Sara Wheeler

Up where the air is clear

Most of the journeys he describes are not even his own, but his knowledge of the region’s pundits and prophets is next to none

Robert Twigger’s father was born in a Himalayan hill resort and carried to school in a sedan chair. His son, born in 1965 and long fascinated by the region, has produced a social and cultural history of the mountains. It is a hybrid volume — and why not? Twigger leaves no mountain path untouched in his bookish reportage.

Topics covered in this long book include crustal formation and destruction, the pre-Buddhist Bon religion (even today 10 per cent of Tibetans are Bon-worshippers), shamans, yeti, Colonel Francis Younghusband (‘the first mountaineer’), altitude sickness (which fascinates Twigger), the 19th-century exploration of Nain Singh, that bloody annoying Madame Blavatsky and much else.

Chapter titles include ‘The Mapping of It’, and ‘Mythical Origins’, in which we learn that ‘Himavant was the ancient ruler of Himalayan India. He was father of Ganga, the river goddess,’ and so on. Other chapter titles — such as ‘The Major is Drowned and to be Auctioned off Today’ — are less guessable.

The author, one of whose previous books is Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River, is a solid researcher, a good writer and an amiable companion. The subject matter is dense. It turns out that even the geographical definition of the big mountains is more complicated than I’d imagined. ‘It is excusable to believe that the Himalayas simply provide a north-south barrier,’ explains Twigger. ‘This is true, though less significant than the more formidable east-west barrier they provide.’

Few of the ‘real journeys’ of the subtitle are Twigger’s own. Despite scores of pages on Tibet, he says he didn’t want to go there, as he dislikes travelling in a group (the only way to reach the tabletop, apparently). But it doesn’t matter: White Mountain doesn’t pretend to be a travel book.

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