Mountains of books

Reviews of three books about the Himalaya to mark the centennary of 1924 Everest expedition


Empirical climbing

There have been many books and even films made about George Mallory and Andrew Irvine who disappeared below the summit of Mt Everest exactly 100 years ago. 

But on this centennary of their expedition, The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire by the American biographer Deboarah Baker (The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism) puts the 1924 British attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain in political, geopolitical and cultural context.

The Last Englishmen reads like historical fiction, but it actually a meticulously researched backgrounder on two main protagonists: a geologist and a surveyor — both siblings of famous British poets of the era.

Geologist John Bicknell Auden is older brother of poet Wystan Hugh Auden (The Ascent of F6), and the map-maker Michael Spender is the brother of anti-Fascist poet Stephen Spender (I Think Continually). 

The cast of characters in Baker’s book seem to be suffering post-traumatic stress of World War I, and are drawn to the pristine tranquility of the mountains, the Himalaya in particular. Badly bruised by the loss of so many young men, Britain itself needed healing, and the conquest of the world’s highest mountain was seen as a way to redeem some of the empire’s tarnished glory.

The fact that Mt Everest had to be accessed through India (because Nepal then was closed off) also meant that the British could use a successful ascent to prove that it was a civilisational force different from other European powers bent solely on extraction and exploitation of their colonies. 

India was going to be ruled differently, which is probably why Baker used the famous Jawaharlal Nehru quote (“I am the last Englishman to rule India”) for her title of this book.

Other characters include other British explorers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman (‘the terrible twins’ of mountaineering) who between them have at least four high Himalayan passes named after them across Nepal. Then there are the Bengalis in Calcutta, including the poet Sudhin Datta (of Parichay Adda) who caught between his Anglophilic disposition and the tug of Indian independence.

It is easy to get lost in Baker’s story-telling because she multitasks — weaving so many strands into her tapestry. But at the epicentre of it all is Mt Everest and the British drive to get to the top first (before the Americans and especially the Germans) even amidst India’s independence struggle.

Although The Last Englishmen came out in 2018, it is during the centennary of the most celebrated mysteries of mountaineering that it should be read because of Deborah Baker’s effort to give us the state of affairs in the period between the world wars.

In one telling sentence, she summarises: ‘… the tortured conceit that Everest, a mountain that wasn’t even in India, was a proxy for England’s global domination.’

The Last Englishman NT

Guiding Everest

Guy Cotter, a mountaineer and mountain guide whose father was a climbing buddy of Edmund Hillary, has been organising expeditions to the Himalaya for over 20 years. 

He was at Everest Base Camp during the tragic spring 1996 season when 8 climbers died in a blizzard near the summit. In fact, Cotter was talking on the radio to Rob Hall high on Everest and patching him to his pregnant wife back in New Zealand. The event was depicted in the 1989 film Everest and the 1997 bestseller by Jon Krakauer. 

Everest Mountain Guide is a guidebook on how mountaineering has changed (or not changed) since the military style assaults that began with the early expeditions 100 years ago. Cotter, now 58, took over the company Adventure Consultants after Hall died, and has himself climbed Everest five times.

The book is a memoir of Cotter’s mountaineering career, from his first climbs in the New Zealand Alps to the Himalaya. Besides being a rivting story, it also gives us a behind-the-tent peek into the bureacuratic, technical and organisational challenges of leading expeditions to the world’s highest mountains.

Cotter ends the book with self-reflection on the impact of large guided expeditions, the draw of the Himalaya that leads to overcrowding, and the media’s obsession with everything to do with the highest mountain in the world. 

In the meantime, foreign guides now have competition from Nepali-run companies like Nims Purja’s Elite Exped, Tashi, Mingma, and Chhang Dawa’s Seven Summit Treks, 14 Peaks Expedition of Kami Rita (who on 22 May climbed Everest for the 30th time), or Imagine Nepal of Mingma Gyalje.  

Cotter writes about them: ‘I have been amazed by the meteoric rise of many (Sherpa climbers) … during this ascendancy they have maintained their spirit and grace and unique character.’

But Cotter is critical of the absence of Nepal government oversight, and says this presents an opportunity for local stewardship of the mountains.

Everest Mountain Guide NT

Unsung heroes

Besides the debate about siege expeditions and pure alpine style climbing in the Himalaya is the related contention that while western climbers get all the attention and fame, the guides who help them get to the top are anonymous. 

The Ice Fall Doctors on Mt Everest, the teams that fix ropes right to the summits so that their clients can jumar up go largely unmentioned. Their work is much more dangerous because they are exposed to risky areas of the mountains for longer periods.

The under-recognised role of Nepali climbers was highlighted by Nims Purja in the Netflix film 14 Peaks. Since then, Nepalis have started setting up their own expedition companies (see above) and many are not just high altitude guides but are world-class climbers themselves.

Some of this historical injustice is set right by Canadian author of mountaineering chronilces, Bernadette McDonald in her latest book, Alpine Rising: Sherpas, Baltis, and the Triumph of Local Climbers in the Greater Ranges

McDonald digs into the history of mountaineering to find that behind every first ascent that made Western climbers celebrities is a Sherpa, Rai, Gurung, Balti or Hunza that made the climb successful. 

In Alpine Rising, McDonald,  goes back to the early German expeditions in the 1930s to Nanga Parbat in which dozens of Nepali high altitude porters were killed.

Maurice Herzog’s first 8,000er ascent of Annapurna is famous in mountaineering history, but McDonald says not many people know about Ang Tharkay Sherpa who not only helped carry loads to the peak, but physically carried the frostbitten Herzog down.

More recently, Alpine Rising recounts the fist fights on the Lhotse Face between Sherpas and Simone Moro; how Pakistani climber Ali Sadpara is sidelined in expedition chronicles; and the high altitude guide Muhammad Hassan who collapsed on K2 and climbers stepped over him for their summits. 

But things are changing, and there were two iconic moments on K2: the 2014 ascent by three Nepali women climbers, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa and Maya Sherpa and the 10 Nepali climbers led by Nims Purja who literally marched to the summit of K2 singing Nepal’s national anthem in 2021 — the first winter ascent of the world’s second highest mountain. 

There is a tectonic shift happening in Himalayan mountaineering, and the tragic, happy and funny details from the earliest expeditions to climbing in the age of Instagram are in the pages of Alpine rising.

Alpine Rising NT


Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).