HIMALAYAN RAPTURE - Mountains in my Life
By Hari Dang, Publishers Himraj Dang, Rupin Dang, New Delhi, 2019, pp. xiii+325, INR 750.00
The Himalaya over millennia has hosted deities, rishis, hunters, shepherds, cultivators, pilgrims, and mountaineers, but in our heavily polluted age today, its overarching benevolence is almost narrowing to the last gasp, as the luxury of breathing in rejuvenating mountain air and drinking the elixir of mountain streams shrinks. One literary talent who perceived the crucial link between inspiration and the benefits of breathing mountain air was Hari Dang, who forcefully endorsed the traditional Indic feeling of reverence for the range.
Attuned to life’s poetry, Hari Dang as climber, shikari and educator, at the Doon School, Dehradun, St. Paul’s, Darjeeling, and the Air Force School, New Delhi, was an inspiration to over a generation of students, whom he encouraged to question received wisdom and embrace the challenge of the outdoors. His outgoing personality tended to conceal the lyrical sensitivity revealed in Himalayan Rapture; this selection of their father’s writings published by his sons comes as a welcome riposte to the disdainful attitude of eminent Victorian surveyors concerned more for imperial prestige than Indian veneration. Himalayan Rapture helps clarify the conundrum as to why rich and worldly successful careerists, at grave risk to their lives, fight their way grimly to an exposed summit for a moment of epiphany, the reward that comes from picking up what the author calls “the last terrestrial gauntlet…to find the fulfilment that rides the high air.” This stirring summons is a reminder of how the Himalaya to the sub-continental imagination is much more than a barrier that prevents the monsoon clouds from escaping. As the archetypal bridge linking heaven and earth by which the blessings of the Ganga descend, the high Himalaya stands also as a symbolic staircase to the gods which even a king’s dog—if his master proves faithful—may ascend.
That high mountain masses do exert a measurable force surprised Himalayan surveyors who had to compensate for their distorting effect. Hari Dang re-states the Himalaya’s power of attraction to such effect that having earlier deplored the absence of a pen that did justice to the intangible mystique of the range (by spelling out the secret of its timeless appeal), Himalayan Rapture announces that pen has arrived and it is Hari Dang’s own. As a forthright ideologist, his writings sprinkled with quotations from the poets—Coleridge and Wordsworth were both mountaineers—acquire a near visionary tone that offers further insights on the charged meeting of men with mountains recorded by William Blake.
The author’s opinions can sound radical: “It is the capacity to love and not the ability to climb that is the true measure of mountaineering” which, while reassuring for a beginner, must be bad news for instructors at climbing institutes. “Time spent in the Himalaya”, argued Hari, “permits man to grow to the highest perfection that lies in him,” a claim many climbers around the world will endorse. Inklings of the profound experience of selfhood in the book abound: “It is amidst the peace and plenitude found only in the hills the voice of the Self speaks clearly” and “The mountains speak to man of himself.”
Distinguished as a high-altitude climber who remarkably survived camping out three nights in Everest’s death zone, the author’s jousts with tough Himalayan peaks confirm mountaineering opinion that while “Nanda Devi is about love, Everest is about war.” In the tradition of Eric Shipton’s gur-sattu ventures, Hari Dang believed it is the lasting impact of beauty that lodges in the memory more than the attainment of transient altitude records. What matters is the beating of the summiteer’s heart rather than his chest. Rare in a climber, he was aware that attaining a summit is a victory over himself rather than over the inviolate peak. Later in life, he would advocate the need to ‘unclimb’ mountains and ‘un-destroy Nature’ to break the assumption that human ascents somehow make a dent in a peak’s immaculacy.
Being more expository than biographical, Himalayan Rapture provides a racy commentary on the author’s extensive field of interests deriving from his passion for a mountain range that since his childhood darshan of the Himalayan panorama from Binsar shaped his life. ‘Dear God’ the child had prayed, ‘I ask for nothing more but to live with this forever.’ The book’s philosophic interventions are found amidst raw mountain atmospherics and aromatics, for as a natural raconteur, Hari Dang made sure the reader is never far from the earthy smell and exposure of the outdoors, as the reader is made to weep vicariously from the acrid smoke of wet oak or swallow with a shudder kerosene-flavoured tea.
As an outspoken nonconformist, the author came into his own on smaller expeditions. His colourful account of a shikar trip to Chiring We is memorable thanks to the eccentric charms of his gun-bearer, a pragmatist more concerned about the welfare of his firearm than of his bap-shaap Hari. The author’s vintage porter company excel in their maverick proclivities but are described throughout in affectionate terms since the fate of an outing often lay in their hands. While he could wink at the porters’ amorous inclinations in off-duty hours, the sahib could only wince at their limitations as cooks in reducing pumpkin to ‘salted glacial silt.’ (No doubt giving rise to the village rhyme: ‘Jai Badri Vishal, kaddu khake peth uchhal’).
If the reader feels it odd for a former Doon School master to keep banging on about eternity instead of Board results he can be forgiven. Those who assume the School was conceived on the playing fields of Eton overlook the Chandbagh campus, which sits on the auspicious Ganga-Yamuna watershed, and from its inception, the staff and pupils have been attracted by the lure of the Himalaya on their doorstep. The school’s assertion of its devbhumi ethos would characterize the founding moment of Indian mountaineering when Gurdial Singh, a legendary housemaster, on bagging Trisul, showed due regard for a sacred peak by performing the yogic asana of standing on one’s head, thus technically not defiling the summit. To the bachelor status of the senior teachers has been ascribed their pioneering achievements. Hari’s description of a mid-term escape to the hills where the climbers ‘supped and slept like unfrocked monks gone to the dogs’ might suggest a self-effacing approach to the high table was not the only path to salvation.
As well as launch enthusiasm for the sport of climbing in India, the Doon School endowed it with the desi regard for the environmental sanctity of the Himalaya. This setting of the tone for eco-awareness explains the author’s schoolmasterly ease in identifying mountain flora and fauna. The school ethic of respect for the natural world that began as an educational aid has become a necessity to stem the assault on the range’s fragile ecology. Hari’s article on protecting wildlife takes on urgency after describing as ‘routine’ how, near Munsiari, he witnessed a party of villagers club to death a herd of more than a dozen Himalayan thar rendered immobile when driven into deep snow. His concern to encourage adventure in youth has been exploited by reckless trekking companies whose large unregulated parties have fouled Garhwal’s grazing bugyals so grossly that the Uttarakhand High Court had to intervene.
To prove how feelings sometimes can be a more profound guide to reality than objectivity, the author voices his bardic frustration in having to reconcile direct perception of the Himalaya’s mystique with the filtering propensity of the intellect. On a midnight attempt to climb the main Trisul peak his small party was wonderstruck to witness across the void the awesome sight of a huge ball of fire rocketing from one summit of Nanda Devi to the other. To extinguish the palpable thrill of the Devi’s ‘flaming torch’, the jargon of science reduced the revelation to ‘an electric discharge between differing masses of moist ionized air’. Thanks to Survey departmental cronyism, the devaluing of the Himalaya’s mystique had begun in 1856 in a conscious attempt to dilute the range’s sacred associations. British surveyors feigning ignorance of the native name of the highest Himalayan peak Chomolungma named after the Mother Goddess (which had been accurately plotted on a French map, albeit as Tchoumou Lancma, in 1733), summarily imposed the name of their retired chief Colonel George Everest who despised native regard for the Himalaya as heathen superstition. Within months of the alien elevation of Everest’s name, the first war of independence broke out, followed by a further turning of the Himalayan hinge of fate when the founding of the Indian National Congress would be conceded by the Viceroy on the strength of reports emanating (according to the bureaucrat Allan Octavian Hume who submitted them) from ‘mahatmas in the Himalaya’.
Except for vainglorious Victorian surveyors, the Himalaya has the power to transform people and events, and this is the conviction of an outstanding mountaineer and gifted communicator after a lifelong affair with the range. Hari was convinced that contact with the Himalaya was guaranteed to arouse the finest and most enduring thing at the core of life and its knower, the human heart.
The full-blooded declaration of the author’s Himalayan manifesto may be at variance with the stance of the climbing establishment, but the exuberance of Hari Dang’s writing that cherishes the Latinate over Fowler’s short, simple (and soulless) Saxon, along with his well-honed humour delivered in elaborately couched understatement, is guaranteed to enliven the reader’s mood. The Himalayan mystique is an elusive summit for a writer to capture but Hari Dang’s vibrant affirmation of its contours makes him a candidate for its first ascent.
WILD HIMALAYA - A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth
By Stephen Alter. pp 416, Aleph, 2019, INR 899.00
On 26 March 2020 I reached chapter 26 of Stephen Alter’s very personal take on the natural history of the Himalaya. Entitled “Oriental Avifauna”, the chapter immerses the reader in the jungle of Arunachal Pradesh and a palette of gorgeous colour: the crimson cap and gilded beard of the golden-throated barbet, the scarlet breast of the red-headed trogon, and, in the gloom, a flash of yellow on a chestnut-headed tesia - “as if someone was trying to light a match in the humid shadow”.
That same spring day, the British public watched their TVs with a mix of fear and incomprehension as Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed his belated lockdown; Covid 19 was taking its deadly hold.
The contrasts were painful: a riot of bird colours and exuberant growth in the “land of the dawn lit mountains”; a plague cloud building over normal daily life the world over; Stephen’s lyrical prose; Johnson’s cod Churchillian hectoring. Two totally different realities and one infinitely preferable to the other.
Wild Himalaya became for me a kind of enchantment - a retreat into a realm of rocks and snow, gods and beasts, mountain people and seekers of knowledge and of summits. Thus absorbed I could temporarily forget about rates of infection and mounting death toll. Unfortunately the book’s 400 pages proved by no means enough. The return to the Covid nightmare was too abrupt. To preserve the spell I reread Stephen’s Becoming a Mountain, winner of the Kekoo Naoroji Award for Himalayan Literature in 2015.
At first thought, a hefty volume on the natural history of the Himalaya seems a fairly dry, academic prospect. Yes, I do love the birds, beasts and flora of the mountains, but preferably by being out among them, not at a distance, wading through a biology textbook. I need not have worried. Wild Himalaya is nothing of the sort. Stephen writes with the sensibility of a poet; every page has a lyrical beauty, though darkly so when he laments man’s destructive impact on the Himalaya and the planet as a whole.
The chapter that starts so gloriously among the dazzling denizens of the Arunachal Pradesh jungle ends on a stinking rubbish dump outside Guwahati, Assam. Perched on huge piles of rubbish are hundreds of greater adjutant storks, “stooped like solemn hunchbacks with bald heads and heavy beaks”. Worse still is the presence there of ragpickers: children scavenging barefoot through broken glass and streams of sewage. The grim, flesh-eating birds look like creatures out of an apocalyptic mirage, Stephen writes. “Reminded of the giant man-eating birds of Sherdukpen folklore, I can’t help feeling that this is how our world may end, a grotesque vision of a polluted land populated by carnivorous storks, who squawk and squabble over rotting skin, entrails and bones.”
To tell the story of the Himalaya from the range’s emergence from beneath the Tethys Sea, through rock formation, colonization by plant and animal life to human settlement, mountaineering and tourism, all the way to the present with its enduring wonders and all manner of degradations, would be a monumental task - literally a task, one might pun, of Himalayan proportions. “Would be”, that is, even if one were only sticking to the scientific, Darwinian version of this unfolding process. Yet Stephen offers throughout alternative creation stories and indigenous names and narratives for the myriad beings spread across the 2500 km range.
The Hruso tribe, for example, believe the world was created out of two eggs. One hatched to produce the sky, the other the earth. “When the Sky made love to the Earth every kind of tree and grass and all living creatures came into being.” Stephen is quoting here from Verrier Elwin’s Myths of the North-East Frontier of India. Studying that sentence though, is it really a myth or simply recognition in poetic form of fundamentals for the very existence of life? Wild Himalaya is as thought provoking and beguiling, as it is informative.
The book has a metaphoric base camp, rooted in and radiating its enquiries from Stephen Alter’s home in Mussoorie. The Alters’ presence in the Uttarakhand hill station dates back to 1916 and the arrival of his missionary grandparents. In a prologue, Stephen paints a pen portrait of the family home, Oakville, and uses the history of the colonial-era house and its luxuriant grounds to introduce some of the themes of the book. The Gangetic plain is glimpsed between the branches of the deodars, snow and ice of the Himalaya is visible just over a nearby ridge, and the house itself was built of material from the surrounding earth and forest.
The name Oakville comes from the resident banj oaks, while among the garden’s many blooms is a bright yellow flower known is Garhwal as ‘phyunli’ . Mention of both banj oak and phyunli is embellished with the kind of folk tales that become a feature of the book. A Garhwali saying compares the tough, but annoyingly knotty, banj oak to a cantankerous old man; phyunli is a manifestation of a princess homesick for the mountains of her childhood.
Stephen is adept at using the personal and particular to discuss the bigger issue - thus a cloudburst overflowing the gutters of Oakville opens the way to reflections on global warming and the droughts, forest fires and floods that beset the Himalaya. Recalling Hindu scripture, he muses on the elusive sacred river Saraswati, said to rise in the mountains and vanish into deserts. “The disappearance of the Saraswati is an ominous warning to those who believe that rivers are eternal. As glaciers and wetlands disappear and weather patterns change, how many other Himalayan streams may vanish?”
Given the many inferences to Hindu, Buddhist and other indigenous beliefs, it is natural to speculate on Stephen’s own spiritual leanings - he is, after all, the scion of protestant missionaries. In both Wild Himalaya and Becoming a Mountain, Stephen declares himself an atheist, but this smacks of rather more denial than his text suggests. I’m reminded of an answer given by the author Charles Allen at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago. Allen was promoting his book The Buddha and the Sahibs. Pressed on his own beliefs, Allen thought for a moment, then replied: “I suppose you could say I am… Buddh-ish.” The reader of Wild Himalaya might easily suppose that of Stephen Alter.
The arrival of western climbers in the narrative comes as something of an intrusion. Giants though they may be in the climbing world, Hillary, Buhl, Messner and co are aliens here. Though they are a necessary part of Stephen’s endeavour, they do not belong in these mountains in the same way as the beings described so far, and the pages allotted them do not glow with quite the natural intensity that otherwise illuminates Wild Himalaya. Or maybe it is just that climbing history is familiar ground.
Shortly before we get to the mountaineers, there is a wonderful chapter describing how the heroic legends of Garhwal are recited by village bards who accompany their story-telling with the percussive beat of a dhol and damaun. This musical tradition is known as Dhol Sagar - an ‘ocean of drumming’. It is essentially an aural text, “part of the ethereal soundscape of the Himalaya,” says Stephen. Dhol Sagar “evolved out of the first sound in the cosmos, the beating of Lord Shiva’s drum”.
After such magic, the next chapter, Chomolungma’s People, falls a little flat. Stephen treks up the Khumbu to Kala Patthar; he professes a transcendent moment on the 5634 m summit, despite the presence of 50 other trekkers, yet somehow one feels his heart was not really in this tourist jaunt; that is was a necessary piece of research for the completeness of the book; a personalized device to tell the story of the Sherpas and their material and spiritual attachment to Chomolungma.
Of the mountaineers, the most sympathetically portrayed is Frank Smythe, for his successful combining of a climbing career “with the avocation of a naturalist”. No surprise then that the most quoted of Smythe’s oeuvre is The Valley of Flowers, Stephen seeming to share Smythe’s belief that we go to the hills to experience the beauty of a larger freedom, and through the subjugation of the body discover a contentment of spirit…And, Smythe continued, “through beauty and contentment we gain peace.”
However Stephen’s own critique of the “entirely modern” pursuit of mountaineering is a good deal more astringent, refreshingly so. Climbing, he says, is essentially a by-product of the industrial age, not only because it depends on steel implements, nylon ropes and synthetic fabrics, “but also because it is largely driven by a subliminal sense of discontentment. More often than not, those who climb seek to break free of the oppressive conventions and routines of the mechanized, digitized world we have created for ourselves. Mountaineering promises a release from existential malaise through the physicality of climbing and a rejection of social norms and responsibilities.”
That surely has to be as good a response to the perennial “why climb” question as you are likely to get. And it is yet one more example of the combination of a clear eye, original mind and prose mastery that makes reading Wild Himalaya such a deeply satisfying experience.
THE LAST ENGLISHMEN - Love, War and the End of Empire
By Deborah Baker. Viking/ PRH, INR 599.00
The nagging question that faced us Jury members while selecting the winner of the KN Award (and believe me, the choice was not easy) was, Fact? Fiction? Speculation? Interpretation?
Because this master story teller, through extensive research of private and public correspondence has managed to keep every archival fact intact while, examining (maybe speculating here) the characters’ minds and motivations to tread a thin line and weave a story that is both fascinating and little known, even to the pundits of colony history who abound India’s English Literature and History shelves.
But let’s see what the book is about.
Baker’s book is set during the last 20 years of British rule in India where two lesser known older brothers of the famous poets W. H Auden and Stephen Spender—John Auden and Michael Spender—play protagonists. John is a geologist with the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and Michael, a surveyor and cartographer (He was the first to draw a detailed map of the North Face of Mount Everest). Sudhindranath Datta adds the Bengali quotient with his upper middle class English intellectual act. These three are The Last Englishmen—two by birth and one by upbringing.
The sun on the British Empire is definitely setting; so the rulers figure—how should we keep our hold? Let’s pull out the nationalistic, patriotic chant. Let the countrymen’s imagination be filled with fantasy, deviating attention from the nation ravaged by two world wars and shrinking colonies (we see this game of greed and power in contemporary India as well). And here it comes in the form of a plan to ‘conquer’ the summit of Everest—the ultimate patriotic act, the biggest publicity stunt, the greatest metaphor for the Raj and its struggle to keep power.
Our two young protagonists want to be on that bus—they want to be on the team selected to climb Everest, although on many levels they understand the degree of moral corruption in the business. They are rivals for the post and in the game of love but are bonded by a conscience that echoes the other’s.
The book, set in Calcutta, London, the Karakoram, and on Everest, has a diaspora of characters and stories—this is what makes it especially rich. The Bohemian Nancy Sharp, ‘one of the most under rated artists of the time’ and both Michael and John’s love interest; the political leaders of a nation to be born; Indian and English writers and artists; a confused melancholic Sudhin who wants to be socialist but can’t get the Britishness out of his system; a post-war changing world order; communist ideas and ‘spies’—these weave the rich tapestry of this novel-like account of history.
So John Auden comes to India in 1926 to work with the Geological Survey of India. He is a maverick who hates the sahib snobbery but can’t quite mingle with Indians either. Michael is similar—a traveller to remote parts of Tibet and the like, he is moved by the life of the nomads and the poverty that he witnesses at close quarters but can’t quite identify with.
Both of them accompany Shipton and Tilman on the famous Shaksgam exploration, from which emerged the classic Blanks on Maps book. But somehow these two remained obscure although they witnessed and contributed to so much exploration and were witness to a turning point in history. The chapter In the Ice Mountains traces this journey beautifully. And thanks to Baker, the ‘Rosencrantz and Guilderstern’ of this era take centre stage.
The book takes its time to find rhythm for the reader. There are several characters and events, stories, personal and political all seemingly unconnected getting one to wonder exactly where the book is going. It is a dense book. But once the rhythm settles, the pages fly until Deborah Baker begins to describe Calcutta, obviously her muse. She describes the Bengal famine of 1943, where thousands died of starvation and disease. The complete cruelty with which Churchill and his government tackled the problem is something that does not need embellishment—Baker’s staccato style, sticks to the script which is horrifying enough.
Her Calcutta also has Sudhin, with the intellectual Parichay addas (Parichay was the Bengali magazine he edited and addas [pronounced odda] are typical Bengali get-togethers of individuals who can argue until the cows come home. Remember Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian?). My impression is that Sudhin is the character most like Baker herself; trying to make sense of the world he lives in, questioning his confusions of feeling alienated from the British to whom he owes his very thought process as well as to the Indian labourer to whom he owes allegiance. Finally one gets a feeling that Baker and her Sudhin, both cover up an extreme passion and a rejection of indifference with a nonchalant exterior.
Witness to all that happens is the great Himalaya and the Karakoram, always lingering as objects of longing.
I will end the review with a quote from the Jury statement of the Kekoo Naoroji Book Award
“Baker weaves all this together in a history book like no other, eliding from the cold and stony banks of the Shaksgam to Calcutta addas, London bedrooms and wartime airfields; it has great pace and is a revelation of two unsung lives. The jury deems The Last Englishmen a worthy winner of the Kekoo Naoroji Award for 2019.”
QUEEN OF THE MOUNTAINEERS - The Trail Blazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman.
By Cathryn J. Prince. Pp. 304, 18 B/W photos, 2019. (Chicago Review Press, Chicago, $ 28.99)
As I reached Indira Col at the head of the Siachen glacier, in 1998, I looked back to all the difficult terrain I had covered—crevasses, long moraine ridges and a walk of about 98 km. But my thoughts were for Fanny Bullock Workman (FBW). How she must have reached here in 1910 when things were not so easy. Wearing her trademark skirt, a topee and long ice-axe, she stood on the col and displayed a poster which said ‘Votes for Women’. She named the col, today the northernmost point of India, as ‘Indira Col’, after goddess Laxmi from Hindu mythology.
All these events sum up FBW. An intrepid explorer, passionate about women’s rights, knowledge of the terrain, study of local traditions and religion, but still with her roots firmly embedded in the skirt and hat. She was with two Italian guides and a large entourage of porters.
There are many facets of this lady explorer. Fanny Bullock was born in rich family and married a rich doctor William Hunter Workman. “With marriage Fanny Bullock Workman cast off chains of Victorian womanhood”. She was a fierce fighter as until then most of the western countries did not allow women to vote or enjoy equal rights. To make a statement for women’s liberation, she always wore a long skirt, even at high altitude, and a lady’s hat strapped to her chin to face the Karakoram wind.
After gaining some mountain climbing experience she decided to join male bastion of mountaineering—the American Alpine Club in 1902. Before that she had applied for the membership of the Alpine Club, London, in 1857 but was rejected as the club did not admit lady members. She formed the ‘Ladies Alpine Club’ in 1907. Both clubs ran parallel and it was only in 1976 that they were merged and official positions were offered to lady members.
In the USA, the bicycle was a new invention and that attracted Fanny and her husband. They cycled to most places in Europe and to the starting points of many Alpine peaks like Mont Blanc, which she was the first woman to summit. Next was cycling trip to Switzerland to climb Matterhorn, where she suffered a sun-allergy.
Soon Asia and India beckoned—at first to cycle. Every trip—and there were many—the Workmans undertook three-week sea voyages each way. In 1897-98 they cycled all over India on a 14000 mile journey, reaching Srinagar and Ladakh. It was a rare sight and curious villagers and officials looked at the couple with wonder. The officials did not know the areas of Darjeeling and Sikkim where they were to cycle and Fanny spread a map to show them their land. This was followed by a long cycle tour of ‘Indo-China’ in the following year.
From 1902-03 Workman concentrated on the Himalayan and Karakoram regions. First it was Chogo Lungma glacier at foot of Nun and Kun peaks, with her first peak, Pinnacle Peak, climbed in August 1906. This was followed by crossing Chogo la. Few more trips followed to the Karakoram glaciers; to Hispar and Baltistan, one each year, after having cycled in the Indian plains of course.
By this time, the Workman couple were in demand as writers and for lectures. They made a European Lecture tour ending at London. She was invited to lecture at the famed hall of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club; “They were chilly to a woman explorer”. But she had breached the ultimate male bastion—that of mountaineering. “For Workman, this was the ultimate in recognition, the ultimate victory.”
She always climbed with Alpine guides and some of them achieved fame and money by accompanying her. She held a high altitude climbing record for women and was known both in Europe and US—her journeys made newspaper headlines.
The last Karakoram journey she made was to the Siachen glacier, or ‘Rose Glacier’ as she called it. As usual she was with guides and about 400 hundred Balti porters. Trekking in style and comfort she spent a leisurely time studying local legends, history and the glaciers in detail. It was great use of her time and money. For her it was a “peacock-blue sky” and “egg-yolk yellow sun” and she enjoyed every bit of it. Her love for nature is best expressed in her love for what she called ‘Snow-Roses’.
I had been kept awake late by great gusts of wind racking my tent, and, more especially, by the loud dirge-like chanting of the coolies at their camp, which rose irritatingly above the howling of the wind. Exasperated, at last I threw on a fur coat and went out into the frigid air to call the guides and have them stop the coolie-noise. It was still snowing and blowing on the glacier, but above Tarim Shehr the clouds had parted, and a full moon shone with silvery splendour upon an exquisite scene. As I stood there I beheld all about me the undulating hillocks covered with large, feathery, full-blown snow-roses. It was not a hallucination. They appeared completely formed, although the snow-covered grass-blades aided, no doubt, in the fantastic composition. I buried my hands in their cold, silvery petals, and then, forgetting the zero temperature, stood chained by the poetry of the surroundings. A tall snow-peak, moon-bathed from base to apex, looked down upon the rose-hills, the chant of the coolies clanged stridently yet in harmony with the now distant roar of the wind, and the moon, hung in a black sky, cast its resplendent light over all.
The weird glory of the scene and the discovery of the snow-roses so impressed me that I returned to my tent without stopping the chant of the coolies, feeling for the first time in years that their voices mingled fittingly with those of nature.
She faced much danger and on several occasions it could have proved fatal. Once her companion guide Cesare Chenoz, fell in a deep crevasse she was just two feet behind him. Had they been roped as usual she would have gone down with him into the chasm.
She wrote ‘FBW’ in large bold letters on rocks on sides of the glacier. Some of these inscriptions were seen even in the 1990s. Nearing the head of the Siachen glacier the party noted two huge cairns at head of the glacier. As no local or explorer had visited here, maybe it was erected by Central Asian traders who had crossed the nearby pass Turkistan la to traverse the Siachen to reach the fertile Nubra valley of Ladakh. In 1998 we were excited to see the cairns still standing tall and proving a point in history of both travels of Central Asian traders to India, and the exploration of Workman.
The author concludes her book thus, “Through her writing she tried to show it was possible to travel the world and climb the highest mountains. She went further than any woman had gone before. She was a pioneer.”
A good biography for the Queen and a pioneer.
WINTER 8000 - Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season
By Bernadette McDonald. 288 pages, Colour and B/W photos, Paperback, Mountaineers’ Books.
Winter 8000 is about the first ascents, some important climbs, and some of the most dramatic attempts of the 14 8000 m peaks in wintertime. Not only are these the highest peaks in the world, spread across the Himalaya and Karakoram, but also some of the most challenging climbs. Even at the best of times, altitude and weather make climbing these mountains a death wish, a feat that challenges not only the physical prowess of a climber but also her determination, rationality, and comfort with solitude.
These aspects are heightened many times over when climbing in the winter, along with additional dangers. McDonald describes winds and temperatures that are unimaginable to somebody who has lived—as I have—most of their life in the tropics and at sea level. But the tension that McDonald creates, the pictures she paints, and the way she captures the ‘art of suffering’ that winter climbers seem to have perfected ensure that -40 degrees Celsius temperatures (inside the tent!) and 150 kph blizzard winds go straight to the bones of her readers, curl their toes, and make them shiver.
In many ways Winter 8000 is a continuation of McDonald’s fascination with Polish Himalayan climbers (see her previous works Freedom Climbers and Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka, for example). The Poles have dominated most Himalayan climbing in the winter. From the first ever winter ascent of a Himalayan peak—Everest—as early as February 1980 to doggedly attempting K2, the only 8000 m peak still unclimbed in the winter, year after year, Polish climbers have made winter climbing a matter of national pride. Having arrived late to the high altitude climbing scene, winter climbing—previously thought impossible—is where they have left their mark. Living behind the Iron Curtain meant that climbing budgets were shoestring at best and their equipment left much to be desired (Krzysztof Wielicki summited Kanchenjunga in January 1986 in a pair of second-hand boots that were a size too small). Many of these climbers are well-known to even non-climbers—Andrzej Zawada, Jerzy Kukuczka, Krzysztof Wielicki, Wanda Rutkiewicz—and it is a thrill to learn about equally heroic, often younger and scrappier climbers. Although Winter 8000 sometimes has too many characters to keep up with, the reader will find herself rooting for the underdogs: the ones without heated tents at basecamp, without large support staff, the ones who try to make the most of their permits—most often, the Poles.
This is not to say that there aren’t others who have pushed forward the envelope of high-altitude winter climbing, especially in the even more challenging Karakoram. Simone Moro, Denis Urubko, Élisabeth Revol, Anatoli Boukreev, and a generation of younger Polish climbers are some of the mavericks who have seen success (and loss) in the wintry Himalaya and Karakoram. McDonald takes the time to tell theirs and others’ stories in a way that sometimes makes the reader feel as if she is on the mountainside or pacing nervously at basecamp. The incredible photographs she has collected and curated no doubt help the reader visualize what winter at that altitude looks like—one climber aptly describes it as being on a different planet.
McDonald’s book also wonderfully captures a history of climbing. While winter climbing began in earnest in the 1980s, it continues to this day. From large expeditions in the early days that spent months on the mountain to faster and lighter alpine-style winter climbs (aided often by acclimatizing on a different continent), we get a sense of how much climbing has changed. While improved equipment, warmer and lighter clothing, and much more accurate weather information does not guarantee success on the mountain, it does make those early ascents all the more awe-inspiring.
On the one hand, drama, tension, and intrigue are inherent to climbing stories; especially the ones in Winter 8000 where people push themselves to their very limits, even beyond, where triumph is so sweet because it is so often unexpected and improbable, where friendships and partnerships save lives. On the other hand, these are not easy stories to tell. Climbing is rife with politics, competition and ego battles, feelings of betrayal and mistrust, hubris, controversies, contradictory reports, pain, and loss…For every superhuman feat there is tragedy. For every good decision there is bad judgement or misjudgement. For every push to reach the summit there are men and women who have to turn around even when they are close enough to reach out and touch the top. Sometimes climbers don’t or can’t listen to their bodies, sometimes the weather turns, and sometimes it’s just bad luck. The knowledge that climbing is dangerous, the mountains are dangerous, and winters there are brutal does not mitigate the pain that loss brings.
McDonald is sometimes the fly-on-the-wall, telling stories from various points of view, describing how hindsight might be 20/20 but real-time decision-making, particularly on the mountain, can never be. But some of her most evocative writing is the tragedies on the mountain and their aftermath—the guilt and trauma that teams and climbing partners go through, spouses, children, and parents who lose their loved ones so far from home, and the heroic rescue attempts that are made but are not always successful. The rescue on Nanga Parbat will go down in mountaineering legend; but McDonald ensures that we will remember some other fascinating—and tragic—stories as well. Like Maciej Berbeka’s tryst with Broad Peak. His could have been the first winter ascent of an 8000 m peak in the Karakoram in 1988 but he only reached the Rocky Summit, 17 m below the true summit—a fact he learnt only after he was received back in Poland a hero—when the weather got worse than it already was. He, justifiably, felt very betrayed and angry. Berbeka returned to a still unclimbed Broad Peak in early 2013 and made it to the summit. Unfortunately, this time, he didn’t make it back down.
Having read a few other books by McDonald, I think she is, in part, driven by the same question that many of us who consume mountain literature are curious about—why? Why do climbers go to some of the most desolate parts of our planet and push their minds and bodies to the very limit? I don’t know if this book answers that question. Or, perhaps it offers many probable answers. One of them is what Adam Bielecki said after taking three days to reach from Base Camp to Camp 1 (6000 m) on Gasherbrum I‘‘We had done a fine, totally useless piece of work,’ Adam announced, a bit disgruntled. ‘Climbing in itself is a useless pursuit. It has no real meaning. My choice to pursue Himalayan climbing is my way of spending my life but I don’t intend to convince anyone else that it’s a fun way to spend your time.’’
THE LAST GREAT MOUNTAIN: The First Ascent of Kangchenjunga
By Mick Conefrey. 2020. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-8380396-0-8 eBook ISBN: 978-1-8380396-1-5
The Last Great Mountain: The First Ascent of Kangchenjunga is the final installment and a fitting conclusion to the trilogy that was started with Everest 1953 and Ghosts of K2 preceding it. Written by Mick Conefrey, in his usual simplicity of language and riveting style, the book does a deep dive into the different expeditions that attempted to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga before it was finally climbed by Joe Brown and George Band in 1955. However, it is not only a factual account of the various attempts, but it also goes into the intricacies of climbing in the Himalaya, especially on a mountain that has long been considered by locals to be inhabited by the ‘demon of Kangchenjunga’.
The history of exploration in the Kangchenjunga massif begun quite similarly as with the other mountains of the Himalayan range. Long before the first climbers set foot on the mountain, it was of interest mainly to clandestine operations, and scientific explorers and naturalists such as Joseph Hooker, and the Schlagintweit brothers. Most notable of these early explorations was by Douglas Freshfield, along with photographer Vittorio Sella, who did the first circuit of the massif, collecting detailed data, maps, and photographs that would prove invaluable to future climbers.
Set over a period of more than five decades of exploration, the accounts of the various characters in the book are not only compelling but also widely contrasting to one another. The first expedition conducted by Aleister Crowley, the flamboyant practitioner of the Occult and his excessive ways is a polar opposite of the German expeditions that followed, particularly the ones led by Paul Bauer who considered mountaineering to be a sport that was going to restore German national pride and therefore had to be approached with a certain rigidity. Another German expedition that followed was led by Gunter Dyhrenfurth, who held quite different beliefs than his fellow countryman Paul Bauer. It is not difficult to imagine such a large spectrum of characters, given the political situation of the era, and the rapidly evolving nature of mountain climbing from strictly a scientific or militaristic pursuit to that of sport and recreation.
Kangchenjunga, which was long considered to be the most difficult mountain in the world was finally climbed by a British team led by Charles Evans in 1955. This was an age of large siege style expeditions, that often turned out to be reconnaissance missions in the end, given the complexity of its summit attempts. The bad weather, frequent avalanches, and the fact that it was the last of the three highest mountains to be ‘conquered’, only added to the mystery surrounding Kangchenjunga. This was a world so different from anything the western climbers had ever seen. The newspapers frequently misspelled Kangchenjunga too, such was the unfamiliarity between the two!
There was a lot scientific development being made in climbing equipment and the book traces that evolution well. Technology was still in its early stages, andany communication with the press had to be made through a runner which meant no announcements of the team’s victory could be made in the papers until days after. Conefrey does a brilliant job of highlighting all these points while still focusing on the larger picture of expeditions on the mountain.
It has been 65 years since the legendary first ascent of Kangchengjunga by a couple of previously unknown climbers whose participation in the first summit party was met with widespread doubts. After all, many acclaimed and aristocratic mountaineers had tried to climb the peak but had met with disappointment. However, in the case with mountaineering, it is not always physical strength or grit or class that make a successful climber, and the book indicates this well.
Although it has been largely overshadowed by the growing popularity of Everest and other commercial expeditions to surrounding peaks, Kangchenjunga continues to hold a special place in the archives of Himalayan mountaineering. It was after all ‘the last great mountain’ to be climbed and one of the first peaks to get the attention of mountaineers, long before photos of Everest and K2 were available! The final installment of the trilogy that began with Everest 1953 and Ghosts of K2 could not be more suitable.
THE WORLD BENEATH THEIR FEET: The British, the Americans, the Nazis and the Mountaineering Race to Summit the Himalayas.
By Scott Ellsworth. 2020. John Murray Press UK. Kindle Edition. eBook ISBN 978-1-473-64963-7
The World Beneath Their Feet is a representation of mountaineering history through the ages, starting from the time the sport was still in its infancy and the domain of a certain section of society. The subtitle - The British, the Americans, and the Nazis and the Mountaineering Race to Summit the Himalayas – sets the tone for what is to follow. The entire text is divided into three separate books, and despite the complications that might arise from trying to weave so much information together, the author does a stellar job of not only presenting facts, but doing so in a manner that keeps the reader engaged till its final page. The simplicity of the language used renders it an even more interesting tone, especially since the age in which most of the book is set, was one of the most turbulent times in the history of the world.
Like so many books written on the rise of mountaineering in the first half of the 20th century, this book focuses on the political and social reforms of the age and their influence on climbing. The differences between the classes of climbers are emphasized, especially in British mountaineering, with the likes of Eric Shipton bringing classics like Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice as expedition reading material. The English were widely regarded as the best high-altitude mountaineers in the world at the time and were revered and idolized by the press. Mountaineering was meant for a select few, belonging to aristocratic families, who had the means to organize expeditions of that stature. In the author’s words, “Oxford and Cambridge men, dressed in High Street woolens and lugging tins of tea from Fortnum & Mason in their rucksacks, could be regularly found scrambling along some ice-choked ridge in the middle of nowhere…”
The German climbers however came from a completely different world. Still recovering from the ruins of WWI, they were desperately looking for some sort of stability, a purpose to hold on to. Paul Bauer was one such soldier, who having fought in the war was forced to return to a country which bore no resemblance to the nation he had grown up in. He was motivated enough to turn mountaineering into a sport that had the potential to restore national pride. Although, many expeditions that followed did not hold the same ideals as Bauer did, they were united on one goal – to put Germany firmly on the map of mountaineering. They succeeded in doing so, with less resources than their British counterparts, and during a political upheaval that would change the world forever. One thing was clear, the Germans became a formidable lot, and their climbing prowess in the Himalaya would be nothing short of remarkable.
The shadow of the contemporary political situation continued to haunt every aspect of life, and the book is almost lyrical in terms of the emotions it evokes, especially that of nostalgia. The author visits the former home of Ang Tsering, a legendary Sherpa, known for trying to rescue his team members during the tragedy of Nanga Parbat in 1934. He was in search of some of the late Sherpa’s paraphernalia, which in his own words –
“Such materials, I’d reasoned, might help me to tell the story of the forgotten men and women who, decades earlier, had set out to climb the highest and deadliest mountains on Earth.”
Scott Ellsworth, with this book, has left a legacy that will be revered for a long time to come. On one hand, he talks about the crumbling political system in Germany, and the tragedy on Nanga Parbat that has since been etched onto the country’s consciousness. On the other hand, there are mountaineers from America charting their own course by climbing the formidable Minya Konka. There is a beautiful confluence of cultures occurring throughout the book, with western mountaineers and Nepalese porters/tea planters, all set in the dreamy town of Darjeeling. We also get a glimpse of some of the most beautiful landscapes; Tibet, Kashmir, Kangchenjunga etc. One thing is constant though – the awe of the expedition members on seeing such raw beauty. To quote Emmons upon getting a glance of Minya Konka - “We forgot our tent, supper, and everything else to stand by the magnificence of the scene. The Alps, the Canadian Rockies, even the great mountains of far Alaska would fade into the background before such glory and splendor.”
The author begins the book simply, saying – “This is a book about mountains”, and that sums up the content well. Its also about a bunch of drifters and dreamers, who fought against all odds to chase a dream that no one else had dreamed about, and in doing so, their names are now forever etched in the archives of mountaineering history. The World Beneath Their Feet is a book that represents mountaineering in all its glory!