Friday, 27 January 2017

Distant Snows : A Mountaineer's Odyssey.....Reviewed

‘Read no history: nothing but biography for that is life without theory’. Disraeli.

I believe this autobiography illustrates that mountain adventures do not have to be all cutting-edge or at extreme standards to make for fascinating reading, for by his admission the author has never been at that level, although some of the ski mountaineering and exploration described besides the classic climbing is by British historical experience of that description. The breadth of experience contained within this book, over a period of sixty years is however truly impressive, with many classic climbs and ski expeditions in so many countries that it will I am sure be a convenient reference point for future travellers.

Harding’s interest in mountains started in his youth, walking over the hills of South Wales, and his entrance into the ambit of climbing was when he joined the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club and took part in an expedition to the mountains of Iran in 1956. Their explorations and ascents were mainly in the Elburz range, but this was a typical student outing of that era, driving overland in two old ex-US Army jeeps, that needed constant attention and repair, with exposure to all the problems that such a first trip demand’s of its participants. Personal relationships and argument, culture shock, and health problems; throughout the book the author seems to suffer from the ‘squitters’ on innumerable occasions. This outing obviously had a major influence on the writer, and sowed the seed for a future adventurous lifestyle. 

Although he was ‘privileged’ by the standards of that era (privately educated, Oxbridge and National Service in the Welsh Guards), he was not so well heeled that money was not a real problem for him, and much of his early climbing in the UK was accessed by hitch-hiking, something rarely undertaken by today’s young tyros? Including to North Wales and to Skye where a standout achievement for that period was a traverse of the main ridge.

Life then intruded and leaving Cambridge, having read economics and law he eschewed following such a career track, and initially joined a City advertising firm, but somehow he found this was not for him, and so keen to get travelling again he joined the colonial service, partly enticed by the long leaves but fetched up in Aden as an administrator and political officer; whilst exploring the rocks and mountains of the Protectorate. However on his long breaks he was away to Mount Kenya, and the Ruwenzori, where he managed some classic ascents, and suffered some epic outings, with on occasion scratch parties, met on short acquaintance. I understand a little of these problems for when I lived in that country often finding a climbing partner was like looking for rare gems! On other leaves back in the UK he took up a long term ambition to begin Alpine ski mountaineering, and also to start what would become over the years many journeys, ascents and tours in the mountains of Turkey. On one of the ski tours his party was caught in an avalanche, a great danger for all such groups, and though the rest survived a family member died.

Leaving the Colonial Service he had to get down to starting a new career, and though initially he had no wish or inclination for this he decided to take up an offer of a post as  a trainee lawyer (having read such at University), and he also married. Unlike some of his contemporaries this did not end his mountain career and he enjoyed some classic alpine ascents and dolomite rock climbs, but more and more he was into ski touring taking on such classic outings as the High Level Route, the Valais to Mont Blanc.

But then having finally finished the marathon of completing his legal articles in 1969, he took off with his wife and two young daughters as £10 poms, to Australia. This was for somebody of his background (British establishment) a very bold and enterprising undertaking, especially as he had no gainful employment ready on offer in that new homeland. But somehow things worked out, initially they were in Perth and met up with some old climbing friends there and he climbed on the local outcrops and cliffs and even went caving, but then moved to a legal position in Canberra. Besides much bush whacking and some climbing in OZ and Tasmania, he managed to visit New Zealand and ascended Mount Cook and on a later visit other peaks in the South Island.

But somehow the lure of the UK was too great despite a demanding new environment and lifestyle, and he and his family returned back to the smoke and a job in the City, as a legal eagle. A real pull of this book is the honesty of the author about the twists and turns in his life, and his family relations whilst following his mountain star. Over the next years, trip followed trip, to Greece, to Turkey again and again, to the Arctic, and to Spain, an outstanding achievement being a winter ski traverse of the Pyrenees. I have climbed in that range in the spring (Mont Perdu) and so a complete crossing of the region was I understand a massive achievement, and the author thought his party was making a first such, but was to be sorrowfully disavowed when he found out that this was not so, for they had been beaten to this by a French team.

John Harding has become a senior figure in the British mountaineering and skiing world, a former Vice President of the Alpine Club, and a President of both the Eagle and the Alpine Ski Club. Putting back into the sports he has so keenly graced his legal expertise, and wise counsel. In later life he took on with his wife and friends some arduous treks in Sikkim, Bhutan and the Pamir/Tien Shan region. He is what Ken Wilson referred to as a ‘crink’; which was never intended as a derogatory term, it was kindly meant, and was aimed at a member of the establishment who does good things for the climbing world!

A strength of this book is the amount of background history and story about the places that the author has visited, with a classic school education he can elucidate on Xenophon, Hannibal and Odysseus and how they fit into his mountain explorations. Inevitably coming from the establishment background he does, his mountain companions were mainly from his own milieu, but I was surprised how many of them were also well known to me: unfortunately several of them are now dead.

This is a very well produced book; it has hard covers (case bound) and contains over 300 pages, and one hundred photographs and maps. These latter really do place the reader within the mountains, places and ascents recounted and they are very well executed. I think this book will become a classic of its genre, a life story packed with interest, adventure and history.

A sole criticism is that I would have wished at the end of the book an ‘Envoi’. For at the finish of such a world tour, and a lifetime of travel and adventure, what is the wisdom and meaning which might be found in such an odyssey? But otherwise a most enjoyable read, from an author whose honesty and historical/geographical knowledge is impressive.  

Dennis Gray: 2017

Distant Snows – A Mountaineer’s Odyssey
John Harding.  Published, by Baton Wicks £20