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Many People Come, Looking, Looking

Many People Come, Looking, Looking, by Galen Rowell. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1980. 164 pages, color photos. Price $30.00.

Even among the many superb photographers of today, Galen Rowell has a quality which immediately identifies his work, just as Ansel Adams’ black-and-white masterpieces are so uniquely his. Especially gratifying in this latest Rowell work is the skill and sensitivity of his writing, which matches the photographs so beautifully. This is not another coffee table book of mountain pictures, nor is it a show-and-tell account of incredible climbs. What Rowell began in the ranges of North America he has continued here—a thoughtful and perceptive collection of essays describing how climbers and trekkers have used the mountains they love too much. Rowell has explored the far reaches more than most. He has made the 5.10 pitches and been caught out in storm and danger. He has been a member of a large mis-matched expedition to a great mountain and written bitterly about it. He has soloed difficult pinnacles and put up routes on the classic great walls. So he really knows the mountain and wilderness experience.

Several years ago Rowell turned away from the macho trip to reflect on what he saw about him, and to tell others about the inevitable changes brought to remote montain areas by the growing flood of visitors. In Many People Come, Looking, Looking he describes what he saw and felt in three wonderful areas of Asia—the northern valleys of Ladakh (Kashmir), the peaks and valleys and isolated hamlets in the Annapurna region (Nepal) and climactically, on the immense granite skyscrapers which line the Baltoro Glacier in Baltistan. He describes a happy and successful expedition in each of these areas and there is a forgivable pride in “We were the first …” which in no way mars the reflections which make up most of the book.

Rowell has done his homework carefully and well; he is not an emotional bleeding heart conservationist, but an impressive and convincing environmentalist who examines both sides of the balance sheet. Others have described (though less powerfully) the damage done to people in those far away places by the comparatively super-affluent visitors who have upset the work-produce barter system, and caused a spiralling inflation which is as destructive as the deforestation caused by these regions’ increased demand for firewood. Sherpas may earn ten times the pay they did a few years ago, but it all goes to support work by others who in turn are no better off than they had been. The widely publicized deforestation which has taken half of Nepal’s forest land and turned it into an eroding desert is only the most obvious of the damage. It is said that an island of silt some 40,000 square miles in area is building in the Bay of Bengal from the washed-away soil of Nepal, and for this climbers and trekkers are significantly to blame.

Each of Galen Rowell’s books seems better than the last, and this is no exception.

Charles S. Houston