You either love books on mountaineering or, like most people, couldn’t care less about them. I’m in the former class: I’ve always been fascinated by mountains and have made three treks to the Himalaya just to see Annapurna and Mount Everest. (The panorama of Everest and its surrounding peaks from the top of the adjacent molehill of Kala Pattar is, I maintain, the world’s most beautiful view.) I’d post some pictures of my Himalayan adventures, but they’re all on 35 mm slides, which I really must convert to e-photos someday.
At any rate, I’ve seen a lot of mountains, from the Sierra Nevada and Mount McKinley (now Denali) in North America to the Alps of Europe and the high Andes of South America—and none of them even come close to the Himalaya. When you first see those big mountains, as I did when hiking into Everest in the early 70s, you can’t believe their height. My first view of Everest was on the approach, and the peaks were shrouded with clouds, as they tend to be. All of a sudden a clear patch appeared in the sky, and in it was the summit of Everest. The thing is, it was much higher in the sky than I expected: it was up near the Sun!
If anything on this planet gives me an experience that I’d characterize as “spiritual,” it’s seeing the Himalaya. I don’t know why big mountains evoke this feeling, but I’m not alone in reacting that way.
The Annapurna group:
But I digress, for I want to recommend a book on Himalayan mountaineering that I’m reading now. It is in fact one of the best of that genre I’ve ever read (along with Galen Rowell’s In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, containing Rowell’s incomparable pictures, and Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog. The former is about an unsuccessful attempt on K2, the world’s second highest peak, and the latter about the first successful ascent of Annapurna.
The book I’m reading is actually five years old, but I’m not sure if it’s well known, for it’s published by—of all places—Yale University Press. The title is Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayas Mountaineering From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, and the authors are Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. Isserman is a professor of American history at Hamilton College and an expert on communism and the American left, while Weaver is a professor of history at the University of Rochester. Both men are mountain-lovers and climbers as well.
What makes this book surprising is not only that it’s written by two professors, but that it’s compulsively readable while being thorough at the same time. The authors recount the history of mountaineering beginning with the formation of the Himalaya as a collision of tectonic plates. The history of Himalayan mountaineering begins with the discovery of the mountains by westerners, continues with the early attempts to survey and climb the peaks, and finishes by describing the current “age of extremes,” when people climb the mountains solo and without oxygen (as Reinhold Messner did on Everest), or try dangerous new routes.
It’s an amazing, can’t-put-down read—if you like mountains. The amount of research that went into it is staggering, but it’s written like a popular book, and should have been published by a mainstream outfit that could have publicized it properly. I recommend it very highly.
Two of the highlights for me were the traverse of Everest by the Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963 (a “traverse” is when you ascend a peak by one route and go down the other side; it’s an tour de force because you descend by an unfamiliar route). The two men ascended Everest by the West Ridge and came down by the traditional South Col route first used successfully by Hillary and Norgay. My friend Andrew Berry, who sent me this book, considers it the greatest mountaineering feat in history.
Here’s a photo of Hornbein and Unsoeld ascending the West Ridge. The most famous photo is from National Geographic, and I can’t find it; this one comes from the cover of Hornbein’s book. You can see the two climbers as specks to the left of the author’s name, and perhaps can get an idea of their achievement:
And the route of their famous traverse:
Another sad and related tale is about Unsoeld’s daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, named after the famous Indian peak. Like her father, Devi (as she was called) took to mountaineering and, at the age of 22, decided to climb the peak that gave her her name. Devi was with a group of experienced mountaineers, and had a lot of experience herself, but developed an unknown ailment that could have been either an intestinal obstruction, altitude sickness, or perhaps something else. She languished in her tent, and, suddenly, took her harmonica out of her pocket, gave it to another climber, and said, “I am going to die.” She immediately collapsed and could not be revived.
Removing bodies from high on a mountain is a perilous job, so they simply zipped Devi’s body into her sleeping bag and slid her off the edge of the mountain. Her father said, “Nanda Devi died fulfilling her dream. There are worse ways of dying.”
Nanda Devi, the highest mountain wholly within India:
Nanda Devi Unsoeld with her father:
Below is another beautiful mountain: Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world— after Everest and K2. It’s on the border between Sikkim and Nepal, and I’ve seen it from Darjeeling, 50 miles away. This is the breathtaking view you get when it’s clear (I had to wait five days, climbing a nearby peak each morning, to finally get a good photo). This is not my picture, but I have a great one on a slide.
Below is the “peak” of Kala Pattar I climbed (18,514 feet, or 5,545 m). It has the best view of Everest (see how large the adjacent mountains loom) and is an easy walkup, though the altitude makes it a bit harder. The second time I went up, I had rushed my ascent from Lukla and got cerebral edema, which made me want to lie down and nap (a deadly desire) and also made me unable to walk straight. It cleared up when I stumbled down to 15,000 feet.
Here’s the view of the Everest massif from halfway up Kala Pattar (again, none of these are my own shots). The classic “South Col” ascent proceeds by going up the glacier that you see debouching from the mountains, and then climbing up the south ridge of the mountain (to the right). You can see that route on the diagram of Hornbein and Unsoeld’s descent above.
Although I’m in my dotage, I still want to go back. I’d like to visit the “Annapurna Sanctuary“, a short trek that puts you into a breathtaking amphitheater surrounded by mountains that include the Annapurnas. Even an old dude can do that trek. Here it is in April:
Here’s a vanity shot of Andrew in front of the Everest group. Like me, he’s a big Himalaya fan and has trekked there several times.