2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB SEMINAR / MICK FOWLER MADE HONORARY MEMBER

Veteran mountaineer Harish Kapadia provides the audience an overview of the Himalayan Club’s history. As of 2018, the club was 90 years old. (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The 2018 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club stayed true to how the world of hiking and climbing has always been in Mumbai – it is a small, tightly knit world of those appreciative of these pursuits. Talks by two riveting climbers – Mick Fowler and Catherine Destivelle – anchored this year’s proceedings. Strung between these two presentations, were talks by Mark Liechty, David Breashears, Maya Sherpa and Vineeta Muni.

The two day seminar held over February 17-18, was inaugurated by industrialist Adi Godrej; the Godrej family has been longstanding benefactors of the club. Also present was Nadir Godrej. It was announced on the second day of proceedings that British mountaineer, Mick Fowler, known for his alpine style expeditions to attempt tough, unclimbed routes at altitude, had been made an honorary member of the Himalayan Club. As of 2018, the club was 90 years old. In all that time, only 28 people were selected for honorary membership.

Mick Fowler (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Both in his presentation and a brief chat he had later with this blog, Mick mentioned that he didn’t belong to that school which tries to secure success at any cost on an expedition. Failure is part of the game and it must be accepted. On more than one occasion Mick voiced his disapproval for drilling rock and installing expansion bolts (for placement of gear), something climbers are prone to do when a route is sketchy. It is bizarre to conclude that just because you couldn’t climb a route – using available holds – it can’t be done; particularly when younger generations are out-performing older ones. What should matter is – how you climbed an objective, he said. Mick’s choice of routes stands out for their high degree of technical difficulty and challenge. Asked how easy providing for potential failure is, given modern expeditions have several constituents including sponsors who invest for promised result, he admitted that it isn’t always an easy task. However, there are foundations and people providing grants, who look at mountaineering differently, valuing the challenge tackled more than the success guaranteed. This year’s Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture was delivered by Mick.

Far Out – the book by Mark Liechty. This image has been downloaded from the University of Chicago Press website and is being used here for representational purpose only.

Mark Liechty’s book, ` Far Out,’ won the club’s Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. Mark – through his acceptance speech following the prize ceremony – illustrated the context of the book and what it dealt with. As a quest to understand why and how the Himalaya came to mean what it did for the counter-culture movement, it is among few books out there to have tackled the subject and perhaps the only one enmeshing the quest with research. Shortly into his speech, Mark explained the book’s premise clearly, referring to an interview given by the actor and director of a recent Hollywood movie which alludes to the Himalaya in the mystical fashion the West is prone to. “ My guess is that many of you here have visited Kathmandu and I wonder how many of you found it to be “incredibly spiritual and marvelous,” – a place with “almost no Western influence,” a “deeply mystical and religious” place, a “most peaceful” city. How anyone could go to Kathmandu and not find a chaotic, noisy, polluted, crowded, underdeveloped city, I don’t know,’’ Mark said. Of course Kathmandu has its charms and the Nepalis are wonderful, gracious people. But the question that bothered Mark was – how is it that presumably reasonable people like that film crew could go to Nepal and find a place that arguably does not exist outside of their own imagination?

“ In a nutshell, that is the question I’m trying to answer in this book. After a lifetime of hearing comments like these, I wanted to know how and why Westerners have constructed not just an imagined Kathmandu, but an imagined Himalayan region marked by mystical alterity,’’ he said. As Mark dug deeper into these questions, he soon found that the kind of things the film crew was saying were anything but new. Rather, for most of the last 200 years Europeans and Americans had been imagining the Himalaya in similar, and sometimes almost identical, terms. “ Especially for counter-cultural figures—people unhappy with the secular, rational, capitalist West—the Himalaya was the last unknown place, and therefore the last place on which they could project their hopes, dreams, and fantasies for some other, uncontaminated, place,’’ he said. Mark, is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology and History and Coeditor, Studies on Nepal History and Society, University of Illinois, Chicago.

Maya Sherpa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

You can’t think of American mountaineer David Breashears without Everest in the frame. He was the first American to summit the peak more than once. Among the world’s best known high altitude film makers, he was responsible for the IMAX movie on the mountain made several years ago, the shooting of which in 1996, happened the same season one of the biggest tragedies on the mountain (since famous as material for Jon Krakauer’s book: Into Thin Air) unfolded. At the seminar, his presentation dealt with the work around climate change that he is doing at Glacier Works, a non-profit organization he founded in 2007. While the organization’s work revolves around showing how climate change has impacted the glaciers of the Himalaya, David brought the issue closer home pointing out that as the world’s major ice caps melt leading to increase in sea level, Mumbai would be among cities potentially affected by it. He also shared his views on how commercial mountaineering has impacted the Everest environment, especially the location of camps along the main climbing route. A lot of cleaning up has been done but the scale of human presence on the mountain is not without accompanying impact.

Catherine Destivelle (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Catherine Destivelle’s presence at the seminar signified her first visit to India. She is one of the most iconic climbers in the history of the sport with a career that spans competition climbing to rock climbing and solo ascents to climbing on snow and ice in the big mountains. She opted for a combination of screening a film on three climbs in the European Alps that provided a window to her life and nature and replying to questions thereafter. Nepal’s Maya Sherpa came up the hard way. Having done her training, she was working in the country’s trekking industry when opportunities to climb manifested. With a handful of elite mountains – including K2 and Everest – already bagged, she confirmed that she is on a quest to climb all the fourteen 8000m peaks. Vineeta Muni’s presentation provided an overview of her long tenure in Indian mountaineering, including a trans-Himalayan hike done years ago in the company of others. A resident of Mumbai, Vineeta said that she owes much of what she came to know in life to her affection for the mountains.

The speakers answering questions from the audience. From left: Catherine Destivelle, Maya Sherpa, David Breashears, Vineeta Muni and Mick Fowler (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Later while answering questions from the audience, all the panelists agreed that anyone newly getting into climbing should train for the sport and not rush into it. They should allow things to evolve slowly, taking time for it. Knowing how to take care of oneself is important at altitude as failing to do so, potentially puts others too in danger. Both Catherine and Mick mentioned that they picked their friends in climbing, carefully.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)   

2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB SEMINAR / BRIEF CHAT WITH DAVID BREASHEARS

David Breashears (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

David Breashears is among America’s best known mountaineers. He was the first American to climb Everest more than once. He is also a reputed film maker; he was the man behind the IMAX movie on Everest, which provided viewers a ringside experience of being on the peak. Several years before that, he had done the first live broadcast from Everest. Currently, David’s work largely revolves around Glacier Works, a non-profit organization he founded to spread awareness on the impact of climate change on Himalayan glaciers. His talk at the 2018 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club provided a snapshot of the work he was doing at Glacier Works. Among the visuals he showed were instances of old photographs shot by visitors to the Himalaya, replicated to the T after painfully locating the exact spot from where the original photograph was taken. Juxtapose new photograph on old; the story of glaciers melting and receding becomes clear. The same mountains, the same glaciers, the same valleys – then and now – the changes are striking. The newly shot images are technology-rich – they are panoramic and composed of multiple high resolution photographs. From the earlier generation of photographers – many of their works serve as archival material to compare contemporary images of glaciers with –  David was particularly appreciative of the contribution of Italian photographer, Vittorio Sella, whose stunning pictures of the Himalaya are held in high esteem. In the age of 24×7 media and mountaineering under its glare, few can surpass David’s knowledge of media in adventure and the outdoors. Outrigger caught up with him for a brief chat on the sidelines of the 2018 Himalayan Club annual seminar. Excerpts:

Years ago you had pioneered live broadcast from the top of Everest. Now you are using rich digital imagery at Glacier Works to drive home the impact of climate change at altitude. Can you tell us whether your relation with media and technology has transformed over the years or does it continue unchanged?

First it was a physical and tangible relation to media through film. You loaded your camera; we had the IMAX camera, 65mm film on the top of Everest. You were in contact with the media. I embraced the digital world very, very quickly for a couple of reasons. First of all, I could get much more information, more data, many more images, less expensively. I don’t have to buy film, process it and have prints made. I also became more mobile because I didn’t have all this film and film is heavy. It is also very useful to be able to review your work when you work the way I do. I happen to be away for lengthy periods of time and you can’t come back and find that the camera was scratching all the film. These are the practical things. The digital world has also given me so much more potential for the story telling I want to do. For example with that big 3.8 billion pixel-image (reference here is to a panoramic image of the Everest region he showed at the seminar), people have found it a fascinating way to explore Everest. I still love film for some purposes. But I can’t imagine now going back into the field with 50 rolls of film. It was transformative.

How about the contrast between your earlier work and what you are doing now? Previously your films brought the experience of Everest into theatres and the homes of people. Now you are using your abilities to spread awareness about the impact of climate change on glaciers, which is conservation oriented. Is there something of your own experience transforming you that is visible in this altered relation with the media?

The film experience is very special whether you are sitting in front of your TV, computer or you are at a theatre – because you have not only imagery, you have sound, dialogue, music and effects. And these things are very powerful in creating an emotion. However, when it comes to climate change, we are acting like journalists. We don’t want to play music and such. The information has to present itself and stand on its own. The other thing is, I have become very fond of our exhibits. We have had exhibits going around the world. I myself like going to exhibits; I like the experience of being at exhibits and finding out what someone else finds curious. When you are seeing in a theatre, you don’t experience something with someone else. You are looking at a screen; you may laugh at a joke with a friend or a whole theatre may laugh together. But in an exhibit space, people can turn to each other and say: what do you think of that? Or you overhear conversations or sometimes, say I am at an art exhibition, if someone is standing for a long time in front of a photographic print or a painting, then I go and I want to look over their shoulder and find what they find interesting. So although I have moved away from conveying information through film, I am most satisfied with using this current all-digital imagery of Glacier Works in print form in an exhibit. I don’t want someone sitting at home staring at it on a computer. Of course, that is where it gets its biggest audience. But I am an exhibit guy now. Live broadcast from Everest, I am ex-film, I went into exhibits and I will go back to films. But what we are doing now is hard and takes a tremendous amount of discipline. I didn’t want to mix up the discipline of that still photography and a high level of execution and compromise it by saying, let’s do a lot of video. We are small teams and we are focused on what we are there to do – the photography. I still miss film making.

You have spent many years in mountaineering; you also spent many years in the media. Of late, there has been a lot of media in mountaineering. The late Tomas Humar’s climbs for instance, were sometimes occasion for live reportage on social media. Are you happy with how the media has contributed to mountaineering or would you prefer to have seen it contribute differently?

I think there is great danger in having access to information that hasn’t been properly curated; instant access to information and the competition out there – whether it is Twitter, Instagram or Facebook or any form of social media. And the fact that things come out so quickly on traditional news. This is a very slippery slope. You create this audience that is always hungry for information in almost real time. But I do think there is no going back. It is very addictive, this need for information instantly. However I would still sit down and read long form articles about something. I know that several months from now after Elisabeth Revol and others have told their stories (David is referring here to the January 2018 rescue on Nanga Parbat in which French climber Elisabeth Revol was brought to safety but Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz couldn’t be reached), I want to read this in a good piece of reporting because I don’t think I got the best information yet. Sometimes you got to really get in there and get a lot of information from people.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB BOOK AWARD / BRIEF CHAT WITH MARK LIECHTY

Mark Liechty (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark Liechty is Associate Professor of Anthropology and History and Coeditor, Studies in Nepal History and Society, at the University of Illinois, Chicago. What stayed in mind strongest after his talk at the Himalayan Club’s 2018 annual seminar was the intriguing theme of investigation in his book about the counter-culture movement’s fascination for the Himalaya. Mark wondered whether we tend to overlook places as they are and see instead what we came looking for. Outrigger presents the transcript of a brief chat with Mark, author of Far Out, which won the Himalayan Club’s Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. This conversation should ideally be read in conjunction with the report on the Himalayan Club’s 2018 annual seminar, available on this blog:

Can you explain the circumstances and curiosity that led you to write this book?

On my first visit to South Asia when I was nine years old, I went with my parents to Kathmandu. Even then I was struck by a variety of things including things I saw that I didn’t understand. Later out of my own curiosity, I wanted to learn about the hippie era in Nepal and I started looking for books on the topic. I discovered that there were no good books that tried to explain what was going on at that time. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to read this book I was going to have to write it myself. For thirty years I have been collecting information on the topic. In the meantime I have written other books. But this is kind of a labor of love. I have written it more for a general audience and not an academic audience as I normally do. It is really an effort to answer questions that I had myself, which I couldn’t find answers to.

You mentioned in your talk after the book award that people tend to project on to the Himalaya what they came seeking; that they end up seeing what they came looking for. Can you explain that?

It is not people in general but people in the West who have a kind of exotic image of this place, which over the centuries they have been socialized into. Also, people – what I try to argue in the book is that the kind of westerners who come to India or Nepal are not the typical tourist. They tend to be counter-cultural in one way or another; they are looking for something that they don’t find at home. Again for complicated reasons, the Himalaya has emerged as this last unknown place, this last forbidden landscape and it becomes a convenient place to imagine where things might still be that are thought to have been lost at home. What I am trying to suggest is that people come looking for things that they imagine they have lost and they think might still be there in this remote place. To a certain extent, they find them.

In your talk, you also mentioned of the divide that the Himalaya represents between the cultures of India and China and how that adds to the western imagination of what it is….

In there I am just making a basic semiotic point that how – because of the way we construct our mental and geographic maps, inevitably we construct in-between places and those in-between places, between civilizations are thought to be uncivilized. Often they are also thought to be unpopulated even though there are people living in those places. The Himalaya has emerged as one of those in-between places. But I also attempt to argue that some people assume that mountains themselves are inherently marginal. I don’t think that is the case because if you look at the world’s second largest mountain chain in South America, it is the opposite – it is the mountains themselves that are the civilizational core and the lowlands are the mystical borders. So the way in which we imagine peripheries has at least as much to do with our own mental construct as anything inherent in the landscape.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)