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Thin Air: Encounters in the Himalayas

Thin Air: Encounters in the Himalayas. Greg Child. Patrick Stephens Ltd., Wellingborough, England, 1988. 192 pages, map, diagrams, color photographs, appendices (including black-and-white photographs identifying routes). £12.95.

Yosemite big-wall climbers do not often become deeply involved with Himalayan climbing, but Greg Child has managed the transition very nicely. After his first season in Yosemite Valley in 1977, Child was invited by Doug Scott to accompany him on his lecture tour to Scotland that winter. On off days they climbed; thus did Child receive his introduction to Scottish ice climbing. After returning to Yosemite, Child became obsessed with El Cap routes, though he did manage a trip to Patagonia, where he failed in an attempt to climb the west face of Fitz Roy. Such was the nature of his alpine experience when the invitation came from Scott to join an expedition to Shivling, a 21,467-foot peak in the Garhwal Himalaya. Scott had correctly assessed the Himalayan climbing potential of the twenty-year-old Australian; besides, Child would make an excellent companion. “He was, for his age, remarkably self-contained and sure of himself, abrasive at times but with a twinkle in his eye and a huge disarming grin,” Scott explains in his foreword.

Thin Air describes successful Alpine-style ascents of four major Himalayan summits during the course of three expeditions: the east pillar of Shivling in 1981, Lobsang Spire south buttress and Broad Peak in the Karakoram in 1983, and, again in the Karakoram, the remarkable northwest ridge of Gasherbrum IV in 1986. With the exception of Broad Peak, all were new routes.

Child has taken great care in the preparation of this book; I had read an early version of the Shivling story, and the present narrative is a significant improvement. The charm of the narrative throughout the book is the skillful use of conversation (always in the present tense when Child is part of the action). Whether fact or fiction, it has the ring of reality regardless of who is speaking and it draws the reader relentlessly into the action. The expeditions obviously involve approach marches, and it is here that Child excels. Anyone who has visited Skardu and then walked to Askole will delight in the descriptions of local life and the efforts of young infidel climbers to adjust to the Balti temperament. Humor, irony, pathos, and, of course, the beauty of the Baltoro landscape, all find their way into the narrative. No one will climb with the aging Don Whillans because he won’t carry loads or even cook, “because of my seniority,” he explains. Nothing seems to escape Child’s notice; the descriptions of the approach to Lobsang Spire and, later, to Gasherbrum IV are reminiscent of Fosco Maraini in Karakoram.

Inserted into the narrative at appropriate points are discussions of Hindu mythology as it concerns the source of the Ganges River and many of the peaks in the Garhwal, including Shivling itself; of nineteenth-century tribal conflicts between Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh populations; and of the present Siachen war between India and Pakistan. Regarding the Siachen, Child has some misconceptions: the area he defines is far more than the 400 square miles mentioned and certainly does not “overlook” either Russia (he means the Soviet Union) or Afghanistan, the nearest borders being over 100 miles distant. Nor was an “American guided group … shelled by Pakistani artillery mounted on a nearby pass.” (Child is referring to a 1986 joint Indian-American expedition.) Artillery fire did exist, but the Americans were below on the glacier out of the line of fire and declined to proceed with the ascent of Sia Kangri, but not the Indians, who went on to climb the peak, ignoring the intermittent barrage. Finally, by taking control of Karakoram Pass (if indeed it has done so), India has not “opened a window to Pakistan’s northern areas,” since this pass leads into China, not Pakistan.

The narrative concerning the climbing is modest, yet forceful, with the same finely crafted conversation and its well-paced juxtaposition with description to match the ebb and flow of climbers’ emotions. The climbing is difficult, always dangerous: on Shivling the food runs out two days before the summit is reached: Child and his partner suffer a 700-foot fall into a snow basin during the descent. On Broad Peak, Child’s climbing partner dies of pulmonary edema. Near the summit of Gasherbrum IV Child holds a fall with an unanchored boot-axe belay; otherwise the two climbers await “a grand tour of the 10,000-foot west face.”

Child, sobered by the death of Pete Thexton during the descent of Broad Peak, faces the enigma of risk: “I had learned the real rule of this beautiful, reckless, terrible game, the only rule: The mountains are beautiful but they are not worth dying for.” But then, after a suitable interval, he is able to write, before leaving for Gasherbrum IV, “After Broad Peak I’d promised myself I would never return to the Himalayas. It was a personal, emphatic, and categoric promise. It was also a promise I could not keep.” Later, after recounting the story of the catastrophe that unfolded on nearby K2 during their ascent of Gasherbrum IV, Child concludes, “My mental effort to give an element of order to this circle of life, death and mountains, came to nothing.”

The color photographs are well chosen; it is a pity there are not more. Unfortunately, they do not match the text owing to the usual constraints in book publishing where the color must be inserted between signatures. Two important appendices contain lists of first ascents of major routes on peaks bordering the Gangotri and Baltoro Glaciers.

Thin Air is an excellent book. Though Child did not win Britain’s 1988 Boardman-Tasker award (best mountaineering book of the year) he did receive an award for literary merit in 1987 from the American Alpine Club.

Allen Steck