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Exploring the Hidden Himalaya

Exploring the Hidden Himalaya. Soli Mehta and Harish Kapadia. Published for the Himalyan Club. Hodder & Stoughton, London. 1990. 171 pages, maps, black and white and color photographs. Hardbound £20.00.

Exploring the Himalaya was written by a formidable and well qualified pair. Soli Mehta became the compiler of the Himalayan Club Newsletter in 1962 and editor of the Himalayan Journal from 1969 to 1978 and again, after business commitments in Nigeria, from 1986 until his untimely death in 1989. He combined great knowledge and tireless research with a never failing sense of humor. Among other qualities, he was a gifted cellist and, from time to time, played as soloist with the Bombay Symphony Orchestra.

There are members of the climbing community to whom Harish Kapadia is an almost mythic figure. Hardly a year passes without an expedition involving him, usually led by him, going forth on the road less travelled and coming back with mountaineering gold. How a civilian merits so much funding and equipment in a poor country, where perhaps more than half of all Indian mountaineering expeditions are militarily-sponsored, I cannot imagine. But Kapadia’s energy, curiosity, geographical acumen and climbing skills are all his own.

Although this is an age where there may be few blanks on the map, Himalayan maps are full of holes and inaccuracies and much of the area’s topography is poorly understood. Bombay-based Harish Kapadia is a tireless prober and archivist. His accounts and photographs of his adventures—usually in the Himalayan Journal, of which he is the editor—have uncovered mysteries about “the other side” and inspired hundreds of new routes and many first ascents.

With this seductive book he will deservedly reach a wider audience to follow in his footsteps. The book’s subject is actually the Himalaya within India’s borders, including the semi-autonomous Sikkim. Aside from the major areas like Garhwal and Kinnaur and Kashmir and Kulu, there are good chapters on the lesser-known regions, like the Assam Himalaya and Spiti. Each section is a compressed historical narrative of the more significant climbs, mostly with, though occasionally without a map. Kapadia has a limpid writing style and his photographs, about half the whole collection, are first rate and well-reproduced. In these days of declining production values in the book business, the good quality paper and the absence of typos are refreshing.

But the real charm of the book is its celebration of the Indian Himalaya and its invitation to the reader to taste the vintage of the smaller vineyards. Almost every chapter has a siren song like this: “It is evident that in Kinnaur many trekking and climbing opportunities await the mountaineer. There are many side valleys, peaks and passes which are inviting, unexplored and certainly unrecorded. With the development of roads, the valleys of this beautiful district are one night away from Shimla. Of course one had to solve the problem of Inner Line permits, lack of porters and lack of information. But then it is no paradise which is gained easily. Even Kim had to hustle with Hurree babu to gain access here.”

There is no book that doesn’t have a blemish or two either. The photographs do not integrate well with the text. For example, we first come across a picture of Papsura with a deep caption on page 94, but it is not till page 129 that there is a reference to the peak in the text. Nor does the choice of photographs indicate that a lot of effort went into their research. The picture of the Gangotri Shivling, aesthetically one of the finest in India, is from its unattractive backside. Then there are some quirky textual inconsistencies: sometimes all the members of a climbing party will be spelled out, other times the leader, and still other times merely the group’s nationality or its Indian city. Finally, it is impossible to figure why some climbs and mountains are included and others not. At first I thought this the result of the book’s restricted frame of reference: its sources are hardcover English language books, the Himalayan Journal, and the Himalayan Club Newsletter. Perhaps this is justifiable in a volume published to commemorate the Himalayan Club’s diamond jubilee (1928-1988), but leaving out the Indian Mountaineer or the Himavanta newsletter shrinks the data base a little. Failure to consult non-Indian magazines and journals adds to this effect. Less understandable are fine mountains and good climbs which were written up in the Himalayan Journal and dropped in the book, Meru Peak in the Gangotri for one. One last cavil and then I’ll quit. Credit for the maps is given to a Arun Samant “who has single-handed solved that vexatious problem for us” say the authors. But they are sometimes incomplete as to scale and date of the information.

Climbers owe Kapadia and the late Soli Mehta a debt of immeasurable gratitude.

John Thackray