Published in Outlook Traveller Dec 2013
Everyone I encounter is a mountaineer, outdoorsman, or an adventurer. I look around the dinner gathering at Steve and Ameeta Alters’ heritage home and wonder how I fit in this ensemble. Butterfly specialist Peter Smetacek, ecologist Theophilus, poetess Mamang Dai, and writers I. Allan Sealy and Bill Aitken live in the mountains. I meet two ladies who write about mountaineers.
Is this a writers’ festival in the mountains, a festival of writers of mountain stories, or a festival of writers and mountains?
William Dalrymple strides into the room, flinging one loose end of a heavy grey shawl over his shoulder. His new book ‘Return of a King’ looks at the disastrous British meddling in Afghanistan. After installing Shah Shuja as the ruler, the British army tries to retreat to India but is annihilated in the Hindu Kush Mountains. More appropriately, the deposed Afghan emir Dost Mohammed Khan is then held captive in Mussoorie, the festival’s hometown.
Even spouse Rom fits into the milieu. He’s showing his latest documentary ‘Leopards: 21st Century Cats,’ and a major chunk of it was shot in Uttarakhand. I tell myself I ought to have paid closer attention to the list of participants. I might have been able to make some ephemeral connection to the mountains. Would the 700-foot scrub-covered hillock that overlooks our home count? Why on earth did Steve invite me?
My breath is fast and laboured from climbing the steep stairway from the Woodstock School gate to the auditorium, where the festival is held. I stand outside the door, waiting for my lungs and heart to catch up with my feet. An icy breeze blowing off the Himalaya penetrates my thick pullover and two layers of tees. The sky is cloudy and a veil of mist hides the view. I hurry inside before my thin tropical blood turns blue with cold.
The more I listen to the talks, the more I question my place in the world. Freddie Wilkinson from New Hampshire was inspired by the stark photography of Bradford Washburn to climb the icy peaks of Alaska. Where he sees beauty, I see a punishing landscape. Worse, he climbs alpine style, a term that has me scrambling for Google.
Traditional mountaineering lays siege to mountain with a huge expedition of porters, guides, and cooks. Alpine style mountaineers carry all their supplies and climb without oxygen cylinders. The lightness of their campaign allows them to move swiftly but they also have little time, sometimes climbing 16 hours a day for days without food or water.
Freddie takes the words out of my mouth, “Why do we punish ourselves so much?” His answer, “It’s hard to explain. So let’s change the conversation from the danger of mountaineering to its beauty.” The landscape dwarfs people; they look like ants scrambling up the edifice of frozen rock as if to get to an imaginary pot of nectar on the summit.
Krzysztof Wielicki from Poland shows pictures of more frigid glaciers and talks of unknowingly coming within touching distance of the summit before giving up. As he says it with a shrug and a laugh, I shiver with cold, real and reflected.
What drives these men to clamber up these inhospitable summits? Steve says mountaineering is the only sport with no spectators. If a stadium full of people can energize a sportsman to achieve greatness, from where do mountaineers get their energy? Krzysztof says the mountains provide the platform to push oneself beyond known limits, but my mind is a fog of incomprehension. Would I write if I had no readers?
Jerzy Porebski’s film ‘Kukuczka’ adds to my confusion. Not only was the eponymous subject the second man to climb all 14 of the 8000-metre-mountains, he took less than eight years to achieve what took Reinhold Messner 16 years. As if climbing these teat-like giants in summer wasn’t challenging enough, Kukuczka scaled many of them in winter. Why this self-flagellation? Krzysztof offers with an impish smile, “You don’t have to wash when it’s that cold.”
Maria Coffey from Canada talks of the pain of her boyfriend’s death on a mountain. His universe revolves around mountains, not her. Being fully aware of the risks, he refuses to commit to the relationship. And then he dies on Everest, leaving Maria grieving not only for the man but the relationship that never was. Maria visits the mountain with the widow of another mountaineer to bring closure, and writes about it in her first book, ‘Fragile Edge.’ Then she expands on the theme in another book ‘Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow,’ by detailing the sorrow of families of mountaineers who died or went missing on snow-capped mountains. The intensity of her talk only made the question ‘Why’ grow louder.
Why do these men jeopardize their lives and their families’ mental health by throwing themselves at treacherous mountains? I’m convinced I’m in the presence of divine lunacy. Even my spouse’s obsession with snakes seems normal in comparison.
As I struggle to write this, when the right words elude me and I come up against the wall of my own limitations, I can only offer this meagre explanation. I write and re-write, erase and edit, and voicelessly scream with frustration when words don’t obey the music I hear in my mind. I ask just as futilely, why do I do this. When the cadence of sentences lifts the story, there’s joy and magic. I can only imagine the euphoria experienced by food-deprived, oxygen-starved, altitude-addled mountaineers once they crest a summit.