The Matter of History

Himalayan mountaineering and its archives

Amrita Dhar

The Flour and the Porters

One summer morning a few years ago I was walking hurriedly across a stretch of Hyde Park in London. I was returning to the Royal Geographical Society for another greedy day with the lantern slides from Eric Shipton’s photographs - and I was running out of time. I would be leaving the country soon, and there was no way I would quite finish looking through the contents of even all of these boxes. I knew that the Royal Geographical Society’s cache of Shipton photographs and documents was by no means exhaustive, but they had slides from some of his most wonderful wanderings. Last week, I had spent hours devouring the ones from Kashmir and Garhwal, and there were whole boxes promising others from Sinkiang and the Karakoram. The slides were dusty and out of order within their boxes, the cataloguing was a bit primitive (for instance, captions were inconsistent, and for photographs that Shipton appeared in, there was usually no way of knowing who the photographer had been), and the viewing apparatus was adequate but less than ideal (a flat back-lit board on which you could place the slides, and then you could magnify-by-glass or squint your way through them). But even so, the places and the people jumped out at me. I had stood right there, on the Ganges watershed, looking at Kamet in the distance as I held my breath in the cold air. And I had looked from just there on the Gangotri Glacier, craning my neck a bit to see Shivling. And wow, was that the view from Aghil Pass? No wonder everyone waxed eloquent about it! And what an unreal landscape of ice pinnacles on the Kyagar Glacier. And I had seen this photograph of Pasang, Kusang, and Ang Tharkay somewhere in print. But look at this one with Shipton and Ang Tharkay together - what smiles. And so on.

On the way back that evening, it struck me, although without surprise, that I had indeed failed to look through all the photographs I wanted to. I should never have been able to in the limited time I had at my disposal anyway, and to compound it all, I had been distracted by a box of documents. The box was a curio us collection of things - from a letter written by a very young schoolboy Eric to his mother from Beaumont House, to a VHS with a recording of Shipton on This Day Tonight by Australian Broadcasting Corporation Television on 31 October 1972, and donated to the Royal Geographical Society by Jane Allen in 2012. I had stopped at a few typescripts and drafts, and at a few letters. Short essays - ‘Hunger’, ‘The Cave’, ‘The Long Walk’ typed up and annotated/edited by hand - and a longhand manuscript of That Untravelled World. And letters written to Shipton in 1952 following the curious chapter of he being selected for leadership of the British Everest expedition of 1953, and then having to stand down. Thus John Hunt : ‘I want you [Shipton] to know that I am conscious of filling your place most inadequately’ (in a letter dated 13 September 1952). Or one R. Varvill telling the now unemployed ‘Dear Shipton’ not to wait very hopefully for a job from the Colonial Office : ‘The Tonga job which, incidentally is called “Consul and Agent, Tonga”, will not become vacant until well into 1954; and there is no saying, whether the present incumbent might have his term extended’ (in a letter dated 25 November 1952). Or planning papers for Everest 1953 - papers that lay out intentions of a clear departure from the Shipton style of carefree mountain travel - copied to Shipton by the infinitely more dogged John Hunt. ‘The ultimate aim of the expedition, as defined by the Sponsoring Authority, is the ascent of Everest during 1953 by a member or members of the party. This aim may appear self-evident, but it is of vital importance that it should be borne constantly in mind, both during the preparatory phase and, later, in the field. All planning and preparation must lead us methodically towards the equivalent of that aim’ (‘Memorandum on Everest 1953’). And so on.

Despite having read Shipton’s own writings, I had not been prepared to so be confronted by these sharp flashes of an intense, lonely, joyous, and restless life. Although I should have learnt my lesson by now, for had I not had exactly this experience while sitting down last week in Magdalene College, Cambridge, with the letters, notebooks, and postcards of Dorothy Pilley, an extraordinary British climber who was active in the early twentieth century in the mountains of England, Scotland, and Wales? Scholars of autobiography have long pointed out how much gets left behind or deliberately excluded or forgotten from a life in the creation of a life’s narrative. But this evening I was realizing anew the truth of these observations. Just as Pilley’s Climbing Days (London : G. Bell and Sons, 1935) by no means encompassed everything her climbing days were about, Shipton’s several volumes of travelogue and autobiography too left gaps both in biography and in social history that only sound archival research can fill. I therefore found myself thinking with greater urgency of the need for scholarship, history, and good biography.1

But as a scholar who had long found top-down or peak-centric or genius-ridden or exception-oriented mountaineering narratives to be problematic, inadequate, and even dishonest, I was also, perhaps predictably, thinking of the less visible mountain lives surrounding Shipton’s. By this, I don’t mean Bill Tilman. Tilman’s superlative travels and magnificent books (now collected in the anthology of The Seven Mountain-Travel Books) have their own galaxy of pleasures, intrigues, and problems. I also don’t mean Diana Shipton. The Antique Land (London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1950) is a delightful read and a heartily recommended volume for any library focused on mountain travel. I was also not thinking just of Ang Tharkay, Pasang, and Kusang, the three Sherpa mountaineers whose athletic expertise and overall versatility had an immense lot to do with the success of the ventures undertaken by Shipton and Tilman. These are indeed voices that would be indispensable to any study of Himalayan mountaineering, and it is a collective reproach to us that we may well already have lost two of these entirely and forever. Only Ang Tharkay’s voice survives now, albeit in mediation—and the layers surrounding the preservation of his record speak to the serious resistance all mainstream recordkeeping still offers to marginal voices.2

Tonight, I was not thinking of these people. Instead, I had two particular photographs in my mind. I had poured over them in the Foyle Reading Room in a blend of fascination and a strange sadness. In the first photograph, going by a handwritten caption on the tiny frame of the slide, were three men weighing flour. In a field out in the open somewhere in Kashmir, two men held between them and on their shoulders a rod from which was suspended a spring-loaded weighing scale from whose hook hung a heavy, bulging bag. It was presumably, the flour. A third man, probably Shipton himself (his face is in shadow), bent down to bring his eyes level with the measuring chart on the scale.3 In the second, Ang Tharkay was addressing a group of Balti porters.4 A motley group gave their sirdar their (somewhat divided) attention. And suddenly, thanks to two otherwise unremarkable photographs that nevertheless suggested remote travel, sustenance, the day-to-day needs of a pedestrian team walking many miles away from a trailhead, and the temperamental and real muscle of the people that made such travel possible in the first place, I was thinking, in no way that I can fully explain, of the lives and events that had provided the infrastructure for the excursions made famous by Shipton. I was realizing, from these two brief and sudden glimpses into a long ago expedition-preparation, of the immensity of the gaps in our knowledge of mountaineering history of the land I call mine. For, who were these people, and what did Shipton’s expedition mean to them? A job? Travel? Something else? What was their relationship to the mountains? What did they make of their exotic visitors? How did they serve, or how were they in turn served by the cause of the expedition? What traces did these travels leave in their lives? And what visible or invisible traces have they left in more mainstream reports of mountain travel and exploration?

Archives of Himalayan Mountaineering : Elsewhere

If an archive is a set of documents answering a specific principle of ordering, what do we mean when we talk about a mountaineering archive? Globally and internationally speaking, we might mean all those collections of documents at the heart of which is the curious human endeavour of accessing high/remote/challenging places. This essay is not about an extensive enumeration of Himalayan mountaineering archives. I shall point to several, but an exhaustive consideration of what we have is neither fully possible in the space of an article, nor is that my objective. Instead, I shall discuss the uses we make of the archives we know we have, and about the stories they help us tell. About the possible archives that we perhaps cannot see yet but which we would do well to notice, claim, preserve, and use. About the voices they help us recover, and about the gaps in our knowledge they help us appreciate or fill or address; and about the deep necessity of knowing our diverse cultural inheritance if we, as a community of mountaineers and mountain-travellers, want to look into the years and decades ahead with strength, stability, and growth.

The history of mountaineering in India is tied up inextricably in so many ways with so many crucial strands of critical thinking in the subcontinent that I may only name a few here : histories of exploration, of national boundaries, of conservation (and it’s want), of gender (and sexuality), of class (and wealth, and access), of colonialism (and whatever comes after : post—or, in our case, often neo-colonialism), of oropolitics (denoting the use and abuse of mountaineering for political purposes) or warfare in high places, of tourism (and commerce), and of heroism and an extraordinary kind of mortality. Keeping in mind the tangible and intangible abilities of our archives to construct or take apart the many kinds of history that I just mentioned, I shall offer that a sustained and sustainable preservation, digitization, and open-accessibility of these fragments and material remains of these high—and humbled—journeys is an urgent necessity of our time.

But let us start with what we have if we are to understand the importance and necessity of what we don’t. Here, briefly, are the obvious and big archives outside the subcontinent—before I come to what is closer to home and therefore more important for our present purpose. For practical reasons, and in keeping my current readership in mind, I shall limit myself to archives linguistically accessible to those of us functioning in the Indian languages.

The Royal Geographical Society, in London, is one of the largest repositories of documents pertaining to geography, travel and exploration. It is significant for us, of course, because of the substantial British presence in the subcontinent until well into the mid-twentieth century—and the maps, photographs, and reports generated by many Western travellers to the Himalaya in that time. These records were, in many cases, subsequently acquired by the Society. Mountaineering records—the kind that I was there to consult—rub shoulders with artefacts from or connected to the mountains. Such as Alexander Kellas’s camera and ice-axe from his Himalayan travels, or a double-ended tent used on Everest in 1953, or a banner from a monastery in Sikkim. The British association is responsible for another significant collection in London of books, maps, photographs, and primary materials pertinent to the Himalaya and human encounter with it : the Alpine Club Library. This library, in the premises of the Alpine Club of the UK, also houses old and new press cuttings, correspondence, and even some historical maps. As a functional library that looks to serve present-day expeditions and travellers, it actively aids planning and preparation for its members. Its relatively recent Photo Library is an effort to specifically preserve the photographs the Club has inherited from its many famous donors, including Vittorio Sella and Edward Whymper. To members, its collection of world mountain maps is another major asset. And to researchers interested, as I am, in reading and writing about decades-old ventures in the Himalaya, its searchable online database with contents of the Alpine Journal (1930 onwards; the most recent journal articles are understandably not available for complete download) is a fantastic resource.

North America possibly houses the fastest growing mountaineering library in the world at this moment. In Golden, Colorado, the American Alpine Club library reflects the considerable energy of the Club itself. It takes its mission of preservation of climbing’s cultural heritage seriously—and backed as it is by a passionate and large membership body, its cataloguing and digitization programmes of old maps and photographs are about as state of the art as it gets for our discipline. If this is not necessarily the first place for a historian of subcontinental mountaineering to visit, it is, nevertheless, increasingly a fruitful stopping-point for those looking for information about and maps of the Himalaya and its neighbouring ranges from the last few decades. The Club also makes available an online search for contents of its two annual publications, the American Alpine Journal and Accidents in North American Mountaineering. The latter is a remarkable and profoundly useful production—although it yells ‘North American’ in its title, its lessons are useful everywhere that climbers operate—that brings together the most teachable moments and evolving philosophies of best practices in climbing every year. In the process, it not only generates an archive (of gear and climbing customs and what happened, or went wrong, in any particular situation), but also encourages discussion and learning (of how a disastrous outcome can potentially be changed, how a mistake can be survived, or how not to repeat an error).

In Europe, the Germans, the Italians, the French, and the Poles—to name some of the most significant climbing communities/nationalities—have their own records of Himalayan travels and climbs. But these archives are of comparatively less overall relevance for this discussion. Instead of digging in the ways and by-ways of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme, therefore, let us now turn homewards.

Archives of Himalayan Mountaineering : At Home

In India, the most significant archives can broadly be classified into the organization-based and the personal-collection-based. In this, we have occasion for both celebration and sorrow. The single largest repository of mountaineering records in the subcontinent is possibly in the custodianship of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the Indian government body that administers mountaineering permits to civilian and non-civilian expeditions to all peaks higher than 6000 m in India, that regulates expeditions domestic and international, and that undertakes its own exploratory or expeditionary ventures. It tries to be faithful even if it is not exactly energetic about its stated objectives : ‘to organize, support and provide a base for expeditions for mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking at high altitudes and to promote, encourage, support and execute schemes for related adventure activities and environmental protection work in the Himalaya.’5 These are laudable objectives, and I share with many lovers of the Himalaya the wish that these goals of the IMF should be met ably and with support from the greater mountaineering community. The responsibility for this rests not just with this national apex body, but with all of us.

There is, however, a very striking omission in the mission statement of this important and administratively powerful national body. It is therefore not surprising that in practice, too, the lapse is loud and clear. In a stunning absence of long-term vision, the undertaking professed by the IMF makes no mention of the importance of preservation of the cultural and social inheritance of the activities it seeks to foster and encourage. It is as if no one gave a thought to the fact that the making of history takes time and investment and energy and rigour—and that it cannot come out of thin air but has to be nourished in both material and intellectual terms. As if we forgot that the absence of records can lead to an absence of collective memory. And as if we refused—and still refuse—to admit that when we thus fail history, history is set up to fail us. The Foundation’s centre in Delhi, correspondingly, has offices, but no library where, as a mountaineer and a scholar, I can go in to look at planning papers and records and slides and photographs from even some of the most seminal mountaineering undertakings in the country. I have no way of accessing even a catalogue through which to request, for example, records of the first civilian expeditions from West Bengal or Maharashtra or any other state since the Foundation was created. I have no way to search for the highs and lows of international interest in our mountains over the last several decades. And I certainly cannot ring or write to a knowledgeable librarian or two who can then direct me to a particular file or folder that will help me find what I am looking for. In a country of tens of thousands of passionate mountain-lovers, we seem to be working hard at eradicating our own considerable history. I only hope that the Foundation can acknowledge, before it is too late, that it has a leadership responsibility just as it has a leadership function. And that this leadership responsibility extends to well beyond the production and circulation of its journal, The Indian Mountaineer. It needs desperately to create a space for public engagement with our mountain-inheritance, and for serious historical understanding and research. It needs to undertake a thoughtful and long-term programme of digitizing older and more perishable records into accessible and searchable (as far as possible) formats. The future is a choice : we can choose to not bother about this hard work of preservation and history, and therefore remain, within both the national and international communities, a country with shallow or largely irrelevant mountaineering history. Or we can choose to own the history we have, and preserve it with depth and resonance for ourselves and for mountaineers of the future.

In a country whose international borders are largely in the mountains, the armed forces perhaps understandably use the mountains as their training ground, and for their own expeditions. While the hierarchical and unfortunately masculinist setup and demeanour of the armed forces are to me both absurd and regressive, I would assert from even my limited experience that they often nurture excellent mountaineers. Climbers and route-finders and explorers no less worth our attention because they are simply ‘doing their job’. There is a melancholy—not unlike, to me, what I feel when I look at Shipton’s flour-weighing porters—in the fact that these resourceful and creative climbers remain nameless and faceless to most of us. The fact that the armed forces are cagey about their records should probably not come as a terrible surprise. But for even their sake, I hope that bodies like the Indo Tibetan Border Police and the High Altitude Warfare School have their archives—and understand the importance of maintaining them.

I dearly wish I had more to present about the mountaineering training institutes—which enjoy venues of instruction unrivalled anywhere in the world—at which many of us receive our first or ongoing formal instruction in mountaineering. The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, to name the two best known, enjoy persistent and massive recruitment. And at least on the face of it, there is an effort to encourage an understanding of the history of climbing in the subcontinent. But thence, a story of extravagant ineptitude follows : because either through a want of trained librarians or systemic indifference, the libraries at these institutions are such as would come out the worse for comparison with many a middle-school. These institutions have subscriptions to some of the best climbing literature available in the world, but there is no effort towards recruiting or retaining specialists who might engage either students or instructors in reading, discussion, or their own writing about mountaineering. Like the IMF, these institutions have a ready availability of records worth keeping—indeed, through their instructional courses and their own expeditions, they generate a wealth of material that reflects the mountaineering tides in the country. More importantly, these institutions bring together, by the hundreds every year, aspiring and involved mountaineers from all over the country. Trekkers of the Sahyadris mix with rock-climbers of Susunia; rafters from Sikkim mingle with new recruits to the army from Kerala (for these institutions also serve the Indian Ministry of Defence); boulderers from Hampi exchange notes with traditional climbers frequenting Panchmarhi; scramblers of the Dhauladhar talk to skiers of Gulmarg. And yet, when these institutions succeed in issuing their periodicals at all, they carry tired stories of wannabe-colonial-era-style Himalayan attempts. I know no excuse for this profound incompetence. As with the Foundation, it may do these pioneering institutions good to remember to exercise their imagination, preserve important records and make them accessible, have active and functional libraries that can revolutionize their students’ thinking about mountains, introduce learners to the various idioms used in India and the world to talk about human-powered-adventure pursuits, and solicit writing from the diverse student-body (and especially from under-represented voices).

At the end of our brief list of the centrally-organized bodies, we now come to some of the most important amateur domains. Of these, the oldest is the best known. The notebooks, photographs, maps, planning papers, memoranda, expedition logs, casual records of walks and rambles, older manuscript diaries, and old and new books held in ownership or trust by the Himalayan Club—founded in 1928—form the foundation of its extraordinary library. What is refreshing about the Club is its unabashed enthusiasm about a holistic enjoyment of the Himalaya. It is tempting, and correct, to refer to the Himalayan Club as an organization that supports and encourages mountaineering ventures. But that is to speak the Club short, because it is fundamentally more capacious. When it acknowledges its mission ‘to encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend knowledge of the Himalaya and adjoining mountain ranges through science, art, literature and sport6, it makes space for the eccentric, the eclectic, the liberal, and the lonely. It makes space as much for the explorer of peaks and passes, as for those standing on the summits of mountains via challenging routes, as for the botanist out looking for rare flowers, as for a geologist after rocks of a particular colour or lineage, as for a musician in search of inspiration among the folk tunes of the Garhwal or Kumaun. To this date, the Club is one of the principal repositories of documentation on Himalayan mountains, trails, routes, flora, fauna, and even peoples and cultures. Something about the Club’s establishing vision gave us the gift of this broad and generous base. These are strengths to be proud of. But that is also why it is important for an organization such as this to be self-reflexive about its status and reach, and to learn to re-invent itself with the times it inhabits.

The Himalayan Club Library is a storehouse of treasures including books long out of print; rare first editions; and indeed, manuscript diaries that deserve the looking after owing to unique archival material7. Originally a result of donations from the personal libraries of the founding members and housed in Simla, the Library has since been augmented, moved several times, and is now housed mainly in the India International Centre in Delhi, with a sterling collection in Mumbai and Kolkata as well. Unfortunately, it does not see anything near as robust a use as it could. The Club has to find ways to encourage and cultivate a continuing and younger readership for these fascinating materials. The rare, particularly manuscript, materials need to be digitized—with vision for long-term retrievability—and made accessible on an online space. If necessary, collaborations with other institutions that themselves hold old and valuable materials might be advisable. (The Royal Asiatic Society libraries in Kolkata and Mumbai themselves have a wealth of archives pertinent to the Himalaya, and therefore spring to mind.) The searchable online databasing of all contents of issues of the Himalayan Journal from its inception in 1929 to volume 66 in 2010 is a huge step in the right direction (presumably, recent issues will continue to be added to this database). Other projects similarly committed to preserving and making available some of our most cherished mountaineering history are just as necessary.

Importantly, too, it is time for the Club to outgrow its generous but unambiguously colonial underpinnings. ‘And so the Himalayan Club is founded’, wrote Geoffrey Corbett in 1929, ‘and we hope great things of it : the geographer that the blank places on his map may be filled in; the scientist that our knowledge of the Himalaya, its rocks and glaciers, its animals and plants, its peoples and their way of living, may continually expand; the artist that its glories may inspire fine pictures. The mountaineer may dream of the first ascent of a thousand unclimbed peaks, the shikari of record heads shot in nalas yet unknown. My own hope is that it may help to rear a breed of men in India, hard and self-reliant, who will know how to enjoy life on the high hills.’8 Today, of course, I share some of his hopes and declare myself opposed to others. I hope we continue to learn about the Himalayan animals and plants and peoples. I hope the shikari is done and gone home for good. And I hope we can stop talking about rearing breeds of men—white-skinned white men, or brown-skinned white men, or any other kind of men—to do anything. I hope the Himalayan Club can extend a welcome to mountain-lovers and mountain-travellers across race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability/disability. And I hope that the Himalayan Journal can stop looking mainly elsewhere for books to review—and instead see what exists on the ground in front of us. Mountaineers continue to write in India, and the Journal is in a unique position to provide a platform to start conversations across states and cultures. If, for instance, the Journal publishes a review of a Marathi book or a Hindi book or a Bengali book or a Kannada book, that in itself starts a cycle of possible exchange whereby the text can acquire a translator and then readers outside its own language. This is how knowledge networks begin. I hope the Journal is able to use its considerable voice and influence to thus rejuvenate the conversations we are having in the country. And above all, I hope that both the Club and the Journal can solicit the participation, writing, and engagement of some of the least visible yet most hopeful lovers of the mountains : women from traditional backgrounds; underfinanced younger and older people; those for whom the whole concept of leisure travel is a luxury but who, precisely for that reason, might have more to gain than any of us who take a vacation in the mountains for usual or granted; and those who for reasons of physical challenges find barriers to their mobility or travel. If we mean that the mountains are for everyone, we have to work to make that real.

Towards Archives

As I end, I shall mention collections of maps, expedition notes, and photographs—in addition to entire libraries—in significant personal collections in India. I know of only a few, but I intuit that there are many more. Jagdish Nanavati, Aspi Moddie, Shekhar Pathak, O. C. Handa, and Harish Kapadia are only some of our relentless travellers and collectors of lore and photographs from the mountains. Some of them have been collectors and archivists in their own right, going out of their way to preserve not only their own papers, but actively collaborating with other mountain-travellers and mountaineers to preserve photographs, books, documents, and memories. Kapadia’s expedition papers from the last half-century, for instance, have a story of their own to tell of the earliest years of Indian civilian mountaineering. Moddie’s photographs are a testament to an important transitional period of Indian mountaineering history. Shekhar Pathak’s digital database, the People’s Association of Himalaya Area Research, is a heroic attempt to create a comprehensive bibliography of print material, in Hindi and in English, pertaining to the Himalaya. But these are few examples, and even if I knew of every other instance, I should have no place here to enumerate the many personal records that travellers to the Himalaya have kept. Sometimes I only sense their possible existence—for instance, when Anindya Mukherjee, in between his own expeditions these days, talks about the uncle who started it all for him, a certain Sujal Mukherjee 9 or when Nalni Jayal writes about the legendary Nandu Jayal10 or when Deepali Sinha digs up a decades-old unlikely photograph of seven young women in saris sitting and standing in photogenic rows and points out that here are the members of a successful women’s expedition to Ronti (6063 m) in 1967 11, we need these stories to be preserved and told. There are those among us who are watching, waiting, listening—to be inspired.

As individuals, we can do much to protect what we value. Not every collection is an archive, and not every archive worth keeping. On personal levels, we have to ultimately make our own decisions about how to frame what we pass on, and make our peace with those decisions. But I hope that we do each take seriously our task to preserve and share our personal and collective history.

Talking about which, I should like to close with two stories close to my heart. I don’t know how or where they will end, or even just where they are headed. But in an instinctive drive towards capturing memories and passing them on to future listeners and mountaineers, Kapadia has recently started a project of recording the oral and fragmented brief autobiographies of mountaineers from around the world. As an archive, this is an imperfect one indeed : all drive and no clear agenda about just how and where these hours of recordings will end up, or how, in 20 years’ time, they will be retrieved. These are questions worth considering. But Kapadia is right not to delay recording what he can : for in these audio-files, Charles Houston, Dorjee Lhatoo, and some thirty others talk to us in their own voices. In cases where these voices already speak from beyond the grave, Kapadia preserves for us what is both luminous and irreducible. For these are brief accounts of cherished lives and climbs, related in the voices of those who lived them. And in cases where the mountaineers continue to climb, here is the foundation for continued oral biographies.

Similarly, a few years ago, Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar started an immense labour of love to claim back for often disappeared voices their own sense of climbing history. The ‘Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling’ project was started as a means to acknowledge the massive role played by the Sherpa community centred in Darjeeling, West Bengal, in some of the most iconic expeditions to the Himalaya. Purandare and Balsavar want to try and tell, as far as possible, the Sherpa stories in Sherpa voices. To this day—when fast and furious alpinism seems to be increasingly in vogue—the high-altitude travel industry across the Himalaya continues to use the infrastructures put in place by Sherpas. But few of us know the extent of the climbing community’s century-long debt to the Sherpas. And fewer of us know names, faces, and specific stories. This project, which has now graduated from more than a hundred interviews into the drafting stages of the book to tell the story of the climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling, seeks to address these inexcusable gaps. I eagerly wait to read.

A personal view on the importance, significance and relevance of preserving mountaineering history.

Amrita grew up in Kolkata and started going to the mountains with her family when she was tiny. She was educated in Jadavpur and Cambridge universities before moving to Michigan for her doctoral work in English Literature. At the University of Michigan, she started the interdisciplinary Mountaineering Culture Studies Group. Now based in Ann Arbor, she continues to read, write, travel, and climb in North America and in India.


  1. Jim Perrin’s Shipton and Tilman : The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration(London : Hutchinson, 2013) was recently published.
  2. Not long after Tharkay’s service as sirdar on the French expedition to Annapurna in 1950, he approached the mountaineer Basil Norton to help document the story of his life. The only catch was that Tharkay and Norton had no language in common. Norton therefore enlisted the help of a mutual friend, one Mohan Lal Mukherjee, who transcribed Tharkay’s oral Nepalese into English for Norton. Henri Delgove subsequently translated these English notes into French. Mémoires d’un Sherpa was published by Amiot-Dumont in Paris in 1954. In a rich irony, the English records then dropped out of the picture—I don’t know if any of these original notes still exist anywhere—and it has taken a good 60 years for this important and riveting account to become available in English. The Mountaineers Books in Seattle recently commissioned a translation by Corinne McKay, and thanks to their efforts, Sherpa : The Memoir of Ang Tharkay was published in March 2016.
  3. Slide ‘Kashmir 89’ from the collection bearing call number LS/India : Kashmir (66-182).
  4. Slide ‘Kashmir 136’ from the collection bearing call number LS/India : Kashmir (66-182).
  5. See and
  6. See the Club’s mission statement as laid out on its online home <>. This articulation is to be found in first article published in the Club’s periodical. See Geoffrey Corbett’s ‘The Founding of the Himalayan Club’, The Himalayan Journal Vol I (1929), <>.
  7. In a splendid example of the ability of this Journal to look back on itself, I may here name Bill Aitken’s essay in a previous issue as a place to go to get a brief sense of the wealth I am talking about. See William McKay Aitken, ‘A Ramble through the Himalayan Club Library’, The Himalayan Journal Vol 40 (1984). <>.
  8. Geoffrey Corbett’s ‘The Founding of the Himalayan Club’, The Himalayan Journal Vol I (1929), <>.
  9. Mukherjee currently organizes an annual lecture, delivered by a mountaineer with an interesting story, to carry forward his uncle Sujal Mukherjee’s legacy.
  10. Nalni Jayal, ‘The Early Years of Indian Mountaineering’, The Himalayan Journal Vol 62 (2006), <>.
  11. Aditi Dharmadhikari and the editorial team of Homegrown, ‘The Untold Story of Deepali Sinha, the Story of India’s First Female Mountaineer’, 8 March 2016, <>.

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