Review: Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club Edited by Harish Kapadia
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Review: Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club Edited by Harish Kapadia

Elegantly produced, Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club serves as a literary and visual atlas of Himalayan exploration

books Updated: Apr 13, 2018 17:41 IST
Stephen Alter
Stephen Alter
Hindustan Times
Himalayan Club,Harish Kapadia,Jakko Hill
Lake on Rimo Glacier, 1935.(Courtesy Legendary Maps from the HImalayan Club)
Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club; General Editor: Harish Kapadia; Rs 1495, 240 pp; Roli Books

The Himalayan Club is a venerable institution that has been initiating, encouraging and documenting exploration of the Himalaya for 90 years. The club’s journal is a treasure trove of information, anecdotes, reviews and expedition reports, going back to the first volume that appeared in 1929, soon after the club was founded by Kenneth Mason and his compatriots following an afternoon stroll around Jakko Hill in Shimla. The Himalayan Journal was originally intended to publish “narratives of Science and Adventure.” Over the course of nine decades it has devoted a wealth of ink and paper to the legends and lore of the highest summits on earth. Fortunately, today, these journals are available online through the Himalayan Club’s website. Many writers, including myself, owe a debt of gratitude to the distinguished succession of editors and the foresight of the club’s generous patrons who sponsored the digitizing of an epic archive.

Map of the Third American Karkoram Expedition 1953 to K2. (Courtesy Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club)

This commemorative book contains a number of pioneering accounts of Himalayan exploration, accompanied by original sketch maps from the journal. Unlike survey maps, which take years to produce and contain the minutiae of cartographic detail, sketch maps often reflect a climber’s initial impressions of the terrain and distill the features of the mountains into a relatively simple, comprehensible format intended to guide others who follow in their footsteps. While topographical maps produced by the Survey of India are like ornate, classical paintings, these hand-drawn maps are more like the rough outlines of a pahari miniature, before colours or contour lines have been added. This doesn’t mean they aren’t full of specific information or drawn to scale but they provide the kind of essential snapshots of routes, ridgelines and elevations that help guide mountaineers on their quests. In the days before satellite imagery and GPS technology, these black and white sketch maps were enough to set an alpinist’s pulse racing and inspire courageous Himalayan endeavours.

Survey of the Karkoram Peaks in the 1930s. (Courtesy Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club)

Harish Kapadia served as the Himalayan Journal’s editor for a long tenure and he has extracted many authoritative tales from its pages for his own prolific list of books. An accomplished mountaineer and explorer who continues to break new ground, few people are as knowledgeable as Kapadia when it comes to Himalayan terrain. As he points out in his introduction, the selections in this book were guided primarily by the quality of the sketch maps that accompanied the text, which means that some important ascents were not chosen. Nevertheless, a number of legendary climbs have been included such as Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s first entry into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and Reinhold Messner’s successful yet tragic ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. The map that accompanies Messner’s account is a spider’s web of glaciers and ridges while the map of the Nanda Devi is drawn with artistic precision that gives a three dimensional quality to the image. Less well-known climbs are included as well, such as Martin Moran’s new route up the west ridge of Nilkanth in 2001 or Kinichi Yamamori’s Japanese Kangchenjunga Expedition in 1982. Each of the maps provides a glimpse of the different ways in which mountaineers perceive a challenge. Each vision is unique from stark, unornamented profiles of rock and snow to a delicate tracery of pleated couloirs and arêtes, the beautifully dangerous features of seductive peaks.

Read more: Excerpt: Becoming a Mountain

Each selection is introduced with a brief summary of its significance as well as the context in which the expedition was undertaken and the maps were drawn. As Kapadia points out, many of these diagrams can be seen as “mind maps” or mandalas that lead us into a mystical landscape of ice and rock, where thin air and dense clouds can disorient a climber. In many ways these are the fingerprints of memory for those who chose to venture into vertical realms. Not only do the maps delineate the angles and arcs of the ridges but the innermost contours of fear and determination that drive human beings to seek near-impossible heights. Like a palmist reading a person’s future in the creases on his hand, anyone who studies these maps can follow the lifelines and other patterns of fate that lie on the page.

As one of the authors that Kapadia quotes, Showell Styles, remarks with off-handed candour, “There is no material gain in climbing a mountain. The thing is useless, like poetry, and dangerous, like love-making. To some people – only a very small percentage of people – mountaineering appears to be as essential and satisfactory as poetry or love-making are to some others.”

General Editor Harish Kapadia (Courtesy Roli Books)

In our digital age, it is important to look back on these sketch maps and the accompanying stories, most of which were produced before Photoshop and word processing were invented. Modern mountaineering has always been driven by technology but there remains an elemental human instinct at its core, the coiled germ of desire and ambition, as well as the lonely pursuit of an elusive goal. This book is a poignant reminder that the simplest renderings of landscape can touch a sensitive nerve buried beneath Gortex, goose down, steel, muscle and bone that makes us cry out in wonder and alarm at the monstrous yet intricate scale of Himalayan giants.

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Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club has been elegantly produced by Roli Books, particularly the faux leather cover, which makes it a collector’s edition. This compilation of extracts serves as a literary and visual atlas of Himalayan exploration that deserves a place on the bookshelves of every mountain enthusiast.

Stephen Alter lives and writes in Mussoorie. His most recent books are Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime and In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel About Jim Corbett.

First Published: Apr 13, 2018 17:40 IST