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Meeting the Mountains

Meeting the Mountains. Harish Kapadia. Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1998. 49 black-and-white photos. 30 maps. 398 pages. $27 (Order directly from ; reference IN 01019.)

We mountaineers like to think of ourselves as individualists, but most of us are really herd animals, following slavishly where others have gone before, sticking to familiar trails and concentrating our efforts on a few well-known peaks. Now that mountaineering is ever more commercialized and virtualized, the herd instinct is, if anything, even more pernicious. So it is refreshing to see Harish Kapadia’s new book packed full of defiantly unfashionable Himalayan peaks and obscure, forgotten trails.

In case you have not heard of Harish Kapadia, let me introduce him briefly. I first met him in 1985, when he led our Indo-British expedition to the Siachen war zone in the East Karakoram. His organization (bar one or two over-leathery chapatis) was exemplary, his historical research was meticulous and his exuberant sense of fun was an inspiration to us all. Most exciting of all was to head up the Terong Valley, knowing that only the Vissers’ expedition had been there before, and that we were the first mountaineers to head this way for 56 years, attempting an unclimbed 7000er, Rimo, for which no detailed photographs were available. It was good old-fashioned exploring at its best, and Harish, a veteran of countless exploratory probings throughout the Indian Himalaya and Karakoram, was an old master at the game.

That Rimo expedition was included in Kapadia’s previous compendium of climbs and expeditions from 1969 to 1997, High Himalaya, Unknown Valleys. He has also published a book specifically on Spiti, the Buddhist province on India’s Tibetan border, just south of Ladakh.

His latest book is another wide-ranging collection, with accounts of some of his earliest (pre-1969) treks and the most recent journeys from 1992 to 1997. Meeting the Mountains, like High Himalaya, is mainly composed of previous articles from the Himalayan Journal, which Kapadia has edited for many years. To have that wealth of knowledge, complete with prolific photos and Arun Samant’s excellent sketch maps, all contained in one volume, is truly valuable. If you want to find out about anywhere in the Indian Himalaya, from the desert wastes of Ladakh to the steamy jungles of Assam, Kapadia is your man. Unlike so many mountaineers, he is respectfully aware of his predecessors: although he has explored many new Himalayan comers, he is always the first to acknowledge that his explorations are usually variations or continuations of others’ work.

Kapadia’s real forte is high-level adventurous trekking, the sort of committed journeys over difficult passes at which Shipton and Tilman so excelled. Of course the journeys have included summits, some of them very fine peaks like Chiring We, in Garhwal, or Rangrik Rang, in Kinnaur, climbed with Chris Bonington; but you sense with Kapadia that it is the journey that really counts. He is passionate about wild mountain country, but also about the people who inhabit that country, for the Himalaya, paradoxically, is not true wilderness. The myths and legends of Bon, Buddhism or Hinduism are all part of the fun, as are his modem companions, fellow enthusiasts from Bombay, loyal retainers from Kumaon and, occasionally, lucky Europeans who get to tag along.

When Europeans are invited, they tend to be British, as Kapadia seems to have an indulgent weakness for his former colonial masters. Meeting the Mountains includes pieces on several British luminaries of the Himalayan Club such as Noel Odell, Jack Hawkins, Trevor Braham and John Auden, brother of the famous poet. The tone here borders on the reverential, but with their modem, less learned successors, Kapadia is altogether more jocular. He likes to poke fun gently at their British eccentricities, just as he ridicules the occasional bureaucratic idiocies of his own government. However, for all his anglophilia, he is a patriotic Indian to the core, brought up in the early days of independence and trained at the mountain schools established by Nehru in the wake of Tenzing’s success on Everest. His enthusiasm for the Indian Himalaya seems boundless and his knowledge is probably unequaled. This book, in combination with High Himalaya, Spiti: Adventures in the Trans-Himalaya, and the recently republished Exploring the Hidden Himalaya must represent the most comprehensive source of information and inspiration for mountaineers on the Indian Himalaya. However, Kapadia’s work is not finished. He still has many trips to plan and books to publish, for he is the first to concur with the old Hindu sage that, “in a hundred ages of the gods I could not tell thee of all the glories of Himachal where Shiva lived and where the Ganges falls from the foot of Vishnu like the slender thread of the lotus flower.”

Stephen Venables