In a scene from the movie Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt) and the Dalai Lama (played by Bhutanese actor Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) get into an intimate conversation. The latter asks Heinrich what he likes most about climbing. Henrich pensively answers that it is the simplicity that attracts him to the mountains; when he is climbing, the mind is devoid of all confusions. Everything feels richer, clearer and sharper, the light, the sound, and the air—there is a powerful awareness of the presence of life.
The Calming Effect
Seven Years in Tibet is one movie that is close to my heart. When I come to think about it, the story didn’t really matter to me, there was something else that was more significant. I realized the sight of the mountains has a calming effect on me. The pull is so strong that I can easily disconnect myself from the rest of the world and bask in a lasting happiness. The Himalayas are grand and just one glimpse evokes a feeling of deep reverence for them. The calm, tranquil disposition, juxtaposed with a cold, intimidating temperament, such opposing forces give them a magnetic allure, who look as detached as unfathomable.
This brings me to talk about the book that I recently read Becoming a Mountain by Stephen Alter. My first, on a Himalayan sojourn and about mountains and mountaineering. Earlier, I had bought books like Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and Himalaya by Michael Palin, but I never quite got around them to read. Becoming a Mountain, of whose existence I was oblivious to until I came across a captivating piece of writing by a journalist, who happens to know the author closely. His few lines about this book made me buy it straight away.
Alter is an American writer born in Mussoorie, India. He was a writer-in-residence for ten years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and directed the writing programme at the American University in Cairo. In India, he founded the Mussoorie Writer’s Mountain Festival and now lives a quiet life with his wife in Landour, an idyllic town few kilometers away from Mussoorie. Becoming a Mountain is not just another travelogue recounting expeditions and experiences. It contains stories that are close to home; moments of grief that he is desperate to overcome and find a healing light.
This is an individual’s search for solace.
Life Thrives in Extreme Conditions
A rare flower by the name Christolea himalayensis grows at an altitude of 6300 m, a height that is way above the tree line. You may also find blooming Delphiniums on a trek to Roopkund. Wildflowers, stark landscapes, cragged peaks, life can sustain even in the most extreme conditions. And, somewhere amid the chaos, you will find moments of pure joy and a sense of oneness with something grander than our lives. Just the way Alter found during his personal pilgrimage, Heinrich Harrer attained in his mountaineering expeditions and I experienced during my own Himalayan escapades.
Mountains are Meditative
While reading this book, in many instances I found the author precisely articulating my feelings; the way I revere these mountains, the way I find them enigmatic. Mountains are meditative for me. Those who have even come to remotely appreciate the pristine beauty of these ranges will understand their eternally solitude personality and what I meant by its meditative nature.
As a side note, let me tell you how much the author loves to walk and spend time in the wilderness. So much so that he considers walking as deeply meditative, besides the mountains. He talks about Lung-gom—a form of walking meditation practiced by Tibetan mystics. While walking, these folks would focus on a distant object. Their minds would become so transfixed that they seem to leap with every step as if they are bouncing and their body weight cannot be felt anymore.
Just the way mountains create mindfulness, compelling you to acclimatize with every step. Walking too brings a sense of awareness of your surroundings, demanding you to attune to every sound nature has to offer.
What did I learn?
- An expansive vocabulary! I came across new words that weren’t ostentatious. I liked the way he used them that easily blended with his storytelling. For people like me who likes to apply unfamiliar words, just for the sake of remembering its usage, this book was worthwhile.
- Eric Shipton, Bill Tilman, Noel Odell, Dr. Tom Longstaff, Charles Houston, Dhorjee Lhatoo, et al. Have you heard these names? These are the unsung heroes, the Himalayan mountaineers, of whom we might be ignorant, but the author had brought them to life through poignant anecdotes, which he shared from time to time throughout this book. I am glad I got to know about them.
- That walking has many benefits and cures your boredom. A man has always, primarily, been a wanderer, hunting and gathering for food. When a man gets the chance to be in his true form, he wants to wander away and walking is one way how he fulfills it. For the author, it is the best form of therapy to bring him out of his ennui. For me, it is one of the ways I love to live my life – walking and being in the wilderness.
I wouldn’t compare this book with any other of a similar kind. It is neither a mountaineering guidebook nor a travel handbook. This is the author’s story—his personal pilgrimage, his observations about different Himalayan landscapes, about its people, their beliefs and rituals. I picked this book because that journalist’s written words struck me. When I started reading it, I didn’t find what I came for, but Alter’s experiences made me stay with his story and finish it until the end.
Would I like to re-read it someday? Yes, I would.
Sometimes, long after you have finished a book, you begin to find your own story in those words. You become a part of the story.
As Alter beautifully puts it: Rather than trying to dominate the Himalayas, one must approach them with compassion and understand that they are beyond one’s control. You don’t conquer the mountain, rather you become a mountain.