Getting High on the Himalayas

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…

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