Couple of villagers mentioned his name.
I started frequenting Munsyari.
I heard his name mentioned there too.
Later when the first Indian ascent of Changuch happened, Martin’s name was firm reference point for his expedition had recorded the peak’s first ascent. That in turn, was the fallout of a climbing trip to Nanda Devi East, which he chose to abort and redirect towards Changuch. Before Nanda Devi East, Martin had been up Baljuri and Panwali Dwar.
These are not just engaging mountains.
They fall at a junction in geography and spirituality that is important to Garhwal and Kumaon, particularly the latter. Knowing who Martin is and what his body of work is, appeared essential. When the chance to review his book emerged, I was delighted.
`Higher Ground – A Mountain Guide’s Life’ was a mixed package.
Its strength is that it gives much insight into the subtitle. It is required reading for anyone aspiring to be a mountain guide. If you are imagining a book with details on a plethora of knots and anchor systems – a sort of technical manual; you are mistaken. Martin’s book is his life in guiding, shared. It does not unduly play up the usual lot of technical information, which the term `mountain guide’ evokes. Instead, it provides a taste of how the guide sets up business, works with clients, how much the envelope is pushed for achievement on trips and most important – how even a guide of considerable experience like Martin, won’t hesitate to turn back if conditions on a mountain are bad. If I may say so, there is much relevance in India to reading this book because in the Indian rat race, admiration for being superhuman and the compulsion to be superhuman are both high. They are among sentiments shaping our perception of climbing. Ahead of being comfortable with climbing, it is unfortunately seen as achievement. Martin’s book, although unashamedly nurtured on a diet of climbing, does not hesitate to talk of mistakes, accidents, long days that he and clients got away with and mountains that seemed wiser to behold from far.
High altitude isn’t everything. There is much to keep you busy at the lower heights. Martin’s book introduced me to peak bagging in Scotland; of clients returning to accomplish the ascent of a cherished number of these peaks. Equally, the book also lays bare how the mountains of Scotland and the Alps of Europe can be laboratory for eventual success in the Himalaya. You don’t find this said as such; you glean it. Nearly three quarters of the book obsesses with specific routes and climbs in Europe, something that can tire a reader unfamiliar with these environs. But in the end, you see the organic link, the making of competence. You can definitely do the same in the Himalaya (as many from Nepal and India’s mountain states do) but the point is – there is no substitute to being out and climbing. In the outdoors, you are only as good as how frequently you are out. Indeed Martin’s book is a freight train of personal climbs and climbs done with clients. So much so, it is sparse on his personal life.
From a reader’s perspective, the book is a challenge given three quarters of the book dwelling on the Scottish highlands and the European Alps (with some mention of Norway in between) and the difference in character between narratives from there and the Himalaya. It is a tough contrast to bridge smoothly. Europe’s mountains, heavily climbed and well known, bristle with technical information. Despite best effort to tell a story, accounts of climbing feel dry. I felt the book’s first three quarters was a stiff narrative that could have been made gentler for folks like me. I started enjoying the book from the last quarter. That’s when Martin reaches the Himalaya. With its unique matrix of mountain dimension, altitude, spirituality and people amid it all, narratives from the Himalaya are by nature different from stories from Europe. Couldn’t Martin have kept the style of narration uniform – either the texture of Scotland and Alps all the way or the texture of the Himalaya all the way (as I would prefer)? Or, mixing up the chapters in a non linear fashion? I wonder. All I will say is – I laboured through the first three quarters of the book and enjoyed the last quarter.
The book’s other weakness is exactly what it delivers as its strength. If you prefer the non commercial context as ideal window to the mountains, then this may not be your cup of tea. It shows in the rather limited ruminations on life and life’s questions that dot the narrative. This book is about work.
It is worth reading, especially if you are mountain guide or aspiring to be one.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly longer version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal Volume 70)