READING TILMAN

“To some the Himalaya may be only a name vaguely associated perhaps with a mountain called Everest: to geologists they provide a vast field for the starting and running of new hares; to other learned men, glaciologists, ethnologists, or geographers, the Himalaya are a fruitful source of debate in which there is no common ground, not even the pronunciation of the name; while to the mountaineer they furnish fresh evidence, if such were needed, of the wise dispensation of a bountiful Providence. For lo, when the Alps are becoming too crowded, not only with human beings but with huts, the Himalaya offer themselves to the more fanatical devotee – a range of fifteen hundred miles long, containing many hundreds of peaks, nearly all unclimbed and all of them so much higher than the Alps that a new factor of altitude has to be added to the usual sum of difficulties to be overcome; and withal to be approached through country of great loveliness, inhabited by peoples who are always interesting and sometimes charming. Here seemingly is a whole new world to conquer, but it is a world which man with his usual perversity, flying in the face of Providence, has reduced to comparatively small dimensions: for what with political boundaries, restrictions and jealousies, the accessible area is less than one-third of the whole. And though European travellers and climbers may grouse about this state of affairs, Europeans are, I suppose, largely to blame. For with the present state of the outside world before their eyes the rulers of Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan can scarcely be blamed, and might well be praised, for wishing their own people to have as little as possible to do with ourselves.’’

The paragraph struck home for two reasons.

First was the nature of perspective, different from that of the typical climber and describable as only that of a seeker – maybe, explorer? Second, the paradigm the Himalaya was trapped in. It remains unchanged today. Likely writing between the great wars of the twentieth century H.W. Tilman points to a state of the world that the kingdoms of Asia couldn’t be blamed for wishing to keep away from; limited access to the Himalaya and the Alps getting crowded. This picture hasn’t changed much although the actors therein and the direction of trading blame, probably have. Compared to today’s crowded South Asia and the as populous-China, between which lay sandwiched the Himalaya, Tilman’s reference to the “ crowded’’ Alps would seem lost. June 2013; the scale of human presence in the Indian Himalaya was betrayed when thousands of pilgrims died following heavy rains in Uttarakhand. We live in an era of exploded human numbers. Not to mention, the Himalaya as strategic boundary.  

When Tilman climbed Nanda Devi and found reason to write an account – mentioning therein of limited access to the Himalaya – the Great Game played out between the British and Russian empires, was well past its peak. Despite the passage of time, political games similar to the Great Game, featuring a new set of players, continue to be waged around the Himalaya leaving swathes of it still subject to the stuff of military strategy, territorial dispute, mutual suspicion and a regime of bureaucratic permits.  Not a day passes without disquieting news reports from India’s mountainous borders with Pakistan and China. While the whole thing may be a legacy of erstwhile management by foreign powers, not to mention the legacy of cocooned kingdoms in remoteness, it is a moot question what new generations and governments have done since to enhance peaceful coexistence and enjoyable access across the Himalaya.

That may seem childish.

If so, the thoughts evoked by the image of Earth Rise must be the most childish of all.

Tilman's book (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tilman’s book (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Harish Kapadia, India’s best known explorer of the Himalaya and author of many books on the subject calls Tilman his favourite explorer of these ranges. He sent in a brief synopsis on the man, written with inputs from Rajesh Gadgil, Honorary Editor of the Himalayan Journal:

“ Harold William Tilman a.k.a. Bill Tilman, was one of the most prolific adventure writers and great explorers of the Himalaya and Karakoram, of the twentieth century. Originally a tea-planter in Kenya, he began his climbing in the company of another great explorer, Eric Shipton and climbed many peaks in Africa. Their partnership proved so successful that today they are remembered together as ‘Shipton-Tilman’.  Well known for his taciturn nature and simple but sound organization in the mountains (he used to say that any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of a post-card), Tilman achieved many firsts during his career. In 1934, with Shipton, he was the first to penetrate the Rishi Ganga gorge to find a way to the heart of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. As if they were still not satisfied by one venture, the pair turned their attention to another challenge and by following an ancient myth, they were successful in connecting Badrinath with Kedarnath by a direct route via Panpatia Bamak for the first time in known history.  They barely survived, fighting for food with bears! After a great physical survival story he wrote, ‘we were experiencing a tiredness which only a very fit body can experience’! Subsequently Tilman joined and then led expeditions to Everest but his heart was in small scale exploratory trips to the then unknown mountains and valleys. Many exploratory episodes followed. In 1936, he led the first ascent of Nanda Devi in collaboration with the Americans and after reaching the summit, he describes that they were so overwhelmed by the beauty around that, ` I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.’ Nanda Devi remained the highest summit attained by man till 1950. And humility was his trait too – he said that he was sorry to find the head of the proud goddess now trampled.

In the same year, he trekked and explored the areas around the Zemu Gap in Sikkim, of which he subsequently completed the first successful traverse in 1938. In 1937, with Shipton, he made a detailed reconnaissance of the little known areas of Karakoram, notably recorded in Blank on the Map. In the following year, Bill explored the Assam Himalaya around Gorichen but could not reach the mountain’s summit. In later years he explored and climbed extensively in the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Xinjiang. Some of his notable attempts were Rakaposhi, Muztagh Ata, Bogda Feng and Chakragil. He also led an expedition to explore Langtang, Jugal and Ganesh Himal in Nepal. In that expedition Tilman was the first to ascent Paldor (5896m) and found the pass named after him beyond Gangchempo. In 1950, he led the British expedition to Annapurna where they could reach very near the summit of Annapurna IV. In the same year, he was one of the first persons to explore the Southern approaches to Mt Everest.

He has a place as a great explorer in history and his books narrate his exploits with wit. He kept exploring as his philosophy was – appetite grows with what it feeds upon, not by waiting…!”

It was Kutts Bommanda, then proctoring a fall season-semester course at the India branch of the US headquartered-National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), who told me of Tilman in the library and the reading it held. I was doing my internship then at NOLS India, Ranikhet. The book in the library was a compilation – `The Seven Mountain-Travel Books,’ published by Baton Wicks and The Mountaineers. Rather aptly for Tilman’s work, this section of NOLS India’s modest library was at the deep end of the equipment issue room stacked with mountaineering boots, ice axes, ropes, crampons and compasses. The chapter on Nanda Devi, I reckon, should be interesting for any NOLS student as also anyone who drove up to Ranikhet from the Kathgodam railway station because it talked about the mountain widely recognized as Kumaon’s presiding deity. It also provided a glimpse of the Ranikhet of many years ago for Tilman’s expedition to the mountain had passed through the town.

“ Ranikhet, whither we were now bound, is a hill station in the United Provinces. From Kathgodam, thirty six hours’ journey by train from Calcutta, it is reached by a good road of fifty miles. Numerous buses ply on this fifty mile stretch of road and competition is so fierce that the fare is only three shillings, luggage included.’’ Further, “ Ranikhet is 6000ft above sea level and the relief on reaching it and breathing the pine-scented air, after a journey by rail through the sweltering plains, has to be felt to be believed.’’ Tilman noted that the relief “ is intensified by the sight of over a hundred and more miles of snow peaks; distant, it is true, but near enough to stagger by their height and fascinate by their purity.’’ Beholding this scene today from the road above the town’s market, you get the same feeling.

Among the peaks you see from Ranikhet is the 7816m-high Nanda Devi. Dwell on this mountain scenery awhile; you would agree with the observations recorded in the book on the view from far. Nanda Devi was and still remains, a tough peak to ascend, including the approach to the mountain, which took years for mountaineers to find. Some expeditions had as their highpoint, merely eliciting further progress on the approach while the mountain beyond stayed untrammelled. It was unexplored terrain. In fact, a major change since Tilman’s days is that following complaints of environmental damage by successive mountaineering expeditions and growing appreciation for the fragile ecology of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, the mountain was closed to climbing expeditions.

The onward road Tilman’s expedition took from Ranikhet, was via ` Garul,’ likely modern day Garud; from there to Gwaldam, then over the Kuari Pass to Joshimath and eventually the village of Lata.

Nanda Devi, as seen from Ranikhet (Photo by Shyam G Menon)

Nanda Devi, as seen from Ranikhet (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

About the mountain’s summit, gained several weeks later, Tilman wrote:

“ The summit is not the exiguous and precarious spot that usually graces the top of so many Himalayan peaks, but a solid snow ridge nearly two hundred yards long and twenty yards broad. It is seldom that conditions on top of a high peak allow the climber the time or the opportunity to savour the immediate fruits of victory. Too often, when having first carefully probed the snow to make sure he is not standing on a cornice, the climber straightens up preparatory to savouring the situation to the full, he is met by a perishing wind and the interesting view of a cloud at close quarters, and with a muttered imprecation turns in his tracks and begins the descent. Far otherwise was now. There were no cornices to worry about and room to unrope and walk about. The air was still, the sun shone, and the view was good if not so extensive as we had hoped. Odell had brought a thermometer and no doubt sighed for the hypsometer. From it we found that the air temperature was 20 degrees F, but in the absence of wind we could bask gratefully in the friendly rays of our late enemy the sun. It was difficult to realise that we were actually standing on the same peak which we had viewed two months ago from Ranikhet, and which had then appeared incredibly remote and inaccessible and it gave us a curious feeling of exaltation to know that we were above every peak within hundreds of miles on either hand.’’

After gaining the summit, the expedition crossed over to Martoli near Milam and reached Kapkote via Tejam.

Tilman’s remarks on Bageshwar probably reflected the times.

“ Bageshwar is not the prosperous market town that it once was when its traders acted as middlemen between the Bhotias and the plainsmen. Now the Bhotias deal directly with the banias of Haldwani, Tanakpur and Ramnagar at the foot of the hills. The bazaar consists of solid well-built houses with shops on the ground floor, but it was sad to see so many of these shut up.’’

Anyone visiting today’s Bageshwar would find this surprising for the town is clearly the biggest commercial settlement between Almora and Pindari or Milam. One reason for this change could be the cessation of the old Indo-Tibet trade along the high passes of the Kumaun Himalaya, which dimmed the stature of mountain settlements like Munsiyari and made bigger, the names of towns closer to the bustling plains.    

My affection for Tilman’s world stems from the fact that increasingly I dislike competition. It is not that his generation didn’t compete. They did. What else was the race to the North Pole, the South Pole and that Third Pole – Everest – all about? Tilman himself uses words like `victory.’ But I live enduring its legacy multiplied by population and market. In a million ways, thanks to our rising tide of people and the need to survive, practically everything around has got tainted by the competitive spirit. This is the day and time of the branded warrior when the quest is to somehow brand one’s individual life for visibility in the crowd. Even harmless day to day conversation betrays the words, defences and posturing of competition. Years ago, learning about Darwin’s theory – survival of the fittest – was engaging inquiry about world. Now quoted by every Tom, Dick and Harry in and out of context, you switch off the moment somebody mentions it and its grandfather – competition. It is a widespread schizophrenia. Tilman’s ilk, what you call explorers, could walk in the Himalaya doing just that – exploring. They may have sought personal embellishment. But the grandeur of the Himalaya and its vastness was intact, for human beings were fewer than today. The media, which magnifies human life, prioritises it by achievement and implants it in our brain, was also far less. Achievement wasn’t yet an industry. With that, life was probably still life and nature ruled larger than human life. Compulsive competition has since killed fascination save of course, fascination for the self and promoting the self.

Seeking refuge in bygone eras is escaping the harsh present for what one assumes was a less harsh past.

I admit it.

I was hiding in that library.

I find it liberating to read about exploration in the early age of conquest and not conquest in times of exploration lost.

Photographing Tilman’s book in the gear issue room, I had to conclude that my efforts were a pathetic compromise. This book deserved to be on snow, ideally on that high ridge above the Kafni stream and near the peak of Salgwar (that’s a ridge providing good memories of friends and NOLS courses I have been out with), from where on a clear day, alongside other Himalayan giants, two sheer rock faces crowned by snow and joined by a knife edge ridge, can be seen over the tops of lesser mountains. That’s Nanda Devi and I clearly remember how that sight from the high ridge, one early morning, had emerged the most memorable experience for at least one NOLS student from the spring 2012 Himalayan Backpacking course. Snow on the ground, Nanda Devi in the backdrop – that would have been perfect for Tilman’s book.

But I was in Ranikhet.

The snow was yet far. 

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was originally written when he was the fall season intern at NOLS India in 2012. It was published on the NOLS India Facebook Page. It has since been rewritten for this blog.)

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