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“Extraordinary eccentrics, pioneering mountaineers, and colonial adventurers”: Margaret von Klemperer reviews Robert Twigger’s White Mountain

White Mountain
White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas

Robert Twigger
(Weidenfeld and Nicholson)

HERE is a book that is impossible to categorise. In part it is a history of the world’s longest and highest mountain range; it is an investigation into the lure of wild and remote places; it is a series of biographical sketches of climbers, mystics, spies, invaders, heroes, villains, frauds and liars; it is the story of the author’s journey. Taken as a whole, it is fascinating.

Robert Twigger’s father was born and grew up in Nagaland, the mysterious border area between India and Burma, but this is not a book of ex-colonial nostalgia – he is scathing about many of the colonial adventurers who cavorted around the region in the early 20th Century, playing the Great Game or looking for Shangri-La, the mythical place where life is perfect and long and where, as Twigger puts it: “wisdom has been sought and found”. Among those looking were early Soviet Russians, who, writes Twigger, were coming from “a decidedly esoteric and nutty place.” The forerunner of the KGB had a department devoted to investigating the occult in the hope of using it to spread communism.

Twigger takes us through the religions of the area, introducing Buddhists, Bonpos, Muslims, Hindus, Jains and others. Then add a cast of extraordinary eccentrics and ruffians who are drawn to high places, including Theosophist Madame Blavatsky; pioneering mountaineer and self-proclaimed wizard Aleister Crowley; colonial adventurer Francis Younghusband; Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet; yetis and the Americans who managed to lose a nuclear-powered spying device on Nanda Devi in 1965 – it is still missing, probably inching down a glacier towards the sacred river Ganges.

We read about the mountaineers and the problems and dangers of climbing at very high altitude. Twigger deals with altitude sickness and how many of the peoples of the high mountains treat it with a strange caterpillar fungus, which the Chinese seek voraciously as yet another putative sex aid. Even for those of us who have no desire to struggle up rocks and ice in the thin air of the death zone, reading about those who have that desire and who succeed or fail spectacularly is gripping. Twigger has decided opinions on many of the expeditions, including the great 1996 Everest disaster, and on some of the climbers who have written their names into the history of the mountain range.

This is a great read, discursive, full of strange information and compelling. My only caveat is the appalling proof reading – “sort” for “sought” is the most glaring. Publishers beware – that can put your readers off. – Margaret von Klemperer

(Published in the Witness 7 March 2017)

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