By Simon McCartney. Pp 304, 2016 (Vertebrate Publishing Sheffield, £24) ISBN 978-1-910240-66-3
The Real Story
‘Classic’ is a term too easily bandied about; ‘instant classic’ is even more suspect. There’s nothing instant about Simon McCartney’s The Bond. It’s been assembled and shaped from McCartney’s own accounts, and journals of those intimately connected with events of four decades ago in Alaska in which he was centrally involved. The narrative Simon and his exceptionally gifted and meticulous editor Susie Ryder at Vertebrate Publishing have constructed from a wealth of personal and authentic material concerns two momentous Alaskan climbs undertaken by Simon and an outstanding young Californian mountaineer, the late Jack Roberts, in 1978 and 1980. The first of these, the north face of Mount Huntington, was so radically out on a limb, so objectively dangerous and foolhardy, that for years doubts – ultimately resolved by the finding of a jammed rope that forms both cover design and a complex recurrent motif within the text - were voiced as to whether it had actually taken place.
If Huntington was a survivalist miracle, the climb that followed two years later, on the huge, virgin southwest face of Denali, was of mythical dimensions. McCartney was struck down by cerebral oedema above 5791 m having reached a junction above the face with the classic Cassin ridge. Roberts then left McCartney with another American climber, Bob Kandiko, who somehow contrived with the incapacitated McCartney to make a descent of the face, whilst he and Kandiko’s climbing partner Mike Helms continued over the summit to summon help. All this happened in vicious weather with supplies as near to exhaustion as the climbers themselves.
The account of this complex and perilous escape is one of the supreme endurance epics in mountain literature. It moves beyond that into more complex areas. There’s a moral dimension here that is uplifting. Kandiko, Helms, and others involved in helping the climbers survive, not only forego long-held personal ambitions. They put their own lives in jeopardy in order to help, and thus re-assert the core values of mountaineering – ‘The Bond’ of the book’s title. In an activity which has degenerated morally to the point where guided clients on Chomolongma on their way to the purchased summit have walked past dying climbers without offering assistance, to read of this selflessness from decades ago is salutary and uplifting. It is how true climbers operate.
‘The Bond’ is the theme that ties this remarkable narrative together. Resonating around the literal tale is a far older mythical one. Here’s the summary of the doctor who quizzes McCartney in hospital after his ordeal:
“Given your symptoms, you were as close to death as I consider possible without actually … well, now that I hear all of the circumstances of your oedema, I am surprised that we have met to have this conversation. Climbers with cerebral oedema who continue to ascend usually die…”
Behind the plain speech, ring echoes of the Persephone myth. McCartney returned from the dead. This truth insistently links back in the reader’s memory to conversations McCartney has in an early framing episode of the book on the North Face of the Eiger, with dream-phantoms of climbers who perished there in the 1930s.
If I had to choose one book to epitomize the excitement, the morality, the profound sense of community that mountaineering properly owns, it would be The Bond. There’s a long literature of the sport. Here and there it has reached notable heights. Whymper, Mummery, Shipton, Gervasutti, Murray, Buhl, Patey, Boardman all spring to mind as major exemplars of the genre.
And now, by some glorious convergent accident of expressive need and availability of relevant material, by some force that has gathered diverse memories into a lucidly crafted, original and utterly authentic statement of first principles, we’ve been privileged to witness the appearance of the finest mountaineering book ever written – the testimony of a man who, after his Denali climb, in every sense walked away. I’ve read The Bond three times already, and will surely return to it regularly over the years. You not only enjoy this book, you marvel at it, warm to its characters, recognize the grassroots cast-list of British and American climbing and relate to them through new insights. Here, told with dramatic force, crystal clarity, great humanity, generosity and humility, is the essence of why we go to the mountains. It’s the outright classic of mountaineering literature. Nothing else I’ve read within the genre comes remotely close to its outstanding quality.
FAREWELL TO YAK AND YETI?
The Rolwaling Sherpas Facing a Globalised World
By Ruedi Baumgartner. Pp. 296, Photos B/W 21; Coloured 93, 2015 (Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, USD 30)
This book presents a warm humanistic view of the astonishing changes in the Rolwaling Sherpa community during the past four decades. It’s easy-to-read style provides a wealth of ethnographic detail while focusing on the life stories of individuals within the community. These life stories include those of old and young, male and female, the few remaining participants in the traditional way of life, and those who have moved to Kathmandu and now participate in the globalized mountaineering business. The combination of hard work and good luck involved is depicted in many heartwarming rags to riches personal accounts. All those tourists who have participated in treks and climbs in the Himalayas and have always wondered what the Sherpas were thinking behind their ever present smiles, will find this account most enlightening.
At the same time, this is more than an anecdotal account of the success of a small group of formerly poor and isolated people. It is also a detailed community ethnography written in an engaging manner, full of facts and figures, and lavishly illustrated with photographs from the author’s collection, some from historical works previously published, and others from the personal collections of the various visitors over the years.
The author’s specialty is rural development and he also includes analysis using the theories and methods of that discipline but never in a tedious or heavy-handed way.
As a fellow anthropologist who did the original study of the traditional life in Rolwaling (The Sherpas of Rolwaling, North Nepal : A Study in Cultural Ecology, University Microfilms International, #7804544 Ann Arbor, Mich., 1977), I share the author’s outlook and conclusions and even learned some details of Rolwaling history that I had not previously known. I highly recommend this book as an update to my own research and as a rare in depth look into Sherpa culture.
The book is lavishly illustrated with B/W and coloured photos, maps, graphs, tables and drawings.
DR. JANICE SACHERER
ILLUSTRATED PURSUITS :
W. S. Sherwill in India - 1834–1861.
By Ngaire Gardner (Author), Walter Stanhope Sherwill (Illustrator). Pp 130. 119 sketches, lithographs and maps (Adivaani, Kolkata 2016 INR 500) ISBN 978-93-84465-06-3.
Walter Stanhope Sherwill (1815 - 1890) was an officer in the British East India Company between 1834 until 1851 when he retired to Perth in Scotland. He rose to be Hon. Lieutenant-Colonel, and Professor of Surveying at the Civil Engineering College at Howrah. Although of military rank, he served mostly as a Revenue Surveyor, trekking extensively through Bengal and as far north as the Sikkim Himalaya.
Sherwill was a competent land surveyor and artist, and took his pen and paper into the field. Some of his sketches were published in the Illustrated London News. Other sketches, lithographs and maps were used to illustrate his detailed reports in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal et al. Others passed to his great-great-granddaughter, Ngaire Gardner, who was prompted to research Sherwill’s career and write this book.
The book records in detail much of Sherwill’s career with reprints of his writings. It includes his work in Bihar, the Rajmahal Hills and subsequent suppression of the Santal rebellion. There follows his description of the opium industry for the Chinese market, and his contribution to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Of special interest to readers of the Himalayan Journal will be his description of the 1851-1852 survey of the Sikkim Himalaya.
It is profusely illustrated by 119 sketches, lithographs and maps, and contains an extensive list of Sherwill’s published works and other relevant items.
SOLDIER MOUNTAINEER :
The Colonel Who Got Siachen Glacier for India
By N. Kumar and N. N. Bhatia. 46 photos. 254 pages. (VIJ Books India, 2016, Hardcover INR 680)
A Missed Opportunity
Unlike in many other countries, thanks to their superior access to the Himalaya and capital for expeditions, the defence forces have dominated mountaineering in India. A name that pops out is Col N Kumar aka Bull Kumar as he is well known. His body of work in the field is considerable.
Among his expeditions, he led the Indian Army team that successfully climbed Kangchenjunga from the difficult Sikkim side.
A book on him is something anyone would look forward to read.
That is the opportunity Soldier Mountaineer had.
It explains in detail the expeditions Kumar was on and how each of those climbs exploratory trips fared. Kumar’s life, one of commitment to mountaineering, partaking in army expeditions to climb important peaks and the expertise being leveraged by the Indian Army for deputing him on its missions, spans the vertical world of climbing and the comparatively less vertical world of mountain exploration. In the latter category would fall the time he was called upon to set up a forward post at Barahoti in the months preceding the 1962 India-China war and his forays with the Indian Army into Karakoram and Siachen. When it comes to his controversial climb of Nilkantha, the summit claim of which was disputed by the Himalayan Club, the author dismisses that controversy by blaming ‘rich Bombayite chair borne mountaineers.’
Despite this, Col Kumar is important, for the totality of his contribution to Indian mountaineering exceeds what critics can throw at him. The expedition accounts in the book impress as forays into places many of us will never see. Equally interesting – albeit merely mentioned or told only in part – is the backward linkage of some of these expeditions to indigenous sourcing of gear and equipment. One wishes there was more such insight into times gone by.
Speaking from a purely technical standpoint, this book has drawbacks. One is unsure what exactly this book is. Is it an autobiography, a biography or a collection of expedition stories? Kumar is one of the authors but refers to himself by name in the book. Although the book talks about Kumar’s childhood and growing up years as biographies typically do, the latitude of exploring the person and how person was perceived by his environment appears limited. The bulk of the narrative is a litany of achievements. You pick up a book about a person less for what he did and more for why and how he did what he did. You pick up a climber’s memoirs to know about the climbing of his times; you wish to know how different it was from the present. From techniques to teaching styles to training institutes, contemporaries and expeditions, there’s plenty to explore so in the life of Col Kumar and his times. The book is however pretty quiet on that front. To my civilian eyes, the narrative – less indulgent about times, place, people and predicament and more rushed to state objectives reached - seemed quite military in tenor. To that extent, the book felt like a record for posterity. It can be argued that the book should be treated as a compilation of expedition reports. But as expedition reports the presentation is literal – there are no illustrations showing climbing routes or maps showing the geography of an area. Above all, the book requires another round of proof reading and editing.
The book’s subtitle – The Colonel Who Got Siachen Glacier for India – while definitely eye catching, made me tad uncomfortable. It reminded me of a conversation with a Ladakhi hotel owner in Leh, whose uncle and indeed many from his community had served long on the glacier. We do the work, the credit goes to others - he had said. I just feel some things are best left without credit explicitly appropriated.
My favorite chapter from the book was the one on setting up forward post in Barahoti.
It felt human.
For those interested in Col Kumar and his expeditions, this book is likely a must.
If you are a book-lover looking for a good read, I am afraid this book needs more work.
Shyam G Menon
OUTLOOK TREKKING IN THE HIMALAYAS.
By Harish Kapadia. Pp. 512. Several colour photos and maps. (Outlook Publishing India 2016 INR 220).
For anyone who is planning a trek in the Himalayas, whether it is their first time to the mountains or one of many excursions, there are plenty of guidebooks available to help plan your adventure. However, one of the simple truths about travelling through the Himalayas on foot is that routes have a way of changing from one season to the next because of landslides, new motor roads, or a bridge washing out. This is reason enough to consult up-to-date publications and make sure that your guidebook contains the latest, most relevant information.
Nobody knows the Indian Himalayas better than Harish Kapadia, who has spent a lifetime exploring these mountains from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, as well as everything in between. He is an award-winning mountaineer with several first ascents to his credit but he is also an expert on approaches and access to destinations at lower altitudes. Kapadia has published more than a dozen volumes on the history and heritage of the Himalayan region. His latest book, the Outlook Traveller Getaways guide to Trekking in the Himalayas is an essential companion for anyone wishing to explore the many valleys and ridges, lakes and passes that make up the greatest mountain range on earth. In addition to his expertise, Kapadia is a born storyteller and he brings the mountains to life with his anecdotes and insights.
This book contains general descriptions of each of the specific regions it covers as well as helpful suggestions for how to prepare and pack for your trek. Those who like trivia will find plenty of obscure details in this guidebook, such as the fact that 1,25,000 species of fungi are found in India. On the other hand, if you’re interested in the big picture there is useful advice on where to get the best views of Kangchenjunga, Everest and Makalu. Particularly helpful is the fact that each of the treks described in this book are outlined in charts that break them down on a day-to-day schedule, with distances, altitudes and helpful notes on each stage. For example, here is advice on Day 5 of a trek from Darjeeling to Sikkim : “Though many people skip this campsite and head straight to Guicha La from Thangsing, returning in a day can get too exhausting. It is advisable to stay a night at Samiti Lake. It helps in acclimatization too.” These are the kinds of specific details that make this book invaluable.
An attractive array of photographs illustrates the text and there are clear and accurate maps for most of the routes. The book also contains short articles by other authors like Ashok Dilwali the veteran Himalayan photographer, who provides advice on how to get the most from your camera when trekking. While this guidebook restricts itself to India and does not cover Nepal or Bhutan, there is a great deal of new material that other guidebooks have not covered, particularly the mountains of the northeast, which remain the least explored Himalayan region.
HIMALAYAS : BLACK & WHITE.
By Ashok Dilwali. Pp. 199 B/W images. (Ashok Dilwali, New Delhi, 2016 INR 1500) ISBN 978-81-927871-0-7
In today’s world of ‘doctored’ images, editing, airbrushing, and Instagram filters, photographs are no longer indisputable; they no longer represent a definite snapshot of time. In a world where everybody is an amateur photographer, with high quality phone cameras, inexpensive DSLRs and unlimited memory cards, it is imperative for the professional to push boundaries and remind us what makes photography an art. As Robert Heinecken, quoted in Dilwali’s book below an imposing photograph of the rugged landscape of Lamayuru in Ladakh, puts it : “There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.”
Dilwali’s latest publication, Himalayas : Black & White, captures the beauty of the mountains in a way only an artist could. Raw and evocative, the collection of photographs traverses the Indian Himalaya and spans four decades. The images, all in monochrome, pay homage to Dilwali’s guru, Ansel Adams, famous for his spectacular landscape photographs and novel techniques. Not only are the photographs influenced by Adams’ style – capturing the wildness of the great outdoors and the moodiness of nature – but they also demonstrate the versatility of black and white photographs.
Playing with light, shadow, angle, exposure, depth, and expanse, the viewer forgets that the images are black and white and realizes that ‘monochrome’ is in fact a range of colours. The representation of seasons and times of day add to Dilwali’s repertoire and expose the viewer to the range of the Himalaya (pun intended).
For those to love the mountains in general and the Himalaya in particular, this collection of photographs will feel like homecoming. For those who love photography and Ansel Adams, this tribute is special not only because of the evident influence and many of Adams’ quotes on life and photography, but also because Dilwali brings something of his own to these beautiful photographs. For those who love both, well then, this book is worth having and keeping – you’ll find yourself going back to it often.
I have grown up around a print of Ansel Adam’s ‘Mood and Half Dome’; I see it many times a day, most often fleetingly, but every once in a while I find myself really looking at it and thinking about how bright the moon must have been that night, what is the shadow that’s falling on Half Dome, or how many photographs Adams must have taken that night, whether he was waiting for the moon to reach where it was, whether photographs create beauty, capture beauty, or both.
I would like to spend time looking at Dilwali’s photograph of ‘Panchchuli One’ rising from the clouds or ‘Warming up for the day’ in much the same way. I could then stop to think about whether it was about to rain on the mountain or if the dark clouds drifted past. I could think about the morning light falling on the yak; whether the break in the snow was an avalanche; about the life the photographer captures. Ansel Adams puts it best, and it is perhaps fitting to end with one of his quotes from this book, “The whole world is, to me, very much ‘alive’ – all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can’t look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life – the things going on – within them.
The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of ocean, or a magnificent piece of wood.” It’s no wonder, then, that Adams’ and Dilwali’s photographs are so full of life and colour.
(Selected photos from this book form a photo feature elsewhere in this Volume)
THE PEN Y GWYRD HOTEL : Tales from the Smoke Room.
Compiled and edited by Rob Goodfellow, Jonathan Copeland and Peter O’Neill. Pp 259. 64 photos and illustrations (Gomer Press, 2016, ISBN 978 1 78562 149 9, Hardcover, £14.99)
Reminding of Opportunities Overlooked
Many years ago, I had a memorable moment at the reception of a heritage guest house in Darjeeling. A small notice on the front office desk of the property called Ivanhoe, informed that previous guests included the likes of George Mallory, Andrew Irvine, Sir Francis Younghusband, Sir George Everest, Vivien Leigh and Julie Christie. If you are interested in the great outdoors and a movie buff to boot, that notice is a thrill to behold. It is an invitation to shuttle back and forth in time; imagine a Darjeeling from years gone by, morph on the surroundings a landscape from the past and wonder what the town may have been like when the early expeditions to Everest passed through. I am sure many modern visitors to Ivanhoe, standing at that front office desk and noticing that little write-up, would have similarly time-travelled in their mind. Yet aside from a few newspaper articles and mentions on the Internet, I haven’t seen anything more physically manifested from ruminations around that notice.
Sometimes a book is not only about the writing. It is about the idea it represents. The Pen Y Gwyrd Hotel : Tales from the Smoke Room falls in that league. The said property in north Wales, with roots traceable to 1810, has been famous through the decades as a meeting point for hikers, climbers and mountaineers. Several prominent names in the field have enjoyed food, drink and shelter under its roof. It was at this climbing inn in the lee of Snowdon that members of the 1953 Everest expedition stayed during their training for that adventure. It has since become a place of pilgrimage for mountaineers worldwide. Some of the prominent have contributed memorabilia. It ranges from a little piece of rock from the summit of Everest, to the rope that connected Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic first ascent of Everest to climbing boots, oxygen containers, crampons and signatures of mountaineers. The compilation of articles recalling the hotel – which is what the book is about - includes contributions from Jim Perrin, Chris Bonington, Peter Hillary, Paul Newby, Joe Brown, Doug Scott and Norbu Tenzing Norgay. It is an imaginatively produced piece of work, retaining in the freshness of a new volume the feel of weathering and memories gathered in corners, which is what a 200 year-old climbing inn would be all about. The book unfolds like a lazy curl of smoke. Don’t expect a fast read or something that you can’t put down. Don’t expect immediate connect either for the places mentioned as the ecosystem in which the hotel and book reside, are overwhelmingly British. This book is the sort that you can take many breaks from and return once again to your favorite chair; book in hand, for a taste of idea frequently overlooked. The overall idea – that is what intrigued.
For instance, less than 30 km from where I sat, book in hand, lay some of the cafes of Mumbai that have hosted for years the meetings of some of Mumbai’s best known outdoor clubs. In ages preceding Internet, these cafes were the addresses where you called to meet club members and enlist for an outing or as a member, participated in a meeting to plan a hike, climb or expedition. Even today on a given day of the week, at a given time, select tables are known to belong to outdoor enthusiasts; like that central table in Dadar’s Café Colony, still hosts members of Girivihar every Wednesday evening. Has anyone chronicled such instances? I suppose not. That’s what Tales from the Smoke Room made me think of.
Shyam G. Menon
THE GHOSTS OF K2 - The Epic Saga of the First Ascent.
By Mick Conefrey. Pp 317; six colour / nine BW photographs, seven sketch maps. (One World Publications, London, 2016 INR 650/-)
A giant of the Karakorams and just 764 feet lower than Everest, K2 or The Savage Mountain is considered far more difficult to climb than Everest.
Ghosts of K2 describes the epic climb of 1954, the valiant effort against adverse weather conditions, when Italians Compagnoni and Lino Lacedolli reached the summit.
Conefrey traces the early exploratory attempts on K2 - the complexities, rivalries and tensions associated with the attempts on the killer mountain. To lay the context, he traces the footsteps of five expeditions to the mountains, before success was achieved.
K2’s history has no shortage of drama or controversy. It spans the 1902 expedition co-led by the Satanist and believer-in-the-occult Aleister Crowley and the 1909 Italian expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi to the American attempts of 1938, 1939 (when they came within 800 feet of the summit, but lost three Sherpas) and 1954.
The 1954 Italian expedition was led by Arditi Desio - ‘Little Mussolini’ to his team mates because of his rigidity and inability to listen to other points of view. He carried 12 tons of supplies, almost three times of what the Americans took. Walter Bonnati lost his chance to reach the summit when he found out that all the oxygen cylinders carried up by him and the Sherpas were used up by Compagnoni and Lacedolli during the summit attempt. All further attempts were called off and Bonnati lost his chance to fulfill his dream. It left him heartbroken. The celebrated Italian writer Fosco Mariani tries to convey the complexity of Bonnati’s character : “A closed book and a complicated one. In some deep recess of his personality, he concealed a terrifying superhuman force. It almost frightened him sometimes. You could be his mate for weeks. You had a companion whose manner was consistently kind and at times exquisitely thoughtful. And then a veil of steel might come down between him and the world”. It is felt that Conefrey did not do enough justice to that great mountaineer and a legend of his times - Walter Bonnati. Conefrey’s views have been countered in the book Una Storia Finita by Luigi Zanzi.
Fritz felt he had a strong team to take on K2 and he also had the services of Sherpa Pasang Kikuli and also co-climbers Bestor Robinson, Chapell Cranmer and Dudley Wolfe. Savaged by high winds and deadly cold at Camp 4 for eight days, George Sheldon wote : “We would lie in our sleeping bags, in several layers of clothes. At any moment, we expected to be blown away into Tibet. The eternal banging and crackling of the tent, in the seventy mile an hour gale, made us virtually psychopathic cases”. Fritz had no idea what was happening below on the mountain or what decisions were being taken. He felt cheated and wrote : “What had been going on during the days when we were high - sabotage? We could not understand…It was obvious to us that nobody had been at camp 7 for many days or cared about the three men above. To hell with them”. On reaching base camp, he accused Tony of abandoning the summit party. Fritz tried one more time but bad weather eluded him.
The book also focuses on the Gilkey memorial near the mountain, a memorial to those who have perished on its flanks.
The book does an admirable job covering the historical context of the expedition, the stories and personalities of the climbers and the technical aspects of the climb, sourced from diaries and interviews.
A quote from Charlie Houston “We lived to climb again, for many years…in true mountaineering, the summit is not everything, it is only a part” highlights that safe climbing is much wiser than reckless action on the mountain which has resulted in numerous tragedies.
Finally this book by Mick Conefrey is a celebration of hope and triumph of the spirit over numerous tragedies linked to this savage mountain. It is a well-documented appreciation of great and heroic efforts of various teams on K2. The Ghosts of K2 is a book worth having on your book shelf.
ONE MAN’S EVEREST.
By Kenton Cool. Pp 264, 32 colour images, 2015. (Preface Publishing, London, £20)
An eleven-time Everester (now 12), Cool, in 2004, was nominated for the Piolet d'Or award for climbing a previously unclimbed route on Annapurna III. In 2012, he made good an 88-year-old pledge by taking one of the 1924 Olympic Gold Medals to the summit of Everest. He’s the first person in history to climb the Triple Crown (an ascent of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse in one climb). This has cemented Kenton’s position, in recent years, as one of Britain’s most high-profile and celebrated climbers.
One Man’s Everest is a thought-provoking read. It is an honest narration of the passion, perseverance and serendipitous twist of fate that Kenton Cool has shared with the mountains of the world. As one of the best mountaineers of this generation (there are numerous instances where he acknowledges the prowess of contemporaries including the late Ueli Steck), it is a sobering thought how his career almost ended in 1996.
After a passing reference to the disaster on Everest in 2014, the Prologue to One Man’s Everest sets the scene of Kenton Cool’s autobiography with a glimpse of his first time up on Everest in 2004. The narration then shifts to an engaging recall of a rock-climbing accident in North Wales in which he smashed both heels leading to a doctor to comment that he would never climb again. You can feel his anguish as Kenton, a young, proud and confident rock climber, gives a vivid and highly inspiring story of his fight back.
This is followed by a couple of chapters that detail his climbs in the Alps, Alaska and Karakoram at a time when Everest, by his own admission, wasn’t even on his radar. However, an expedition of Annapurna III, reading of which makes for some edgy moments, proved to be a defining moment in his career as an expedition guide and his dozen (as of today) journeys to Everest.
Kenton tells of the glorious moments, the tough decisions, his encounters with dying and the dead on Everest. His efforts to save the life of a Korean climber defines poignant and certainly serves to remind that Everest is not just a glamorous, high-altitude trip.
His account of five years of climbing as a guide to Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a British explorer, leading to his eventual summit of Mt. Everest is a lesson on guiding as it focuses on the mental and physical preparation that is required prior to the big climb.
The final section focuses on how Kenton maximises on the unforeseen opportunity presented to him by becoming the first person in history to climb the Triple Crown. The details here are vivid, honest and gripping.
For fans of climbing literature, this may not rank high. However, it's written well enough and makes for an easy and enjoyable read. It has an informative glossary of climbing terms. However, the non-climbing parts of the book drag at times, until the excitement of his climbs take over.
The Epilogue has much to say about how Everest has been treated. Of course, his views are strong and his own and may not conform to purist mountaineering beliefs. He embraces topics such as seasons, the costs involved, Sherpas and the kind of people and their attitudes at Everest. Somewhere, because he uses oxygen to be true to his duty of caring for his clients, he reveals his angst as an adventurous climber idolizing the Alpine style of Messner, Bonington, Scott among others.
His love and yearning for his family versus his undying urge to feed the ‘rat’ inside him figures often as it should for a climber who is an ambitious explorer at heart.
Doug Scott, in his blurb, rightly describes this book as Kenton bringing marvellous mountaineering stories to life. Indeed, so Cool!
Dr Arun Nayak
WHITE MOUNTAIN. Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas.
By Robert Twigger. Pp.458, Seven sketch maps, b/w photographs, 2016. (Weidenfeld &Nicolson, London, GBP 14.99)
‘What was special about the Himalayas?’ asks the author, thus setting the tone for the book.
Rober Twigger, in an exploration of the region’s seismic history, unravels some real and invented journeys and the links between them. The title itself is a bit intriguing as White Mountain, actually a euphemism for the mystical Mt. Kailash is just one of the small chapters in a compendium that ranges from topics as diverse as religions of the Himalaya, to Milu, a certain species of deer to Younghusband’s historic invasion of Tibet to Messner’s tragedy on the slopes of Nanga Parbat.
Coming back to the question, as to what was special about the Himalaya, Robert Twigger in his style of tireless psycho-geographical exploration, meanders into what he calls the ‘Demons’, factors that create magic and draw you back into the Himalaya. Part I thus deals with the physical enormity of the Himalaya, with the range being the mother of vital rivers, it’s fickle weather, mythical origins, that includes a riveting narration of a duel between Milarepa, a Buddhist leader and Naro, a Bon priest at the base of Mt. Kailash, as also, recounting the very early attempts to reach extremely high altitudes.
Part 2 takes to answer the question further, as how explorers and invaders of those times, believed that those who could rule the regions around the Himalaya could rule the world. Aptly titled ‘Pundits’ as a generic term, (not to be confused with the British-trained local surveyors like Pundit Nain Singh), this part covers stories of exploration/invasion into Nepal and Tibet. There are enthralling stories of the perseverance of solo explorers like Madame Blavatsky and the sturdy British officer, Younghusband. This part also includes legends of early climbers on Nanga Parbat. The famous story of Reinhold and Gunther Messner that ended in tragedy is peppered with a tribal twist to the tale.
Part 3 chronicles various events of 1904 that actually led to the British invasion of Lhasa and caused Tibet to be literally sandwiched between Russians and the Gorkha-powered British troops. While going through the well-woven details of the incursions, this part also delves into the mythical origins of Tibet, its rituals and even an account of the elusive Yeti.
Part 4 narrates stories of further incursions made by the Russians into Tibet, by Tilman into Arunachal; dummies’ guide into the politico-religious significance of the Dalai Lama and how he is chosen. The part ends with the eventual invasion of the Chinese into India in 1962 with an implied weakness of Nehru and his failure to stand up to China. Mountaineers would be glad to find some early stories of Everest and understand the elusiveness of Nanda Devi and Kailash. ‘Going Higher’ also deals with experiences of being lost in the mountains, the remarkable, oft-read comeback of Beckwethers from the dead and a note on all that people leave behind on Everest.
Part 5 touches the remotest parts of India, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The author himself spent considerable part of his childhood amongst the Nagas, and offers insights into their lives, their traditions and history, both ancient and modern. The part aptly ends with a visit to Tawang monastery, a religious and political hotbed even today.
The hand-drawn maps add spiritual relevance to the narrative. The book has a Himalayan (Balti, Tibetan, Bhutanese, Nepalese, Buddhist) quote in every chapter. Some are humorous : ‘Don’t try to wipe someone else’s behind if yours is still unclean’, ‘You cannot send a kiss by messenger’. These, unlike the maps, at times do not appear to have any connection with the prose that follows. But then, long before you put the book down, you realise it’s part travelogue, part research, part Himalayan history, part religion, part geography and part adventure. You could pick any chapter and begin to read and find it interesting. It’s great for reading on a trip to the mountains where you could share the ample trivia that you come across with your group by the warmth of a bukhari. The photographs in the print are a bit dark and most seem out of place. The e-book pictures are brighter.
That brings me back to the title - Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas. The author has in course of the book travelled innumerable times, either himself or through the recalled journeys of erstwhile, maybe from approximately 90 titles of his selected bibliography. In his words, ‘The bare facts of such a journey, the places visited, the trains ridden, the meals eaten – that would be “real”. And yet what one made of it, the sense of magic that grew up around these mundane details, that would be the incomparably more powerful and influential imaginary journey… - my imaginary journey around the Himalayas would therefore be a journey around the real exploits of others.’
The book is finally a pot-pourri of events in the history of the Himalaya – an exciting introduction for a novice but maybe a sense of deja-vu for avid readers.
Dr Arun Nayak
HIMALAYA ADVENTURES, MEDITATIONS AND LIFE.
Edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale. 442, 19 colour and seven black and white photos, 2016. (Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd, Rs. 799)
Since time immemorial, the Himalaya has evoked a sense of awe and wonder in everybody within its fold. Their scale and grandeur has always inspired people to seek higher aspirations and challenged one to confront one’s worst fears, before eventually emerging as a more self-assured and improved person. This anthology on Himalaya, tries to capture the essence and spirit of the people who are drawn towards it in pursuit of their individual aspirations.
The editors, Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale, have chosen extracts from a wide variety of mountain writing to portray the Himalaya through the perspective of different people and their personal experiences. Categorized as Adventure, Meditations and Life, these essays include extracts by famous explorers, mountaineers, mystics, literary and historical personalities which indeed make for delightful reading.
The collection categorized under Adventure has been listed in a chronological order spanning travels of Fa-Hien (translated into English by H A Giles) between CE 399 - 412 to the 20th century conquest of Mount Everest and ending with Anil Yadav’s account of his travels in Namdapha and Tawang in 2012 in the easternmost Himalaya. Without being too conspicuous, the editors have captured the entire geography of the region. Considering enormous selection of literary works on adventure in the Himalaya, the editors must have had a hard job picking the ones to feature here. They have tried to create a natural progression of travels, conquests and explorations and how their purpose has evolved over centuries. One gets a feel of what each protagonist must have gone through, moving through hitherto unknown and unexplored territory. Bereft of physical comforts, and technological advancements in terms of protective gear and clothing, some of the achievements are nothing short of miraculous, and this is evident from the sense of gratitude that most of them express.
While Fa Hien and Ekai Kawaguchi recount their adventures in the high mountains on a spiritual quest, Sarat Chandra Das, Pundit Nain Singh, Sven Hedin, Heinrich Harrer’s journey into the closed land of Tibet are remarkable pieces of writing on true exploration. Mark Twain’s The Train to Darjeeling is almost like a child’s gleeful account of his trip to Darjeeling and the surprise of hurtling down a mountain at great speed, while Frank Smythe tantalizes us with his near encounter with probably a Yeti. In the case of Aleister Crowley, account of his Kanchenjunga expedition is an incredible one for a man whose reputation precedes him. Edmund Hillary’s narrative of the conquest of the summit of Mount Everest is heartwarming while Jamling Tenzing’s recounting of his father’s version of the same lends a sense of completion to the entire conquest and establishes the strong camaraderie between Hillary and Tenzing, a necessary contributing factor to their success. With Anil Yadav’s essay, the editors have brought into focus the remote northeast, which generally receives a step-motherly treatment in comparison to the higher ranges to the west.
The focus then shifts to travellers and philosophers and their Himalayan experience, the grandeur witnessed by them, the mesmerizing beauty of nature and mountains that stirs within them the means to seek higher aspirations on their chosen paths. Thought provoking are Paul Brunton’s observations about the life of simple mountain people who he finds to be self-contended and peaceful with scant greed for money, power or education. He is envious of these people, but in the same breath claims to be far happier pursuing higher echelons of knowledge and education despite the price one has to pay. Excerpts by Swami Vivekananda, Rahul Sankrityayan and Wolfgang Buscher share their brush with the occult practices in the high mountains which have challenged their practical outlook. In Search of the Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen is a classic example of great travel and nature writing, and consequently had to find its place in this book. While Sunlight on Kinchinjunga by Francis Younghusband, is probably what every traveller to the Himalaya eagerly waiting for that momentary glimpse of the high snow-capped mountains, experiences. Swami Vivekananda in his essay mentions “real monasticism is not easy to attain” (Travels in India as an Unknown Sannyasin, page 180) and the very off beat excerpt A Mountain Retreat by Vivki Mackenzie tracing the asceticism journey of Tenzin Palmo (Diane Perry) leaves us in complete disbelief, more so for the courage this young lady displays in a foreign country on her path to enlightenment. Lama Anagarika Govinda’s piece was a touching one. With his profound knowledge and understanding of life, he adds a lot of richness to the desolate Tibetan landscape.
Ruskin Bond displays a nostalgia that anybody who has been there can associate with while Stephen Alter’s solo sojourns into the mountains is a refreshing welcome to anybody who is completely at home in nature.
Life in the mountains is a harsh reality. It’s a one-sided battle with man up against the mighty forces of nature. The last set of essays lend the reader a peek into the life of the residents and their perspective of life in the mountains, the simplicity with which they lead their lives, the unforgiving conditions through which they live and reality of surviving and coping with catastrophic events. The magnitude of destruction during the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the cloud burst at Kedarnath in 2013 is a chilling reminder of how powerless man can be against the forces of nature. Despite adversities, life goes on and survivors continue to build and live their lives as mountains are their home and they know no life away from it. They Make a Desolation and Call it Peace by Amitav Ghosh wakes us up to the grim realities of politics and the high altitude war.
This wide ranging collection of essays is a wonderful way to introduce a newcomer to mountain literature. As it features extracts from many evergreen classics, one can keep going back to it time and again. As an anthology it gives readers the flexibility to pick and choose. A tiny grouse - the western Karakorams with their set of massive peaks and stories of adventures and conquests, hardly find a mention.
SHERPA – THE MEMOIR OF ANG THARKAY.
By Ang Tharkay with Basil P. Norton. Pp. 204. (Mountaineer Books, Seattle, INR 1210).
Before Tenzing Norgay, there was Ang Tharkay. While Tenzing is the most renowned Sherpa, famous for the first ascent of Everest alongside Edmund Hillary in 1953, there is a good chance that he would have been a relative unknown, had it not been for Ang Tharkay.
In the thrilling era of exploration and breakthroughs post 1930, Ang Tharkay was a regular feature. Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkay is a story about his exploits, written in his own words, which explains why he is respected as one of the greatest Sherpas in mountaineering history.
Born in 1907 in the village of Khunde (4000 m) in the Solu-Khumbu region, mountains were a constant in Ang Tharkay’s life. He belonged to the Sherpa community, who lived a hard life in the shadow of behemoths such as Everest, Lhotse and Cho Oyu among others. Only when they took on the risk of climbing these big mountains were there accolades and money in store, which in turn helped them lead a better life.
So while each morning started with a dreamy view of the glorious snow-capped peaks, the hardships of daily life eventually snapped Ang Tharkay out of his stupor. As the eldest of his siblings, a number of responsibilities fell on his shoulders at a young age. There was almost never enough for the family, hence he took to odd jobs as a labourer, woodcutter, herder and a farmer. No job was considered menial, no job was difficult either. There were few joys that one could associate with growing up, but there was never a complaint from Ang Tharkay.
The wander bug set in as early as six, when Ang Tharkay was packed off to his aunt’s home across the high passes in Tibet. Until then, he would see mountains all around him while tending to the daily chores, but for the first time, he realised the joy of walking amid them. He shivered with excitement and reverence when he realised how grand these surroundings were, and was even superstitious to an extent to ensure his wellbeing during these journeys.
A few years later, he ventured out more frequently, mostly to aid his father during his trading forays into Tibet and India. This was at a time when there were no borders, and there was the freedom to set out in any direction. At the same time, these were arduous journeys through high passes such as the treacherous Nangpa La (5800 m) with few resources at hand. And just like that, Ang Tharkay’s childhood was past him.
It is uncertain when Ang Tharkay first visited Darjeeling, but a lot changed for him in the hill town. His son, Dawa Sherpa, believes that he moved there on the advice of a shaman, who said his life would change once he left his village. And so it did.
Ang Tharkay not only met his wife in Darjeeling, but also learnt about the existence of a world outside of the bucolic life he led in Nepal. Along the way, he met a number of folks from his community, who had already taken to the white world of the high mountains. Like any youngster, their stories had a lasting impression on him - he too longed to be a part of these epic tales.
Against the odds, he thus made his way to Darjeeling but narrowly missed out on a few initial opportunities to join an expedition. He took on menial jobs and ferried goods to make ends meet, battling severe illness and fatigue time and again. Yet all his focus was on getting to the mountains, by hook or by crook. An expedition to Kanchenjunga in 1931 could well have been his first, but he was dumped due to petty politics on reaching the base. Through instances of being cheated during his early days to using deceitful means himself, Ang Tharkay finally landed his first job on an expedition in 1933. The leader was Hugh Ruttledge and alongside him, the novice was headed towards the highest mountain in the world, Everest. From that day on, there was no looking back for Ang Tharkay, who had not only found a source of livelihood, but also a lifelong passion that would make him a legend in the world of mountain climbing and exploration.
His exploits in Nepal ranged from being a part of six attempts on Everest and the stunning first ascent of Annapurna alongside the French in 1950. There were other exploratory expeditions in the Nanda Devi and Karakoram regions where few had gone before. Ang Tharkay gradually built himself a reputation that made him a favourite among legendary mountaineers such as Eric Shipton and Maurice Herzog. He rarely shied away from any role, whether it was managing a team as a sirdar or taking up the challenge of cooking for the burra sahibs. He was the vital link between these adventurous foreigners and the local support that they needed, playing the role of a translator with ease though he could barely read or write. Then, there was his load-carrying ability and the strength he exhibited high up in the mountains. His loyalty was unflinching, and he was responsible for saving a number of lives in the most trying circumstances.
His performance on the mountain was one thing, and his personality, quite another. It took little time for him to mingle with people; whether it was the burra sahibs, his peers or his subordinates, Ang Tharkay become a loved figure among them all. There was a willingness to learn on one hand, yet at the same time, there was not a hint of arrogance given his superiority. If a task was assigned to him, Ang Tharkay got it done through his resourcefulness, even if it meant wielding an iron fist when it seemed like the situation was out of hand.
For his exploits, Ang Tharkay was awarded the Tiger Medal by The Himalayan Club, a gold medal by the French Alpine Club and the Legion of Honour by the French government.
In between the climbing, he also took on the role of an instructor at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in 1954 and then worked as a road contractor in Sikkim, before returning to the mountains. On his retirement from active climbing, he divided time between his trekking agency and his farm near Kathmandu, creating employment for others in the process.
The book was originally written in French by Basil P Norton, when he was approached by Ang Tharkay. Little is known about Norton, besides the fact that his smattering of Nepali and Ang Tharkay’s broken English was bridged by a Bengali gentleman, Mohan Lal Mukerjee.
As the book was written in 1954, it ends with his exploits on Nun in 1953, which is a part of the Nun-Kun massif. There are no details on his Cho Oyu climb in 1952, or other significant expeditions to Dhaulagiri (1953), Makalu (1954), Kamet (1955) and Everest (1962).
The original book in French, titled Memories d’un Sherpa was eventually translated by Corinne McKay. It is an honest account by Ang Tharkay about his humble beginnings which culminated in achieving extraordinary feats on the high mountains of the subcontinent.
THE INNER AND OUTER PATHS OF MT KAILASH – Pilgrimage to the Abode of Chakrasamvara.
By Wolfgang Wollmer with graphic representation by August Ohm. Pp 250, 140 photographs, 50 maps (Vajra Books Kathmandu, USD 32).
Mt. Kailash in the far west of Tibet is one of the holiest mountains in the world, revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpo alike. During the last two decades, Westerners have also been intrigued by this remote region. Improved infrastructure has made Mt. Kailash more accessible, as a result of which large numbers of Indian and foreign pilgrims visit this area. Besides Mt. Kailash, there are other points of interest for pilgrims and tourists such as Lake Manasarovar, Tirthapuri and the Guge kingdom, and the sources of the four major rivers Brahmaputra, Karnali, Sutlej and Indus. There are several paths for the Kora (circumambulation) of Mt. Kailash. If this Kora is performed 12 times then one is eligible for the Inner Kora which is a path leading directly into the south face of Mt. Kailash.
The author, Dr Wolfgang Wollmer began studying Buddhist philosophy in 1998 at the Tibetan Center in Hamburg, Germany. He performed his first Mt. Kailash pilgrimage in 2002 which was the year of the Horse. He was thus eligible to enter the Inner Kora. Having made many pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash between 2002 and 2013, the author describes the entire region in detail and his book is also a commentary on the area as a centre for tourism. The very deep and insightful study of different kinds and paths and systems of Kora is particularly awe inspiring. He has found long forgotten paths and succeeded in exploring new ones. The exceptional views of the holy mountain on these paths and their astonishing resemblance with the iconography of the deity residing in the mountain are explained and demonstrated with graphic representations by the artist August Ohm.
The book is well illustrated by photographs, maps, drawings, graphic representations and tables, so it is a good study for academics as well as tourists and pilgrims.
IN THE JUNGLES OF THE NIGHT
A Novel about Jim Corbett. By Stephen Alter. Pp 193 (Aleph Book Company, 2016; Rs. 499)
'Most readers are familiar with Jim Corbett, the white hunter, who rid the forests of the Lower Himalayas of man-eating tigers and leopards that terrorized villagers and claimed thousands of victims. Nevertheless, at the age of fourteen, Jim had just begun to understand that the most dangerous creature on earth is man... The jungle, with its wildlife and beauty, represented the primal purity of nature, while human beings possessed a different kind of savagery.'
Summer vacations during my childhood meant visiting different parts of the Himalaya with my family. After a couple of weeks of trekking, we often spent a few recovery days in various hill stations that dot the entire Himalayan range. Many of these hill stations were built during the British Raj as sanctuaries for English sahibs (and rich Indians) to retire to when the Indian summer got too sultry. The Himalaya, especially the Lower Himalaya, was soon discovered to be a goldmine for natural resources and a playground for anybody who enjoyed a good hunt. These hill stations are very different today, and the mountains around them bear testament to human destruction and greed. Even so they continue to be sanctuaries of beauty and stillness - especially when the mist settles around and one can hear the peculiar silence created by cicadas chirping. It is this mood of the mountains and forests that Stephen Alter captures in his book.
He transports the reader to the Himalaya; he describes the natural heritage we have lost and will never regain; and reminds the reader, indirectly, of the irreparable damage we are hurtling towards at top-speed.
Stephen Alter makes clear that In the/tingles of the Night, while based on Corbett's own writings and certain historical facts, is a work of fiction. It is a compelling story of the lesser-known sides of a man we are all familiar with. The book is divided into two parts - Corbett as a teenager living in Nainital, discovering his love for nature and its flora and fauna, and Corbett as an adult and war veteran. Alter's story also captures Corbett as a photographer, philosopher, and conservationist. Corbett may have been an English patriot but his home was the foothills of the Himalaya, where he was born and lived until India's independence from the British in 1947. He knew, understood and loved the forests and the people and the animals of the Lower Himalaya. Corbett was one of the first wildlife photographers and as he went on in years, he preferred to spend more time with his camera than with his rifle.
What is particularly interesting about In the Jungles of the Night are the other stories that it tells. In telling the story of Jim Corbett, Alter also tells the story of colonial India - not about India's freedom struggle or about the politics that played out in the big cities, but about the trees that were felled for the railways to run, the intricacies of the class system, and about the English men and women whose only home had ever been the Indian subcontinent. Alter also grips the reader with mystery and suspense - the strange unearthing of a grave in Part I, and the stalking of a man-eating tigress in Part II.
The Himalayan Journal rarely reviews works of fiction but the wonderful imagery that Alter conjures of the Himalaya and the story he tells of one of its most famous residents make this book a must-read for every mountain lover (and history buff).