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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.)