American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Four Miles High

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  • Publication Year: 1968

Four Miles High, by Josephine Scarr. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1966. 188 pages plus 32 pages of photographs. 5 sketch maps. 36 sh.

Two separate all-woman expeditions into the high Himalayas are intriguingly reported and dramatically pictured in this slim volume. Commendably clean-cut prose, unembellished except for flashes of humor, lead the reader only gradually to appreciate the scale of the achievements of these girls.

In the first climbing period in the Kulu Himalaya, two British girls accompanied by three Ladahki porters, surveyed and mapped the unexplored Lion Glacier, a tributary of the Bara Shigri Glacier, and climbed two peaks over 20,000 feet, plus two just under that figure. Before leaving England they had taken a course in surveying, and another on Land Rover mechanics. The latter helped to get them from London to Manali; the former was continuously used in their four weeks of trekking and climbing from Manali. The pictures disclose a horrifyingly jagged rock ridge that was the only route to the summit of the Spire, one of their climbs, plus steep snow and ice slopes, narrow ridges and cornices, and rugged ice-falls on their other peaks.

On the second mountain trip, the next spring, Josephine Scarr and Barbara Spark joined four other British women, led by Countess Dorothea Gravina in exploration and climbing in the Kanjiroba Himal in western Nepal. Four women, accompanied by four Sherpas, reached the top of Lha Shama, 21,035 feet, leading to the claim that “we were ... the first women ever to climb a peak of that height.” Though Josephine Scarr’s claim does not specifically so state, it must be intended to refer to the first “all-woman expedition to reach a peak of 21,000 feet, for Dorothea Gravina, who took the leadership of the all-woman Cho Oyu expedition of 1959 after Claude Kogan’s death, would not have forgotten that Claude had climbed 23,400-foot Nun Kun with masculine companions. If this assumption is made, however, one wonders what the Sherpas, evidently as eager as the memsahibs to reach the peaks, would think of the ascent being considered “all-woman.” They included such veterans of the high peaks as Dawa Tensing, Charles Evans’ sirdar on Kanchenjunga, and Mingma Tsering. Mingma and Pemba Norbu, who with Barbara and Josephine were the first party to reach the summit, had in fact previously shown a tendency to sulk if the girls did too much of the leading.

It is typical of the charm of this book that this record is not emphasized, in fact only mentioned in one brief sentence, as the matter-of-fact story unfolds. The pictures of the three eerie high camps from which the summit of Lha Shama was eventually reached, and the account of the storms that forced the parties down from the highest camp to Base, to regroup for the successful assault a week later, build up a narrative of suspense and dramatic achievement.

Quiet joy in the lesser climbs that followed, and in map-making and exploration are well portrayed. Barbara and Josephine, with one Sherpa, were particularly thrilled by an opportunity to cross a 17,000-foot col above Camp I and spend five days exploring a valley “which no one, either local people or outsiders, had ever penetrated or even seen.”

The account is detailed enough to be of value to the mountaineer who may want to explore further in either of these little-known areas. The more casual reader will enjoy it as a good story. He will appreciate the lilt and laughter with which the girls recover from numerous setbacks. Indomitably, but far from grimly, they face the adventure of each new day.

Frances A. Mullen

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