Nanda Devi, Indian Garhwal Himalaya
by Gordon Janow
When I heard that writer and climber Ed Douglas was publishing a book on the Himalaya, I wondered what more could possibly be written? Any account by Douglas was clearly a must-read, but I couldn’t help but anticipate a rehashing of well-worn tomes such as John Keay’s Great Explorers of the Western Himalaya and the Shipton &Tilman series. Just after submitting my book order, I read the New York Times book review on Douglas’s Himalaya: A Human History and changed my tune a bit. Could this book be something entirely different? Reviews can of course make or break a book, but if a review takes on a familiar subject, we can learn the angle, what has been discovered, where the research took the writer, and what is new.
The next day I read the New Yorker review and besides reinforcing the need to read the book, I was absolutely enthralled by where the review took me. It cited some of my most treasured reads, including Andrew Harvey’s A Journey to Ladakh, John Keay’s The Great Arc (how the Himalayas were mapped), Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, and Into Thin Air – Krakauer’s account of the ‘96 Everest saga. The William Moorcroft Journals were unmentioned, but I will not hold it against the reviewer – Moorcroft was a great explorer but not of climbing fame.
Like a hiking path, I was off on a spur, as I recalled my first readings of these books and my own first travels to the Himalayas in 1987. I weaved the physical memories, storylines, villagers, hikes, sharply peaked snow-topped mountains, stone houses, mulberry trees, and hoped-for future journeys into a rich patchwork of thought, all while never leaving the armchair. By god I was traveling during the pandemic! I am not overly spiritual by nature. I was recently told that I saw the world as an entity somewhere between Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Paulie Walnuts of the Sopranos. Despite myself, I felt the excitement of trip planning and a rekindling of the travel imagination that had laid dormant during so many months of the pandemic.
We all know how preparing for a trip can be as stimulating and challenging as the adventure itself – pouring over guidebooks, weighing the merits of different logistical approaches and the like. The farthest afield I get these days, though, is my weekly ride off Bainbridge Island to check on the Seattle office, so I will hold off on reading Douglas’ book for the moment. I wish to gather my own thoughts and plans about future trips to the Himalaya before diving into his account. Perhaps a fall trek from Ladakh to Spiti? Getting reacquainted with Nanda Devi sanctuary?
Either way, it is simply a reminder to stay on the path – any path. We need to be reminded of the things we love, the things we cannot get to right now. Over the past year, I have learned that it’s less about living without and more about keeping what you love close. So, in a few days I’ll be deep in Ed Douglas’ Himalaya: a Human History, and perhaps you will too. Let me know what you think, or where you plan on going. We’ll be on our way again soon.
As Milan Kundera said, “your memories are scattered all over the world”. The pandemic has forced us all to remember, and when it’s over, there are going to be many scattered memories to find.
UPDATE: Now reading Douglas book – a big thumbs up!