Robert Twigger spent a long time in Cairo, mostly travelling the land of the Pharaohs and occasionally fighting with the local police. The British author went on to write a book on the Nile (Red Nile: The Biography of the World’s Greatest River) in 2013. When Twigger arrived in Delhi a few months later, he found himself in another “dusty polluted madhouse” just like the Egyptian capital. This time, he ventured on a long journey along the Himalayas and the result is White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas. Twigger’s plan was to find what was ‘special’ about the greatest mountain range in the world. He wasn’t looking for spirituality, religion, prayer, worship or faith because he found them abstract. “India is more about distraction than abstraction,” he says, “as everyday reality and cosmic coincidence get rubbed in your face till you can’t stop blinking.”
Travelling in the Himalayas was about coming back home for Twigger, whose father was born in Mussoorie. His grandfather, a member of the British-Raj bureaucracy, witnessed World War II in Nagaland. In Mussoorie, visiting his father’s school (now a hotel that is shut), he would steal a sight of the faraway mountains. “Everything about the Himalayas is going higher,” says Twigger, who lives in England. His tales of the Himalayas are like the mountain range itself: a series of stories about communities and nature, both deeply linked to a string of peaks with their own fables. His sense of history plays a profound part in the storytelling. There are mountaineers and monks in White Mountain along with soldiers and spies, who alter the borders of the Himalayan region. As he begins his journey, the author introduces a number of characters whose lives were inextricably linked to the Himalayas. There is George Everest, the English surveyor, who mapped the mountains in India—work that led to his colleagues naming the highest peak in the world after him—and George Mallory, the iconic British climber, who mysteriously perished there in 1924.
White Mountain is part history and part-high-altitude training. “Being good at altitude is like being good at maths or languages; you either are or you aren’t,” says Twigger, reeling off a staggering array of scientific and street-smart information. He tells us that altitude effects, the “most profoundly unnatural sensations in nature”, are democratic, striking both the young and old. He also reveals the secret of climbing: “As you go higher, your senses make less sense, but listen to your breathing, always.” There is also an unending supply of Himalayan proverbs. “A good marksman may miss” is a Lepcha saying, while another common one is, “Everything that enters a salt mine becomes salt.” A Naga proverb goes like this: “A wise man seeing coming danger should avoid it; on seeing it approach he should remain fearless.” There is, of course, an endless list of climbers. There is also a yeti and expeditions and experiments to unlock the mystery. One such expedition is by Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schafer, who pursues science without conscience.
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In a book filled with triumph and tragedy, and conquests and defeats, one of the most touching tales is that of an Australian climber called James Scott. In an unusual turn of events, Scott is lost in the Everest on December 22, 1991. He wanders in the snow, trying to find his way, as search parties and a helicopter chartered by his sister look for him. Scott thinks he is going to die, but doesn’t. The mountaineer is rescued after surviving 43 days without food. Twigger also revisits the story of the disastrous 1996 expedition that took the lives of 16 climbers—it was retold in the 2015 Hollywood movie Everest.
At 10,000 feet in Tawang, Twigger ends his Himalayan journey, drinking beer with a monk at the Swiss Cottage restaurant and learning that there are “many, many paths, as many as people on the planet”.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer