The Rule of Awe

Stephen Alter 0

Stephen Alter explores his changing relationship with the mountains he was born in, as a climber, survivor and seeker

Photograph: Stephen Alter

Photographs: Stephen Alter

Several years ago, I met up with fellow writer Ramachandra Guha in the coffee shop at The English Book Depot in Dehradun. When I told him that I was going to write a book about climbing a mountain, he insisted it would be a much better story if I didn’t make it to the top. Ignoring his advice, I continued with my plans to undertake an ascent of Bandarpunch, a 6,316-metre peak north of my home in Mussoorie. A spectacular mountain, it is as grand as any Himalayan massif, with two summits draped in snow and an intervening ridge that drops 3,000 metres into the Hanuman Ganga valley. Bandarpunch was climbed first by Tenzing Norgay in 1950, three years before he reached the top of Everest.

Mountains can be monuments of memory, the historical remembrance of exploration, as well as markers of geological time signifying the slow upheaval of continents in collision. We see them as symbols of immutable permanence or inaccessible dreams framing nature’s unspoiled magnitude. Once they have been climbed, mountains also recall human desires, an urge to go where no one else has gone before.

Though I’m not a mountaineer, I imagined writing an adventurous account of high altitude heroics, tents perched on snow ledges and ropes snaking up ice cliffs. In my mind, I had already fixed crampons to my boots and gripped an ice axe in one hand. Of course, the realities of mountain climbing are far different from the fantasies we enjoy in the comfort of our homes. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a number of distinguished climbers who have stood atop the highest points on earth and happily lived to tell the tale. So many others have perished in the Himalayas: tragic victims of avalanches, storms and altitude sickness, as well as the fatal, unforgiving force of gravity.

Now that my book, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime, is published, I can admit that when I actually got on the mountain and began kicking steps in the snow while gasping for breath, I was utterly terrified. Trying not to look down at the sheer drop beneath my boots, I remember thinking Ram Guha might have made a valid point. Retrospection is the prerogative of survival.

Nostalgia assumes many forms, from sentimental musing on the romantic possibilities of what might have been, to deeper, darker feelings of loss and recovery. For an author, every piece of writing acquires nostalgic overtones, because the act of writing is a process of retrieving memories through words and phrases that evoke the past, even as we begin to remember the future.

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This story actually began several years earlier. My wife, Ameeta, and I were attacked in our home by four intruders who stabbed and beat us, then left us for dead. The trauma of that experience forced me to question many of the assumptions by which I lived, and to seek paths of solace in the Himalayas. Fear is probably the most difficult emotion to control. It supersedes logic and takes hold of you at times when you least expect it. The brutal violence of our attack—having a knife at my throat and being smothered by a stranger’s hand—left me with a sense of vulnerability that I had never known when I was younger. Earlier, while working on another book, Sacred Waters, I walked alone throughout Garhwal, along pilgrim trails to the sources of the Ganga, careless and content to wander wherever those footpaths took me. The Himalayas are my birthplace and I had never felt safer or happier than when I was trekking through these mountains. But after our attack, those comforting recollections of earlier journeys were eclipsed. I was afraid to go alone, even though I craved the solitude and silence.

Fearful memories that twist nostalgia into nightmares are often linked to childhood, even if the trauma is experienced as an adult. In one of the epigraphs I chose for my book, Stephen Spender writes:

I look and look to read a sign,
Through errors of light and eyes of water Beneath the land’s will, of a fear
And the memory of a struggle,
As man behind his mask still wears a child.

Climbing Bandarpunch was a journey of healing and recovery, as much as a quest for the summit. This mountain takes its name from Hanuman, the monkey god, who flew to the Himalayas in search of a herb of immortality. Those epic myths have always enhanced the lure of these mountains. Ancient tales that challenge death add another dimension to the geography. Mythological memory is a potent catalyst for a writer, recounting narratives as old and enigmatic as the mountains themselves.

In Uttarakhand, lore and legend mark every corner of the path. No stories are more profound than the mythology of Nanda Devi— both the goddess and her sacred mountain. Her pilgrimages are embedded in the collective memories of those who worship her, seeking bliss and contentment. Spiritual nostalgia is a journey of devotion and discovery which leads us back into ourselves.

After failing in my first attempt to climb Bandarpunch, I took a series of treks along the approaches to Nanda Devi. First, I followed the Curzon Trail over Kuari Pass, which served as the route for many colonial mountaineers. Longstaff, Shipton, Tilman and Smythe all exclaimed over the panorama of peaks that are visible from Kuari Pass—one of the most dramatic views in the Himalayan chain. A second trek took me to Roop Kund, a high-altitude lake that marks the penultimate stage of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra, or royal pilgrimage. Unlike the expansive vistas of Kuari Pass, Roop Kund is a place of tragic mysteries, where the skeletons of anonymous pilgrims litter the shores of a glacial pond that melts for only a few weeks every year. The elation I experienced at Kuari Pass contrasts with the fearsome isolation of the lake, invoking what 19th-century philosophers and alpinists described as an experience of “the sublime”. This paradoxical sensation of awe and horror draws us to mountains, an appreciation for the beauty and magnificence of snow-clad peaks and precipices, as well as the terrible secrets and dangerous obstacles that await us on their forbidding slopes. In many ways, confronting the sublime is the emotion- al opposite of nostalgia, for it grounds us in a momentously beautiful yet unnerving present, rather than yodelling for lost memories of the past.

The third mountain I approached on my pilgrimage was Kailash, the most sacred summit of all, which lies across the main thrust of the Himalayas in Tibet. Though hardly 300 kilometres from Mussoorie as the griffon flies, Kailash remains remote, because of political distances and borders as much as rugged terrain. To reach there, I had to go via Kathmandu, then circle back across the Tibetan plateau—a two weeks’ journey by road. Accompanying a group of pilgrims from Maharashtra and Gujarat, I was the lone “foreigner” in their midst, though all of us were strangers in a strange land. The circumambulation of Kailash takes us to the threshold of transcendence. Though not a particularly difficult trek, the altitude at Dolma La Pass, at 5,636 metres, adds foreboding to the sanctity of this place. Each year a number of pilgrims die because of altitude sickness—the dire consequences of faith.

Summit Meet Stephen Alter Image courtesy: Stephen Alter

Summit Meet
Stephen Alter
Image courtesy: Stephen Alter

Sacred memory is the most powerful of all, reaching for an understanding of creation and destruction. It is lodged within our souls rather than our minds. As a non-believer who appreciates the power of myths and the spiritual resonance of high places, I respect the beliefs of those who approach the Himalayas out of reverence and religious devotion. At the same time, my own pilgrimage draws inspiration from the natural world rather than the supernatural. My scepticism is as powerful a motive as the absolute convictions of my Hindu or Buddhist companions. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that “Faith is human, doubt divine”.

At the end of my book, I return to Bandarpunch, attempting to climb the mountain a second time. Perhaps I wanted to prove Ram Guha wrong when he suggested that defeat and failure are more interesting to read about than conquest and victory. Perhaps I was still looking for the healing herb that Hanuman retrieved from bucolic Himalayan meadows. Perhaps I was simply seeking to escape my own personal discontentment and the terrifying shadows of our attack. Whatever my motives may have been, I hope this book allows my readers to understand the words of Sir Francis Young husband when he wrote: “As we look at the Himalaya from such distance that we can see things whole and in their just proportion, the pain and disorder, squalor and strife, vanish into insignificance. We know that they are there, and we know that they are real. But we know also that more important, and just as real, is the Power which out of evil is ever making good to come. That there is a Power at work… is the true secret of the Himalaya.”

In the sublime presence of these mountains ephemeral memories are quickly erased and nostalgia vanishes into negative space, like clouds sloughed off a distant peak.

Stephen Alter is a Mussoorie-based author who has written 16 books. He has taught creative writing for 18 years and is the founding director of Mussoorie Writers. His most recent book, The Rataban Betrayal, is a crime thriller set in the Himalayas.

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