The evidence of things not seenA necessary condition of life dictates that misfortunes do not occur singly,” writes Anthony Saunders, the leader of the six-member expedition team who attempted to climb the peak of Bojohagur in west Karakoram, Pakistan in 1984.
A necessary condition of life dictates that misfortunes do not occur singly,” writes Anthony Saunders, the leader of the six-member expedition team who attempted to climb the peak of Bojohagur in west Karakoram, Pakistan in 1984. The jubilant team on their way up were enjoying the gorges where the water courses “like the legendary dragon, the serpentine glacier slept with its snout at the entrance at the gorge.”
But their scenic expedition soon began to take a nightmarish turn. The crew felt the first omen when paint chipped off a helmet when one of the team members tried melting snow in it. After that, “weather deteriorated and avalanches flushed down the gullies with obvious enthusiasm.” And before the snow in the helmet melted, one of the members was badly injured by a gushing avalanche. What followed was a brutal decent to the base camp. Continuously threatened by avalanches, Saunders writes that in those moments he understood what it meant “to be a mouse teased by a cat.” The injured member, as it later turned out, had a broken back.
Surprisingly, upon reaching camp the same team decided to climb the mountain again in 1986. Mountaineering, like poetry, Showell Styles once pointed out, has little to no utilitarian value, yet scaling the tallest natural structures seems to be an ingrained desire for some.
Reading Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club, a book compiling articles chronicling some of the attempts made on the Himalayas and the bordering Karakoram mountains in the last 90 years, where descriptions of being stuck in an avalanche, struck by lightning, shattering of bones, hanging on a thin rope off a cliff, hallucinating due to lack of oxygen are plenty. So a lay reader is bound to ask: Why do humans risk their sanity and oftentimes their lives to explore lifeless territories?
An Italian explorer Professor Giotto Danielle, after exploring the 72-kilometre Siachen Glacier between present day Pakistan and India named an unnamed peak after Italy, his home country: “To the pass between the Siachen and the Rimo, reached and crossed for the first time by my expedition, and nameless until now, I have given the name ‘Col Italia’,” Danielle wrote of his 1930 expedition, “I hope the survey of India will accept it, in recognition of the contribution made by Italian travellers and scientists to the knowledge of the Karakoram.” So there is an aspect of becoming the first and securing the honour and title of summiting a peak attached to the exploration of desolate places. But in an untitled article, Lionel Terray, a mountaineer, is quoted arguing that it is neither fame nor glory or fortune that drives a human to lonely spots in the Himalayas. A mountaineer’s voyage seeks, in Terray’s words, “The unbound and essential joy that boils in the heart and penetrates every fibre of our being when, after long hours skirting the borders of death, we can hug life close to us with all our strength. Echoing Nietzsche in that: “The secret of knowing the most fertile experiences and the greatest joys in life is to live dangerously. ”
The articles in The Legendary Maps are written as catalogues of the journeys into the Himalayas in Nepal, India, Tibet, Bhutan, and Pakistan. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that it also contains descriptions of maiden voyages. Because of which, the expedition group is mostly following a ‘mind map’—“where looking at the ridge or a mountain, they imagined what could be a route up and went for it.” Once the course had been charted, ‘Human Maps’ were created and subsequently published, justifying the ‘Legendary’ from the title of the book. And, despite oftentimes lacking literary quality, the articles can still plunge a reader into the dread of having to rescue an injured mountaineer from 20,000 feet or that exhilaration of being on the top of the mountain. Either of which seems to invite an extreme reaction, a kind which is impossible to experience under normal circumstances. The passing of an avalanche seems like a music which “consist of funeral dirges.” Yet the risk seems to be worthwhile for all those who seek to reach the summit. “I hardly knew if I were in heaven or earth,” wrote Maurice Herzog as he tried to describe the sensation of being on the summit of Mount Annapurna as its very first summiteer.
The book is also the recording of some of the greatest (or the most insane) endeavours undertaken by humankind. One of which includes the scaling of Mount Everest during the dead of winter. The success of the Japanese team can also be read as the final victory over unforgiving nature. Consequently, the book can become a springboard towards a philosophic discourse on humankind’s relationship with nature. Under these considerations, this book can be seen as more than what it initially appears to be.
At its core, the book is an archive of mountaineering adventures and is bound to interest those who are equally simulated by the tallest structures on earth. If mountains make you come alive then this is a book for you. Regardless, the book can also be appealing to a wide range of readers. The Legendary Maps, for instance, can be an asset for fiction writers, for there are plenty of descriptions that could be used in writing a story. But above any utilitarian consideration, the book can be appealing to any curious reader as well.
Nonetheless, the book is not without faults. One has to suffer through, at times a long procession of facts and at others a few typos steal from the reading process. The book is primarily targeted at people who are interested in mountaineering literature, but had the book come along with explainers of key mountaineering terms, it could have easily appealed to a wider audience.
The articles collected in the volume features some of the greatest highlights of mountaineering history. However, as the editor Harish Kapadia confesses, language barrier has prevented access to accounts of most Japanese attempts on the Himalayas. And, though this book could have been better organised, it is a great addition to our knowledge of mountains, mountaineering, and also as a window to the work done by the Himalayan Club.