WILD HIMALAYA: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth
By Stephen Alter, Pp. 440. 2019 (Hardcover, Aleph Book Co., Rupa Publications, Indian Rupees 649)
HIMALAYA: A Human History
By Ed Douglas, Pp. 582, 2020 (Hardcover, W.W. Norton, US $40)
These two new books are reviewed together because between them they offer an encyclopedic knowledge of the Himalaya. Stephen Alter is no stranger to the readers of Himalayan lore. He was born and raised in India where his father, Robert Alter, was an American missionary. He divides his life between Littleton in Colorado and Landour (near Mussoorie) in Uttarakhand. Alter graduated from Woodstock in Mussoorie, where his father was the principal. He then studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. His website lists seven non-fiction, eight fiction, and four young adult books. In 1998 Alter published his biography, All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas and in 2014, a travel book, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime. Alter is thus well positioned to take on the massive task of exploring and explaining the natural history of his beloved home in this new book, simply called Wild Himalaya and released in 2019.
The book is divided into eight thematic parts: Orogenesis (a geologic term meaning ’mountain-building process’), the Third Pole (an informal geographic term, popularized by G.O. Dyhrenfurth, for the Himalaya and Tibet as the water tower and snow-covered roof of Asia); Floral Himalensis (on plants); Winged Migrants (on birds); Mountain Mammals (on mammalian wildlife); Ancestral Journeys (on indigenous peoples), At the Edge of Beyond (on modern exploration and mountaineering history); and In a Thousand Ages of the Gods (on mythology, art and folklore).
On all these topics, reader can find several well-written books and expert authors; for example, Augusto Gansser and K. S. Valdiya on the geology, Salim Ali on the birds, George Schaller on the wildlife, and S.S. Negin on the geography of the Himalaya, and so forth. Nevertheless, Alter’s new book brings all these themes together in a language accessible to the general readers. His care and passion for his subject is apparent on the pages of the book.
Chapter 7 of Alters’ book is the subject matter of an entire book, Himalaya: A Human History, by Ed Douglas, who is relatively a new comer. “In the summer of 1995,” Douglas begins his book, “I flew to India for my experience of climbing in the Himalaya.” Nevertheless, aside from mountaineering experiences, Douglas has accomplished greatly in writing. His previous books include Chomolungma Sings the Blues: Travels Round Everest (1997); Regions of the Heart: The Triumph and Tragedy of Alison Hargreaves (with David Rose, 2000); and Tenzing: Hero of Everest (2003).
Himalaya: A Human History, in twenty chapters, chronicles the exploration of the Himalayan lands and peoples by the Western scholars, adventurers, and mountaineers in the past three centuries or so—from the Jesuit missionaries and East India Company to summitting Mount Everest and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India and its aftermath. In this way, the book argues for an important place for the Himalaya in global history—politically, culturally, and scientifically.
Douglas’s book draws on a large number of books previously published; that is why, the list of over 500 books and articles listed at the end of the book is an informative bibliography on the subject. If you have read works by Kenneth Mason, Charles Allen, John Keay, Peter Hopkirk (referenced by Douglas), Ian Cameron, and Galen Rowell (not referenced), you may not find much surprising historical information. However, the panoramic vista of the Himalayan space and time that Douglas portrays in his book is fresh and current. Himalaya: A Human History is a nice up-to-date to the subject covered by Kenneth Mason in his 1955 classic Abode of Snow: A History of Himalayan Exploration and Mountaineering, but also with a new dimension: Douglas contextualizes his heroes—William Moorcroft, Joseph Hooker, Seven Hedin, Charles Bell, Edmund Hillary, and many others—in the cultural and political histories of Himalayan peoples as they become open and accessible to the Western world.
The Himalaya and the adjacent Tibetan Plateau form the loftiest topography on Earth; they encompass millennia-old cultural histories and play crucial roles in the climate, water resources, and agriculture of south and east Asia – home to one-third of world population. Wild Himalaya and Himalaya: A Human History are excellent books that offer a wealth of knowledge on the natural and exploration histories of the Himalaya. The books are for the general public; however, experts also will refresh their knowledge. I have several shelves of books and boxes of articles in my library devoted to the Himalaya; nevertheless, I find these two new books nice additions to the literature.
Note: The book Wild Himalaya recently won the Kekoo Naoroji Award as well as the Banff Book Award in the Natural History category. Himalaya – A Human History found special mention in both competitions.- Ed
THE SHERWILL JOURNALS, 1840-1843
Voyages and Encounters in the Eastern Cape of Southern Africa
Transcription and Introduction by June Harvey, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle on Tyne, 2020
The significance of this hand written journal written by two English brothers recruited by the East India Company army in the early Victorian era is how what may seem insignificant at the time of writing can, after lying in an attic for 180 years gathering dust, become a fascinating reflection of the values of a whole age. The journal is written separately in two parts in letter form to the sisters of Walter and Markham Sherwill. Walter the younger brother writes in a sloping spidery script (that June Harvey has done a masterful job in deciphering) while the blank pages left were utilized by Walter’s elder brother Markham whose writing is more legible. Of the two Markham comes across as the more philosophic no doubt aided by his journal’s account of the long sea journey from Calcutta to Southampton on a cramped sailing ship where every time he opened the port hole the waves inundated his bedding. Both these India hands impress with their writing skills as well as their superb artistic abilities. Along with the journal were found other papers of the Sherwill and Lind families (joined by marriage) to suggest several of the members deserve by virtue of their talents to be classified as eminent if unsung Georgians and Victorians. In an age of short life expectancy the Sherwill-Linds appear to have enjoyed every minute of it.
Published privately was also found a thin volume which may make its author Walter Sherwill remembered not only for his outstanding illustrations and paintings, but possibly for being the first foreigner to have set eyes on – and certainly the first to sketch in 1852 the range in which the tallest peak then unnamed would turn out to be Mount Everest. The sketch was made on Walter’s surveying tour of Sikkim resulting in the ‘Notes Upon a Tour in the Sikkim Himalayan Mountains undertaken for the purpose of ascertaining the Geological formation of Kunchinjinga and of the perpetual snow covered peaks in its vicinity’. The caption reads ’Great Peak in the NEPAL SNOWY RANGE from near Tumbok Pass.’ The sketch is rudimentary betraying a geologist’s concern more for the synclines than the aesthetic lines of the range.
Walter disabused the author of The Himalayan Journal about Kangchenjunga being composed of granite; this early version of the Journal referring to its original avatar published in two volumes in 1864 by the indefatigable note-taker and botanical wizard Dr J.D. Hooker. Hooker dedicated the book to his close friend Charles Darwin and it was Hooker and not Huxley at the famous Oxford debate on the evolution of species in 1860 who silenced the arguments of the creationist Bishop (Soapy Sam) Wilberforce.
But for the accidental unearthing of this heirloom it would be hard to imagine what between them these families achieved through their wealth of enlightened curiosity, pursuit of scientific knowledge and penchant for adventurous travel. The subtitle Voyages and Encounters in the Eastern Cape of Southern Africa 1840-43 refers to Walter’s travels when on sick leave from India. Before the opening of the Suez Canal the Cape climate appealed to convalescent Company officers. Markham’s journal titled, Drops from Ocean details his voyage to Blighty on the fast but leaking East India man Vernon which “rose and fell like a walnut shell.”
Both display a pleasing mix of humour and scientific observation as well as exhibiting the colonial combination peculiar to the English of arrogant insularity plus a delusional sense of moral superiority. As a social study the journal reveals how memsahibs helped build the empire by standing (and wilting) by their efficient husband administrators bearing them many children in the hope some would survive. Also revealed is how life was speeded up and distance contracted by the advent of steam transport.
The Sherwill-Lind combine hosted two physicians to the court of King George III one of whom, James Lind, was immortalized in lines by Shelley for being a polymath and by Mary Shelley for his collection of weird and wonderful objects that gave her the idea of writing Frankenstein. The doctor’s wife (Walter’s grandmother) was an astronomer like her husband and while peering through a telescope identified the existence of volcanoes on the moon. Yet another of their cousins would discover lime juice as the seaman’s protection from scurvy.
Walter’s father was into mountaineering and climbed Mont Blanc but later became unbecoming by Victorian standards when after fathering Walter and Markham and six other Sherwill children he abandoned his wife and family to live with a French ‘artful paramour’ in Paris stooping to what another relation called ‘shameful acts and low tricks.’ From Mont Blanc to Paris noire there seems never to have been a dull moment in the affairs of the Sherwills and Linds whose family tree also reckons them twelfth in the line to James II of Scotland.
Walter’s energetic and entertaining travels in South Africa only skirt the building racial tensions where the poisoned black dart stood little chance against the encroaching white musket. While climbing Wally is struck by lightning on a mountain and horror struck when dining with a Boer family. A tub of warm water was passed around for each member to dabble their feet after which the children were encouraged to wash their hands and faces in, before the concluding ceremony of offering the unholy grail to the mortified guest.
Walter behaved according to the customs of his age which means his behaviour cannot match up to modern scrutiny whether on the human or wildlife score. “These Hottentots approach near the Hindustanees in stupidity” he wrote and of the South African zebra “It is really a thousand pities to murder such poor innocent useless animals” especially when the lust to kill would see the extinction of the species by 1883. His journal includes some mountaineering and caving in South Africa. The Himalayan Club’s honorary local secretary Dr Stephen Craven does not disappoint by contributing a considerable amount of research to this historical Sherwill windfall. The highlight of Walter’s tour is his descent “with a velocity almost equal to that attained on a Russian ice rink” that precipitated him through a morass of yellow mud to fetch up agog before the transcendental marvel of the Icicle chamber in the Cango caves.
The suggestion the East India Companyhad sincere officers like Walter and Markham and other family members is borne out by Walter’s superbly detailed illustrations of “the Opium Fleet descending the Ganga en route to Calcutta” and the Patna “mixing room” where the opium was prepared for the “barbarian” Chinese market to make modern drug lords and their cartels seem like raw entrants to the business of ‘How to demoralize your fellow men for profit’. To indicate how the prestige of the empire was founded on shaky ground Markham in 1840 before sailing for home leave celebrated a Reunion with his fellow John Company officers “to commemorate England’s late victories ……particularly in Afghanistan.” This novel interpretation of Britain’s greatest military humiliation as a triumph when the entire Company army was wiped out by Afghan tribesmen to bankrupt Markham’s honourable employer is a reminder the word ’prestige’ actually means ’illusion’.CBILL AITKEN
TO LIVE—Fighting for Life on the Killer Mountain
By Élisabeth Revol translated by Natalie Berry. Pp.154, 22 colour photos (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, U.K, £ 24)
“‘Do you feel good? Yes? Not too cold?’
‘It hurts, but it’s bearable!’
‘Should we continue?’
Soon after this conversation, Élisabeth Revol and Tomascz Mackiewicz marched towards the summit of Nanga Parbat, a.k.a. the Killer Mountain. Revol recalled that moment, stating, “Each metre travelled is a small victory; each additional step is progress. Short of breath, we ascend together towards the starry sky. In this moment, I realize that we will reach the summit.” (p.16)
Yes, on 25 January 2018, Élisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz did reach the summit of Nanga Parbat, 8125 m. This was not only the second winter ascent of the peak with Élisabeth becoming the first woman to summit Nanga Parbat in winter, but was also a feat achieved in alpine style, without support from any Sherpa crew.
But their joy was ephemeral. As soon as they reached the top, their adventure turned into a nightmare as Tomek (as Tomascz was fondly called by his friends) was struck by blindness. In To Live, Élisabeth tells the story of this tragedy and the extraordinary rescue operation by fellow climbers who flew in from K2 to help the pair in deathly despair. It is an evocation of the duo’s efforts of holding on to life that culminates in two subtly distinct ends—while one perishes in trying to attain his life’s ‘holy grail’, the other survives, perhaps only to live with the scar of having survived alone.
In the concluding lines of his book Quest for Adventure, Chris Bonington wrote, “The great superlative challenges, the first ascent of Everest, the first circumnavigation of the world by balloon, the first solo crossing of the Poles may all have been achieved, but there are still unclimbed mountains, un-sailed seas and breezes to carry us on our own personal quests for adventure.” Staying true to the tradition of that very spirit of adventure and exploration, ‘the great superlative challenges’ of the last few decades were reaching the summits of the 8000 m peaks in the height of winter. Then somewhere down the line, it was noticed that most of the climbing and mountaineering activities were suddenly dominated by commercial objectives that attracted media attention, in the process making the climber a celebrity. It was in this backdrop that Tomascz Mackiewicz, one of the main characters of the book, stood out and ‘thought outside of this logic’. While paying a tribute, Voytek Kurtyka wrote, “Tomek had a strong compulsion which pushed him seven times onto the same mountain…He knew that the crazy world of all ‘the firsts’, ‘the best’, ‘the strongest’ would not reward second place so generously. And yet he returned.”
Somehow, Tomascz reminds the reviewer of Joe Tasker and Alison Hargreaves and makes one realize that one’s philosophy for risk taking is derived from one’s philosophy of existence. The fact that survival is the pre-condition for all other values does not mean that survival of self is the most important value. Tomek pointed out that very philosophy to us, yet again, just like a handful of his predecessors did.
In Life of Pi, the adult Pi Patel had said, “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
The reader can feel the same pensive sadness throughout the pages of To Live. The melancholy of the survivor sometimes overcomes the riveting tale of rescue and survival. It is a must read for all mountaineers—armchair and hardcore alike.
BEYOND POSSIBLE—One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks—My Life in the Death Zone
By Nimsdai ‘Nims’ Purja. Hodder & Stoughton. 320 pages. Hardcover $30.00
Beyond Possible tells the story of Nims’ multiple world record- breaking feats achieved in 2019 and the unconventional life that led up to it.
Having religiously followed in his father and older brothers’ footsteps to become a Gurkha—the goal that became his ‘God’ and for which he earned an MBE—Nims joined the British Army’s prestigious Special Boat Service, where he discovered a passion and aptitude for pushing his limits at altitude, despite having grown up in a low-altitude village in Nepal to a poor, non-mountaineering family. Inspired by his hard-working mother, Nims is compelled to both test his mettle and do well by others.
He constantly asks himself: ‘What if?’ and ‘What then?’
Buoyed by his self-belief, Purja sets himself a seemingly impossible challenge: to summit all fourteen eight-thousand metre peaks in just seven months, ‘smashing’ the previous record of just under eight years. To do so, Nims resigns from the SBS, putting his livelihood and family relationships at risk. ‘Project Possible’ becomes an ambitious challenge, mooted as a pipe dream by some (‘like swimming to the Moon’), who viewed Purja as a novice mountaineer with eyes bigger than his abilities. Nims faced his fair share of doubters before and during his rapid series of ascents to the summits of the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains. Raising funds and convincing stakeholders of his capabilities was the first hurdle to climb.
In the book, Nims’ comes across at times as utterly impervious to self- doubt or failure. Understandably, anybody with the confidence and resilience forged in the military and expressed in record-breaking mountaineering feats is bound to engage in some form of big-talk and bombast, and this haughty self-talk is peppered throughout Beyond Possible. However, it’s clear that such an attitude—one that reframes fear and blocks out negativity—is necessary to succeed when leading in both warzones and on the world’s highest peaks. ‘I’m scared because it means something,’ he writes.
It would be easy to cherry pick lines from the book—‘Your extremes are my normality’; ‘where other people began to fail, I came alive’— and peg Nims as arrogant, but the wider picture he paints is much different: Nims cares deeply for his family, showing gratefulness for their supporting his education and endeavours; he cares deeply about giving Nepali climbers and Sherpas the recognition and opportunities they deserve; he selflessly rescues multiple climbers from the Death Zone, and he uses his project to educate and inspire others about climate issues and self-belief. It’s ‘not just about me,’ he writes.
The book is also an extremely honest account, whether it’s about failure (when Nims falls short in his Gurkha selection test, or goes too hard and suffers from HAPE on Everest, or suffers following tragedy on Kangchenjunga); about his relationship with his wife Suchi, who supports his military and climbing endeavours from home or about the moments when his seemingly bullet-proof ego takes a hit, literally—when he was shot by enemy fire—or figuratively at low points during an ascent. Nims addresses the peaks and troughs of his life and Project Possible, and doesn’t neglect to mention the low points. ‘In life I was always encouraged to admit to a mistake,’ he writes.
The mountains provide a different challenge for Nims compared to warzones: objective hazards that are to some degree more predictable than an armed, adrenaline-surged soldier. The mountains hold ‘no judgement’, he writes; every man or woman is equal before them. Nims ‘comes alive in the death zone.’
Nims climbs in what he deems as ‘Nims-style’; fast, leading from the front and often carrying oxygen in reserve in case of rescue— much to the chagrin of the elite mountaineering community—with a back-up plan for a back-up plan, a marker of his military roots. In a realm where the notion of ‘every man for himself’ can turn ugly, Nims understands that comradeship is key to success.
Overall, Beyond Possible is a compelling account of a historic mountaineering feat that’s more than just summits and stats. Nims’ extraordinary back story provides context for his motivations for such an audacious challenge, told in a matter-of-fact way (at times brutally so, it’s not short on expletives!) that’s surprisingly down-to- earth for the prolific protagonist that he is.
The account thins slightly towards the end of the book, but who can blame him given the short time frame that the book was produced in, alongside climbing the world’s highest peaks?
From one death zone to the next, whether in battle at war or at height, Nims’ account breathes life and meaning into his madcap challenge; the first of many that followed—including making the first winter ascent of K2 in January 2021—and are soon to come. What then?
By Robert Mads Anderson. Pp. 204, 32 illustrations. (Bateman Books 2020, $39.99)
There’s nothing like an Everest expedition, says Robert Mads Anderson. The intensity, atmosphere, heights, history and climbers. It wraps all human emotions into a tightly wound ball and plays them out in a condensed time frame. “You live a whole life in two months.”
Anderson’s summing up of the lure of Everest in his eminently readable Nine Lives is spot on. That is certainly how it seemed to me back in 1998. As a kid I’d always dreamt of running away to join a circus. An Everest trip comes pretty close. (Note to younger readers: In the 1950/60s circuses in Britain were very different animals to today’s sanitized affairs.)
The Everest-as-circus analogy is a good one. In both arenas you’ll find intensely focused individuals, chancers, hangers-on, quietly cool characters, and, of course, a few clowns. There’s a Babel of languages, grime, laughter, and sometimes tears. Each performance carries risk; high wire breath-stopping moments; elation and lamentation.
Robert Anderson has stepped out further on that high wire more than most. Nine times on Everest before summiting and at least that many when death has been little more than a breath away—the finger-tip misjudgment that sends the trapeze artist plunging with no safety net. Thankfully Anderson’s judgment has been sound: his first eight Everest attempts, all bold affairs, ended with retreat; he summited on numbers nine and ten, ascents he led for the UK outfit Jagged Globe, climbing via the South Col with all the oxygen and Sherpa support of a well-resourced commercial expedition.
Nine Lives was an entry for The Himalayan Club’s 2020 Kekoo Naoroji Mountain Literature Award. It was well liked by jury members, but not a winner. In part that was due to being one of a strong field of 12 contenders - Stephen Alter’s Wild Himalaya took the prize - but there was also the Everest factor. Seasoned reviewers and book judges have toiled up Big E’s word mountain so many times that most could recite the route and every tricky passage all the way from Kathmandu to the 8850 m summit. Everest lassitude easily sets in, though with Nine Lives that proved not be the case—at least for me.
In fact, most of Anderson’s time on Everest has been spent well away from the mountain’s trade routes. His first visit was in 1985, the West Ridge Direct, when he and Jay Smith turned back at 8600 m, thwarted by oxygen problems. The drama of this chapter though is of Anderson and Smith easing a totally debilitated Randall Grandstaff down the mountain after two nights ‘camped’ in a slot in a crevasse at 7315 m. “The crevasse was our coffin; it surrounded and covered us,” writes Anderson. And it chilled them to the bone.
Back on flat ground, Anderson knew he wanted to return to Everest and set about organizing the expedition for which, certainly outside the USA, he was best known—the 1988 Kangshung Face expedition that saw Stephen Venables become the first British climber to reach the summit without supplementary oxygen, by a new route and alone above the South Col. Having read Stephen’s account of the climb (Everest: Alone at the Summit) and that of team-mate Ed Webster in Snow in the Kingdom it was interesting to get the leader’s story; how the expedition came together, including the support of John Hunt who pressed for Venables to be invited onto to the team, and then Anderson’s personal suffering on his partially solo descent.
“Getting up Everest paled in difficulty compared to getting down,” he says. Lives were used up apace, with “day after day of miracles, near misses and finally the escape, surprisingly alive”. Alone on the Face, on his ninth night above advance base camp, Anderson scraped a hole in the snow and curled up; no tent, no sleeping bag, no stove and no water. Such suffering. Yet next morning, after the final rappel, he regrets the route is over. “I would never experience that intensity and feeling of being ever so in the present again.”
Over the next 10 years Anderson returns to Everest another six times, always to the north side: Super Couloir 1990, ‘solo up the Anderson Couloir’ linking the Central Rongbuk Glacier to the North Ridge 1991, the North Ridge itself 1992, twice to the Great Couloir in 1993, and back to the North Ridge in winter 1999 to be stymied by cold, high winds and minimal infrastructure. “All to be expected of course,” as he ruefully observes.
Anderson had reached 8600 m on the West Ridge and 8410 m via the Great Couloir but Everest’s summit still eluded him. “Maybe, just maybe, I was not destined to climb Everest.” By now he had a good job in advertising, children and a spacious apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. But Everest was never far from his thoughts. The way to the top came through guiding, first on Shishapangma and then Cho Oyu.
It was quite a change from his hitherto go-fast, small group of talented climbers, no oxygen, new route approach. “Looking after other climbers? Being patient? That would be a bit much to expect of myself.” Yet he found he really liked it. Mellowing no doubt, and enjoying helping others with the skills he had learned the hard way. Anderson finally topped out in 2003, but an old demon - getting down—was still lurking: he and fellow guide David Hamilton endured a nightmare descent shepherding a snow-blind client, Fred Ziel, down step by stumbling step.
Anderson is disarmingly without cynicism about the Everest. Despite all that had been written about the deaths, the garbage, lack of ethics and ‘easy climbing’, look closer, he says, and the South Col route remains a very fine climb, finishing on “what must surely be the finest ridge climbs in the world”. Such enthusiasm cannot be gainsaid. I had wondered at first whether I really wanted to pick up another Everest book. I’m glad I did. Not bad at all.
LIFE AND CULTURE IN THE NORTH EAST
By Dipti Bhalla Verma and Shiv Kunal Verma. Pp. 260, Photography (Mapin Publishing, Hardcover, Rs. 2,950.00)
In the summer of 2017 during an official visit to Mizoram, I encountered two books on the Northeast by the husband-wife team, Dipti Bhalla and Shiv Kunal Verma, while staying at the Assam Rifles Officers Mess in Aizwal. After a wonderful day in the Lushai Hills, I had settled into my room when my eye fell on ‘Assam Rifles’ and another on the Dimapur-based 3 Corps titled ‘The Northeast Palette’. Expecting to find the usual run-of-the-mill stuff that make up picture books, I was riveted from the first page, for in a complete break from the conventional approach, the two books covered both the region and the people intermixed with the Armed Forces in a fascinating manner. By far, these were amongst the best ‘Coffee Table’ books I had seen. Their book ‘The Lives and Culture in The North East’ published by Mapin in India and Abbeville Press in the United States, now raises the bar even further.
Despite being familiar with Dipti and Kunal’s skill with both movie and still cameras, when I picked up their latest offering, I was stunned by the quality of each photograph that has captured every sinew of the region in a manner seldom seen. Even in this day and age where we are bombarded by a plethora of high-class images, every photograph is in a class of its own, telling a visual story that literally transports us into distant lands, some of which are relatively inaccessible even today. I also realized, with a sense of shock, that despite having served and lived in the Northeast, there was so little that I knew about the region and its people.
Most of us have a tendency to mentally club anything lying to the East of the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, as the ‘Northeast’, which is also known by the sobriquet of the Seven Sisters. This shortcoming is not just restricted to those outside the region, but is a malady within the Northeast as well, where regional identities apart, people know little about each other. In the process, having shut our minds even before we started, we fail to see the subtle and even the not-so- subtle differences within the region. At the very heart of the book, it is the stunning diversity of life and life forms that the authors have attempted successfully to bring to the fore. The ‘Whole’ is broken down in a nuanced manner by each image and carefully weighed text, and then put together again to create a book which is almost like a rhapsody unfolding on paper before our very eyes.
Including Sikkim, which merged with India in 1975, and describing it as the ‘Gateway’ to this region is logical. Incidentally, 35% of its area is covered by the Khangchendzonga National Park, the mind-blowing images of which set the tone for what is to follow.
The Northeast is unique in many ways; politically it is a land locked region, and yet geographically it is where the gap between the sea and the mountains is the shortest, as a result of which it is blessed with a biodiversity that is packed to the gills. This narrow gap has also affected the human race for the people who inhabit this region also come together from different ethnicities. The mix is further enriched by the fact that over 90 per cent of the geographical boundaries are with neighbouring countries that include Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Assam Himalaya extend from Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, on the Nepalese border in the West to the Lohit that enters India at Kibithu in the extreme east; the mighty Brahmaputra, one of the world’s most majestic rivers provides livelihood to millions of people, while the Barak river with its tributaries, waters southern Assam and Tripura which in turn are flanked by the Naga-Patkai that are home to the Naga, the Manipuri, the Kuki andthe Mizo while the Meghalaya hills house the Jayantia, the Khasis and the Garo people.
Time and again Dipti and Kunal have gone the extra mile to document and bring to the table lesser-known facts. For example, till late 19th century, the final course of the Yarlung Tsangpo had not been charted, the river seemingly disappearing into the earth after it went around the great bend of the Namcha Barwa massif. The Siang river which enters India near Tuting, was indeed the Tsangpo then made the Brahmaputra the ninth longest river on the planet. This is one of the wonders of nature. Similarly, using helicopters where necessary, even the route followed by Captains Fredrick Bailey and Henry Morshead in 1913 has been illustrated with breath-taking shots of Yonggyap la and the Mishmi area north of Anini. This expedition would form the basis for the McMahon Line that was drawn up a year later in Simla to define the border between British India and Tibet in the East.
Life and Culture in the North East had took four years to write and involved over a hundred visits to the area, each averaging five days. What had emerged at the end of this commitment to the region was the earlier illustrated three-part Northeast Trilogy, which was by far the most comprehensive and detailed book on the entire region. Bipin Shah’s Ahmedabad-based MAPIN Publications, known for its leading position in large size books on art and culture, then got its design team to put together this masterpiece that is destined to be a collector’s item.
The region can broadly be classified as plains; mainly in Assam, Tripura, and Central Manipur, the hills of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and mountains of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. While similarities exist, there are also differences which have been wonderfully brought out in this book.
The book is laid out in ten chapters, each devoted to a state, except for Arunachal Pradesh which has three chapters covering Western Arunachal or Kameng, Central Arunachal and Eastern Arunachal. Incidentally no lateral movement is possible from one area to another due to the river valleys and the lie of the ranges. The starting point of each chapter is a map that helps give a better understanding and thereafter it covers the history, terrain, important places, flora and fauna and its people to include various tribes, their colourful dresses, habitat, customs, culture and beliefs. There are amazing pictures to go with the vivid descriptions, capturing a very complex region which continues to remain unknown to most of us in spite of the fact that the first rays of the sun fall in India at Kibithu, our Eastern most town in Arunachal Pradesh with its mesmerizing views of the Lohit river.
Ethnicity is an aspect which is central to the 46 million inhabitants of this region. There are over 475 different ethnic groups speaking more than 400 languages. While Hindus continue to be the largest population, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are mainly Christian of which Mizoram is largely Presbyterian, while Nagaland is the only predominantly Baptist state in the world. Manipur has an equal mix of Meitei’s who are mainly Vaishnavite Hindus, and Nagas and Kukis who are Christians. Assam and Tripura are dominated by Hindus followed by Muslims while Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh both have a very high percentage of Buddhists and house the monasteries at Rumtek and Tawang respectively. Within each state, there are various tribes, for example Nagaland has sixteen major tribes, each fiercely guarding its own identity.
The history, customs, beliefs, traditions and lifestyle of these very diverse people is the thread that bind this narrative. But tribal and regional identity while needing to be protected, nurtured and preserved must also be willing to embrace a national identity, which is being resisted by some. The irony remains that most visitors to Mizoram for example need an inner line permit whereas there is free movement allowed for a distance of up to 16 kms on our side of the International Border with Myanmar!
The images include portraits and aerial photographs, thanks to generous helicopter support from the Indian army. No corner of this region has been left out and there are no photographs sourced from third parties.
Dipti and Kunal together wear many hats. They have produced documentaries on the Indian Air Force and also on the National Defence Academy. Shiv Kunal Verma is also known for having filmed the Kargil war and is recognized to be one of the foremost military historians in the country. His book on the Sino-Indian conflict, 1962: The War That Wasn’t has won widespread critical acclaim. He had also earlier authored The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why. His writings reflect a depth of knowledge that has come from years of hard work that not only has familiarized him with the terrain, but the people and their history as well.
For many, this is a mysterious land; the book has endeavoured to lift the veil of secrecy and capture its richness and feel its pulse. The authors have filled a knowledge gap as the average person tends to associate this area with agitations, insurgency and being under developed. Their skill lies in their ability to compress a great amount of material into a book, without making it feel lengthy. Dipti and Kunal have successfully captured the essence and soul of the region with their rich prose and breathtaking imagery, and produced a book that needs to be treasured by all.
EXPEDITION ZUM SIACHEN 1978
By Jaroslav Poncar. Pp 158. Many colour photos. (Self published 2021, USD 50).
During April 2021, in my capacity as editor of THJ, Harish Kapadia forwarded a mail from a German mountaineer and photographer Jaroslav Poncar as follows:
Dear Mr Kapadia,
In this month’s National Geographic is an article on Siachen war. In July/August 1978 I led an expedition to the glacier, a kind of re-make of Workmans’ in 1912. Though we shot a documentary for the German TV, I did not publish my photographs until only a few weeks ago on my website.
I am one of the ‘rafters’ Bull mentions in his connection with Siachen. As he passed away recently I can’t get in touch with him to correct some mistakes regarding the map and to ask him when, if at all, he set foot on Siachen in 1978 and where he found the LAC on the map which get hold of in 1977. The AMS maps, in this case ‘NI43-3 Chulung’ do not show LAC at all.
May I ask you for the favour to give me a link to The Himalaya Journal containing an article on Bull’s first trip to Siachen in 1978?
Thank you very much for your kind help as I am about to write down our story of Siachen.
With kindest regards
This mail set off an exciting exchange, where Mr Kapadia sent the articles that he had requested and I as expected, began to badger Jaroslav to send in an article for THJ to present their version of the events that took place in the seventies and eighties. The said article has been published in this Volume. In fact it is an abridged version of the book being reviewed here.
Siachen is also a self-published book by Jaro.
The Siachen war was a territorial dispute which turned into a military conflict in 1984, between India and Pakistan, after which a cease fire was declared in 2003. The area of contention stretches over 2600 square kilometres.
It all supposedly began in 1978 when the ‘German Kondus-Siachen Expedition’ under the leadership of Jaroslav Poncar along with members Volker Stallbohm, Wolfgang Kohl and liaison officer Major Asad Raza entered Siachen via Bilafond La and established the base camp on the confluence of Siachen and Teram Shehr. They also made a documentary film for German TV called ‘Expedition to the longest glacier’.
During their foray into the Siachen, the team came in contact with Col N (Bull) Kumar. In Jaro’s words:
“So the next day we met in Srinagar the famous ‘Bull’, Lt.- Col. Narendra Kumar, who was the head of the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg (Kashmir). At that time, Kumar was already a famous Indian adventurer, who ten years earlier was deputy leader of the great Indian expedition to Mount Everest, during which 15 soldiers reached the summit and Kumar lost his toes. His main concern was to give his dwindling fame a boost. So ‘Bull’ became the nominal leader of the ‘Indo-German Indus Expedition’ and the next day the Indian press knew about the new great adventure. As a contact person in Leh, ‘Bull’ gave us the ‘G1 Kohli’, the second highest officer in Ladakh. With Lt.-Col.
K. S. Kohli, who finally also was in the boat on the Indus, I maintained a deep friendship since then until his death in 2019; in contrast, despite our shared adventure, I and Volker never got closer with Kumar. Why not, will become clear from the following lines.”
This is partly what the book is about. Subsequently, analyst Joydeep Sircar coined a term that is now used when referring to using mountains / mountaineering as a political tool or to mark territory – ‘oropolitics’ which comes from Saltoro Kangri - one of Bull Kumar’s objectives in 1981. Prior to this, neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area. Based on maps, research and findings of the German team’s 1978 expedition, Col Kumar led an army expedition in 1981, publicly travelled and climbed in the region, published photos and maps of the territory, in a clear attempt to challenge/ raise the hackles of Pakistan’s army, the author opines.
Jaro writes “The next film theme in the summer of 1979 was the Amarnath Yatra”, the most important Hindu pilgrimage that takes place every August in the Kashmir Himalayas. In the summer of 1980, the Indus was the topic. We shot in both Pakistan and India. On the way to Leh, I met ‘Bull’ by chance in Kargil. It was completely natural for me to talk about our Siachen expedition. If I had known what I was doing with it, I would have kept it quiet! I woke a dangerous sleeping dog. From that moment on ‘Bull’ had a topic: Who does Siachen belong to? For him it was clear. India. Topographically it was not at all clear. The ‘line of actual control’, as the ceasefire line between Pakistan and India is called ended near K12, which is southwest of Siachen. After Pakistan made the main ridge of the Karakoram the state border with China in 1963 and ceded several thousand square kilometres of territory to China, the state border now ran through the head of Siachen. Of course, this was never accepted by India. The easiest and shortest access to Siachen and the eastern part of the Karakoram is the Nubra valley, which is located in India-controlled Ladakh.
And so in the summer of 1981 ‘Bull’, then head of the High Altitude Warfare School, organized a 54-man army expedition to the Siachen, which also climbed some of the 7000ers at the Siachen and skied down from Indira Col.
Whether Jaro’s point of view is accurate is hardly the point here. Of importance is this historic document, presented with searing honesty in an unbiased manner with several maps and correspondence. It is a small book with amazing photos. In fact, text takes up only 16 out of 158 pages. This consists of the expedition report, history of exploration in Siachen and a call to bring peace back to the region. The rest is a photo documentation which is priceless.
Siachen is an important document for the record.
THE MOTH AND THE MOUNTAIN, A True Story of Love, War and Everest
By Ed Caesar. Pp. 13. 2020. (Penguin Random House UK, £ 18.99). ISBN: 978-0-241-26231-3.
Maurice Wilson is one of the most popular names in pre-Everest mountain literature. Most readers of the early accounts of Everest attempts are likely to have heard of this man who gave up everything in search of a spiritual experience he felt was destined for him. At a time when all corners of the world had been explored, Everest was the epitome of mystery, a mountain that continued to prove elusive. Climbing Everest was primarily a British obsession as Caesar states. There were several British teams that tried to climb the mountain unsuccessfully. If they failed in their attempts to be the first to set foot on the summit, armed with the best in technological advances, careful planning and more than adequate funding, then the chances of anyone else doing the same was slim to none. Especially, for a man like Wilson.
A World War veteran, Wilson was unable to find meaning in his life after returning from the war. Like many soldiers who found their lives turned upside down by the ravages they witnessed, Wilson returned a traumatized man, shellshocked to the core. He wandered the world desperately searching for something to cling to but was unsuccessful at finding any solace. Failed relationships haunted him wherever he went. He carried his scars with him as a reminder of the horrors he had witnessed. At one point, Caesar casually mentions –
“Two or three machine-gun scars blotted the skin on his left arm and back, like pitch marks on a golf green”.
It was perhaps his new normal, one not of his own choosing. He was a hero, but a victim as well, haunted by memories that clung to him like his shadow. The war had left him utterly broken.
To escape the despair, Wilson developed a fascination towards Mahatma Gandhi and the asceticism practiced by Indian Yogis and found commonly in Buddhism. He could strongly relate to the idea of purification through adopting a life of abstinence. He resolved to strengthen his body and mind by willfully depriving himself of all comforts. This becomes a recurring theme in the book. Time and again, we see Wilson’s attempt to pull himself out of his misery by attaching to a goal that was as unrealistic as it was daring.
Wilson was recuperating in Freiburg in Southern Germany when he was gripped by the fascination of climbing Everest. Before long, he had developed his own idea of being the first man on the summit. He was going to fly to the foothills of Everest all the way from England and climb to the summit alone thereby making him the first in the world to do so. Prolonged fasting had cleared his mind, washed away the debris of war and most importantly given him a mission, a reason to live and die for. The fog had lifted, and for the first time in many years his life seemed to have a purpose. This mission would unfortunately lead him on a journey that would be his last.
The language deployed by Caesar is oddly lyrical in a book that is otherwise full of facts –
“He felt he was polluted; he wanted to be washed clean. He considered his life adrift; he desired purpose. He wandered in the fog; he longed for a flashlight. He had lost the thread of his own story; he yearned for a plot”.
He was a wounded soul looking for redemption.
The search for redemption is what lay at the core of Wilson’s motive and the author does a good job of conveying that. He needed to salvage whatever was left of his life and turn it into one that he did not have to escape from. He was solely fueled by his internal drive to overcome the challenges of his life. He was woefully unprepared too – he was not skilled at flying; he did not know how to climb, and he little to none in terms of technical or logistical support. He was denied permission by the authorities in India, Tibet, and Nepal to set foot anywhere near Everest. Perhaps, the most daring or ridiculous aspect of his plan, depending on how one looks at it, was his aim to climb to the summit all by himself.
At first glance his adventures may seem identical to those of early explorers taking part in clandestine operations on behalf of the Survey of India, dressed in the garb of a Tibetan priest to evade arrest. But in stark contrast, Wilson was not serving his country on a mission. For him, it “… was not about national pride or proving the virility of his island race. He wondered, instead, if he could hitch a ride to Everest on an airplane.” It was deeply personal. He was not concerned with anything apart from the ability of the human will to transcend the impossible. He was driven by his heart’s desire.
Recklessness as a character trait has often been attributed to mountaineers. However, this book is mainly focused on shedding light on a side of Wilson that is often overlooked amidst criticism. It is the idea of restoring to him the dignity and humanness that Caesar concerns himself with. However, he makes it clear that “the idea was mad any way you looked at it”. Indeed, his story is one that seems almost fictional in its loftiness.
Mark O’Connell describes The Moth and the Mountain as –
“A gripping story of heroism, adventure, madness and thwarted love, told with extraordinary empathy and intelligence”.
Empathy is a key term here. An argument can be made that Wilson, a WWI veteran, deserved to be treated with more empathy than what he received. He belonged to a generation torn between the conflicting experiences of devastation and nationalism that is often found in wartime literature.
It is through Caesar’s writing that one can separate the recklessness of the idea from the man (Wilson) himself. We can see him humanized along with his vulnerability, the agonizing reality of life after war, and an indomitable will to redeem himself at any cost.
KASHMIR: A journey through history
By Garry Weare. Pp. 336, colour photos. (Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2020).
It is not often that one come across a book that is packed with beautiful photographs and information but yet is written in a very easy to read style that avoids being an academic tome. Garry Weare’s Kashmir is one such book.
The book took me by surprise, as going by most of Garry Weare’s earlier books I was expecting this book to be more akin to a guide book or a travel book. It turned out to be much more than that. Garry Weare brings together all his vast experience of, and knowledge about, Kashmir into this book and shows that Kashmir is more than just a beautiful place for him to go trekking.
The book starts off by tracing the history of the Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic influences in Kashmir in a manner that is easily readable and accessible to the reader, unlike other books on these subjects which can be very scholarly but dense and not easily readable. Kashmir is neither an academic tome nor a guidebook. With large colour beautiful photographs complementing the text, the book can give the impression of being just another coffee table book, when first flipping through the pages. However, going through the text, it is soon apparent that the book is anything but that. It is packed with information about the history of the various religious influences—Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic—that have shaped Kashmir over centuries, of the various rulers in Kashmir, including the Mughals who built the beautiful gardens that many see and enjoy in Srinagar, and the political history of Kashmir until the recent events in August 2019 of the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. Along the way, the book covers Kashmir’s Great Game, the British in Kashmir, and of course a chapter on the Kashmir shawl, for which Kashmir is famous for. The book also briefly covers the political turmoil in Kashmir of the 1990s and afterwards.
Kashmir: A journey through history takes the reader on a travel through time in Kashmir, from the ancient to the present period. The book is beautifully produced, with a great reproduction of historical and modern-day photographs complementing the text, and the style of writing is easy to read and understand, even for a lay person who may not know anything of Kashmir.
THE FROZEN RIVER: Seeking Silence in the Himalaya
By James Crowden. Pp. 198-199. (William Collins, Great Britain, £9.99, 2019) ISBN 978-0-00-835321-6.
The Frozen River: Seeking Silence in the Himalaya in simple words is an account of James Crowden’s travel to Ladakh in 1976 with the plan of spending an entire winter in a tiny Zanskari village. He has his work cut out for him with the excruciating winter, the loneliness and starkness of the world that encompasses him. He acknowledges the reality with a sense of imperviousness; he knows the passes that could help him escape have all shut down one after the other and shall remain so for the next six or
seven months. His fate is sealed. The only way he can return to a world of normalcy is by crossing the frozen river during peak winter, with temperatures as low as – 30 °C. The locals call it ‘chadar’ - a sheet of frozen ice on the riverbed that acts as a road, albeit a very dangerous one.
Due to the mystery that Zanskar was shrouded in, the lives of the villagers were still unknown to Crowden. Despite that, he approaches the situation with perfect equanimity, a state of mind practiced widely in Buddhism. In essence, he walks into an uncharted territory, and takes the reader with him.
The intricacies of life in the high mountains are discussed in detail in the pages that follow. However, it is not a mere account of the author’s travel to the region. He dives deep into their way of life but also the human mind and its ability to embrace hardships in all its beauty. The dichotomy between extremes become a salient point that Crowden keeps returning to. Nestled in a tiny room in the remote valley, he has the bare minimum to survive on. Around him lie the crumbling palatial ruins of a village that has seen better days. The region is no stranger to mystics and yogis in deep meditation, who sometimes disappear in caves for years. The glaciers are home to wild animals, some of whom are mythical, like snow lions. The tall, foreboding mountain faces have created a world within worlds. However, there is no isolation in solitude. The Mountain Gods protect the inhabitants. As the author states -
“In such a valley a man who chooses to live alone is never lonely. There are always mountains and mountain spirits.”
Silence is a theme of profound importance to the author. So are the Buddhist concepts of emptiness, stillness and solitude. Silence can be haunting; being left with one’s thoughts alone can drive many to the brink of insanity. It can also be beautiful, as it contains in it the very essence of life. But what happens when silence is all there is, for months, with no end in sight?
Silence is tangible in Crowden’s world; it is to be absorbed, assimilated and passed on to generations as wisdom. This is a world where time doesn’t exist. From a material standpoint, Crowden didn’t have a watch. In a more spiritual sense, time was frozen, just as the world around him. Time is measured differently in Buddhism – in silence and contemplation, expressed through respect, gratitude and selfless service.
The author immerses himself in the colourful festivities around the new year filled with music, dance and storytelling. He drinks copious amounts of salt tea, attends weddings, and studies Buddhism. He vows to familiarize himself with the eccentricities of the river. He carefully observes the thickening of ice and depth of the watering holes as winter progresses. He accompanies the villagers on their crossing of the frozen river, which takes him through treacherous gorges, canyons and caves all while braving the bitter cold. He develops a sense of kinship with the traders. It was as mystical an experience as it was brave.
For Crowden, beauty and danger co-exist harmoniously in this strange world where everything seems fleeting. There is great peace, but also great unrest, hiding beneath the paper-thin ice. The author does a brilliant job of not only taking the reader into the empty space that lies between the extremes, but also in guiding one in and out of that state effortlessly.
Crowden’s account of walking on the frozen river took place decades before the existence of commercial treks that are common today. The remoteness is magnified owing to the untouched nature of the solitude felt by him. In a valley full of ravines and gorges, all that he had was silence. This feeling is displayed in the words below -
“When the ice gets thin the river becomes truly dangerous, wafer-thin ice with hidden whirlpools silently churning away down below. A trap that lies in wait for the unwary”.
However, the ones who are brave enough to accept the natural forces are forged through danger to a sense of attunement to the river. They learn to read and listen to the ice, testing themselves and becoming one with it in the process. It is a world where any sense of safety can be obliterated within moments. It is by this process of becoming one with the river that a climber grows in confidence. The river can, in a moment’s notice, engulf all that was and any human pride that may have accompanied it.
The author admits -
“I realise how very lucky I was to survive a winter in Zangskar taking the sort of risks that I did. The Mountain Gods must have been looking after me”.
Reading The Frozen River is an experience; one that cannot be fully described in words. To echo the author’s own sentiment – “The teaching is at times very formal but also very subtle, hinting at the space which exists when words run out”. It is perhaps at that point where time and words are suspended that the true magnificence of such a work can be felt, and more importantly, experienced.
BLUE SKY KINGDOM – An Epic Family Journey to the Heart of Himalayas
By Bruce Kirkby. 316 pages, Maps, 57 colour photos. (Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd., Canada ISBN 978-1-77162-269-1 Hardcover C$34.95).
There are numerous books on travel. It is a distinct genre, though it includes many other genres like histories, personal narratives, tales of exploration both scientific and non- scientific. These have been as much about a writer’s soul-searching as about the places or people visited. Since ancient times, different travellers explored the world with different missions. When the world was mostly unknown, European, Arabian and Chinese adventurers extreme hardship to go to faraway places, wrote notes and diaries, drew sketches and disseminate knowledge about those places. The book under review is an addition to this genre but with a different perspective. It is about Zanskar in Ladakh with its monasteries or gompas. Michel Peissel, the French ethnologist was the first westerner who explored Zanskar extensively and published his narrative in 1979. Thereafter not too many travellers visited this remote Himalayan region. Hence, publication of this book is a welcoming initiative.
The short bio on Bruce Kirkby, tells us that he is a freelance wilderness writer and adventure photographer who has visited eighty countries, is author of two bestselling books, the winner of several national magazine awards and a regular columnist for several reputed magazines. His wife Christine is a counselling psychologist. They are Canadian with enough experience in travelling and mountaineering. However, this time the couple has a different mission that Bruce describes as an ‘epic family journey’. They have two sons. Bodi, the eldest child was diagnosed with a neuro developmental problem known as autism spectrum disorder that is incurable. Bodi thus is burdened with behavioural and social communication issues.
Buddhism’s “core tenets tolerance, compassion, non-attachment, impermanence” attracted Bruce to HH Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader. The couple nursed a long time wish to know more about the philosophy of the religion; hence, when they got an opportunity to spend three months in a monastery at Zanskar, Ladakh, accompanied by their children, they grabbed it.
They already knew that Ladakhis are genuinely friendly and that Zanskar is remote but peaceful. So, this three month ‘Epic Family Journey’ had two objectives—to learn Buddhism and to give their children an opportunity to adjust in different environments and social conditions; they felt that natural surroundings would help Bodi overcome his behavioural and social difficulties to a great extent. The family first boarded a cargo ship to reach Seoul, S. Korea, then proceeded to Beijing, China. From Beijing, they went to Lhasa by train and subsequently Manali via Kathmandu, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi and Chandigarh.
Reaching Keylong after crossing Rohtang pass by car, their real adventure began at Darcha, about 32 km from Keylong. They under took a 10-day high altitude trek to reach Karsha monastery one of the oldest monasteries of Zanskar. This extraordinary plan received support from a Canadian Television Channel who sent a team to accompany the family up to Karsha and to document this unusual journey.
When the team reached the monastery the venerable lama welcomed them. They stayed with the lama for three months, enjoying the various facets of monastic life. In addition Bruce and Christine undertook voluntary assignments to teach younger monks basic English and Math. Finally, when the three-month period ended the family bid farewell to their hosts and their young students.
The boys enjoyed their stay. Bodi’s behavioural issues improved greatly and he learned to meditate whenever he felt agitated. Bruce ended the book with a sad note about the probability of changes because of development that would affect Zanskar’s way of life.
Bruce has a lucid style with occasional humour. The book is informative and thought provoking. There are attractive colour photographs of Zanskar and its people. However, on a critical note, it would have been easier for the reader to track the entire story if the author gave us a timeline. In addition, he could consider giving distances on the trekking map and an index in future editions.
This book will be appreciated by all those who want to know more about Zanskar Himalaya and its ancient monasteries. The reviewer with a little knowledge about children with developmental delays, strongly recommends the book to concerned parents; maybe they could consider taking their children to natural and peaceful environments far from noisy cities. And just like for the Kirkby family, it will be a great relief for the parents.
ANJAN KUMAR BASU
STRUCTURED CHAOS—The Unusual Life of a Climber
By Victor Saunders. Pp. 180, Photographs, (Sheffield: Vertebrate Press, 2021, £24).
The opening sentence in the Foreword is an accurate description of the author, “Victor Saunders is a remarkable man,” who has written his autobiography. His grandfather was a German Jew who had married a Catholic lady and in 1938 immigrated to the United Kingdom where he changed his name to Saunders. His father, after meritorious service during the Second World War, in 1948 found himself in Hong Kong and married Raiza Popova, a Russian émigré. In 1952 he joined the (then) Malaya police force, and subsequently in 1954 was appointed Comptroller of the royal household for Sultan Abu Bakar, resident in Pekan on the coast where Victor Saunders was raised.
His parents having divorced, in 1961 Saunders, aged 12, was sent to a ‘bleak’ Scottish boarding school where he suffered from the tyranny of organized school sport, aggravated by failing vision, asthma and bullying before he acquired spectacles and a bronchodilator inhaler. In 1969 he was moved to an architecture college in London where he taught himself to climb on walls, buildings and conveniently located rock outcrops. Curiously he made no contact with the established clubs of which one had a branch in London, and found his partners in clothing and equipment shops.
In 1972 Saunders spent an internship in Japan, and worked his way home the following year on an undermanned banana boat. The voyage was so erratic and slow that he jumped ship in Montreal and flew to London, arriving late for the college term.
Back in London, Saunders returned to climbing locally. During the winter of 1978–1979 he climbed in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen valley where both his partner and he fell, but were held by their belays. During the winter of 1979 Saunders found the North London Mountaineering Club’s ‘home’ in a pub, then went climbing on Ben Nevis in Scotland. His partner fell off a steep pitch, and hit Saunders. Both survived.
In the summer of 1993 Saunders found his way to K2 in the Himalaya where he met seventy climbers from four continents at the base camp. The bad weather prevented him from climbing higher than camp 3 but, unlike others on the mountain, he survived.
During 1996 Saunders visited the Trient glacier in Switzerland during which he completed the necessary field work to be registered as a qualified mountain guide. In the winter of 1996, he returned to the Himalaya where, despite having hired a cook and porters, he failed two attempts to climb Nanga Parbat.
Towards the end of the century Saunders was leading treks and climbs in the Himalaya, and guiding in the Alps during the summer. During the very hot June 2013 he helped with a large rescue on the Matterhorn caused by the melting of the permafrost over much of the mountain. In 2011 he intended to climb Carstensz in the mountains of West Papua, a province in Indonesia. His party lost its way, but wound its way to the top of a different peak! The following year in July 2012 he took a client to the Mont Blanc massif where he persuaded her to assist in an avalanche rescue. He had been so active that his shoulder rotator cuff tendons needed fixing back to the bones.
By the summer of the following year Saunders’ shoulder had recovered, enabling him to support an Indo-British Himalayan expedition to the Sakang glacier near the war zone at the Tibet frontier. After overcoming several bureaucratic hurdles to obtain visas and climbing permits, his party arrived at base camp on the Sakang glacier near Leh. One night a strong wind blew the British party’s damaged tents close to a deep crevasse, losing their most of their equipment, food, stove, GPS and radio. They were therefore unable to ask the Indian team for help. Despite the snow and strong winds they were able to walk down to the Indian team camp where they were able to use the illegal satellite ‘phone to call a contact in Mumbai who arranged for an Indian Air Force helicopter to evacuate the injured colleague the following day. Having been supplied with food and stoves, Saunders and his uninjured friend joined the Indians and made the first ascent of Chamsen.
Saunders’ last successful climb reported in the book is the first ascent, with a long-standing partner in 2016, of the north buttress of Sersank peak in the Himachal Pradesh Himalaya. Thereafter he returned to summer guiding in Pakistan and the Alps in 2019, and in October experienced his first fall in the Himalaya which left him hanging upside down on the north summit of Chombu.
Much of this interesting book has been written in great detail, but not in chronological order; hence its title. It will have to be read from cover to cover to receive the full story, which is not helped by the lack of an index to all the interesting places which he had visited, and to all the climbers et al whom he had met. With hindsight Saunders most certainly is a ‘remarkable man’ who has survived all his life’s mishaps to write this autobiography.
STEPHEN A. CRAVEN
THE NEXT EVEREST
By Jim Davidson. Pp. 427 (Macmillan, 2021, Hard cover $29.99)
These days there is no shortage—fiction and non-fiction—of incredible human survival stories. There are stories of people venturing off the beaten track and things going horribly wrong. With long lists of such books (and movies, television series, web series and podcasts) proliferating at a remarkable pace there is always a risk (especially if it is another book on Mount Everest which is very much part of a beaten track over the past three decades) of a stereotype threat. One might be tempted to quote George Carlin saying, “Motivation is bullshit, if you ask me this country could use a little less motivation. The people who are motivated are the ones who are causing all the trouble”! And yet the survivor narrative remains consistently popular. In a blog, author of the book Wolf Road, Beth Lewis wrote, “The need for food and water in a survival narrative is absolute; it’s the only need the character has. If he doesn’t find water, he’ll die. If he doesn’t find food, he’ll die. It doesn’t get more basic than that, and it’s in these stories where characters find beautiful moments of clarity. They latch on to what is important in their lives, whether that’s family, religion, or good old- fashioned revenge. It’s pure and untainted by agenda or competition. It’s one goal —survive. The way the character survives, different for everyone, is what makes these stories so compelling; after all, the character, the survivor, could be you. The stories make you ask, what would I do to survive? But the answer is always the same: I’d do anything.”
On 25 April, 2015, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Mt. Everest, avalanches erupted all around Jim Davidson and his colleagues, obliterating their sole escape route and trapping them at over 20,000 feet. It was Nepal’s worst earthquake in eighty-one years, killing around 8900 people. That day also went down in Everest history as the worst, with eighteen people dying on the mountain. Davidson’s party was rescued by helicopter after two terrifying days trapped on Everest. He was traumatized by the event, and despite his thirty-three years of climbing and expedition leadership, he wasn’t sure he’d ever go back. He returned in 2017 to complete his dream of reaching the peak. The Next Everest subtitled Surviving the Mountain’s Deadliest Day and Finding the Resilience to Climb Again is a suspenseful work that depicts the experience of living through the worst calamity to ever strike the mountain. But this isn’t just a narrative about surviving a terrible natural disaster and then ‘conquering’ the world’s highest peak. Because of his geology and environmental science background, Davidson is uniquely suited to explain how this natural calamity unfolded and why the seismic hazards hiding beneath Nepal are even larger now. And if we are to ignore the contemporary question of how privileged one person needs to be in order to go to Everest, not once but twice, joining commercial expeditions; we can perhaps find some justification in upholding Davidson’s narrative as certain ‘moments of clarity’ as envisioned by Beth Lewis. These moments can definitely be found across the pages of The Next Everest and this is precisely why this book is a worthy read.
THE HUNT FOR MOUNT EVEREST
By Craig Storti. Pp. 301 (John Murray, 2021, hardback, ISBN 978-1- 529-33153-0, £20.00.)
The centenary of the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition is upon us. It has brought with it a new book by American author Craig Storti, the aptly named The Hunt for Mount Everest. Anyone who is a fan of mountaineering literature surely realizes that the literary output concerning this mountain, if piled vertically, would likely exceed the height of the peak itself. As a long-time consumer and producer of mountaineering-related literature, I must admit that I was beginning to see Everest as something of an exhausted topic. However, I am pleased to report that Storti’s book neatly ties together intriguing information from the early times of the ‘Great Game’ in 19th century Central and South Asia leading up to and including the period of the first expedition to Everest in 1921. The author does a fine job of clearly leading us through the major events of the Great Game and how that political and diplomatic confrontation which existed (for much of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century) between the British Empire and the Russian Empire had a major influence on the early plans to explore the Everest region. The modern mountain adventurer is plainly reminded that mountaineering and exploration were about politics as much as the voyage itself in the 19th than early 20th century. Not all of this was about romance and relatively harmless intrigue, of course. Storti covers in some detail the invasion of Tibet in 1903/1904, led by the eminent Victorian ‘hero’ Francis Younghusband. While Younghusband was a principal figure in the early attempts to climb Everest for British Imperial glory, he was also the leading figure of a military expedition to Tibet that was responsible for gunning down several thousand Tibetans armed with weapons more suited to the 15th or 16th century than the 20th century. While Storti rightly states this was “one of the most shameful episodes in British imperial History”, the concessions subsequently made by the Tibetans played a very important role in allowing the British to access the Everest region through Tibet in the years between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second World War.
I must admit that at this point in my review that one of the reasons I found this such an intriguing and interesting book was that the author gives comprehensive coverage to one of the unsung heroes of the Everest saga, Alexander Kellas. With my co-author Ian Mitchell, I had published a biography of Kellas ten years ago (Prelude to Everest; Alexander Kellas, Himalayan Mountaineer) in an attempt to set the record straight about the contributions of this man from Scotland to Himalayan exploration and man’s understanding of how the human body functions, or fails to function, at very high terrestrial altitudes. Kellas knew far more about the approaches to Everest prior to the 1921 reconnaissance expedition than any European, but sadly died while a member of the 1921 expedition on the high plateau of Tibet near the village of Kampa Dzong. Storti gives a resume of Kellas’ achievements prior to joining the 1921 Everest Expedition. He was the most experienced Himalayan mountaineer of his day in Sikkim, the Garhwal and elsewhere. Kellas had, at the time of his death, spent more time above 20,000 ft than anyone. Additionally, he had also summited more virgin Himalayan peaks than any rival. Along with his unparalleled mountaineering experience at very high altitude in the Himalaya, Kellas also was also an expert on the effects of high- altitude on the physiological functioning of the human body. He was included as a team member on the 1921 Everest expedition in part to conduct additional related scientific work. Not only did Kellas not get to carry out his intended experiments on high altitude and its effects on humans in 1921, neither did the subsequent British Everest expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s carry out any extensive physiological research at high altitude. Such field research did not resume until after World War II, but by the early 1950s the British had redeemed themselves by providing research evidence for answering some of the most fundamental questions around the matter of how to successfully survive and climb at extreme high altitude.
The Everest reconnaissance expedition itself introduced George Mallory to the wider world, and this was the first of his three storied Everest expeditions. Most of the team, led by Charles Howard-Bury, was not really suited to hard high-altitude climbing, either because of advanced age or alpine inexperience. The expedition was beset by many challenges throughout their time in the field, and the reader is left with the impression that that it was something of a wonder they got as far as they did in their reconnaissance. However, the members not only found their way to the foot of the mountain through much unmapped and unexplored territory, genuine terra incognita to Europeans, but Mallory and two others eventually reached the 7000 m North col late in the expedition. Their route to the North col paved the way for all subsequent attempts and successful climbs of the mountain’s North Ridge.
While I cannot find much fault with Storti’s book, I do think he could have provided richer historical context for the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition by examining the earlier important efforts of Himalayan mountaineering and mountain exploration. Absent, for instance, is any in-depth discussion of the pre-First World War attempts on other great peaks such as Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga and K2. He does discuss the importance of seminal early ascents in the European Alps to the development of mountaineering, but I think broader coverage of lessons learned during the very early attempts of the aforementioned Himalayan giants would have been appreciated by readers.
In summary, this is a very readable, well-produced volume with useful sketch maps and excellent illustrations. With the minor exceptions mentioned just above, the author has done a fine job of research and writing. Arguably, Storti’s most crucial contribution has been to highlight the link between the political intrigue of the Great Game with the initial venture to the world’s highest peak some years after the Great Game had come to an end. I believe that anyone interested in the history of Himalayan exploration and mountaineering will find this a very worthwhile addition to their library.
KANGCHENJUNGA—The Himalayan Giant
By Doug Scott. Pp. 261. (Vertebrate Publishing 2021, Rs. 2160/- hardcover)
Kangchenjunga is the autobiography of a mountain—the life and times that this mountain has witnessed ever since it came into being:
“Around 175 million years ago, the ancient super continent of Pangaea gradually broke into separate drifting plates…Around 50 million years ago the Indian plate collided with Asia, closing over the Tethys Ocean that once lay between them. This great continental collision resulted in the uplift of the Himalaya.”
Kangchenjunga is the third highest point of this lift. It sits on the border between Nepal and Sikkim in north-east India. The mountain is India’s highest and arguably one of the most beautiful. It is thus fitting that Doug Scott, one of the greatest mountaineers that lived, wrote his last book as an ode to this mountain.
The initial chapters that create the backdrop to the mountain talk about Himalayan geology, its anthropology and its geography and history. The book refers to early explorations, trade, missionaries, naturalists (such as JD Hooker) who gave way to writers (including Mark Twain) and artists (Nicholas Reorich). Doug traced the early watercolours, photographs, Gazetteers and searched other archival material for everything that he could find on not only the mountain but its surroundings, its people and its foothills.
It is a final farewell to the whole range, with this beauty at its epicentre. And truly, being published on the heels of Ed Douglas’ seminal work Himalaya, one cannot but see the similarities in approach; the need to understand the spirituality of the Himalayan people in particular. I suspect, although there is no way of verifying, that Doug Scott spent many years of painstaking research to collect data on this mountain and its essence, which cannot be separated from its neighbours in several aspects but still stands unique and tall and treacherous.
Kangchenjunga is after all, a difficult and dangerous mountain to climb. It was first climbed from the west in 1955 by a British team comprising Joe Brown (one of his very few Himalayan expeditions), George Band, Tony Streather and Norman Hardie. The second ascent came a good twenty years later. Finally the third ascent, from the north, was in 1979 by a four-man team including Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman Georges Bettembourg and Doug Scott, renowned alpinists, far ahead of their times. The ascent was more commendable because back in the seventies, when a revival of grand expeditions was happening, this four-member team planned a stripped-down expedition with minimal Sherpa support, no radios and largely self-financed. So the affair with this mountain began then and continued for four decades. It is a more appropriate swansong book than any other would be. Because Doug Scotts climb on Kangch was his finest ever.
I picked up this book with both trepidation and anticipation. Kangchenjunga has been the centre of my universe for almost 10 years now. It is the keeper of Darjeeling town, from where hundreds of expeditions of yore were mounted and accompanied by Sherpas, a community largely forgotten by the world and who I have been researching with my colleague for several years. Over these years, we have watched this mountain in all its splendour and in all seasons and times, albeit from a distance. Some years ago, I trekked to beyond Guicha la, practically to the base of the mountain… so a book about it is particularly endearing.
Kangchenjunga is definitely a go to book. After doing away with the formalities of the early history and topography, Doug begins the saga of early explorations and climbs, fleshing out characters of early alpinists such as Douglas Freshfield. He quotes extensively from the writings of the pioneers, thus giving a wonderful flavour of those early sahib style expeditions that describe the Teesta valley of Sikkim and the walk-ins in great detail.
A very interesting chapter related to the pioneers is an early controversy alive even in present times; it is about the claim made by WW Graham in 1882 that he had made an ascent of Kabru, an outlier south of Kangchenjunga. When Graham declared that he and his team had no altitude related problems, other explorers such as Joseph Hooker raised doubts on whether the real Kabru had been climbed. These aspersions continued for decades in different ways as Doug recounts. Among the great climbers that supported the claim was Freshfield while one of the greatest surveyors, Kenneth Mason declared that Graham had certainly not climbed Kabru. The arguments are presented in a fair manner and the author goes a step further, frankly calling out those biographers who did not present the facts clearly.
I have read several of Doug Scott books including his latest before this one – Up and About, an autobiography par excellence. The writing style is so different. In fact, one wonders how much of a role was played by the very able Catherine Moorehead who has ‘revised and edited’ the book. I am certain that the research is a lifelong effort by Doug but the style lacks a certain personal touch, but is that because it is supposed to be a reference book?
Anyway, Doug continues with the pioneers including the famous Norwegians Rubenson and Monrad Aas and an unbiased ode to Aleister Crowley, maverick, ‘crazy’ mountaineer by other accounts. This was another notorious expedition—the first attempt on Kangch in 1905. One porter fell to his death and three others, along with a Swiss expedition member died in an avalanche. The discord began along with the expedition and controversies continued for decades. But the author acknowledges that this team showed the way to the south west face of Kangch for the first time and ‘paved the way for the first ascent of the mountain’.
Dr Alexander M Kellas along with Raeburn and Crawford take up the next chapter—Kellas was a true pioneer in high altitude physiology and is credited with ‘discovering’ the Sherpas to be the best support at altitude. The chapter is déjà vu after reading Prelude to Everest by Ian Mitchell and George Rodway but it has the acerbic asides that one is used to by now, with Doug Scott.
During, between and after the world wars, come the middle order— men such as Reginald Cooke and his Sherpas Pasang Kikuli and Dawa Thondup who shared adventures on Kabru; such as Tilman who went twice to explore Sikkim and the Zemu Gap. Among other great Kangchenjunga seekers, was Gunter Dryhenfurth and his team from Austria, Germany and Switzerland and the very English Frank Smythe. The next chapter is devoted to Germans such as Bauer, as well as Nazi politics and its need to prove German supremacy in the Himalaya. By now, one begins to feel that the history of climbing Kangchenjunga was truly representative of the history of climbing in the Himalaya because these histories are so interlinked.
Suddenly after the wars, a new order was established, one that brought fresh air and fun into the sport; first symbolized by the Swiss Rene Dittert and his team when they stood on Pyramid Peak and explored other parts of the region. Doug then moves to his final part of the book wherein he describes the first and second ascents and finally the third, his own.
The book, although with no frills or poetic fancy, is a breezy read with a depth that surprises the reader at times. You understand suddenly now and then, what this mountain meant to this man.
I would keep it on my shelf. Much praise to the editor Ms Moorehead, who must have had a tough job working on it, particularly after Doug Scott had passed.
PEAKS AND BANDITS
By Alf Bonnevie Bryn. Translated by Bibbi Lee. Pp. 117. (Vertebrate Publishing 2021, GBP 15.99)
“Our plan had really been to walk from Calacuccia across the mountains to the town of Corte, make a few excursions in those areas and then take the train to Ajaccio and back to France by boat. But things don’t always go according to plan – on the contrary, things go quite differently and this is really a great blessing. If everything went according to plan, you would first experience a series of things of utmost discomfort, for example, those times when others make nasty plans against you. Besides you would miss almost all experiences of any value – first of all because you rarely have enough imagination to plan anything really fun and secondly because a whole lot of the amusing things you experience by coincidence become more fun and more welcome, precisely because they were not planned.”
We regular people, often lament that things don’t go according to plan. But this quote has quite an opposite philosophy, summing up the approach and ideology of Norwegian climber Bryn and his buddy, an Australian climber and chemist, George Ingle Finch. After this short spell of climbing together, Finch and Bryn’s lives took different paths.
This story goes back to an early crazy time; one that would escape anecdotal history if not for this book. It is an absolute classic; a real gem for this reason. Set in the Easter break of 1909 it relates the almost comic- book tale of two young men from the University of Geneva, hardly 20, who decide to explore climbing in Corsica. Their equipment is basic even by 1909 standards and finances are laughably meagre. But what takes one’s breath away is the audacity of the plan as a whole.
The book etches out the colourful and rambunctious personality of George Ingle Finch and Alf Bryn and their incredulous exploits. The writing style is particularly appealing for its lightness of touch and the irreverence it shows to all that is sacred. The very cavalier and live-for-the-moment attitude of the members marks the character of the book. For example, the ingenious but naive attempts to use counterfeit coins through the expedition, the fights and fisticuffs, the capturing of a snake as a mascot and then using it to play pranks with policemen, to finding a hidden valley with beautiful women wanting to seduce them to being hosted by famous bandit clans, to running from hotels without paying bills, is all happily woven into the few climbs in remote places that were achieved.
Finch was to gain fame later on, when he climbed on Everest in 1922, with George Mallory on the historical expedition led by Charles Bruce. It is said that he was the first person to climb to a height exceeding 8000 m. It is also said that he, along with George Mallory, was the finest alpinist of his time. If he was what Bryn describes him in his early twenties, this is not hard to believe.
The author, Alf Bonnevie Bryn was a Norwegian mountaineer, author and engineer. He founded a mountaineering club and made several first ascents in Norway. But later on he was better known as an author of detective novels! Peaks and Bandits was first published in 1943. For good reason this little book is regarded as the ‘classic of Norwegian literature’.
The book is conceited in ways (discovering Corsica as if it’s an unknown country), with a wicked sense of humour; it has a raciness and edge-of-seat feel that is rather rare in this genre of writing. The writing style is matter-of-fact and self-effacing but always tongue-in- cheek and at times, downright laugh-aloud funny. It is a classic for the sheer entertainment and pleasure it gives, that has thankfully been revived.
If you are a fan of P G Wodehouse, this is dejâ vu.
Consider this. The book opens with a chapter titled Prelude in Switzerland. It goes on to describe and introduce his companions Max Van Heyden and George Finch, and a climb they were on. He ends this chapter thus “About Max Van Heyden van der Slaat, there is really nothing to say other than what is said about most men in Norwegian history—he is no longer part of this saga…” You have already rolled with laughter and are dying to know more. So read this book.
It is also important to acknowledge Bibbi Lee whose translation is excellent, capturing all the flavour of the times, the humour and the writing style.