Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Tibet's Secret Mountain: 2020 republication...reviewed

Tibet’s Secret Mountain: Sepu Kangri. Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke. 228 pages, including 16 black/white photographs. Perfect Bound Paperback. £12.99. Vertebrate Publishing.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree’  Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Originally published as a hard back book by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1999, this has now been republished as a paperback by Vertebrate. Sepu Kangri 6,956metres is a peak in the eastern section of a mountain range, the Nyenchen Tanglha which lies to the east of Lhasa in Tibet. When Bonington and Clarke first visited the area to undertake a reconnaissance in 1996 it could truthfully be described as a little known region, but the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006 has opened up this region to tourists and trekkers in a manner thought unlikely a decade earlier. The two authors had first sight of Sepu Kangri, flying from Chengdu to Lhasa in 1982 on the way to take part in an attempt on the North East Ridge of Mount Everest. 

The route taken by such flights vary due to weather conditions in the Himalaya regions, but whichever is followed it crosses areas dominated by impressive, unclimbed peaks. The flight path in 1982 was over the Nyenchen Tangla and standing above the surrounding summits was Sepu Kangri, excitedly noted by Bonington and Clarke who vowed to visit this mountain at some time in the future. This turned out to be fourteen years later, but before setting out to reconnoitre the approaches to this, they were able to delve into historic accounts of previous travellers to that region, to find that the claim that this was somewhere that ‘no man had gone before’ was rather specious for the trade route from Lhasa east to Peking was well trod by merchants following a route, a road?, known as the Gya Lam.

By way of introduction, the lead in by Bonington explains his interest and how plans developed to explore the Sepu Kangri area, followed by an informative history about explorers, travellers and missionaries who journeyed in Tibet over a period of almost a thousand years. This by Clarke is a basic primer, but for those wishing to follow this up further there is a bibliography included in the end papers of ‘Tibet’s Secret Mountain’ to which I would add Freddy Spencer Chapman’s ‘Lhasa the Holy City’, gleaned from his service as Secretary to the ‘Diplomatic Mission’ to that country in 1936/7, and ‘Duel in the Snows’ by Charles Allen, this the story of the Younghusband 1904 incursion into Tibet noted by Clarke in his review. Both Charlie and Chris were relieved to find that despite photographers, acting for the Chinese Mountaineering Association had produced prints of Sepu Kangri and its environs, no attempts had been made to climb the mountain.

Dealing with officials in both China and Tibet can be bureaucratic, and are not helped by there being two bodies with mountaineering briefs, for besides the Chinese, there is also a Tibetan Mountaineering Association. And in any journey planned in that country one must be aware of the politics pertaining between Beijing and Lhasa, plus India and the situation of the Dalai Lama and his entourage in sanctuary in the north of that country. But in August 1996, Bonington and Clarke travelling via Kathmandu reached Lhasa and using a local, Mr Fix It, Pasang Choephel they were soon under away on their reconnaissance. This must have been an enjoyable outing; it hardly warrants the term ‘expedition’ but they managed to reach Sepu Kangri, glean enough about its climbing prospects to return in 1997 with a full complement of participants that could definitely be termed ‘an expedition!’ Five climbers, a Base aid, a cameraman, the ‘fixer’ Pasang , a cook and three Sherpas. How things have moved on, for one could imagine Nick Bullock and Paul Ramsden turning up in 2020 at Sepu Kangri, with no other support and attempting the mountain ‘Alpine style’. 

This is not to denigrate the efforts of Fotheringham, Lowther, Porter and Bonington in their attempts to climb the mountain in 1997, but it just was not to be. The weather did not play ball, conditions were dangerous with avalanche threat, and days of heavy snow meant retreat and the abandonment of the climb. The photographs of Sepu Kangri reveal a complex mountain, its northern aspect reminding me of the Rakhiot flank of Nanga Parbat. There is however much to enjoy in this book, and as the story progresses it develops into a travel odyssey, which I found more interesting than the attempts to climb Sepu Kangri. For instance the details of the relations with the local people of the area, many of whom still follow the animist Bon religion, which held sway before the arrival of Buddhism into Tibet in the 8th century and a Chapter by Dr Clarke on Mountain Medicine. And interestingly like him I have been surprised how Tibetan doctors by just feeling the wrist pulse can make an impressive diagnosis. One did this to me and I was to find some time later I had the cancer that she warned me was developing.
Rarely has a group of modern British climbers invested so much into climbing a single Himalayan peak, but in 1998 Chris and Charlie were back for their third trip to Sepu Kangri. Before the main climbing team arrived Clarke with a younger tyro Elliot Robertson and Pasang as their interpreter made a month long trek through the Tangla range visiting monasteries, crossing passes, and the environs around Chamdo and its historic sites. I have also been to Chamdo for the Xining-Lhasa train stops there. As an aside the train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa must be one of the most impressive rides anywhere, to summit the Tanggula Mountain Pass it climbs over 5,231meters, and Chris and his team could have reached Nagqu on this if they had been a decade later; for this was their original start town to enter the Nyenchen Tanglha, known simply to the locals as the Tangla. 

It may read as a dull occupation visiting monasteries, but in Tibet if you wish to understand its history and culture you really need to allow time to do this. I spent many days at the Labrang Si on the Gansu/Tibet border where I became friends with two of the monks. Labrang is a stronghold of the Gelugpa sect, the Yellow hats and I have also visited Tashilunpo Si* near Shigatse, the home of the Panchen Lama. He is the teacher to the Dalai Lama, and if you are interested in knowing more about this I recommend reading ‘Peaks and Lamas’ by Marco Pallis. From Liverpool; an Alpinist, Himalayan explorer, composer and musician who climbed with Kirkus, Edwards, Hargreaves, Hicks, Warren etc and who was inducted at Tashilunpo into the Buddhist faith in the late 1940’s, and became one of its foremost interpreters in the West.
*Si means temple, and there are four sects in Tibetan Lamaistic Buddhism. Gelugpa is one of these, and it is the sect headed by the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.

Back to climbing and a team sponsored by National Express assembled by Bonington in 1998 was even larger than the previous year. Maybe stronger with Saunders, Little, Muir, Robertson besides Chris as the mountaineers, and Charlie as Doctor, plus a three man film team, the ‘fixer’ Pasang, a Liaison officer, a cook, and a couple of Sherpas. I do not think today’s Green movement would be happy with such a group reaching this then remote area. The film team was partly made up of ITN personnel, sending out direct contact reports from the mountain.

This needed two generators, computers and mobile connections (they had these latter the previous year), and members could speak directly to the UK, to their families and contacts, answer e-mails and make requests for weather forecasts. These seemed unusually inaccurate. I think Paul Theroux has the better philosophy when travelling; no mobile phones, no e-mails, wishing a break from such 20th century demands and living conditions.

Once again, despite changing the dates for their attempt from Spring- to the Autumn- the second expedition had no better luck than the first with conditions on the mountain. To be fair if they had received just two more days of fine weather, they would I am sure have been successful. But once again from high on their route the lead climbers, Saunders, Little and Muir were forced down by extreme bad weather and dangerous snow conditions. Intending to return once settled conditions arrived, but they never did. It is surprising that the Sepu Kangri region receives so much precipitation. Studying the weather charts for that region the early Spring-March into April and the Autumn-October into November might have been the best seasons to make such a climb. Tibet is famed for its dry arid climate but that does not seem to be the case in the Tangla range. 
Tibet’s Secret Mountain’ is I believe best judged to buy as a travel book set in one of the most interesting regions of the Himalaya. Its Appendices I recommend to study by anyone planning an expedition to remote ranges, especially its medical information. I agreed to read this book for review because it was set in Tibet, where my own experiences, the friends and the contacts made have given me a different view of that country than the popular western one, mainly held by those who have never been there. Change is happening and to educated Tibetans, the first generation to be University graduates, they welcome this. They have no wish to return to the situation endured by their grandparents, who lived a life in medieval conditions working as cuvee labour for Noble families or the Lamas, subject to their laws and cruel punishments for any perceived transgressions. They are mindful of Tibet’s history and culture, but the genie is out of the bottle, they are happy to embrace modern living with all of its challenges. 

Image: Dennis Jarvis
Sepu Kangri was climbed by Americans Mark Newcomb and Carlos Buhler in October 2002. They followed the route pioneered by the British, and almost at the point where Saunders and Muir turned back, only about 150m from easy ground leading to the summit, they also were hit by bad weather. They pressed on reached the top but then experienced serious difficulties on the descent. The Tangla range is now well visited and there are commercial operators offering climbs and treks in that massif.

Dennis Gray: 2020