Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ten Great Books on the Himalaya

This is my personal list of ten "must read" books on the Himalaya in no particular order!

In 1934, Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman made an amazing  exploratory attempt and reached the fabled Nanda Devi sanctuary in the Garhwal Himalaya. Noted mountaineer Hugh Ruttledge and former Commissioner of the erstwhile United Provinces described the Nanda Devi massif as “ a seventy mile barrier ring on which stand 12 measured peaks over 21,000 feet high. The Rishi Gorge, rising at the foot of Nanda Devi and draining an area of some 250 miles of snow and ice has carved for itself what must be one of the most terrific gorges in the world. So tremendous is the aspect of the Rishi Gorge that Hindu mythology described it as the last earthly home of the Seven Rishis. Here if anywhere, their meditations might be undisturbed”. The two climbers assisted by the indomitable sherpa Angtharkay and his team  made an dramatic exit from the sanctuary via Sunderdhunga khal.   Subsequently in 1936, Bill Tilman and Noel Odell summited the peak.  These two books now released together give an insight into the exploration of the Nanda Devi basin and as well as the climb. One of my favourites!

"It’s a preposterous plan. Still, if you do get up it, I think it’ll be the hardest thing that’s been done in the Himalayas.’ So spoke Chris Bonington when Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker presented him with their plan to tackle the unclimbed West Wall of Changabang – the Shining Mountain – in 1976. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker made it to the summit from base camp without any sherpa support. The duo designed  hammocks to sleep every night as the sheer west face of the mountain would not provide a ledge to pitch a tent! Hauling their own supplies and equipment up the mountain, this was probably the most outstanding achievement of their climbing careers. Sadly in 1982  both climbers were lost heading for the summit of Everest on the north east ridge over 8000 metres. Boardman is an outstanding writer and this is one of the most gripping books in mountaineering history.

In 1931 while descending from  from a successful expedition to Kamet, Frank Smythe and R L Holdsworth entered a valley in the Himalaya on a wet monsoon day. In Holdsworth's words " All of a sudden, I realised I was simply surrounded by primulas. Forgotten were all the pains and cold and lost porters. And what a primula it was..  six inches high, its flowers were enormous for it's stature.. and in colour of the most heavenly French blue, sweetly scented." In 1937, Smythe returned to the Bhyundar valley and spent four happy months camping and climbing in the valley. At the end of the expedition, the team is also made a successful ascent of Mana Peak. In Smythe's words " so ended the the longest, grandest and hardest  mountain climb of our lives".

The 1963 the American Everest expedition had a number of firsts to their credit - the first climb of the West Ridge by Unsoeld and Horbein and the first traverse of the mountain as well as a high altitude bivouac on the slopes of Everest. Four climbers survived to tell the tale but at a dreadful cost - Unsoeld lost nine toes and Bishop six to frostbite. Jerstad and Horbein were lucky to get away unscathed. In  Everest- The West Ridge Horbein wrote "The night was overpoweringly empty. Stars shed cold, unshimmering light. The heat lightning dancing along the plains spoke of a world of warmth and flatness. The black silhouette ofLhotse lurked half-sensed, half-seen, still below. Only the ridge we were on rose higher, disappearing into the night, a last lonely outpost of the world." A tremendous read! 

There have been many books written about the Everest expeditions 1921, 1922 and 1924 but none as comprehensive and well researched as this six hundred odd pages thesis by Wade Davis! The book also  deals with World War I and the effect it had on the Everest climbers, an angle not explored earlier. The book throws up some interesting insights like the surveyor Oliver  Wheeler finding the route through the East Rongbuk glacier  to Everest and not  George Mallory!  For sheer detailing, meticulous research and fact finding, Wade Davis's book will be hard to beat! Highly recommended!

In 1973 the famous naturalist George Schaller accompanied by Peter Matthieson made a journey to the Crystal Mountain in  Western Nepal to research the bharal (blue sheep).  This book almost metaphysical in it journey, traces the route  to the Crystal  mountain, Shey and Phoksumdo lake and the land of Dolpo situated in the rain shadow of the Himalaya. . Matthiesen is  student of Zen Buddhism and book other than being an exploratory journey develops into a quest for the meaning of Being. Mattheisen says " Upon the path.... lies the yellow and grey blue feather of an unknown bird. And there comes a piercing intuition, by no means understood, that in this feather on the silver path, this rhythm of wood and leather sounds, ... sun and wind, and the rush of the river, in a landscape without past or future time- in this instant...transience and eternity, death and life are one."

In 1849, Joseph Dalton Hooker a British botanist accompanied by Dr Campbell made an exploration into remote Sikkim in search of the rhododendron and other flowers. This pioneering journey is told in two volumes and covers what must be the first  documented  survey of Sikkim. Not only did Hooker visit Western Sikkim including Dzongri and the Goecha la, he went from Choontam (now called Chungthang) all the way to the Tibetan frontier and then reached the high pass of Dongkya La from where he overlooked Cholamu lake and Tibet. I was fortunate enough in  the summer of 1987 to stand on another pass east of Dongkya la, the Dorji La and see a similar view which had prompted Hooker to say "... here the colourings are those of the fiery desert.. while the climate is that of the poles. Never in the course of all my wanderings, had my eye rested on a scene so dreary and inhospitable." For all lovers of Sikkim do not miss this book!

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer was a journalist with Outside Magazine and was sent to cover the guided Everest expedition as a part of Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants team in the summer of 1996. Krakauer summitted Everest and lived to tell the tale but other members were not so lucky. A fierce storm lashed Everest on 10th May 1996 and at the end of it five climbers lost their lives including highly respected guides Hall and Fischer. Krakauer's book which catapulted Everest from the ciy  realms of the Himalaya into the drawing rooms of the United States reads like a gripping thriller - it also dwells on decisions which can go horribly wrong at those rarefied altitudes leading to disastrous consequences. A good book to read after this is Anatoli Boukreev's Climb which presents Boukreev's account of the 1996 disaster.

In 1899, Douglas Freshfield accompanied by the famous Italian photographer Vittorio Sella set off from Darjeeling to make the first circuit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world.The team went up the Teesta valley and into the Zemu glacier. They could not cross the Nepal and Zemu Gaps due to the great storm of September 24th 1899. They then entered the Lhonak valley and crossed the Jonsong La into Nepal. They travelled through Ghunsa and crossed back into Sikkim through the passes of Chunjerma and Kang la reaching Dzongri and the Goeche La. Sella's magnificent photographs, especially of Jannu from Chunjerma and Siniolchu from the Zemu valley stand out even today. The book has been out of print  but I did see a reprint  it in Pilgrims bookshop in Kathmandu.

Included in" the 100 best adventure books of all time", Terray account of his climbs in the Alps and Himalayas make heady reading. He was a French climber who climbed Makalu in 1955 and Cerro  Fitzroy in Patagonia in 1962. He was also a member of Herzog's Annapurna 1950 expedition where with a Sherpa  he assisted Herzog and Lachenal down from the mountain. Terray returned to the forefront when he was part of the team who rescued four climbers from the north face of the Eiger in 1957. Possibly his best achievement in the mountaineering world was the first ascent of Jannu in 1962. After climbing Alaska's Mount Huntingdon in 1965, Terray said "If the conquest of a great peak brings moments of exultation and bliss, which in the monotonous, materialistic existence of modern times nothing else can approach, it also presents great dangers. It is not the goal of *grand alpinisme* to face peril, but it is one of the tests one must undergo to deserve the joy of rising for an instant above the state of crawling grubs." 


  1. Nice information thanks for sharing !!

  2. Hi Sujoy, nice collection! Some I have read and some (like Hooker's journals) I would love to get my hands on. My top favourites would definitely be : The Snow Leopard, Nanda Devi, The Shining Mountain and The Valley of Flowers.....

  3. Sujoy, Your personal list contains works that will endure. I found Maurice Herzog 's "Annapurna" simply brilliant. Moving further west we have a very skilled writer Elizabeth Knowlton's "The Naked Mountain", Jim Curran's masterpiece "K2 The Story Of The Savage Mountain" and Kurt Diemberger's heart rending account of the Karakoram tragedy "The Endless Knot - K2, Mountain of Dreams and Destiny". - Bejoyaditya Pal.

    1. Yes, those are indeed classics as well - I hope to read Diemberger soon!

  4. Great article, it is nice to read your article..

    Thanks for sharing such an information with us..

  5. Awesome selection of books My top favorites is "The Shinning Mountain".

  6. Awesome selection My top favorites is "The Shinning Mountain".



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