A trip to discover the “spirit and soma” of the formidable peaks.
Poet and award-winning writer Twigger (Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River, 2014, etc.) takes on the mighty Himalayas in a sprawling, panoramic chronicle of history and adventure. Drawing on mountaineers’ memoirs, histories, and his own experiences, the author offers quirky facts, idiosyncratic observations, and vivid profiles of some of the most daring climbers. Twigger explains the biology of altitude sickness, caused by the body’s efforts “to re-establish the same levels of oxygen in each cell as would be experienced at sea level.” Besides nausea, headache, and dizziness, breathing at a high altitude causes a mental state similar to intoxication, attracting seekers of spiritual enlightenment. In thin air, he was told, they “have to listen to their breath. This reminds them that they are human after all. And they mistake this insight for something wonderful.” Twigger investigates the many religious groups prevalent in the mountains: “Hindus, Muslims, Bon worshippers, Lepchas, Mishmis and Christians.” But Buddhism is “the central Himalayan religion.” He also steeps himself in prevalent superstitions, including the power of curses and the elusive Yeti. “Imaginary creatures,” he reflects, “transform a banal journey into an exciting one.” From his recounting of mountaineering expeditions, it’s clear that there is nothing banal about climbing in the Himalayas. Twigger is at his liveliest following the treks and travails of climbers such as Col. Francis Younghusband, an intrepid Englishman who crossed the challenging Mustagh Pass in 1887; his compatriot Aleister Crowley (“corpulent heroin addict and alcoholic”), who, in 1904 made a climb using the newly invented crampons; George Curzon, a fascist sympathizer; and author Jon Krakauer, a client (i.e., paying) climber, whose record of an Everest expedition was made into a movie. Twigger peppers the book with digressions and philosophical musings—on the nature of reality, the power of gurus, mapping, and other topics. “To map is to be,” he writes. “The map-maker seeks to control the world through recreating it in an abstract form.”
A colorful, entertaining journey with a voluble guide.