News from the Himalaya this climbing season has been grim. In addition to the recent deaths on Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Nanga Parbat, eight climbers are now missing and presumed dead on Nanda Devi East, in Uttarakhand. Though it is too early to be sure, from initial reports they seem to have been buried beneath an avalanche. The leader of this team was Martin Moran, an experienced mountain guide, based in Scotland, who focused his attention on peaks in Garhwal and Kumaon. While most of Moran’s ascents were commercial climbs, with clients paying him to help them reach the summit, his approach to mountaineering was, in many ways, the antithesis of what is happening atop Everest these days.
In his memoir, Higher Ground, Moran reflects on the career he chose: “Mountain climbing, in its finest guise, is a triumph of human spirit over the shackles of convention. It is spontaneous, thrilling, occasionally reckless, and it bucks the norms of society. The profession of mountain guiding introduces a strand of commercialism that can easily corrupt the ethos.” Yet, he sought to preserve that ethos and the free-spirited adventure of climbing, even as he did his best to ensure the success and safety of those he guided.
I was fortunate enough to meet Moran on two occasions, once at the Himalayan Club’s Annual Seminar in 2016 and a year later, when he was invited to give a presentation at the Mussoorie Mountain Festival. At both events, Moran spoke with passion and common sense about the need to steer alpinists away from 8,000-metre peaks. He argued that there are plenty of other mountains to be climbed in the Himalaya, all of which offer exceptional challenges and rewards, regardless of their relative prominence or altitude.
In an article published in the Indian Quarterly in 2017, titled, “The Joys of the Unknown,” Moran wrote: “Ever since the first ascents of the highest peaks of the world, the mainstream media has presumed that there is nothing worthwhile left to explore in the Himalaya. How wrong they are! …Mountaineering in the Himalaya has been an active sport for 125 years, yet many peaks of lower altitude are still unclimbed.” He was one of a small but dedicated band of professional alpinists who seek to explore and celebrate these relatively unknown, unvisited summits.
Despite his many accomplishments, Moran was not given to bravado or sensationalism. The stories he told contained plenty of excitement and drama, as well as a keen appreciation for the overwhelming beauty of mountain landscapes. But he was a calm, self-effacing narrator, who recounted the dangers and delights of climbing without hyperbole or exaggeration. After listening to him describe various expeditions he led on mountains like Kamet, Panwali Dwar and Cheepaydang, as well as a tough traverse of Traill’s Pass, I remember saying to a friend that if I were ever to try climbing again (after two failed attempts), Moran would be the kind of guide I could trust. At the same time, this was wishful thinking on my part, for he chose his clients carefully, making sure they had the skills, experience and fitness required. Unlike the fixed-rope escalators and oxygen-deprived queues on Everest — images of which have dominated social media over the past couple weeks — Moran and his clients often broke new ground and traversed fresh routes in remote, uncrowded terrain.
Nanda Devi East is a treacherously unyielding mountain to climb. Rising 7,434 metres above sea level, it is only 382 metres lower than the main summit to the west, the second highest point in India. The eastern turret of the Nanda Devi massif was first climbed in 1939 by a Polish expedition. Tenzing Norgay, who reached the top with two French climbers in 1951, rated Nanda Devi East the most challenging ascent of his career, including Everest. In 2015, Moran had attempted the peak once before, a climb that he describes in his memoir. After working their way up a ridge of pinnacles, he and his partner had no choice but to turn back. “Huge cornices forbade us to venture on the crest and we were forced on to the western flank where convex slopes slipped away into an abyss.” Realising that it was suicidal to go on, his team retreated to Base Camp from where they went on to make the first ascent of a nearby peak, Changuch (6,322 metre).
Rescue operations are still underway to try and find the missing climbers but as each hour goes by our hopes diminish. Nobody can deny that mountaineering is a perilous, sometimes fatal, pursuit. For those of us who do not take part in this sport, there is a temptation to question and decry the seemingly foolhardy motives of those who ascend into lifeless zones of ice and rock. When accidents occur, family and friends of lost climbers suffer most, experiencing the anguish of a sudden death far away in some isolated, inaccessible place. Each of the eight climbers who have disappeared leave behind loved ones who will mourn their passing and wonder if something might have saved them. But for those who are gone it was a risk they accepted as part of a transcendent and sometimes tragic fascination for high places.
Moran returned to Nanda Devi East this year at the age of 64, for his second attempt on the mountain. After hearing that he and his clients were missing, I took his memoir from the bookcase and leafed through its chapters until I came to a quote from Goethe’s Faust that he uses as an epigraph. It seems to sum up the mountaineer’s quest:
Oh, if I had wings to lift me from this Earth,/ To seek the sun and follow him!/ Then I should see within the constant evening ray/ The silent evening world beneath my feet,/ The peaks illumined and in every valley peace,/ The silver brook flow into golden streams./ No savage peaks nor all the roaring gorges/ Could then impede my godlike course.
Alter’s new book, Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth will be published this summer