I’m escaping politics, though maybe not quite escaping Zen.
I’m down by the sea, and walking the cliffs, but living a very different terrain. I’ve been reading Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, his remarkable account of a disaster when multiple organised groups, of one of which he was a member, attempted the summit of Everest one day in May 1996.
He quotes from Eric Shipton’s classic ‘Upon That Mountain’ (1943):
‘Perhaps we had become a little arrogant with our fine new technique(s) ….We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time.’
The mountain, in Shipton’s words, ‘holds the master card’. The mountain as a person, an enabler and a denier. It has an identity. Friend or foe. And you never know which, although in recent years we’ve come to think we do.
We’ve moved on 250 years, from mountains as the fearsome and impenetrable ‘other’, to mountains as less of a challenge to us as individuals and more to our equipment. We know we will return. Our Mastercard will buy us the mountain. I exaggerate. But the right equipment can take the danger (much, maybe most, but not all) out of even the hardest ascents.
Organised trips of the kind Krakauer joined in 1996 mountains have enabled boxes – bucket lists – to be ticked off. Have we forever lost our sense of awe and wonder, of the other, the impenetrable? Where is there still a snow leopard to be found? I remember watching the Frank Capra movie, ‘Lost Horizon’ (1937, remade as, remarkably, a musical in1973). Passengers from a crashed aircraft find themselves in a sheltered high Himalayan valley, known as Shangri-La, where spring is eternal and ageing is suspended. When they escape a girl they take with them, Maria, almost instantly ages. Once you could imagine such a valley.
Beyond the Himalaya lay the Silk Road and Samarkand, an almost mythical land of wonders, of magic and the arcane. This was the world Gurdjieff, a guru figure of the early/mid 20th century, wrote about in his Meetings with Remarkable Men.
Soviet Russia and now, and even more, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, have drained all possibilities for dream and imagination from these one-time far-off lands. And Tibet itself has become a work and play space for the Han Chinese.
I want to reclaim mountains as places apart, as oceans were to another great climber, Shipton’s climbing partner, H.E. Tilman, who headed out into the South Atlantic in 1977 and was never seen again. Even the ‘void’, as touched by Joe Simpson, in that other great mountain survival narrative, ‘Touching The Void’, has a presence.
Evolutionary biology and neuroscience haven’t helped by providing explanations for all our fears and apprehensions, maybe too for our sense of awe before the world – our sense of mountains as personalities, as the ‘forever’ other.
But not quite. If we let awe and wonder meld into a sense of the numinous, of something beyond – beyond our comprehension. If we remember the hallowed status the mis-named ‘Everest’ had and has for Tibetan Buddhists, who call it Chomolungma. (The Nepalese name is Sagarmatha. For both the name means goddess.) Or at another and, literally, lower level, the Monch, Eiger and Jungfrau in the Bernese Oberland, my favourite mountains from childhood – the monk, the ogre and the maiden.
They had personalities, and the Eiger earns its name to this day.
It’s too easy in our time to deny mountains that ‘master card’ they held for Shipton. A recent mountain movie, ‘14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible’, recounts how an extraordinary Nepalese/British Sherpa mountaineer, Nirmal Purja, climbed all fourteen 8000-metre peaks in the space of seven months. Funded by Netflix and all possible corners cut. An extraordinary achievement, that’s not to be doubted, but it was mountains (to viewers, at least) made easy, and danger and disaster dismissed with a shrug. (For others, I admit, the movie was inspirational.)
Better to go back to Reinhold Messner’s accounts his ascents of Everest, Nanga Parbet and K2 without oxygen. Or George Mallory trekking in for weeks from Darjeeling in 1921, 1922 and 1924. Read the books. Avoid the films.
Above all, read up on the career and the controversy surrounding the remarkable Russian/Kazakhstani mountaineer, Anatoli Boukreev. He is central to Krakauer’s narrative where he is both criticised and lauded. Many have taken up the cudgels on Boukreev’s behalf. Whichever side you take (and you can take both) theirs is the real high mountain story, not that of ’14 Peaks’.
The mountains of England’s Lake District were considered fearsome until tamed by notions of the picturesque in the later 18th century. But even today walkers can be caught out by rain or storm or blizzard.
It pays us to be humble toward the mountains even in our own backyard. Far far more so before the high peaks of the Himalaya and Andes.
And finally … one day after posting this blog, I read an interview with mountaineer and Everest guide Kenton Cool in the Financial Times Weekend edition. He’s climbed Everest sixteen times, ’a record for a non-Sherpa’.
The interview refers to Nirmal Purja who now has two million Instagram followers. Cool himself is troubled by the number of permits issued by the Nepalese government, but ‘most troubled by events on other mountains, where Purja’s feats have promoted a rush of 8000-metre peak-bagging’.
Is any kind of restraint possible? Short of the Nepalese and other governments withholding permits I can’t see it happening. But maybe in time we will adjust our priorities, give mountains and ourselves more space – and remember always to step back, before we step up.