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The Ascent of Nanda Devi

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  • Publication Year: 1938

The Ascent of Nanda Devi, by H. W. Tilman. Foreword by Dr. T. G. Longstaff. xii and 235 pages, 36 illustrations, 2 maps, index. New York: Macmillan Co., $3.50. London: Cambridge University Press, 12/6.

It is perhaps unwise for one member of an expedition to review a hook about that expedition written by another, for if the review be favorable the allegation of “vested interests” might be made; if unfavorable, the charge of internal rivalry is a possibility. It is proverbial that a man's severest critic is often his best friend. However, in the present instance criticism of an adverse character would be difficult to justify, for Mr. Tilman has written an extremely able book.

The impression one gains immediately upon reading The Ascent of Nanda Devi is of the capable way in which Mr. Tilman has handled his material. The accuracy of his chronicle I know to be unimpeachable. His sense of evaluation and perspective are excellent, for in dealing with any great theme it often is hard not to allow that theme to dominate at the expense of the general effect. This danger Mr. Tilman has carefully avoided.

The book presents an effective and well-balanced picture of what actually took place, of what was said and thought by the men who took part in the venture and of what befell them. The book is a sensitive and human account lightened with a delightful and versatile humor, completely catching the spirit of the whole enterprise. Where so much depended upon teamwork, a sense of humor was indispensable. The book seems to have been written not only for the public in general but also with a peculiar intimacy for those who participated in the adventure. I disagree with Mr. Tilman's prefacing remark that “any blockhead can write a book if he has something to write about.” I would amend that by saying that any blockhead can ruin a book no matter how much there may be to write about. Assuredly Tilman is no blockhead.

The Ascent of Nanda Devi is written in the best tradition, with the moderation becoming an accomplished mountaineer. To the average person this restraint may seem out of proportion to the requirements, but here again Mr. Tilman has had in mind an audience of those familiar with the problems of ascending high mountains, and for them it is sufficient to state the unadorned facts without dramatizing them. A peak such as Nanda Devi needs little dramatization.

In criticizing the book one might be tempted to observe that too much emphasis has been placed upon the approach to Nanda Devi and too little upon the actual ascent. However, inasmuch as this approach involved difficulties comparable to those in making the climb, and inasmuch as Mr. Tilman has followed very closely the course of events such a criticism has no validity. Perhaps the final days of the ascent might have been dealt with more fully for it seems to the reviewer that this chance for a logical climax has been somewhat neglected. However, one must remember that the climbers themselves do not always experience such a climax, and Tilman here avoids the danger of including in a general description too many of the technical details which more properly belong in specialized articles on the subject of high-altitude mountaineering.

The book is not without its moral, on the other hand, for as Mr. Tilman has brought out, there were several aspects of the expedition which might give one pause for thought. The party was comparatively small and lightly equipped. The defection of the porters at several points, while it entailed considerable inconvenience, was not entirely unforeseen and thus did not prove a critical factor. The arduous back-packing which resulted does not appear to have affected the climbers adversely but may have actually benefited them in earlier acclimatization. The monsoon season in the Central Himalaya did not provide the terrors which might have been expected. Lastly it was possible to run a successful international expedition on the basis of teamwork without having any formally recognized leader.

The illustrations while adequate in number have not been reproduced by any means as well as the originals would lead one to expect. An appendix on the mountaineering aspects of the expedition would be most useful for future reference, as well as a bibliography dealing with the Nanda Devi region. In view of the earlier volume by Mr. Shipton, Nanda Devi, it is a pity that the same publisher was not used in the present instance, for The Ascent of Nanda Devi would have made a fitting companion-piece to the story of the first entry and exploration of the “Basin.”

The British-American Expedition of 1936 was the logical result of the fine work of Shipton and Tilman in 1934. An added advantage of pairing the two books would have been the saving of some duplication in the descriptions of the region and of the approach through the Rishi Gorge.

Mr. Tilman’s book makes the expedition seem what it was, a great and light-hearted adventure conceived and carried out in the true spirit of the game. May he write as effectively next year on that greatest of all adventures, an attack on Everest.

A. B. E., III.

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