When Men and Mountains Meet: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas 1820-75. John Keay. Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut, 1982. 277 pages, black and white photographs, illustrations, maps, bibliography. $17.50.
This is a book of the men who mapped, whored, botanized, ran guns, out- maneuvered kings and plumbed the rivers of the Himalaya from 1820 to 1875. These are engrossing tales of adventure, easily more enthralling than modem, microcosmic accounts of Himalayan climbs. The mountains were unknown then, unmapped and unsafe. The attrition rate for the early explorers easily outweighs recent climbing fatalities in the Himalaya. Back then, in addition to the frostbite, avalanches and river crossings, there were other hazards like the knives of suspicious Sikhs.
Perhaps one drawback of these excerpts from Victorian adventurers’ journals is their style which tends to be personal with superficial observations. The reader can only imagine the voluminous research the author must have done to present us with introductory gems such as: “After the enthusiasms of Moorcroft, the affectations of Jacquemont and the ravings of Wolff, one shakes his (Vigne’s) outstretched hand with a sigh of relief … his charm is neither florid nor demanding but a quiet and genial affability.”
Despite Keay’s polished presentation, the reader still must wade through empty, shallow travelogues of a time that demanded reticence of its heroes.
The photographs cleverly show the reader more of the itinerant Himalayan wanderers’ personalities than their own journals. There is Gardiner bedecked in a tartan turban with a fierce mustache, clutching a weapon. Or Robert Shaw’s assumed air of British regality, a sort of well-suited appearance of pomposity. Then there is the image of Hayward, “possessed with an insane desire to try the effects of cold steel across my throat.” The intensity of Hayward’s furrowed brow while holding a spear is unmistakably powerful.
The map illustrations are simply sketeches, covering vast topographical complexities with a quick sweep of the pen. It is possible that these modem map drawings are intentionally vague, so that the reader can identify with an adventurer’s frustration at the rudimentary maps of the 1800’s. Nonetheless, the maps’ vagaries lost me.
When Men and Mountains Meet won’t make any climber’s best seller list. Yet it reveals a richness that has, perhaps, been lost nowadays. If you are willing to wade or skim through the digressions of olden-day pioneers, you’ll find that these early Himalayan explorations have more excitement, scope and inspiration than most modern-day state-of-the-art accounts of a climber searching for a fingertip handhold.