Written by Ganesh Saili
“Maps? Hey! Wake up Rip Van Winkle! Who follows maps nowadays?” teases my companion playfully. We are traversing the high mountains where he seems to be content to toy with his gadgets. Among them is his latest acquisition, a global positioning system.
But as it turns out, luck favours me. I don’t have much to worry about. The morning after, I have reason to chuckle. His batteries have succumbed to the chill of the windswept mountains. “That’s so much GAS for you!” I deliver the coup de grace at this constant Gadget Acquiring Syndrome, for it sweeps across our times like a new age blight.
How I wished I had in hand a copy of the sketches and maps from the Himalayan Club (established 1929), published to commemorate 90 years of the iconic institution! The early explorers relied on no ‘mind maps’ to make their way through the maze of white peaks stretching from the Karakoram to Arunachal. The sketch maps in this collection show the route of a trek, the face or ridge of a mountain climbed, campsites and spots where tragedies came visiting. Anyone touched by even a cursory flirtation with mountain climbing will tell you that a sketch-map is like a picture, which tells you much more than the proverbial thousand words.
To the lay public, climbing a peak is the conquest of a colossus. But nothing could be further from the truth. To Bill Tillman in 1936, it was sacrilege as he came down from Nanda Devi: “The feeling which predominated over all was one of remorse at the fall of a giant.”
Take, for instance, the upper Nubra valley in the Eastern Karakoram, known today for the Saichen glacier. Of the old European travellers, foremost among those who reached there: William Moorcroft in 1821; Godfrey Vigne in 1835; Thomas Thompson and Henry Strachey in 1848, and F. Drew a couple of years later. In the 20th century, after many unsuccessful attempts, those who broke through included Tom Longstaff in 1909, to whom we owe the first sketch of the Saichen glacier. “This white sea is cut up by schrunds and chasms running in all directions, but this was no smooth lustrous expanse, such as are some elevated plateaus in Himalaya, but a mountain-devil’s snow-continent set with death-traps to entice unwary men into their pitiless jaws.”
It’s little wonder that the Himalaya has always been a source of attraction to humanity. To those of us who happen to live in these mountains, to those of us who call it their home, these peaks are a wilderness apart, not just a place for men, but the abode of the gods.
And the mountain magic — there’s something in it. If it touches you once, you’re never the same again. The sparkle never diminishes, sweeping across the brow of India in a swathe 1,500 miles from east to west, between the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers in a band just a hundred miles wide, forming a four-mile-high barrier between the hot plains of India to the south and the windswept upland plateau of Tibet to the north. Only those who have been able to get up close, to breathe the diamond air, have sensed the monstrous presumption and felt the spirit soar, dwarfing all else. They have shared the power of this ultimate frontier at its grandest — the mightiest peaks, the most fearful precipices and the terrifying gorges and the largest glaciers — ruled only by the gods of ice and storm.
And what book on Himalayan exploration can hope to be complete without including the Austrian ‘king of climbers’, the ‘magician’ Reinhold Messner, who in 1970 climbed Nanga Parbat with his brother Gunther? During the harrowing descent, Gunther was swept away in an avalanche. After a futile search, Reinhold returned to the base, and recalled: “Again and again I looked back as Gunther did not come. I saw people coming towards me, one with a horse stood on the edge of the avalanche cone. I waved my hand. Later, I realised that it had been an illusion. I sat down at the glacier river and drank. I heard voices — of friends, my mother, unknown voices. Suddenly, I heard Gunther talk beside me but he was not there.” With frozen feet, unable to move, he whittled together a stretcher so that the local villagers could carry him back to the nearby bridge in the Indus valley and back to civilisation. “But little did I realise this was the beginning of troubles, when I reach home,” he noted. Cantankerous litigation and wrangling was to follow in the courts.
This meticulously assembled book is a collector’s delight – highly recommended, especially for those who have loved the high mountains.