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Himalayan Odyssey

Himalayan Odyssey, by Trevor Braham. 1974, London: George Allen & Unwin LTD. £6.50. 243 pages, 14 maps, 31 black and white illustrations.

Trevor Braham loves the mountains. He likes climbing; he likes climbers; he likes the geography and the people of the Himalaya, but he loves the mountains. Himalayan Odyssey is the gentle story of a life-long affair which has taken the author to every corner of the Range and which sustains him between climbs at his home in northern India.

Braham has been a keen observer of Himalayan climbing since a childhood infatuation with the mystery and glory of the mountains he could see from Darjeeling. He has been a participant almost as long. The book opens with a history of the Early Days. Braham recalls the advent of crampons and Vibram soles, carries on through the war years when activity slowed (but locals could “always snatch a few weeks’ leave” for the mountains), to the post-war Golden Age and the present. Braham climbs each year, and the reader meets familiar climbers as Braham meets them; sometimes in the hills, often in the comfortable rooms of the Himalayan Club in Calcutta. Braham is the habitué, always the gracious host to sojourners.

The book is a loosely structured series of accounts of climbs. The climbing details are not really important as treated by the author, and the climbs themselves run together, but the places stand out. Braham has climbed in the familiar places and the unfamiliar ones, and he uses magical geographic names as one who possesses intimate knowledge. He always climbs in small, self-contained parties, usually on a shoestring. A number of his climbs served as reconnaissance for later, larger expeditions; others were first ascents never publicly acclaimed, but all were undertaken for the sheer joy of being in the mountains. It is a thoughtful book, leisurely in pace and reflective in tone. Braham refers to himself sparingly, but still manages to let the reader know a great deal about his thoughts. He notes that the presence of mountains gives him humility and “strips him of pretence.” Clearly, he is writing in the presence of mountains. His style is dry, and the reader must meet him halfway or risk sinking too deeply into the armchair, but the rewards are real enough in Braham’s insights, his unique perspective on Himalayan climbing and his excellent place descriptions. As a source for the region, Braham defers to Professor Mason, but belongs on the shelf beside him.

Unlike most Himalayan accounts, there is no climax to this book, nor is there really a start or finish. As a story of a life in the mountains, the mountains, not the climber, become the central figure. And an Odyssey? In a sense it is: Braham roams endlessly, but he is always on his way home.

Andrew Harvard