Becoming A Mountain - Himalayan Journeys In Search Of The Sacred And The Sublime

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 2, February 2016
Soon after a vicious assault left him and his wife on the threshold of death, writer Stephen Alter found himself struggling with questions of identity and belonging in the land of his birth. To heal his battered body and soul, Alter set out on a series of treks through the high Himalaya, a journey that is chronicled lyrically in Becoming A Mountain. Here, he allows Sanctuary Asia readers a glimpse into the process of his emotional and physical recovery, and articulates that strange power of mountains to provide salve for searching souls.
Nandadevi, Indias second tallest peak, glows orange under a setting sun. To reconnect with his homeland after a devastating attack left him traumatised, the author undertook treks to Bandarpoonch, Nandadevi and Mt. Kailash.
Photo: Pankaj Pandey.

Yet, constantly, I see myself in this mountain and feel a part of its immensity, as well as a greater wholeness that contains us all in the infinite, intimate bonds of eternity."

Few places in the Himalaya offer as spectacular a view as Kuari Pass. Just over 4,000 m. above sea level, it is the highest point along the Curzon Trail, which has been marked by the footprints of countless mountaineers. Arriving here, each of them exclaimed with wonder and reverence upon seeing the broad arc of snow-clad summits that stretch across the northern horizon of Uttarakhand. To climb all of these peaks would take several lifetimes, even if I had the skill and stamina to scale their slopes. Departing from our camp before daybreak to make sure we arrive ahead of the clouds, I find myself breathless when I reach the pass, partly on account of the altitude, but also from a profound sense of scale and splendor that confronts me when I survey the view from Kuari Pass.

Five years ago, my wife and I were attacked by unknown intruders at our home in Mussoorie - stabbed and beaten, then left for dead. As we began a slow process of healing, leaving the pain and trauma behind, one of the goals I set for myself was to make my mind and body strong enough to climb a mountain. This led me on a three-year quest in search of sacred and beautiful places, including destinations that severely tested my limited courage and endurance.

Then without warning, he let go. The knife was suddenly withdrawn. My attacker pulled away and jumped to his feet. The last thing I saw was his figure rushing out of the hall toward the kitchen from where he and the others had entered. Here was my only chance."

Nineteenth-century philosophers often spoke of “the sublime", an emotional response that mountains provoke - a combination of awe and fear that we encounter while standing at the edge of a precipice or looking out across the fractured surface of a glacier toward a forbidding yet enticing peak. As I struggle to overcome my fears and doubts, this puzzling paradox of “the sublime" suggests circuitous pathways leading towards the truth. Human beings have always been drawn to mountains, because of verdant promises of high pastures, the lure of spiritual solitude, the challenge of striking out to reach the top of a distant peak, or simply a desire to see what lies on the other side. The magnitude and elevation of the Himalayas have inspired poets and philosophers from Kalidasa to Swami Vivekananda, not to mention Nicholas Roerich or Vikram Seth. Taking my cue from these writers as well as Peter Matthiessen whose book, The Snow Leopard, remains one of the finest accounts of a Himalayan journey, I have written a travel memoir that deviates from standard itineraries and attempts to explore hidden places that lie as much within ourselves as they do on some quadrant of the map. While the physical act of walking becomes a central part of the narrative, Becoming a Mountain is also a story that follows an inner journey of solace and recovery.

More than just a travelogue, the book also recounts myths of imaginary Himalayan creatures like the Yeti, whom some have claimed walk with their feet pointing in the wrong direction. Combined with Himalayan folklore and legend is a more immediate sense of confinement that we experience while trekking in the Himalaya, as human settlements and motor roads proliferate and the true wilderness becomes harder to find.

The author sits at the highest point on the Curzon trail, drinking in the spectacular view that the Kuari Pass offers.
Photo Courtesy: Stephen Alter.

Each species is a god, a living image of creative forces that invite devotion but never dictate faith. The sounds we hear need no translation; they speak to us at a deeper level than human language or words of scripture. Walking is a ritual that recognizes the divinity in nature, what animists have known forever, the undefinable footfalls of being."

This problem, the shrinking margins beyond which our natural surroundings no longer extend, afflicts us all, both as writers and as walkers. In the Himalaya, as much as any other place on Earth, there is a growing sense of containment, even in the wildest forests and remote valleys. Except on the highest peaks, we are never more than a day's walk from some kind of settlement. As the network of roads expands along rivers and over ridge tops, the world of concrete, polythene, and human order proliferates. India's ballooning population, well over a billion now, includes growing numbers of Himalayan residents, as well as seasonal migrants. On one level, it seems selfish, perhaps unethical, to complain about a walk in the woods being disturbed by the encroaching needs of those who struggle for a meal each day. But conservation is a good and righteous thing, just as important as the alleviation of poverty. Some activists have shown that the two objectives complement each other. In the race for survival, however, human beings have a distinct edge over other species, and the natural world is becoming more and more constricted and polluted by the day.

It will be a sad moment when every trail in the mountains leads to a dung heap, and one cannot walk for a couple of kilometers, up or down, without crossing a motor road where the exhaust fumes of vehicles foul the air. I think of Megatheness's mythical race of Himalayan inhabitants who sustained themselves through smell alone, living off the perfume of apples. They would not survive today as ‘too strong an odor would readily kill them. Neither would those other ‘fabulous creatures with their feet turned the wrong way round. Where would their footsteps lead them, except back into the future, where extinction awaits us all?"

Whether we travel in pursuit of elusive snow leopards, or the herb of immortality that Hanuman retrieved from highland meadows, or the eternal silence that we find within the roar of a glacial stream, the high Himalayas offer a secluded retreat from discontentment and despair.

As Peter Matthiesson has written: “We climb onward, toward the sky, and with every step my spirits rise. As I walk along, my stave striking the ground, I leave the tragic sense of things behind; I begin to smile, infused with a sense of my own foolishness, with an acceptance of the failures of this journey as well as of its wonders. . . . I know that this transcendence will be fleeting, but while it lasts, I spring along the path as if set free."

Author: Stephen Alter, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.

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