Saturday, August 04, 2007

Mind Over Mountain 5



Of Mountains and of Women

Lest these blog entries be in any way sexist, I should like to include something about women mountaineers. My library is roughly divided into Psychology, Philosophy, English Literature, Literary Criticism, Spirituality, Irish Literature, Celtic and Gaelic Studies, Classics, Russian Literature (mostly Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevski and, of course, Solzhenitsyn), Chinese literature, African literature, Italian Literature, Language and Grammar Books, General Science, Autobiography and Biography and Travel. While searching through my Biography section I had more than I had imagined on exploration and mountaineering. As I have said before in these pages I have long been fascinated by mountains. Not that I’m in any sense a mountaineer – rather a simple hill walker who tires too easily. My Uncle James, my father’s twin, was a mountaineer, tramper and cyclist and belonged to these clubs in the late forties through to the late seventies of the last century, first in Scotland and then in Wellington, New Zealand where he died in 1981. There are still photographs of him out on the snowy slopes of bonny Scotland somewhere in the attic. I must search out these pictures and scan them into the computer as I could possible past a few photos into this blog.

Anyway, lo and behold, I came upon a book called Tents in the Clouds (Seal Press, 2000) (Originally published, London, 1956). This book recounts the exploits and feats of the first intrepid women’s Himalayan Expedition which too place in the spring of 1955, three years before I was born. I am forever buying books which I intend to read at a later stage and this is one. Now five years later I find myself reading it to give a gender balance to my entries. Anyway the three mountaineers in question are Monica Jackson (born 1920), Elizabeth Stark and Evelyn Camrass. I cannot find dates for the other two on the www. The first two of these ladies co-wrote the book mentioned. In this compelling and spirited tale, Jackson, Stark, and Evelyn Camrass make the first ascent of an unknown peak over 22,000 feet. It's a marvellous, engaging adventure rendered in vivid detail, putting a new spin on the history of mountaineering, and providing a great background to compare and contrast the sport fifty years ago and today.

It is interesting also to note that it was as late as 1950 that Nepal first opened its doors to the outside world. That year a French team made the historic ascent of Annapurna I, the first summit ever reached over the magical height of 8000 metres. It was only five years later that the above mentioned team of women mounted their expedition into the precipitous Jugal Himal.

However, the style is definitely that of middle class Scottish ladies from the fifties. There is no swearing in these pages – it’s almost “stiff upper lip stuff”, but no less interesting for all that. The pronoun “one” is used instead of the more informal “you” which modern books prefer. Such reported speech as ‘“Look, there’s a simply splendid route through the icefall,” she said’ (p. 107) reminded me of the Enid Blyton books I read as a kid in the sixties. But that indeed was the style of writing in the fifties when everything and everyone were frightfully correct.

The following information is interesting: “In spite of certain popular assertions in the Indian press, we did not wear make-up or lipstick on our climbs, let alone at 22, 000 feet. This would have been highly dangerous. Even under a thick protective coating of glacier cream, which looked like the theatrical make-up for an unpleasant character part, we were burnt by the fierce ultra-violet rays of the sun at these heights, reinforced by their reflection from the snow. My lips, constantly parted in the struggle for breath, were severely burnt inside where the cream had got licked off. Drinking orange juice became an exquisite torture for me.” (pp. 108-109)

I also liked this description: “The mountains were at times no less terrible than I had imagined and we did move among them chastened and with circumspection. The first sight of an appalling crevasse, like a door of the underworld opening at Persephone’s feet would leave an indelible impression and be remembered afterwards with awe.” (p. 117)

And finally these words of humility: “We had not accomplished anything spectacular, but then we had never hoped to do so with such a small party. We had succeeded in doing what we had set out to do, which was to reach and explore the Jugal Himal, the last large unexplored area of the Nepal Himalaya. That we had managed to climb an unknown peak of over 21,000 feet was really beside the point – a kind of bonus… we had proved that ordinary women can be as capable of carrying out such a project as men.” (P. 249) Of the peace on the very heights of the mountains our two authors say: “it was the days of strenuous endeavour on the high ridges, glaciers and snowfields of the Jugal that will remain forever in our memories as not only the happiest, but also, strangely enough, the most serene and peaceful days of our lives. Up there, each moment was sufficient for itself, and the world pressed upon us not at all.” P. 250) This ending to this wonderful tale does not surprise me at all. It would seem that true mountaineers in their respect for the great awesome power and strength and mystery of the mountains come quickly to a meditative and almost Buddhist sense of their mystical power over little ant-like humankind.

Above I have pasted a picture I took of some lowly hills around Delphi, March 2007. Lowly hills yes, but our hills are surely our Himalayas. It's all a matter of perspective, is it not?

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