that Stephen can
Reach greater heights in his writing.
I can do no better than by citing,
“Not many people who love high hills
Write like this.” High praise for his skills.
Now Stephen can claim two nations
Born in Landour, Queen of Hill Stations
In our India. But it’s USA
From where his parents made their way
To Woodstock School and his father Bob
Just happened to have the Principal’s job.
Undoubtedly his father’s station
Could only have helped his education.
In addition you will often find
Two cultures lead to a supple mind.
Creativity then tends to thrive
And success will come to those who strive.
In his early books there’s much to savour
And many of them soon found favour.
In Cairo he began to teach
And this enabled him to reach
In seven years, not that much later
My undergraduate Alma Mater.
A school who’s reputation’s mighty
None other than our MIT.
When awarding this prize to Bernadette,
A repeated winner, we had met.
We spoke of writing and MIT,
Two things in common as you can see.
And recently in Dehradun
I arrived at Vana and very soon
Though Rati and I had travelled far
More than the treatments at the spa
I was so glad that we did avail
Of the chance to go on a nature trail.
The slope was steep and I did falter
But the guiding hand of Stephen Alter
Steadied me and led the troop
On the beautiful forest loop.
The morning started with a chill
But the sun shone bright on Flag Hill.
Rolling hills were spread around
And in the distance could be found
The snow clad peak of Monkey Tail
Or Bandarpunch whose tale didn’t fail
To elicit peals of laughter.
According to the myth, right after
Hanuman’s tail was burning bright
Lanka was torched and given a fright.
Then finally to end the show
The fire was quenched in this peak’s snow.
The trail helped us to take a look
At a microcosm of this book,
Where wisdom spouts as from a fountain
And Stephen Alter becomes a mountain,
Serene, calm and impassive
But dignified, lofty and massive.
(Nadir Godrej introduced the Kekoo Naoroji Award, Stephen Alter and his book Becoming a Mountain thus at the Kekoo Naoroji Book Award ceremony)
ALPINE WARRIORS. By Bernadette McDonald. Pp. 317, 93 colour and 37 black and white photos, 2015. (Rocky Mountain Books Ltd, Canada, USD 30)
With Alpine Warriors, Bernadette McDonald proves once again why she is one of the most distinguished mountain chroniclers of our times. In this latest offering, she has celebrated the lives and dreams of the golden era of Slovenian alpinists. She has brought to light some the most futuristic and impressive climbs of the many Yugoslavian teams – mostly dominated by Slovenian climbers – whose brilliant achievements remain unknown to the western world. Her extensive research goes beyond mere chronicling and offers us a glimpse into the human side of her protagonists.
McDonald was first introduced to the Slovenian alpinists while researching Tomar Humaž for her 2008 biography and was intrigued by the richness of their alpine community. For a small country, Slovenia has an intense mountaineering culture and this is evident in the way the author has introduced their national symbol Triglav, also their highest mountain. Slovenia has one of the oldest European alpine associations founded in 1893. But, Slovenian climbers came to the forefront of Himalayan climbing in the 1970s and 1980s, by which time all the 8000ers had been scaled. So Slovenians may find no mention in the history of first ascents, but can be credited for their technical skills in scaling up great walls and ridges and deserve their fair share of admiration in the history of Himalayan climbing. For instance, their ascent of Everest West Ridge Direct has been acknowledged by Reinhold Messner as the most difficult route on the Everest. This achievement, like many others, went completely unnoticed outside Slovenia.
How did Slovenians achieve such feats? Their aggressive training programmes along with active state sponsorship and an extremely competitive grading system provided a fertile ground for nurturing local talent. But it is their tenacious determination, intense focus and the inspirational leadership of greats like Aleš Kunaver and Tone Škarja that ensured an elite breed of dynamic and charismatic climbers who burst into the highly competitive arena of Himalayan alpinism in style. As distinguished as they may be, many of them may have faded into obscurity.
The book weaves in and out of expeditions and vividly captures the progression of climbing from large expedition style to small teams to more personal solo ascents to the progressive light and fast style of climbing. From experienced Yugoslav stalwarts like Aleš Kunaver, Tone Škarja, Stane Belak (Šrauf), Marjan Manfreda, Viki Grošelj, Andrej Štremfelj, Stipe Božič, Franček Knez to the well-known Silvo Karo, Tomo Česen, Marko Prezelj, Janez Jeglič,Slavko Svetičič and Tomar Humaž, McDonald has described many figures. The story flows effortlessly like an unobstructed river meandering through the various triumphs and tragedies being enacted on the high Himalaya.
But Nejc Zaplotnik remains the pivotal character of this book. Arguably one of the most charismatic Slovenian alpinists, Nejc’s mysticism and philosophy allures one and all. Simple minded and deeply philosophical, his path-breaking book, Pot (The Way), is considered an important Slovenian classic and is read by people from all walks of life.
McDonald draws inferences and inspiration from Pot which seems like a constant companion throughout. With the sudden death of Nejc in 1986 on Manaslu, the story seems to instantly come to an emotional standstill. Along with sharing the Slovenians’ grief, one is able to sense a pause in McDonald’s rendition. Further into her story, the void left by the passing of Nejc Zaplotnik is palpable, as she is unable to elevate any other personality to take over the mantle.
Alpine Warriors shares a lot in common with McDonald’s award winning Freedom Climbers, which navigates into the Polish contribution towards Himalayan mountaineering. It is the story of how Polish alpinists stayed afloat despite the political and economic turmoil that was looming large over their country and managed to occupy the high pedestal of extreme alpinism. Both books share a similar narration in cognizance to their everyday struggle, impoverished and difficult background, sense of pride and achievement, their successes, sacrifices and misfortunes and capture the shifting focus from team accomplishment to personal goals. Both the nations were contemporaries as far as climbing in the Himalaya are concerned. Polish climbers under Soviet rule, were not permitted to join expeditions outside their country until the early 1970s, while Slovenians, especially Aleš Kunaver, started dreaming about climbing in the Himalaya at the same time. They languished under the Communist rule and came up with many an ingenious way to further their climbing aspirations and escape hardships of daily life. Slovenia, then a part of unified Yugoslavia was faced with major adversities under Tito’s iron grip. However, the climbing community was significantly cushioned thanks to an active state sponsorship and local support. After Tito’s death, constant internal strife and political upheaval followed by the break-up of Yugoslavia significantly affected the climbing community. How each made its mark is very important as these two nations rose above their suffering to achieve dazzling heights.
But the similarities between the two books end here. With Alpine Warriors, the author definitely takes it up a notch. High on emotional quotient and focus on the painstakingly complex human roller coaster of emotions, this volume represents a more personal and intimate account of the protagonists. Both books may be rife with details of climbs and the technical challenges that one associates with high altitude climbs, but McDonald’s genuine interest in furthering awareness about the climbing history of this nation is palpable in Alpine Warriors.
Bernadette is probably the first foreigner who has dug deep into the history of Slovenian alpinism and this book is the outcome of years of endeavour. One has to credit her for her extensive first hand research, numerous one-on-one interactions and comprehensive understanding through translations of Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian climbing literature. In transcribing all of this into print, this book is a remarkable work of history which will be a primary reference point for Slovenian alpinism.
Nejc Zaplotnik and his inspirational book, Pot, are the inadvertent heroes of this book. Pot is the lifeline of this book and makes it come alive.
We shall win this battle! Not a battle with the mountain, but rather a battle with ourselves and our weaknesses. You cannot fight nature…You can only survive or perish in nature. These are the only options, and the choice depends on you alone. We choose life!
IN SOME LOST PLACE - THE FIRST ASCENT OF NANGA PARBAT’S MAZENO RIDGE. By Sandy Allan. Pp 224, 2015 (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, UK, GBP 24)
When George Foreman regained the World Heavyweight Championship in November 1994 it was, for me, a choice moment, a comfort of sorts, though I’m no particular fan of boxing. Foreman had seized back the title at the age of 45. I too was 45 years old at the time. To me, and a good many others in their forties and over, Big George’s comeback was a reassuring sign - and he’s preacher after all - that maybe I wasn’t over the hill just yet.
Eighteen years later, the news that Sandy Allan and Rick Allen had completed the first ascent of Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge was a similar ‘Foreman moment’. Both were in their late fifties. Age was clearly no barrier to high achievement in the mountains. Indeed it may have been a key to their success - and survival. Decades of climbing in remote places, often together, seemed to have given the pair a stoic resilience, a quiet confidence that, whatever the difficulties, somehow they’d cope.
Yet, looked at in a contrary way, these qualities nearly proved fatal - Sandy and Rick arrived at the Diamir base camp emaciated and totally spent after 11 days on the ridge to the summit and three more descending the Kinshofer route. The Mazeno is the longest route to any 8000 m summit -10 km of towers, cornices and deep snow at mind-numbing altitude. In such a place, strung out physically and mentally, small things can have big consequences, maybe a stumble, a few dropped matches, or the fortuitous meeting of a Czech climber with a cigarette lighter.
What was that Dylan line? ‘… a simple twist of fate’ (Blood on the Tracks, 1974). Well there are twists of fate a plenty in Sandy Allan’s story, his road to Nanga Parbat and the slow motion drama of attrition that unfolds there. In Some Lost Place takes an increasingly tight grip on the reader, Sandy’s self-questioning mounts, along with his prayers and hallucinations, as he and Rick struggle down the mountain.
If they’d perished, the verdict may well have echoed the opinion attributed by Sandy to Cathy O’Dowd when she and Sherpas Lhakpa Rangdu, Lhakpa Zarok and Lhakpa Nuru bailed at the Mazeno Gap. That Sandy and Rick were ‘crazy old men, pushing too hard’. As it was, fortune and fortitude were with them, the long coveted Mazeno route was completed and in recognition the pair was awarded a 2013 Piolet d’Or. Twists of fate?
Sandy seems a bit sensitive about the age thing and says he doesn’t really understand why it was so often remarked upon after their climb. ‘In my head I still feel as enthusiastic and excited as ever,’ he says. Well good; if I’ve harped on about your age Sandy it’s only because I drew such encouragement from it.
I thought twice about whether to read In Some Lost Place. During my tenure as editor of Alpine Journal, I’d published Sandy’s account of his and Rick’s 2009 ascent of Nanga Parbat by the Diamir Face1, and then Rick’s account of the Mazeno climb took centre stage in the 150th anniversary AJ in 20132. I thought I knew their story pretty well, in addition, a surfeit of mountaineering books to read during my AJ decade had left my taste for the genre somewhat jaded. I’m glad I thought twice. Sandy pours out so much of himself - youthful rebellion, divorce, his religious nature - that the book tells a personal journey as well as an account of an extraordinary climb.
Sandy emerges a freewheeling character, happy to stand apart from mountaineering’s celebrity clique, and for whom his eventual life as an IFMGA guide was perhaps the most appropriate calling. In his youth he was scornful even of this elite body, thinking guides ‘slow and pedantic’. Independence is clearly important to him; as he reflects during one of several bone-chilling bivvis, he was on the mountain because he chose to be. ‘I wasn’t here for any other reason - like fame or to please a sponsor.’
THE SUNLIT SUMMIT. By Robin Lloyd-Jones. Pp. 358, 18 colour and 32 b/w illustrations, 2013. (Sandstone Press, Highland, Scotland, GBP 19.99).
Visiting England, sometime in the early 1990’s, I made it a point to visit Bill Murray. I had followed many of his trails in Garhwal. Having read his famous book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1950, I was keen to get my copy autographed. He invited me to visit his home, Lochwood, where he lived with his wife Anne. After giving detailed directions, like a true explorer would, he said, ‘I will put two chairs on the road. You simply will not be able proceed ahead and miss us’! Soon, we reached the residence of this famous author-explorer. He lived in a beautiful cottage overlooking Loch Goil.
Apart from this book on exploring Garhwal, Murray had written his classic book Mountaineering in Scotland. Originally written on rough toilet paper while in an Italian prison as a war prisoner, it was confiscated by the Gestapo. He rewrote it and it was published in 1947 and it continues to be a classic along with his other book of the same genre Undiscovered Scotland. These two books have inspired many mountaineers.
Chris Bonington, in a 1983 review of Joe Tasker’s Savage Arena, wrote ‘There are very few mountaineering books that become both a representative expression of a certain era and, at the same time, inspirational bibles to younger climbers of that period. Two immensely important books for me in this context were W H Murray’s Mountaineering in Scotland and Hermann Buhl’s Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage.’
The Sunlit Summit is the second book on the life of Bill Murray. The first one, his autobiography The Evidence of Things Not Seen was a classic in its own way. The present book borrows from it, reflecting Murray as both a climber and a writer.
In the Himalaya, he was the deputy leader of Eric Shipton’s Everest reconnaissance expedition of 1951, which discovered the eventual successful route to summit of Everest. However, with a change in leadership, of the 1953 Everest team from Shipton to John Hunt, he did not find a place in the final team. At 40, he was thought to be nearing the upper age limit that was a criterion for the team selection.
Murray was always in the mould of the Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton style of exploration and climbing. His 1950 traverses and climbs in Garhwal have inspired many a mountaineer, like me, in India and elsewhere. In a four-month long trip they lived off the land, and explored many unknown valleys and peaks. I, as a young person read his account with wonder. His exploration of the Girthi Gorge, brush with peaks like Bethartoli Himal, Uja Tirche, Lampak or Panch Chuli were landmarks. It inspired me to visit each of these places, in a leisurely manner and over decades. Also his style and concept were attractive enough to make Murray my hero. With close friends, I followed his trekking philosophy lifelong. Murray wrote
We shared the beer and toasted ‘mountains’. Suddenly aware of the brotherhood that it implied, he added, ‘and “mountaineers”’. “Mountains give us some good things”, I suggested. “Such as friends worth having, battles worth fighting and beauty worth seeing”.
P. 287. (originally quoted from
Evidence of Things Not Seen, p. 80)
Murray continued climbing in Scotland till late in his life. He was as much a writer as a climber and wrote about 25 books in the 83 years of his life. Later in his life he took interest in conservation of hills, possibly a debt he wanted to pay back to the mountains. He also held many positions in the mountaineering world as member, chairman of several organisations. He was vice president of the Alpine Club in 1971-72. He retired from several positions in 1980s. In early 1990s there was a health scare for the couple; Murray was seriously ill for a while and Anne had a serious road accident. However, he started writing his autobiography The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which he could not complete.
My brief visit to his home ended with a drink and he allowing me to take photo of him against backdrop of his vast library. I brought out my copy of his book, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1950, which I had carried from India, for his autograph. After signing it he gave me an envelope that contained the original dairy he had kept on that expedition and on which the book was based. This is a treasure I will cherish for life.
In the Foreword to the present book Robert Macfarlane sums up Murray’s passion accurately. p. XV,
W.H.Murray was in life, as on the page, an essayist. Mountaineer, writer, explorer, philosopher, conservationist; hob-nailed aesthete, bank-clerk mystic, secular monk, intellectual knight-errant : he was all of these things, and he was them all adventurously, for the key criterion of adventure was, in his definition, ‘uncertainty of result’.
SMASH AND GRAB. Annexation of Sikkim. By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray. Pp. 433, 23 photos, 2013 (Tranqubear by Westland, Chennai, INR 795)
This book gives a detailed account into the slow and gradual demise of the independent Kingdom of Sikkim into a ‘protectorate’, then an ‘associate state’ and finally the twenty-second state of independent India. The author describes how the indigenous Sikkimese people were left in the lurch at different times by the Nepalese, British, Chinese, Bhutanese and most of all by the Indian government.
The book begins with a brief history of Sikkim – and the establishment of the Namgyal dynasty. It examines how Sikkim, right from the eighteenth century was bullied by its far bigger and more powerful neighbours that had ‘whittled away chips of his (Chogyal’s) country ever since 1703’.
In particular, the author describes the two treaties signed by the British with Sikkim. The first, Treaty of Titalya (1817) essentially established Sikkim into a neutral state but more importantly a trade route to Tibet. The second one, Treaty of Tumlong (1861) allowed the British to intervene in internal matters of Sikkim, while also allowing the British to trade without paying any taxes. It continued to govern relationship between India and Sikkim right until 1950. Even more notably, it allowed for the first Political Officer (Claude White) to be posted in Sikkim. Interestingly, it would be the post of the same Political Officer that would be instrumental in bringing an end to the Sikkimese Kingdom in later years.
The bulk of the book however, doesn’t dwell on distant history and old treaties. Rather, it sets the stage for a tragic series of events. Almost like a theatrical act, the author introduces the various actors bit by bit – those who play instrumental roles in shaping the future of Sikkim. Prominent amongst them are the good natured Chogyal (Palden Thondup Namgyal), his bright son Tenzing, the scheming Political Officer Gurubachan Singh, the deceitful and disrespectful Chief Executive Bipin Bihari Lal and finally the indecisive and plain Kazi Lendhup Dorji who was controlled by his prolific writer wife, Kazini.
For a writer so close to the events that took place in Sikkim, there is always a risk that he will often miss the trees for the woods, and regurgitate meaningless events of no major consequence. Fortunately, the author doesn’t fall into that trap too often.
Instead he takes the effort to describe the unique characteristics of each of the major players to breathe life into them. For example, the Kazi is portrayed to be a hackneyed, non-intellectual husband of an ambitious and vivacious Kazini who has travelled the world. Almost all of Kazi’s political moves are therefore, are moulded by the far thinking Kazini – and of course, his political masters in Delhi.
For a person as close to the Chogyal as the author is, this account could be considered ‘biased’. But at every stage, the author tries to ensure that this allegation is never levelled against him. He quotes eminent jurists, judgements and historical precedents to back his claims. And most importantly, he gives a point by point rebuttal on many of the whimsical resolutions that were issued by the PO and Chief Executive.
And yet, sceptics may find that the author has glossed over some sticky issues. For example, the theory that Hope Cook (the second wife of the Chogyal) was a CIA agent – is dismissed as ‘Delhi-inspired calumny’. Even the suspicious hour-long meeting of Chogyal with the Chinese vice-premier in Nepal – and the adverse Indian reaction is brushed aside as ‘wild charges of conspiracy’. Consequently, critics might argue that the author has given a strongly one-sided perspective in this book.
Yet, it is undeniable that the author painstakingly delves into copious amount of paperwork to give a fact based argument against the actions of India. There is also plenty of spice for the nonchalant reader – many inside accounts and conspiracy theories are written in a particularly wry and witty language.
Eventually, the book leads itself into the 1970s – the time of great political turmoil in Sikkim. The author alleges that the events that transpired thereafter were planned years in advance by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) India. Whether or not it is true, the manner in which the sequence of events are described – the surgical accuracy in which one event led to another – clearly back the authors claim.
Eventually, when the Chogyal clings on to the remaining straws of power – not for himself but for the sake of his people – one feels for him and his cause. The brutal absorption of a small kingdom into the mighty nation that is India – touches a raw nerve in the reader’s mind. It shatters the vague idea inherent in the naïve mind – that India can do no wrong. It thoroughly exposes the duplicity and cunningness with which Britain (and then India) used an inch to grab a mile. It makes the reader wonder whether there is any difference between ‘land grabbing’ China and the Indian state - a comparison that doesn’t even arise for the chest-thumping, jingoistic Indian ‘nationalist’.
And that is the biggest achievement of the book. It’s a scathing revelation for a reader who has the wool pulled from his eyes for the first time. Indeed, there is no difference between India and any other state when politics is played in the manner it was in Sikkim. There is no rule sacrosanct, no ploy too morally incorrect, and no stone that can be left unturned. Tellingly, this book was banned by India for a number of years and now is in print again.
A quote attributed to the last PO Gurubachan Singh from the book perfectly sums this up - Revolutions evolve their own constitutionality.
TIBET WILD : A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World. By George B Schaller. Pp. 356, 33 colour photos, 2012. (Island Press, Washington, USD 29.95)
As we relive the Tibetan landscape and its fauna through the eyes of George Schaller in his popular book Tibet Wild, countless questions repeatedly surge through one’s mind – How much more will we overrun our environment? Are we as a species determined to prevail upon all other living forms to establish supremacy? And in doing so are we turning out to be our own nemesis? A simple and straightforward narrative, but such is its impact that it instantly propels the reader to become an active participant in establishing the beautiful and harmonious planet that Schaller envisions.
This book is based on Schaller‘s studies in Tibet spread over a period of three decades. The time that he has spent in one of the most remote and hostile regions in world, has enabled him to take a long, hard look into its conservation efforts. His vivid descriptions about tracing the social and migratory patterns of the various inhabitants give us a glimpse into his single-minded and tireless efforts, for which he is considered a keystone of the conservation and ecological preservation of this region. While the issues that Tibet is grappling with are of a grave nature, Schaller presents hard-hitting facts without resorting to sensationalism. The self-effacing style of the book modestly underplays his outstanding achievements on the field, reflecting the temperament of the author as a person committed to the cause.
Tibet, with its closed door policy towards foreigners, was a land less visited and less studied until the 1980s, with Schaller being one of the first westerners to be permitted to study this region. The importance of this land stems from the fact that major rivers of South-East Asia have their origins in the glaciers of Tibet. Therefore conservation efforts will play a vital role in maintaining the economic and political stability of the entire South-East Asia. Massive destruction of the natural ecosystem, attributed to developmental activities, large scale illegal mining and changing socio-economic lifestyles, are accelerating the process of global warming, causing the glaciers of Tibet to shrink. There is an impending threat of water paucity with far-reaching implications, unless suitable remedial measures are adopted by the impacted countries. In order to further the preservation objectives, a process of active engagement and collaboration between nations is not only required, but essential.
Having made countless expeditions totalling 41 months over a period of 30 years in the remote Chang Tang plateau and the adjoining territories, Schaller has an unparalleled insight into the region and the complexities of its fragile ecosystem. Schaller has conducted extensive field research on every mammal that inhabits this region, like the chiru, wild yak, Tibetan red deer, snow leopard, pika, kiang, argali, Marco Polo sheep and bears. These animals are endemic to the region and their survival and prosperity is an essential requirement. Schaller’s research reveals great insights and has been beneficial in directing and evolving government initiatives towards protection and conservation. Working with local communities he has also managed to mobilize many locals towards active participation. Also, his approach and style of working, has inspired many young biologists to focus on conservation and preservation.
The book is more than just an account of the experiences and findings in Tibet. Schaller treats it as a fascinating memoir of his entire journey as a naturalist, starting from his childhood. There are instances in the book where he introspects on his accomplishments as a naturalist and contemplates on what more could be done. Spanning all the continents in the northern hemisphere, many of his studies are path breaking and at various instances in this book, he recounts his experiences and findings from fifty years of study across the world – such as conservation in Alaska, gorillas in Congo, tigers in Kanha (India), lions of Serengeti, jaguars in Brazil, pandas in China, rediscovery of lost species in Vietnam and Tibet.
The author, shares in detail his interest in rediscovering the wildlife of the Namche Barwa region, which is believed to be a beyul (a hidden land) according to the beliefs of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. This region, referred to as Pemako, is spread between the southeast of Tibet and the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh in India, and includes the Yarlung Tsangpo gorge and the great bend as the mighty river descends into the Indian side as the Brahmaputra. Schaller has discussed at length the exploration of the wildlife of this region on the Tibetan side and his quest to see if the sacred land has preserved some previously undiscovered species. The fact that even the Pemako is largely devoid of wildlife, is a stark reminder as to how man’s desire for self-preservation has come at a steep price.
In spite of the sombre nature of the subject, Schaller does leave us with a lot of promise for the future :
… I find satisfaction in knowing that the chiru, kiang, and other wild species are once again on the increase. That so many individuals and organisations are fighting specifically for the survival of the chiru…is surely a reflection of the changing moral values of humankind.
TILTING AT MOUNTAINS. By Edurne Pasaban, (translation from Spanish by Maria Jose Gimenez). Pp. 224, 2014. (The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, USD 21.95, ISBN : 978-1-59485-850-5)
Ever since Reinhold Messner first completed climbing all the fourteen 8000 m peaks in October 1986, nineteen other men have entered this haloed club with ‘undisputed’ records. Twenty four years later this exclusive male bastion was stormed by Edurne Pasaban, a 37 year old Spanish mountaineer from Basque region who on May 17, 2010 became the first woman to achieve this feat. A landmark moment, this news gave a great fillip to the growing number of women in mountaineering. Tilting at Mountains is her personal story of this saga spanning just less than nine years. Originally published in 2011 in Castilian Spanish as ‘Catorce veces Ocho Mil’ (Fourteen times eight thousand), the English translation by Maria Jose Gimenez was published in 2014 by Mountaineers Books.
Brutally candid, unpretentious and very poignant, this is a very personal story of her life with all its facts and flaws laid our bare unlike any other book on mountaineering written by some of the members of the ‘14*8000 m club’. There are no maps, tables, notes, appendices, glossary or bibliography loaded with statistics and sensationalism which may disappoint exacting readers. What is really missing though, are some photographs. Her narrative talks about her shy teenage years, where she initially sought out mountaineering not as a hobby but as a sort of escape from a disturbed childhood, shyness, insecurity and a lack of self-confidence that at that time seemed ‘unattainable’ to her. Starting out with sport climbing, she unabashedly says that the 14*8000 m challenge for her was literally born out of a love story that started on a failed attempt on Dhaulagiri in 1998, her first outing in the Himalaya. Fortunate that she always climbed with a very supportive team of close friends, she bagged ten summits on her first attempt. Everest, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna 1 and Shishapangma required more than one attempt especially the latter, the lowest of the 8000`ers where she was only successful on her fifth attempt. Except for her first successful summit of Everest in 2001 where she used oxygen, she has climbed without it on all the other summits, the exception being the use of ‘emergency oxygen’ during her descent from Kangchenjunga. Although she does not dwell at length about the technical aspects of each climb, the attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga are discussed in greater detail where she experienced a near death situation. At the end of it all she however makes no bones about the fact that mountaineering is but a passion that borders on irrationality!
In the latter months of 2005, when she was 32 years old with eight summits under her hat, she went through her darkest dip in her personal life when she had to battle severe depression, including a suicide attempt in early 2006. She discusses her illness quite in detail in the chapter ‘Hitting Rock Bottom’ where she wonders, caught in a vortex of self-doubt and self-pity if she should actually be leading a conventional life expected of a woman rather than of a mountaineer. The cause of her depression was clinically diagnosed as ‘highly emotionally dependent on people in her life’. With medication and hospitalization, where as part of therapy she had to ‘crochet like grandmothers’ as she reminisces she was able to get past this dark phase and begin her quest for the remaining six summits in the autumn of 2006. That she climbed Broad Peak, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Kangchenjunga, Annapurna 1 and Shishapangma during her recovery speaks volumes about her sheer grit and determination.
In early 2008 when she had five more peaks to complete her 14*8000 m challenge she faced four other women contenders vying for the same goal, now churned on by media frenzy. She however says that she had met all of them during her climbs and had had cordial relations with all of them without getting sucked into the rat race. The end was a climax though when one of them beat her by about three weeks. However as one of the climbs of her opponent was verified as ‘disputed’ she came out the victor with no cause for doubt.
Very poignantly she says that after four years of anti-depressants, in 2010 after she completed the 8000 m challenge, she decided to stop the medication which she felt was more like a crutch, a superstitious ritual that gave her a false reassurance that all was well. ‘Giving up these anti-depressants’, she says ‘was as important in my life as having climbed K2 or Everest. ‘It was my fifteenth 8000er’.
THE GREAT SOUL OF SIBERIA. By Sooyong Park. Pp. 254, 16 pages colour photos, 2015. (William Collins, London, GBP 16.99)
Siberia may be outside the Himalayan Club’s usual area of interest, but the book under review here is mountain-based and one of the most moving outdoor texts I’ve read in years, crucially defining aspects of our relationship to the planet and the fellow-creatures with whom we share it. It could easily slip disregarded past the kulturtragers, who so delight in moulding the reading public’s taste, talking up the negligible efforts of their own caste, and neglecting the truly worthy and authentic. How sad that would be, for here’s a book that is entirely worthy and authentic, and born of hard and dangerous solitary endeavour.
Among many other things, it’s an account of studying the tiger population in the Ussuri mountains of south-eastern Siberia. The author, Sooyong Park, is a South Korean documentary film-maker. His courage, humility, sensitivity, devotion to his perilous self-imposed task, endurance of its rigours and utter respect for these tigers and their home environment take my breath away.
Simone Weil, one of the crucial voices in twentieth-century western culture, wrote of the necessity when you enter the natural world of doing so as though you were not there – of leaving your ego entirely behind, in other words. I’ve never read a book that more perfectly exemplifies her injunction than The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger. This is a masterpiece.
But if you approach Great Soul with expectations of American ‘program era’ writing, or English culture’s Cambridge-school ‘New Nature Writing’ – both of which modes are riddled with self-conscious stylistic affectations; or if you want something to coo ‘beautifully written!’ (whatever that fatuous term may mean) to your tutorial or readers’ group about, then you’ll be disappointed with this text.
I don’t read Korean, and suspect that the English translation here is a poor and awkward shadow of the original. Even so, it can’t conceal the scale and significance of what it describes, nor the author’s exquisite sensibility, his unpolluted and loving attention to the natural world.
This is a book about love – one exceptional human being’s love for the wild, beautiful and persecuted creatures to learning about which his life is dedicated. It also comprehends a fortitude and hardihood so far beyond the everyday I was left shaking my head in astonished admiration. Fifteen winters spent alone with only the mice that preyed on his rations for company; living on rice-balls and green tea in flimsy, two-cubic-metre-square underground bunkers, unheated, the temperature -30 C, their sites carefully chosen and concealed alongside migratory tracks used by suspicious and super-aware animals; unable to go out, for merest glimpse or scent of him would ensure that these ultra-wary creatures would never pass his way again.
Siberian tigers today are extremely cautious. They loathe interaction with humans and avoid all man-made structures and objects. Past records show that they haven’t always been this vigilant and circumspect. I wonder how much suffering [caused them] to become this way?
At one point his shelter was attacked, his life spared only by the creature’s defaulting to sibling play. The account is as exciting as any thriller, opening with the shelter’s thin roof flexing under the unsuspecting tigers’ weight, moving into arousal of their curiosity by mice knocking a cup off a shelf within, and climaxing in savage assault on the makeshift structure. That it and Park survive is near-miraculous.
As is – translational ineptitudes aside – the spare beauty of the narrative challenges our western philosophical paradigms in many ways. There’s as much of Zen koan as the scientific/ratiocinative in Park’s model. He tells of a monk at his temple who once looked into a jay’s nest and met the parent bird’s brooding eye.
‘We can’t see all of nature with our own eyes, and there is no need. Like the monk who believed that the baby jay would grow safely into adulthood without him watching, it’s important that we believe without seeing. If the monk ignores the jay, the jay ignores the monk; if we ignore the tigers, the tigers ignore us.’
Thoreau – himself influenced by the mysticism of the East – understood this, and would approve:
‘…not what we look at, but what we see…’
ARUNACHAL. By Peter van Ham. Pp. 235, Many colour illustrations, 2014. (Niyogi books, New Delhi, INR 2495)
The tribal land of Arunachal Pradesh has always attracted photographers in particular. The way the people dress, their features, the customs and traditions of the different tribes are a photographer’s delight. This illustrated book, in large size, covers many aspects of this tribal life.
It also traces the history and progress from a tribal land to a modern state. Several old maps, photos and quotes of Arunachal Pradesh help to record this. The book starts with a geographical narration in the chapter ‘Land of Dawn-lit Mountains’. It covers the mountain areas and valleys in this ancient land.
It then proceeds to elucidate the transformation of the region, ‘From a Malaria Jungle to a State’, which is the crux of this book. The engraving from Harper’s Weekly in the issue of 9 October 1875, shows three Nyishi men surrounded by dense primeval forests – this sets the tone leaving the reader to appreciate the beauty and ancient knowledge in this land. A French engraving of 1901 of a group of Digaru Mishmi rowing a boat, the Dufla expeditions and steel engraving of scenery in 1841; all indicate the meticulous research. The engraving of Dufla (now Dafla) was also featured on the cover of Illustrated London News in 1875. Most times, we believe that these were totally unexplored lands, but these pictures are proof enough that the British had deep interests in the area and have recorded them. Many such historic photographs follow. A particular photo of special interest is that of a memorial stone that was erected at the spot where Noel Williamson was murdered on 31 March 1911. A punitive expedition was sent to avenge this death and this paved way for deep in-roads being made into hostile tribal areas. This event was the root cause behind the alteration of Arunachal tribal lands forever.
The narrative quickly diverges to the war with China and NEFA being formed as an independent state of India - Arunachal Pradesh. The book includes an imprint of a special First Day postal cover with a special franking to commemorate the formation of the State on 27 April 1986, a rare record. The chapter ‘A Hundred Peoples in the Land of the Hornbill’ covers the different tribes of the state in brief but is a brilliant photographic record. The work by Verrier Elwin receives detailed mention.
Then on, the book introduces the state and includes the customs and traditions prevalent in northern, central and southern regions. The book has been well researched and well supported by an array of invaluable and timeless photographs. But a feeling of déjà vu is still quite palpable, as much has already been written on the same subject. The topography and physiology of this land is still waiting to be revealed. Arunachal has a rich but tragic history. World War II raged at its doorstep. The 1962 India-China war brought the war to its core. There are several other aspects like Takpa Siri, Tsangpo gorge and much more to be noted. The beauty and the history of this state will never be complete until most of such aspects are covered too, but this will require a tome. All such books, as the present one, add to the repository to build that final pyramid of knowledge.
THE CALLING : A Life Rocked by Mountains. By Barry Blanchard. Pp 439, 36 colour and 53 black and white photos (Patagonia Books, Patagonia Inc. Canada, CAD 27.95)
A boy boards a Greyhound bus. He is only nine years old and travelling alone. He has been staying with his grandmother for some time and now it was time for him to get back home from Alberta to Calgary, Canada. His grandmother had walked him onto the bus and asked the driver, ‘Would you look out for him, would ya? He’s my grandson.’ The driver got the ‘little fellow’ seated in front so that he could see him. ‘Would you like to see some cool pictures?’ said the lady sitting next to him and started reading from a book she was carrying. And so, as the bus rolled on for the next hundred miles, he was taken on a roller coaster ride, through tales of the legendary first ascent of Eiger’s North face. The stories flooded his imagination with cascades from another world. He didn’t realize that he was being read from what was to be the gospel message of his life’s inspiration, The White Spider. When the ride was over, he caught a glimpse of the majestic Rockies from the bus, and he saw what he saw in an entirely new light. A calling was born.
While in high school that boy read every mountaineering book that he could find and experienced the thrill of his first climb. For the next seven years since that Greyhound ride, the following sentence from Heinrich Harrer’s classic ‘clung to a corner’ of this kid’s mind - ‘Next morning we discovered that Vorg had sat motionless, without a single movement of a muscle, so that Heckmair’s sleep might be undisturbed.’ It was an image of ‘care, compassion and courage’. He wanted to be like Heckmair, Kasparek, Vorg and Harrer and thus began his quest to become an ‘alpinist’ in its truest sense, and his strive to be like those men who ‘were living to a higher ideal’. The boy in the Greyhound bus was Barry ‘Bubba’ Blanchard who came to be known as one of the very best of the alpinists of his time, noted for pushing the standards of highly technical, high-risk alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies and the Himalaya. He has always been inclined on doing more with less and perhaps that is why we have seen him most of the time climbing insanely difficult mountain features (from Nanga Parbat’s Rupal face, or Denali’s Cassin ridge to the northeast face of Mount Chephren) in a small team and with minimal equipment. Most of Blanchard’s ascents and the new lines that he established, stand today as masterpieces. But as he mentions, ‘Poetically, some of my greatest lines are melting away as they will with the passage of time.’ Today Barry Blanchard is a legend.
The Calling : A Life Rocked by Mountains is his extraordinarily candid memoir describing his evolution as an alpinist. In this book, Blanchard delivers a real balance between graphic, fascinating accounts of his climbs and captivating portraits of himself as a human. Interestingly, Blanchard writes more about his friends than about himself, and appreciates their climbing abilities way more often than he mentions his own skills. To Barry Blanchard, who dedicates chapters to his real, live friends as well as his petrified ones (the mountains), the towering peaks are personalities as prolific as his own climbing brethren are. His enthusiasm for life shines through the pages of this book. While getting nearer to the top of the north face of Alberta, Blanchard writes, ‘My climbing became a joy and I realized that I was the only expression of joy for many a mile and thousands of feet.’
The Calling is well illustrated with scintillating black and white and colour plates but the unique thing is the suggested playlist of rock and roll for each chapter serving almost as a resonating justification of the subtitle of the book. Also, there are very few writers in this genre who realize the prowess of and pay tributes to those who have preceded them. Blanchard says, ‘I was called to mountain climbing and much of that voice came to me through reading the words of Heinrich Harrer, Walter Bonatti, Lionel Terray, Gaston Rebuffat, Giusto Gervasotti, Reinhold Messner, Fosco Maraini, Tom Patey, Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard, and James Salter. May their words stay in print, and may other young people find them.’ Blanchard goes on to say, ‘Lastly, to the mountains, they all point up into the sky and lift us up physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Climbing mountains is good for the soul.’
The Calling is Barry Blanchard’s deeply personal memoir told in a passionately intense style and it is an unputdownable book both for mountaineers and anyone who loves the great outdoors.
‘The Calling’ was awarded the 2015 The Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.
EAST OF THE HIMALAYA. Alps of Tibet and Beyond - Mountain Peak Maps. By Tamotsu Nakamura, Pp. 363, many maps, 514 colour photos, 2016 (Nakanishiya Shuppan Co. Ltd, Kyoto, 10,000 Jp Yen, roughly USD 100. ISBN 978-4-7795-0994-0 C2625).
The future of exploratory mountaineering in Asia for the next 50 years has just been turned on its head.
Tamotsu Nakamura of the Japanese Alpine Club (Honorary member of almost every other major alpine club, including The Himalayan Club) has now published 37 exploratory/mapping expeditions to the mountains of Central, South and East Tibet, SW China, Burma & Bhutan to regions he calls ‘East of the Himalaya’. This is a magnificent large-format book with high production standards, paper quality, colour photography reproduction and superbly drawn full and double page maps. The book celebrates the Japanese Alpine club’s 110th anniversary.
For those who have ventured on expeditions in Pakistan, India, Nepal and western Tibet Himalaya, obtaining good maps, especially to offbeat ranges has always been a stumbling block. The two-volume Mountaineering Maps by Ichiro Yoshizawa were a revelation in 1978 but they were expensive at the time and currently $US1000 per volume if you can find them - the text was entirely in Japanese and the map quality OK but not great. Importantly, volume one opened up our minds to the vast potential of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush but moving eastwards, volume two didn’t even attempt to cover the ranges in Eastern Tibet and beyond. Even in the 1993 CMA publication, A guide to Mountaineering in China, there is no mention of the Alps of Tibet, Nyainqentanglha and Kangri Garpo ranges (at least 240 unclimbed 6000 m peaks lie in those two ranges alone). Mr Nakamura’s recent important book, Die Alpen Tibet, was more limited in its scope than East of the Himalaya and was only released in German. Over the past five years, his Japan Alpine News Journal (in English) has been inspirational and hugely educational for many. But, now, East of the Himalaya will be an eye-opener for expedition climbers the world over - the combination of the maps and hundreds of mountain portraits is simply breathtaking.
The text is in English, Chinese and Japanese, providing outline histories of mountaineering to date in each of the ranges covered - an essential starting point for anyone who wants to delve deeper by reading reports in Alpine journals or by making direct contact with current climbers. (The book also has an extensive bibliography)
I quote from Mr Nakamura’s introduction - The Last Frontier
Today the map has no more secrets. Idle minds repeat that parrot phrase. But who knows all Tibet, or its far-away frontier on western China. Even its own prayer-muttering tribes know only their own bleak, wind-swept valleys. So wrote American botanist/explorer Joseph Rock in National Geographic Magazine, February 1930.
The open-door policy implemented since 1980 by China’s former supreme leader, Deng Xiao-Ping, enabled foreign climbers to gain access to veiled and unknown Greater Ranges in Tibet and neighbouring regions which we call East of the Himalaya. Currently, the West Development Drive is spreading to every corner of the Tibetan marches…the Tibetan inhabitants in the remotest borderlands are suffering from rapid and drastic changes to their lifestyle. Nevertheless, many attractive areas are not open to foreigners and not easy to approach because of political backgrounds. Some areas share borders with Bhutan, India and Myanmar…and some places are prohibited for political reasons - revolting Khamba people and place of rebirth of Panchen Lama…Not only foreigners, but the CMA has paid no attention to the unexplored areas of eastern Tibet, …and is only interested in commercial expeditions to Qomolangma and Cho Oyu…
Obtaining permits to climb and explore some of these ranges will continue to be problematic, but not impossible, especially for climbers who cannot afford the high peak fees charged for the plum unclimbed peaks. To further help break down barriers with the Chinese Mountaineering Association as well as educate the growing number of Chinese mountaineers I feel it is a masterstroke that Mr Tom has added Chinese text.
Here’s an outline of the maps to give an appreciation of the book’s scope :
Part 1 : Eastern Rim of Central Tibet, South Tibet and East Tibet - 23 maps, including glaciers in East of the Himalaya and peaks close to the China-Bhutan border, Kulha Kangri, Gangkhar Puensum, peaks on the McMahon Line, Gyala Peri and Namche Barwa, Nyainqentanglha West and East ranges (eight maps) & Kangri Garpo Ranges (three maps), etc.
Part 2 : Hengduan Mountains - SE Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan.
Deep Gorge country, Yunnan Tibet, Border-Meili Snow Mountains, North Myanmar - Hkakabo Razi and Gamlang Razi, Source of the Irrawaddy, Hengduan Mountains - west Sichuan highlands, Chola Shan Range, Daxue Shan Range - Minya Konka (Gongga Shan) Massif, etc.
Part 3 : Beyond Alps of Tibet : Sources of the Great Asian Rivers.
Tanggula Shan - Geladaindong Massif - Source of Yangtse river, Qinghai. Mekong river headwaters, Maqen Kangri Massif - Amnye Machen, etc.
East of the Himalaya is a remarkable piece of research - a most valuable reference book for every mountaineering library. Tom Nakamura is recipient of the ‘Busk Medal’ of the Royal Geographical Society.
Hardback version - THE MAVERICK MOUNTAINEER : The Remarkable Life of George Ingle Finch : Climber, Scientist, Inventor. By Robert Wainwright. Pp 416, 1 x 8 Pp b+w insert, 2016 (Allen & Unwin, London, USD 24.96)
Kindle version - MAVERICK MOUNTAINEER : George Ingle Finch, The Wild Colonial Boy Who Took on the British Alpine establishment. By Robert Wainwright. 24 B&W photos, 2015 (ABC Books, Sydney, USD 7.99)
I should begin this review by admitting that a biography of pioneering Everester George Ingle Finch is a book I wish I could have written. It became clear to me many years ago that Finch’s place in mountaineering history, and indeed, his life story, would make for a most intriguing narrative. Alas, I never undertook such a project for a number of reasons, but instead contented myself with editing the German to English translation of Finch’s 1925 book Der Kampf um den Everest in 2008. This is not to say, however, that I was not and am not (still) extremely intrigued with George Finch. His life’s journey (b. 1888-d.1970) from rural Australia to adolescence and early adulthood in continental Europe to his establishment in the United Kingdom was most certainly a cultural odyssey, and yet so much more. George and his brother Max emerged as first-rate alpinists by 1910 from their adolescence spent in Europe, and George went on to not only great feats in the mountains, but great feats in the world of science as well.
George moved permanently to the UK shortly before the First World War, and the (UK) Alpine Club was at that time a club for British ‘gentlemen’ who happened to climb. Being a ‘colonial’ by way of Europe did nothing to endear him to the old guard, regardless of his climbing capabilities. Finch was also by that time an extremely capable physical chemist who possessed a fine-tuned intellect, and a person who tended to speak his mind. All of this created friction between Finch and the British establishment of the era, and resultant difficulties came to a head during the pioneering Everest expeditions of the early 1920s. George was initially invited to participate in each of these early British journeys to Everest (1921, 1922, and 1924), but managed to eventually be included in only the 1922 expedition. His expeditionary contributions went beyond mountaineering skill – he was a pioneer with early supplementary oxygen systems and clothing as well. Nonetheless, his colonial and scientific background (at a time when scientists were not considered gentlemen in the establishment sense) - not to mention his straightforward approach to people and problems – were strikes against him. On the 1922 Everest expedition, Geoffrey Bruce and he established an altitude record with the aid of supplementary oxygen. George’s trouble with establishment figures in the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society and this kept him from Everest in 1921 and, perhaps more significantly, 1924. The 1924 expedition established new altitude records but, of course, also saw the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine. We are left to wonder if the outcome might have been different had Finch been included on that climb.
Wainwright does a fine job of exploring the twists and turns of George’s long, varied and extremely interesting life. As a long-time student of Finch, I am much impressed by this very well researched biographical effort and do not hesitate to admit that I learned much more about Finch and his times than I assumed I would when I began my reading. The author captures so well a bygone era, especially around the tumultuous years before, during, and just after WWI. The world went through incredible social and cultural changes during the years of George Ingle Finch’s life, and this can be illustrated by the fact that George emerged from his youth - and bitter battles with the British climbing establishment - to (somewhat ironically) become President of the Alpine Club from 1959-1962! Much happened to the world in general, and George Finch in particular, in the decades between the First World War and 1960.
My best advice is that if you have any interest in mountaineering history, especially during the era surrounding man’s early pioneering efforts on the earth’s highest peaks, you should read this book.
GEORGE W. RODWAY
Books on Arunachal Pradesh and Northeast India
HUNT FOR THE BURU IN NEFA. By Ralph Izzard. Pp. 180, 22 B/W photos, 1950, Reprint 2014. (Spectrum publications, Guwahati, INR 680)
Northeast India forms a part of the second largest bio diversity hotspot in the world. So it is of little wonder that even today there are many new species from the animal and plant kingdom which are being discovered here. And it was exactly this reason that made Ralph Izzard set out on an expedition to find a hitherto unknown animal in the forest of Arunachal Pradesh, then termed as NEFA.
Izzard was a journalist and author, with a penchant for adventure. As a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail he was stationed in Berlin for many years, post which he travelled widely through Asia. One of his most famous adventures was to retrace the steps of John Hunt’s 1953 Everest expedition.
This book is a narrative of his expedition with famous zoologist Charles Stonor and photographer Frank Hodgkinson to the frontier areas of British Assam in a region which is today Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary. The adventure sparks off when, in an informal conversation with an IFS officer, the officer mentions the discovery of a ‘lost valley’ in northern Assam where there could be possible findings of some prehistoric creatures.
Thus begins the author’s journey from the dusty plains of Delhi to Assam, after long correspondence with Stonor over his previous expedition, to the Apa Tani (Ziro) valley. Izzard gives graphic details about the preparations required for an expedition of this complexity, which is jeopardized at the last minute due to his grave accident. Yet Izzard somehow manages to gather strength and meet with Stonor in Lokra in Assam.
Having trekked through some of the forests in Arunachal Pradesh, I can well imagine the difficulties which the author and his team must have faced. Hacking their way through thick evergreen forests, with a regular onslaught of leeches and Dam Dim flies. All through the book the author describes the dress, living style, superstitions and ever-changing attitudes of the Dafla (now known as Nyishi) tribe who inhabit the area around Pakke. Since the expedition had a photographer, there are interesting photographs of the Daflas and their houses.
The second half of the book talks about life at Rilo camp and explorations to nearby swamps for the prehistoric animal the locals call Buru. He talks about the challenges faced while searching for a lookout point for the Buru which supposedly resides in a swamp, life in the camp and their interactions with the Daflas of Rilo village.
When after a month and a half of looking out for the Buru yields the party little success, they are disillusioned. The final blow comes when one day they realize that the local stories about the Buru, which seemed the only premise for going ahead with the expedition, turns out to be an empty one.
All in all, this is a good read with lots of information about the Nyishi tribe and the geography of the area.
IN THE LAND OF THE DIHING. By Jayant Nobis. Pp. 204, 16 colour and 4 b/w photos, 2014. (Spectrum publications, Guwahati, INR 695)
My first foray into upper Assam was on my way to Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. While driving down to our destination through a sea of tea gardens, I was fascinated by the funny names of the towns, like Digboi, Margherita and Ledo, wondering how these names came into being in a place like Assam. I was soon to learn that this area, rich in natural resources, was tapped by the British, who set up the first oil refinery and coal mine here.
In this memoir, Jayant Nobis talks about life in this relatively unknown part of Assam, while giving us a background into the history of this place. Having served in Assam Oil for more than 20 years gave him a deep insight into the region. The Dihing valley is drained by its namesake river which starts from the Patkai mountains and flows down the town of Miao in Arunchal from where the river branches off into Noa Dihing and Buri Dihing.
The book gives a historic perspective on how the British came into these frontier parts and discovered tea being grown by a local tribe. Commercial enterprise got them to experiment with growing tea in these parts which proved to be a great success. The author relates an interesting story of barter between the British officer Alexander Bruce who gave a pistol to the tribal Singpho chieftain in exchange for tea saplings. This laid the foundation of Dihing valley becoming the tea capital of India.
One thing led to another. With the development of tea came coal and the setting up of the first colliery in Ledo, which in turn led to the development of the railways. And it was during the foundation work of the railways that the British chanced upon large quantities of oil. Thus was set the first oil refinery in India at a place named Digboi in 1901.
Nobis talks about his journey into the world of oil, starting as a trainee in Assam Oil. He describes the working of the oil industry and his professional experiences, which at times gets a bit mundane and uninteresting. Simultaneously, he talks about the seemingly fairytale life of a planter in the tea gardens, lavish yet riddled with problems.
In between the workings of the oil industry, Jayant narrates interesting stories of how the Marwaris landed up in the oil town to find their fortunes, and how the famous actress, Julie Christie, was born here. One of his most cherished memories is that of being invited by the Singpho tribal chieftain, which ope>ned the doors to a lifelong friendship.
KHIKSABA. By Pascale Dollfus and Francoise Jacquesson. Pp. 142, 26 colour and 2 b/w photos, maps, 2013. (Spectrum Publications, Guwahati, INR 550)
Arunachal Pradesh is probably the most culturally diverse state of India, with 26 major tribes. The least known of these would probably be the Sherdukpens, having a miniscule population of 5000. Their territory extends from Rupa till the border areas of Assam, which fall under the West Kameng district. The Sherdukpens are followers of Buddhism, albeit with a strong trace of their ancient animist traditions.
Traditionally the Sherdukpens hailing from Rupa would migrate every winter to the lowlands close to the border of Assam. Once they reached the villages in Assam they celebrated a festival called Khiksaba, the origin of which nobody is sure about. It is a five-day festival with a strong animist essence, bringing out the complex structure of the Sherdukpen society.
The authors, a social anthropologist and a linguist, are the first people to document this unique and little known festival. The book is a dedication of three years of effort; visiting the Sherdukpens during the festival and interviewing the locals to gain as much information as possible. Each day of the festival is documented as a chapter, thus providing details of the ceremonies.
The authors have made maps, and diagrams of various religious objects used during the ceremony. Along with pictures of the festival at the start of the book, these illustrations give the reader a great idea of this colourful and elaborate festival.
THREE YEARS IN CACHAR. By M. J. Wright. Pp. 198, 10 B/W photos, 1895 (Reprint 2014). (Spectrum publications, Guwahati, INR 320)
This book, the cover says, was perhaps not meant to be published. It is based on notes maintained by the author during her three-and-half-year stay in Cachar (now a district in lower Assam). She arrived in Calcutta in 1889 and moved to Cachar. The leisurely life of the British memsahibs in those days is documented.
The real value of this book lies in its description of the ‘Manipur Massacre’. The Royal Princes quarrelled among themselves and there was a palace massacre. The British intervened and one of the princes was sent off to Calcutta through Cachar.
This is a good reference on the forgotten history of the Himalayan foothills.
THE MYTHS OF MUTANCHI. By Sonam Wangchuk Lepcha. Pp. 142, fully illustrated, 2015. (Privately published, contact author on email : sonamWC.firstname.lastname@example.org, Rs 300)
Present day Sikkim is a mixture of many races. The majority consists of people of Nepali origin and then come various ethnic groups. But the original inhabitants of the state were the Lepchas. They were the major tribe in the state, till other political compulsions took over.
The Lepchas were nature-worshippers. They had a language of their own and several traditions that are now almost forgotten.
This book, by a young Lepcha scholar, gathers many forgotten myths and traditions of his people. Stories, beliefs and the early life of the tribe are well documented. The author has painstakingly collected rare photographs of the community and has also taken several pictures in recent years to make a complete record of the Dzongu area where they are at present confined and protected.
This is a rare book of the people by one of their own and would be very valuable to any researcher.
This set of five books has been reviewed by
REINHOLD MESSNER : MY LIFE AT THE LIMIT. Interviewed by Thomas Hüetlin. Translated by Tim Carruthers. Pp 265, 7 b/w photos, Paperback. (Mountaineer Books Seattle 2014, ISBN 9781594858529, USD 16.98)
Climbing is all about freedom, the freedom to go beyond all rules and take a chance, to experience something new, to gain insight into human nature.
The latest book on Messner is a translation from German. The original was written and compiled, after a series of interviews he gave to Thomas Hüetlin, a renowned journalist. The book is presented as a series of questions and answers between the two. The simple conversational style is easy to read, and reveals an older Messner reminiscing about his past. He appears thoughtful, attempting to give us an insight into his self. As he recounts things close to his heart, including the demise of his brother Günther, we get a deeper understanding of Messner the human being behind Messner the mountaineer and climber.
Undoubtedly one of the best climbers and Himalayan mountaineer of the 20th century, he kept pushing the limit of possibility, as he took up different challenges throughout his life. He set the Himalayan climbing bar for others to follow.
The book is divided into seven parts, each dealing with a phase of his life starting from his early childhood, to his current obsession with museums. The seventh chapter is an epilogue where the interviewer summarizes everything through the dialogue. The first couple of chapters are about his younger years climbing in South Tyrol and Dolomites, the tragedy on Nanga Parbat and Manaslu, his unwavering will to continue in the face of adversity, the controversies and court cases with Herrligkoffer, his alpine style ascent of Gasherbrum I with Peter Habeler, his ascent of Everest without oxygen, his solo ascents of Nanga Parbat and Everest, culminating with the ‘Crown of Himalaya’, as he became the first person to climb all 14 eight thousand metre mountains.
The book then reveals his desire to keep challenging himself, as he moved from mountaineering to long walks across Tibet, the Poles and the Gobi Desert. He shows his undying spirit, testing himself against the elements, as he grows older. He keeps going back to Nanga Parbat, where he finally found closure with the discovery of his brother’s body in 2005, which put a lid on all the rumour mongers. We also get to know what he has been doing in the recent years – his stint in the European Parliament; his passion - six Messner Museums related to mountaineering which will be his legacy; and finally his family life. He amuses us with his narration of incidents such as a fall when he broke his leg, or when he caught a thief in his castle in Juval.
All throughout, he comes across as an uncompromising, frank person with a strong sense of purpose. He has no qualms about being egoistical. He is hard on himself, and doesn’t hold back in calling a spade a spade. He admits that he has few friends, and is proud of them. He answers all difficult questions about his deceased brother, and his problems with his partners, in a straightforward manner.
The book is difficult to put down once you pick it up, as you discover Reinhold Messner, the person behind the persona. It is a book which every mountain lover should have in his collection.
I can’t live without the experience of pushing things to the limit. The symptom for the disorder is defined by a lust for life that comes from putting my life at risk.
EVEREST REVEALED. The Private Diaries and Sketches of Edward Norton 1922-24. Edited by Christopher Norton. Pp 148, water colour illustrations, pencil sketches, photographs and maps. (The History Press Gloucestershire, 2014. GBP 20.00)
There have been a number of great books on the earliest Everest expeditions including E. F. Norton’s - The Fight for Everest : 1924. However this is the first time that Edward Norton’s personal diaries and sketch books from the expeditions of ’22 and ‘24 have been published. The reason, his grandson and editor, Christopher Norton explains in the preface is because during his lifetime, Edward Norton ‘never contemplated publishing either the diaries or the sketches. Indeed, he had to be pushed hard to show them even to close members of the family, claiming that they were of little interest to anyone but himself.’ After his death, his wife Joyce continued respecting his wishes, consenting to have only a few sketches published in the Alpine Journal 1993.
So it is only now, 90 years later, that we are treated to the daily life of two memorable expeditions through the eyes of a modest and remarkable man.
E. F. ‘Teddy’ Norton was born in 1884 in an upper-middle-class Victorian family and during the 70 years of his life saw two world wars, the disintegration of the British Empire and a world of change. He was a professional soldier for 40 years and the Everest expeditions came midway through his long and illustrious army service. An excellent climber, he was member of both Everest 1922 and 1924, and thrust into leadership of the latter when Gen. Bruce fell ill.
What is remarkable is that given his responsibilities, Norton had the time to keep such meticulous diaries and paint and sketch (his background and profession probably account in part for this diligence and discipline). In 1922, in addition to his regular duties, he assisted Tom Longstaff, the expedition doctor and official naturalist, in collecting and cataloguing the wildlife and flora of the mountain regions they passed through (Diary entry 23 June ’22 : Spent all morning going through flowers & cataloguing them. 223 kinds to date. Ditto with butterflies & moths in p.m. 14 kinds of butterflies, 34 of moths. A dull but useful day. A few days later he wrote : In p.m. hair cut & walked up Lang Chu with Mallory after flowers. Found several new bringing total to over 300). In 1924 Norton had of course the added responsibilities of the leader. However obtained, the images that emerge through writing and drawing are both spare and vivid.
The book itself is divided into two main sections : Everest 1922 and Everest 1924 with a small third chapter called After Everest. Each of the main sections contains a brief introduction to, and overview of the expedition using references from the diaries and photographs. This is followed by the actual diary entries along with the sketches and water colours done en route. Each section ends with three letters written by Norton, in the first instance to his mother (he was not married till 1925) and after the second expedition, to the bereaved families of Mallory and Irvine and a letter to Sir Francis Younghusband.
Norton’s water colours are both masterly landscapes that reveal a deep appreciation of the windswept terrains and deft renditions of people, animals and flowers. They are all the more remarkable when you realize that they were often done in temperatures where the water froze as soon as it touched the paper.
The pencil studies show a sensitivity and understanding of characters and a fondness for their quirks. This is pronounced when drawing people he is familiar with. The humour in the pictures of Hingston, (naturalist for the 1924 expedition) are worthy of Punch and the wit behind the stance and features of Capt. Morris and Geoffrey Bruce and of Noel filming are all too evident.
As a diary writer, Norton shows remarkable restraint. Given that this is a personal diary there is very little self-indulgence. Only rarely does he give in to petulance or complaints - occasional outbursts against the weather, unhelpful chieftains or unwelcome locals.
His letters to his mother connect the diary entries into a narrative that reveal a storyteller. Consider the brief May 20th sentence : lost my rucksack with all spare warm clothes over kad. In his letter this becomes : in addition I forgot to say that early in the day I had put down my rucksack (stuffed spherically with spare woollies, socks, bedroom slippers etc.) for a moment and it disappeared with one leap to the Main Rongbuk Glacier below. And slightly later on : One was too thirsty to eat much. I invented a dish which I recommend for similar occasions – strawberry jam and ‘Ideal’ milk (both solid of course) mixed with powdery snow into a sort of ice. It was really rather good but not very sustaining.
What is unconscious but revealing in the work of the two expeditions is the attitude towards coolies and Sherpas. Kellas had already used them to great effect and they were being acknowledged for their skills, but no one knew them by name. The 1922 avalanche in which seven porters were killed is recorded by Norton but mentions only that : The 7 coolies included some of our most gallant - & all were the best of fellows. Cast a gloom over everything. His second letter home gives them high praise as a group - Most of them seem excellent walkers and climbers on rock and none too bad on snow. They offer to go on and climb Everest if or when the Sahibs are ‘tired’. I am not at all sure that some won’t be competent to do so.
But in 1924 a change is noted. By now, the term ‘Tiger’ given by Mallory, was commonly used for the best porters and the diary entries start making references to many of them by name : Nima Tundoo, Chutin, Dorjay Pasang, Phu, Namgya, Llakpa Tsering, Sangloo, Nuboo Yishay, llakpa Chedi and Semchumbi.
The deaths of the porters in ’22 and of Mallory and Irvine in ’24 ended both Everest expeditions on tragic notes. However Norton was convinced that Everest could be easily climbed. In 1922 he wrote : I felt no more inconvenience from rarity of atmosphere at nearly 27,000 than I have done over several 17,000 ft passes and I have very little doubt that had everything gone well – had we camped at say 26,000 – got away well – with no snow and struck ideal conditions, we could have walked to the top of Everest without oxygen and without undue inconvenience from rarity of atmosphere.
And on June 4, 1924, Norton reached an altitude of 28,126 ft. before turning back. It remained for 54 years an unbroken world altitude record for mountaineers not using oxygen.
However reticent Edward Norton was, his diaries and illustrations greatly add to the treasure trove of Himalayan literature and his family are to be thanked for making these archives accessible to mountain lovers and readers everywhere. Christopher Norton has done us a great service and one hopes that his grandfather would have been proud to see it too.
THE FIGHT FOR EVEREST 1924. E.F. Norton & others. Pp Xiv & 305, 64 colour & b/w plates. (Vertebrate Publishing, GBP 24, ISBN 978-1-910240-39-7).
It seemed to look down with cold indifference on me, mere puny man, and howl derision in wind-gusts at my petition to yield up its secret – this mystery of my friends.
There’s an industry grown up around the account from which that quotation derives. It’s from Noel Odell’s description of climbing up to Camp VI and beyond on Everest’s North Ridge in 1924 in the hope that Mallory and Irvine, companions he’d last glimpsed through a gap in the mist heading upwards two days before, might be safely returned to camp. It’s the longest-running tease in mountaineering history : the romantic imperialists desperate to believe that their men, against all odds, made the summit 29 years before its accepted first ascent; cold reason and hard truths implicit in discoveries on the mountain seventeen years ago pointing conclusively away from that view.
Being rather sceptical of the British tendency to mythopoeia, I’m of the opinion that going back to foundation texts (not film, where the tendency always is to sensationalize) gives the clearest perspective on forces at work in the construction of hero-legend. The relevant book here – one of our mountaineering classics with which you’re most likely to be familiar through extracts rather than in its entirety – is Colonel Norton’s The Fight for Everest 1924.
At one time rare and expensive, this fascinating contemporaneous view of what’s long been billed as climbing’s greatest mystery has just been brought out in a beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated edition by Sheffield’s excellent Vertebrate Publishing. Any serious mountain bibliophile will want to own it. It’s essential reading for anyone with more than a casual interest in the story of Himalayan mountaineering, and far more deserving of a place on a mountain enthusiast’s bookshelves than Wade Davis’s sprawling, prurient and essentially ignorant Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory & the Conquest of Everest (sic!) of 2011, which spent 650 pages in propounding the obvious thesis that most early British Everest climbers had survived the carnage of the Great War.
Norton’s compilation is a far more worthy and interesting volume. It comprises chapters written variously by Teddie Norton, General Bruce, Geoffrey Bruce, Odell, Beetham, Hingston, Somervell and Shebbeare, and includes a poignant thirty-page section of letters by Mallory to his wife Ruth :
As I sit in my tent writing I have at my side a little pot of grease into which I occasionally dip my finger and then rub a little on to the sorer parts of my face.
These letters, remarkably devoid of emotional content given that they were written to his wife and the mother of his two daughters, are one of the high points of the book – clear in their descriptions, warm in their assessments of his fellow expeditioners’ characters. Odell’s account of the tragic disappearance certainly suggests a sense of the fate most likely to have befallen Mallory and Irvine. (It was taken as such by Everesters from the next decade – a letter from Frank Smythe to Teddie Norton, discussing the 1933 finding of Irvine’s ice-axe, clearly implies that Smythe saw through a telescope Mallory’s corpse on Everest in 1936 in exactly the place where it was found by a 1999 search expedition.)
Interest of these matters aside, what I find particularly attractive about The Fight for Everest is the sense of a world and an approach long gone: the modest tenacity of Norton in the Great Couloir as he set an altitude record which was to endure for decades; the detailed explication of geology and glaciology in the Khumbu region by Odell; the continual delight of Major Hingston’s natural history account :
One commonly met with was the red-necked mountain finch. This species is also brown in colour, with a white chin, a black moustache and a broad white band over the eye. It was a constant companion of the mouse-hares, living with them on the most friendly terms…
Above all, there is the immense geniality of General Bruce in describing the start of the expedition he led before incapacitated by an attack of malaria and evacuated to lower altitudes for recovery :
…we opened a bottle of the old family rum specially sent from England … really old mellow rum is a generous fluid.
So too is the writing in this book. Cheers! Enjoy!
UP AND ABOUT - The Hard Road to Everest. By Doug Scott. Pp 384, 71 colour & 152 b/w photos, 2 maps & routes, Hardback, 2015. (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield UK, 2015, ISBN 978-1-910240-41-0, GBP 19.31)
No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that Everest is just another mountain, reaching its summit changes everyone who does it, in one way or another.
Standing on top … I was not humbled, exactly, but aware of something much bigger than myself, of which I was merely a part. I was again a child lost in wonder.
Up and About is the first part of a two volume autobiography of Doug Scott. It starts with his birth in Nottinghamshire in the Second World War, and ends with his conquest of Everest’s South West face. It is a huge tome, with 384 pages and numerous coloured and black and white pictures. The images themselves, of his diverse climbs across the globe, are a treasure. Even on the last day of the famous 1975 summit of Everest, he managed to take some stunning shots, which are included in the book.
An autobiography is difficult to write, for sometimes you don’t know what to include and what to exclude. Doug has decided here to err on the side of abundance. So we get all the personal details of his life, including his family, his early childhood, the parties on the road, and his exploits at school. As he grows up, he discovers his physical prowess as an athlete and through the scouts as a rock climber. His friends in Nottinghamshire Mountaineering Club, who were his partners on his frequent jaunts across Britain and then abroad, are given a fair share, as is his relationship with his wife Jan, who had to go through a lot as Doug was out most of the time. Doug is candid about his absence being the primary cause of his relationship problems. He married early, and then was constantly torn between his desire to explore and his love for his family. In the end, it seems he chose adventure over the household.
The book overwhelms us with the amount of climbing and exploration that he achieved, in the short span that this book alludes to. He writes about his journey, from Gritstone to Dolomites, Tibesti to Hindukush, Yosemite to Baffin, the Pamirs and finally Himalaya. His adventures are set in an era where sponsorship wasn’t easy to find. He struggles for each penny, and hitchhikes many a times during his expeditions. The trips exemplify his free spirit, and yearning for the mountains. He understates his achievements, but you can feel his effervescence, which was what made him indomitable on a tough climb.
What the book lacks is the quality of penmanship. His ability as a climber supersedes that of an author by a mile. The initial part of the book about his childhood seems to drag for some time, and can put one off, as can the size of this volume. But as the narration moves to his climbs, the book picks up pace and one starts enjoying it. His climbs in the Sahara and Baffin are breathtaking, and you feel that each of them deserved more detail. However, Doug mixes the climbing bit with his experiences, trying to add anecdotes, which confuse the reader.
To summarize, Doug’s honesty shines through the book. He comes across as a straightforward man, who has done incredible things, but makes it sound so simple, that any climber would be tempted to follow in his footsteps. His 1975 Everest summit, with the unbelievable bivouac at above 8000 m, is the highlight of this work. But there are many gems hidden within, to delight the diligent reader who looks beyond the obvious.
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, Scotland, Hardback GBP 24.99)
When I began reading Catherine Moorehead’s book about Haversham Godwin-Austen (1834-1923), I have to admit to being distracted by her style. Even amused. As a ‘Mistress of Scholars’ at the Royal Grammar School Guildford, I expected a proper British manner, grammatically perfect and maybe even a bit stilted. But no, this ‘Mistress’ appeared to enjoy spicing things up with a bit of humour. Describing the response to one of her lectures, she wrote : “At that point, one of the boys not yet lulled into a torpor piped up….” I expected a certain level of awe and respect that this serious historian would have for her original sources. But again, that devilish sense of humour : “The archive (for want of a better term) was in need of some ordering.” Her brief description brought to life images of shoeboxes full of letters, trunks stuffed with fading photographs and newspaper clippings, entire attics overflowing with ‘stuff’. When I learned that, in her private life, when not doing research on one of the United Kingdom’s legendary explorers, she enjoyed “erratically-played chess and expanding her wine and whisky collections” (this from her bio on Amazon). I wanted to meet her.
Although the event of greatest interest to a mountaineering audience in her biography of Godwin-Austin is his sighting of K2, the story is much richer than that. His areas of interest and expertise spanned numerous areas: geology, ornithology, malacology and zoology. His geological and ornithological collections were highly valued and his collection of freshwater mollusks formed the base line for all contemporary research on the subject. Godwin-Austen, who came from an aristocratic family with royal connections, also had an artistic side, and was much admired for his water colours. His painting of K2 was described by the British Library as a ‘national treasure’. Several of his water colours appear in the book.
He travelled widely, and was the first serious explorer in some of the most wildly beautiful regions on earth : the Karakoram, Ladakh, Western Tibet, Bhutan, Northern Burma and Assam. He was not afraid of altitude, even breaking the Asiatic high-altitude mountaineering record on three separate occasions, apparently using a garden hatchet as an ice-axe. He had the enviable quality of being comfortable with every level of the social spectrum, from his ‘coolies’ to the Maharaja of Kashmir. But Godwin-Austen didn’t just travel through these vast wilderness regions for pleasure. He became one of the UK’s celebrated surveyors, mapping over 35200 sq km of new territory, including 23 glaciers and at least two dozen first ascents of peaks over 5000 m.
Nowadays, we would describe him as someone who had ‘lived life large’. He married three times : first to an Afghan landowner’s daughter, next to an English socialite, and finally to a civil servant’s daughter 23 years younger than himself. He embraced as many religions : Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. His capacity for diversity in love and spirituality, sadly, didn’t transfer to his capacity for financial management. He eventually claimed bankruptcy and was forced to sell the family farm, the magnificent Shalford Park. That wasn’t the only difficulty in his complicated life journey. Thanks to a youthful indiscretion in Kashmir, he harbored a dark secret which came back to haunt him near the end of his long and colourful life.
Catherine Moorhead has, thankfully, taken the inclusive approach in this wonderful biography. In addition to being meticulously researched, she has brought him to life. She has convinced the reader to care about this man. She has shared his private indiscretions, his public victories, his wild forays, his scientific tendencies, his artistic flair, and most importantly, his love of life in all its form. For mountaineers, scientists, students of biography and anyone who is fascinated with the Raj and the Great Game, this biography offers a very compelling story.
This is an authorized biography of a truly outstanding human being. Much of the research has accessed private papers and fascinating correspondence not seen before. Despite the fact that some of the archives “needed a bit of ordering”, Catherine Moorehead has done an admirable job of bringing to light, a somewhat forgotten man. The publisher has produced a beautiful product, with a stylish cover, a useful index and stunning illustrations. I only wish they had considered a slightly larger font. Maybe it’s my age.