A BOOK ON MOUNTAINEERING’S HOLY GRAIL

???????????????????????????????Alan Hinkes’ book, ` 8000 Metres – Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains,’ should make a fine addition to the library.

Hinkes is the first British mountaineer to have climbed all the fourteen 8000m-peaks.

On the Internet, his achievement is sometimes qualified as “ disputed,’’ the ascent of Cho Oyu being case in point. Hinkes mentions reaching the mountain’s vast summit and walking around to ensure that there isn’t any higher to go. All this is in semi white out condition with reduced visibility. Views of other major peaks, useful to establish proof of summit, remain elusive. Hinkes is also alone at this stage of the climb. “ I did not bother to take any photos. There was nothing to see and I was more concerned with finding my way back before I became trapped in a full whiteout or deadly snowstorm,’’ he writes in his book.

Among the fourteen 8000m-peaks, Cho Oyu is often described as the easiest. Hinkes’ chapter on Cho Oyu begins thus: Categorizing any 8000m peak as `easy’ or referring to an `ordinary’ or ` normal’ route to the summit, is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing easy or normal about any 8000m mountain. Each of the fourteen giants represents a serious undertaking with different characteristics, dangers, difficulties and local weather patterns, and none should be underestimated.

In the eyes of the sport’s high priests, the situation on Cho Oyu may have inspired lack of precision in summit claimed. But it takes nothing away from Hinkes’ book, which strikes a fine balance between coffee table book and account of life in mountaineering, especially that recap of fourteen 8000m-peaks climbed over eighteen years, entailing twenty seven attempts in all. Towards the end of the book, Hinkes says that the fourteen 8000m-peaks are dangerous, that he climbed them for himself and not for money and therefore even guiding on those peaks for money isn’t worth risking his life again. The only mountains from the fourteen that he may consider climbing again are Everest (to which he returned) and Cho Oyu.

The book’s biggest strength is simplicity in the story telling. It is unpretentious. This is complemented by large and beautiful photographs backed by an uncluttered layout. The images give you a genuine sense of place without complicated camera work to distract from what is being shown. Hinkes’ photography is crisp and clean. The book has a nice architecture in terms of written content. Having devoted the introductory chapter to describing his affection for adventure and the evolution of his career in climbing, Hinkes keeps the accounts of his climbs straightforward and bereft of searching philosophy. He speaks matter of fact, mostly devoid of the dramatic, adding a touch of drama only where it seems relevant. Each story of climbing an 8000m-peak is followed by a smaller chapter on an interesting aside. The latter ranges from the photo of his daughter that he carried to mountain summits (it also gave him something to look forward to after the summit and kept him focused on descending safely), to profiles of Jerzy Kukuczka, Kurt Diemberger and Reinhold Messner, the correct clothing for high altitude mountaineering, his food habits on expeditions, ` the death zone’ as extreme high altitude is popularly called and dealing with death in a dangerous sport.

We live in an age, where mountaineering narratives are many. The media gaze has spared no landscape. Some would say – as early victim of media in adventure, the snowy, windswept heights of our planet suffer from a fatigued idiom of expression. If despite that, we still indulge media, then it must be conceded – content matters now more than ever before. Details like perspective, craft and lightness of handling, previously overlooked, have emerged differentiator for our tired senses. This book, at once serious for the subject it handles and enjoyably light in treatment, lives up to that more comfortable aesthetic.

For the average Indian like me, it is an expensive book.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly edited version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal, Volume 69)

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