Ascent and exploration
Embarking on a life-threatening travel to a forbidden land
It is not every day that you read a mountaineering expedition story, taking in details of a climb made 17 years ago, through a book that is reaching you 13 years after its publication in another land and stay riveted to it with the breathlessness of reading a thriller.
To that extent, the tagline of Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary is misleading to put it mildly. It puts the slim book in the genre of non-fiction/ travel. It is that and more. It packs within its slender frame the allure of a life-threatening travel to a forbidden land, broad-brushing the narrative with references to the mysticism of the Himalayas and ends like a thriller, raising the spectre of a ticking time bomb buried in the glaciers of the great mountain-range.
An explorer at heart, Hugh Thomson has dipped his feet in many waters but has mostly come up trumps winning accolades along the way. He is a writer and a film-maker with his work spanning diverse topics like music, Afghanistan and lost civilisations and even a documentary on American author Patricia Highsmith.
The Himalayas with its mythology, its sadhus and sages and its mighty peaks have evoked spiritualism in the minds of believers and awakened a will to conquer in the mind of adventurers. Where his book scores is the sense of respect with which it approaches the topic, and before long the reader is caught in the aura of Indian mysticism and the Hindu religiosity through the pilgrim paths of the sadhus as they do the various circuits through the Himalayas.
At 25,650 feet Nanda Devi is India’s highest peak, but expeditions have been kept out of bounds as it also harbours within its crevasses a nuclear-powered surveillance device planted by a super-power to spy on another country. This expedition was the last allowed by India.
Among Thomson’s frugal belongings as he continues his treacherous ascent is a copy of Book Four of Milton’s Lost Paradise. “Indeed the reason I had brought the book was that I suspected Milton had travelled here long before me,” writes the author. And he also goes back to the iconic book at moments of greatest fear during the climb when his fellow-climbers are saying that they could go no further.
Writing for a world audience, he takes them through religious congregations like Kumbh Mela, the naga sadhus and Shankaracharya, making it clear that this is no diary of a mountaineer. It comes from deep within the heart of an explorer, who approaches an unknown land with reverence, compassion and a willingness to unfold before the reader things that are seen with an inner eye.
Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary; Hugh Thomson, Hachette India, ₹399.