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Getting High on the Himalayas

alvarez_1-070209.jpg
Fondazione Sella, Biella, Italy
‘The grandest of the early Himalayan expeditions, and also the least eccentric’: the camp of Luigi Amadeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, and his team below the west face of K2, 1909; photograph by Vittorio Sella, ‘one of the greatest of all mountain photographers,’ from Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s Fallen Giants

Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s authoritative history of Himalayan mountaineering, Fallen Giants, starts right at the beginning, 45 million years ago, with the collision of tectonic plates that threw up what the authors call “the greatest geophysical feature of the earth.” The Andes are the longest of the planet’s mountain chains, but the Himalaya and its adjacent ranges, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, are far higher. They contain all fourteen of the world’s peaks over eight thousand meters, or 26,247 feet; their northern rampart averages 19,685 feet—some five thousand feet higher than the Andes—and they are still growing: “To this day India plows into Tibet at the breakneck speed of five centimeters a year and lifts the Himalaya by as much as a centimeter.”

That little detail is characteristic of the book. Both authors are enthusiastic mountaineers who climb regularly in the United States and have gone trekking in the Himalaya, but they climb for pleasure, not for a living. Away from the hills, they are historians—Isserman has written extensively about American communism and the New Left; Weaver’s field is British imperial history and English liberalism—and they bring their professional skills and discipline to the subject in the form of meticulous research and a painstaking attention to detail. Fallen Giants is a big book in every sense—nearly 460 pages of text, eighty-five pages of notes, and a twenty-five-page bibliography—and the authors’ political take on the subject makes it unlike most other mountain histories.

Political historians do not usually bother with a subject as apolitical and seemingly frivolous as climbing, although mountaineering books are now accumulating as relentlessly as the Himalaya itself. A mere half-century ago, mountain climbing was still a minority pastime for an eccentric few who took pleasure in doing things the hard way, in steep places and bad weather, and were willing to risk injuring themselves in the process. Since risk and the adrenalin high that went with it were an essential part of its appeal, climbing was regarded as a questionable, slightly antisocial activity. As a result, climbers wrote about where they had been and what they had done, but they wrote mostly for other climbers and a relatively limited audience of armchair adventurers who preferred to be thrilled, or to suffer, by proxy.

Not anymore. In the years since 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit of Everest, mountaineering, rock climbing, and mountain tourism—aka trekking—have been transformed into a mainstream leisure activity, indulged in by millions. Books about it figure in the best-seller lists and its needs are serviced by a thriving industry with an annual global turnover reckoned in billions: travel agents, commercial guiding outfits, and specialist manufacturers of everything from outdoor clothing, rucksacks, and tents to ice axes and arcane gear such as camming devices and offset nuts.

The Victorians were responsible for turning the Alps into what Leslie Stephens called “the playground of Europe,” but it was an exclusive playground for a limited few. One hundred and fifty years later, the Himalaya is in danger of becoming the playground of the developed world. As of August 1, 2008, 2,090 people have stood on the top of Everest. Both the South Col route that took John Hunt’s 1953 expedition six weeks to pioneer and the North Col route on which George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in 1924 have been climbed from base camp to summit, solo and without oxygen, in less than seventeen hours. The mountain has also been climbed by a blind man, a teenager, and a sixty-four- year-old; it has been descended by skiers and snowboarders, floated down by paragliders, and flown over by balloonists. The problem with Everest is no longer how to get up it but how to dispose of the junk—the hundreds of used oxygen cylinders and tons of human excrement and waste food—that litters its flanks. In his official history of Everest, George Band, who was the youngest member of the 1953 expedition, calls it “the world’s highest garbage dump.”

Before the Victorians reinvented them as a form of recreation, mountains were of interest only to those unfortunate enough to live in them. In the Himalaya, they were holy places, a perpetual reminder of the gods—the Tibetan name for Everest is Chomolungma, “Goddess Mother of the World”—and their summits were forbidden to mere mortals. In Europe, superstitious Alpine peasants believed mountaintops were the abodes of witches, devils, and dragons. Lowlanders and people of sense chose to ignore the peaks, dismissing them as mere inconveniences—“considerable protuberances,” Dr. Johnson called them—put there to make life difficult for the civilized traveler.

According to Isserman and Weaver, the general change in European attitudes toward mountains began around the middle of the eighteenth century with the Gothic revival, the cult of the picturesque, and Edmund Burke’s

aesthetic distinction between the Beautiful—the regular, the proportioned, the visually predictable—and the Sublime—the dramatic, the unexpected, the awe inspiring—[which] thus provided…a ready vocabulary for the novel experience of mountain wonder.

For aesthetes, appreciating the beauty of the Alps was altogether different from climbing them. When John Ruskin was invited to lecture to the Alpine Club in 1865, seven years after its foundation, he used the occasion to denounce its members as Philistines:

You have despised nature [and] all the deep and sacred sensations of natural scenery…. The French revolutionists made stables of the cathedrals of France; you have made racecourses of the cathedrals of the earth…. The Alps themselves, which your own poets used to love so reverently, you look upon as soaped poles in bear gardens, which you set yourselves to climb and slide down again, with “shrieks of delight.”

Isserman and Weaver, being finely tuned to social distinctions and crushing British snobbery, interpret Ruskin’s diatribe as a matter of class warfare. “His remark dripped with class condescension,” they say. I wonder. Ruskin had a talent for vituperation, but his venom on this occasion had nothing to do with “class condescension” for the simple reason that, socially, there was no difference between him and his audience. The members of the Alpine Club were professional men—scientists, doctors, clergymen, lawyers, soldiers, even a few writers—gentlemen who could afford to travel to the Alps and stay there for as long they pleased, just like Ruskin himself.

There were differences between them, of course, but temperament aside, they were differences of nurture, not nature. Ruskin had been privately educated at home by tutors, whereas most of the founding members of the Alpine Club had suffered the rigors of a boarding school education designed to train the right kind of men to administer the British Empire. A taste for strenuous exercise, adventure, and deprivation had been beaten into them along with Greek and Latin, and mountaineering was a perfect way of satisfying it. “The authentic Englishman,” Leslie Stephen wrote cheerfully, “is one whose delight is to wander all day among rocks and snow; and to come as near breaking his neck as his conscience will allow.” For Ruskin, art critic and lover of mountain landscapes, such frivolity was barbaric.

Snobbery, of course, figured large in “the intensely status-conscious eyes of the Raj,” far larger, in fact, than the mountains themselves, especially in the first half of the nineteenth century, when no sensible person dreamed of climbing them for pleasure. For Victorian empire builders, the Himalaya was important as a natural frontier, and mapping and measuring it was a handy way of laying claim to the territory. Hence the Great Trigonometrical Survey, George Everest’s 750-mile “grid-iron” of triangulated calculations of the heights and positions of all the peaks. Like every other Himalayan enterprise, taking the measurements was a bone-wearying business, involving hardship, brute labor, cold, hunger, and exhaustion, as well as technical skill in using heavy equipment such as sight poles, which they lugged to the 15,000-to-20,000-foot summits.

The survey was a triumph of doggedness over adversity and also a major step in establishing the boundaries of the Raj. While the work was in progress, the cartographers either numbered the peaks or used the local names. When all the measurements had been calculated and the maps had been drawn, Peak XV was established as the highest of them all. In honor of the Great Trigonometrical Survey and its recently retired supervisor, they named it Everest.

For Westerners, the Himalaya and the once closed kingdoms that contain it—Tibet, Nepal—have always seemed enticingly strange: not only a romantically distant land with mountains twice as high as the highest Alps, but also a great blank sheet on which to project whatever fantasy one possesses. In the early days, merely getting there was a major undertaking: a five-week sea voyage to Calcutta, an eighteen-hour train journey to Darjeeling; then there were guides and interpreters to be hired, people to cook and clean and set up camp, columns of porters to carry the gear, and a six-week trek into the hills. For those not employed by the Raj, the Himalaya was the preserve of the very rich—or rather, of an exclusive subdivision of adventurers so rich that hardship itself was an adventure.

They came in many forms and with varying degrees of eccentricity. At the turn of the century, for example, Fanny Bullock Workman, a formidable New England heiress, climbed a number of challenging peaks with her elderly husband—she clad in “woolen skirts and hobnailed boots”—and set an altitude record for women climbers that lasted thirty years. Around the same time, the dottiest of all mountaineers, the infamous Aleister Crowley, aka “the Great Beast 666,” joined an attempt on K2 and lived up to his reputation as “the wickedest man in the world” by pulling a gun on a fellow climber.*

The grandest of the early Himalayan expeditions, and also the least eccentric, was that of Luigi Amadeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, in 1909. Amadeo was an explorer, sportsman, accomplished climber, and grandson of the king of Italy. He brought with him a team of four guides, three porters, a cartographer, and a doctor, all of them Italian. He also brought with him

13,000 pounds of stores and equipment: everything from clothing and climbing gear to food and medicine, cameras, photogrammetric survey supplies, meteorological instruments, and more, all in seemingly limitless profusion.

It was a vast load that required three hundred Ladakhi and Balti porters and sixty transport ponies to carry.

More importantly, his team included Vittorio Sella, one of the greatest of all mountain photographers, who immortalized the expedition in a series of brilliant, atmospheric pictures. The duke’s purpose was to climb K2; “the indisputable sovereign of the region,” according to the expedition’s chronicler, “gigantic and solitary,…jealously defended by a vast throng of vassal peaks, protected from invasion by miles and miles of glacier.” K2 is now reckoned to be the most difficult of all the eight-thousand-meter peaks, and by far the most dangerous; to date, only 305 climbers have reached its summit and at least seventy-six have died trying. The duke’s attempt failed, but in other ways it was a triumph: his scientists gathered their data as planned, and Amadeo himself proved that survival at great altitude was possible by climbing higher and staying up there longer than anyone before him. He also left the Abruzzi name on a major ridge, thereby establishing Italy’s claim to K2, which was duly honored, though not until 1954.

  1. *

    Three years later, in 1905, Crowley led a disastrous expedition of his own to Kangchenjunga that resulted in four deaths. Crowley, who had heard their “frantic cries” when they fell, chose to stay in his tent: “A mountain ‘accident’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever,” he wrote. The next day he further reinforced his reputation for wickedness by climbing straight down past the scene of the accident without pausing to see if anyone had survived.

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