Follow Here To Purchase Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime

Author: Stephen Alter

Publisher: Arcade Publishing

ISBN: 978-1-62872-510-0

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62872-542-1

 A Transcendental Himalayan Travelogue

I have looked at this mountain all my life, yet there is no way that I can accurately describe its presence. Both the mountain’s myths and its natural history have an elusive, enigmatic quality. I have sketched it in pencil, pen and watercolor, but each time I have failed to express a convincing vision of what this mountain represents. I must have photographed these twin summits several hundred times, but none of my camera images seems to capture anything more than a faint suggestion of the mountain. I know it stands there but what it means is beyond my comprehension. 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.”

Thus speaks the author of his connection with the Himalayas. Born in Mussoorie, his link with the southern summits visible from his home was/is deep. This book is quintessentially his attempt to explore the essence of this elusive connection in prose, a connection that could not be captured, either on paper via watercolors, or on film.

Not only the author, but his father also was born in India, in Kashmir. His father was an amateur mountain climber and the author has clearly inherited his love for the mountains.

Whenever I left the Himalayas, an instinctual urge pulled me back, a sense of surety that this was home.”

This connection was tested after a violent incident  in which both he and his wife  were stabbed and beaten by four intruders. “The indelible experience of our attack still evokes a sense of violation and loss as if I have become a stranger within the sheltering mountains of my birth.”

The upshot of the above processes was as follows: “Somehow I wanted to set a physical goal for myself that took me beyond mere survival and challenged my body to become stronger because of my injuries.” This was the impulse that fuelled the journeys that are described in this book.

The first peak that is mentioned in this book is Flag Hill, with whose summit, the author was well acquainted with as a boy. The author climbed it, about a month after he was discharged from the hospital. “Pushing me forward was another impulsive conviction, that somehow, in the presence of the Himalayas, I might be healed.”

Flag Hill is a place where Tibetan exiles gather to gaze out at the mountains toward Mount Kailash, a peak not visible from Mussoorie. Kailash is the most revered peak of the Himalayas, for Hindus, it is the abode of Shiva and for Buddhists, it is Mount Meru, navel of the Universe.

The only mountain that the author could see from Flag Hill is Bandarpunch which stood directly in front of him. After mentioning the myths associated with it, he notes that east of Bandarpunch arises a peak called Nanda Devi, “the highest and farthest mountain I can see.” “These mountains represent for me, three different aspects of the Himalayas. Bandarpunch offers healing and solace, while Nanda Devi promises happiness and Mount Kailash marks an elusive threshold of transcendence.” “This trinity of sacred peaks signifies the stages of my search for reconciliation and recovery.”

The first of the author’s expeditions that find mention in this book is the circumambulation of Nanda Devi, which is also the highest summit on Indian territory, and probably one that is the most difficult to climb. Aside from details of his own journey, the author meanders into details of other related expeditions and how they fared in their mission. There are many myths around this mountain goddess who is also known to be quite temperamental. One of them is of her being the primal mother of the universe, Maya, who also created Shiva, her consort. Much of the narrative in these chapters has to do with this volatile goddess, how she is worshipped, how she takes care of her own, and the local folklore and customs. One chapter in this section is devoted to the benefits of walking to attain a meditative state.

Every walk in the forest becomes a prayer of oneness with Nature”.

The next expedition is the circumambulation of Mount Kailash and a bath in Lake Mansarovar. This experience is narrated in great detail (too much to cover in this review)  and it provides a glimpse of the hardships of the journey through the cold, oxygen deficient, mountainous Tibetan terrain, confronting Chinese officialdom and squalid, unsanitary toilets in the hotels they stayed in. A glimmer of the author’s reaction after getting a view of the mountain is as follows: “I feel no religious narratives guiding my feet, no songlines carrying me aloft, no divine coordinates centering my soul. At the same time, irrepressible emotions well up inside of

me at several points along the trail. My vision blurs with tears, and my throat constricts, not from altitude but from a sense of having arrived. Several pilgrims, coming down the path, greet me with repeated cries of “Om Namah Shivaya!” but I am speechless, unable to respond. It

could be awe or reverence that evokes these emotions, or a sense of release at having accomplished the simple goal of being in the presence of Kailash.”

The last expedition mentioned in this book is to Bandarpunch, a summit that his father had climbed before him. A team of climbers were with him, but the ascent had to be called off because of  bad weather. The author’s reaction to this can be summed up in the following quote from an earlier chapter, which also explains the choice of the title for this book:

Our insistence on being different from everything around us is one of the greatest mistakes of mankind. We stubbornly maintain an illusory distinction that sets us apart from rock and ice, water and fire, plant and animal. Both religion and rationality try to explain it through an elaborate vocabulary of separation—soul, atman, spirit, ghosts in the machine, or simply the idea of selfhood. We have dreamed up gods so that we can reassure ourselves that somewhere, someday, somehow, after this life is over, something awaits us: a presence that recognizes who we are. But if we approach a mountain instead, accepting that we are nothing more or less than an integral part of its existence, our ego merges with the nature of the mountain. In this constant quest for high places, we must erase our desires for meaningless victories or revelations. Rather than conquering a summit, or becoming the first to leave our footprints in the snow, we must absorb the lofty knowledge of a mountain’s presence while at the same time allowing ourselves to be absorbed into a greater awareness of what it may or may not represent.”

Throughout the immaculate text, one notices that the writing is grounded in the Now and in Nature. The landscape and scenery are described in great detail as are the interactions  with the people on the journey. All interactions with co-passengers among others are supplemented with the author’s own view of the subject. Thus one notices his awareness of jingoistic Hindu fundamentalism, which he does not support, but he also manages to keep his distance from the science aficionados, who with their intellect and logic, descry the sense of wonder and awe at the glories of Nature. The author’s position throughout, has been to stay anchored in his connection with Nature,  secure in the knowledge of his being part of a greater whole.

This book has been beautifully written and would be a source of joy to anyone interested in knowing about Nature  and our connection with it, especially if mountains are involved. However, for those who are anchored in the activities of modern urban society, uprooted from the land, this book is not for you. The various intricacies and thought meandering on a tangent could put off many people.

Warmly recommended with caution.