An Ode to High Places
Some of us just can’t help seeing a peak without wondering what might be visible from its summit, and we’re not sure why.
If you offered to transport me anywhere on earth for a day, I’d choose a meadow in India beneath the mountain of my dreams. Picture it: a long crescent ridge curls uphill, then sharpens into a pinnacle of ice over 25,000 feet high, the jet-stream whipping a ribbon of cloud from its summit. On every side, a citadel of lower peaks rises up in two concentric rings. And lurking within, at the foot of the holy mountain known as Nanda Devi, lies an inviolable Shangri-la of golden grassland, silent but for the rumble of avalanches and the plaintive bleats of bharal sheep.
Remote, awe-inspiring, transcendent — the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, a glacial basin in India’s Garhwal Himalayas, embodies everything that I love about mountain-country. It is a region I’ve been fortunate to glimpse from afar, and nowadays I see a panorama of it daily, hung in a frame on a wall at home. Chances are I’ll never reach it — an all but impassable box canyon, the Rishi Gorge, offers the only route in. But perhaps it is enough just to know that it’s there — places like this can make the weariest cynic admit some faith in the divine.
My interest in mountains, whether climbing them or merely being in their vicinity, began with stories of heroic mountaineers — there wasn’t much altitude in my home boroughs of London. But my baptism came on a gleeful school-trip to north Wales, spent bouldering among the granite crannies of Snowdonia. By the time a post-university trip took me south to north up the spine of the Andes, bookish curiosity had graduated into full-flung passion.
In the years that followed, as I began to travel in earnest, it was an obsession marked by euphoric highs and crushing lows. I’ve seen crystalline dawns break over the Peruvian cordilleras, spent nights beneath yak-hides in a yurt among the Ala-too steppelands of Central Asia, sat mesmerized by the raging dance of a volcano’s lava lake in DRC. I’ve also contracted snow-blindness in Iran and almost fallen into a…