Stephen Alter: Man of higher altitudes

Prachi Raturi Misra | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

New book: Stephen Alter’s latest book is an extension of his love for travelling, trekking and writing   -  IMAGE COURTESY: STEPHEN ALTER

Author and traveller Stephen Alter discusses his latest book on the Himalayas, and the eternal pull the mountains have on him

Flitting from writing about majestic mountains to an espionage thriller to a book for children to observing Bollywood, author Stephen Alter’s writing is as expansive as his personality.

You’ll find the 63-year-old riding his bike in Mussoorie’s Landour one day and hear about him trekking in the Himalayas the next week; a few weeks on, he could be clicking pictures of a canyon in Colorado. Alter soaks in every experience and presents it to his reader with vivid passion. His latest book Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth (published by Aleph Book Company in August 2019) is no different.

Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth; Stephen Alter; Aleph; Non-fiction; ₹899


In an email interview with BLink, he talks of the inspiration for the book. “In telling the life story of the Himalaya I have followed my instincts and written about the aspects of the mountains that fascinate me the most, from geology and climate to wildlife and mythology. I hope that readers will become as entranced by the beauty and natural legacy of the Himalaya as I have been”.

The thought of attempting a “biography” of the Himalayas occurred to him almost four years ago, when he completed the writing for his memoir Becoming A Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime. “There were so many stories to tell about the natural history of the Himalayas and I wanted to write a book that told the life story of the entire mountain range,” he says.

And while it’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly he fell in love with mountains, growing up in Mussoorie, thanks to his missionary father, he still remembers the many hikes the family (which included his cousin Tom Alter, the late actor) took. It could have been a rain-soaked morning when the hills wear a glorious green, or an autumn evening when the palette of the sky outsmarted the colours his paint bottles had, but hooked he was and will always be. You see this in his novels such as Neglected Lives, All The Way To Heaven, The Cloudfarers and more. He was probably 11 or 12 when he did his “first real overnight trek” from Landour to Dhanaulti and then up to Surkanda Devi and back. The love for writing, travelling and trekking just grew within him.

His latest book is an extension of all these loves. The travel and research for Wild Himalaya took all of three years, which was more than the time he spent on any of his other books. But the subject demanded it. “I wanted to visit a number of places in the Himalayas where I’d never been before, particularly in Nepal but also Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and western Kashmir,” he says. Many of the journeys were undertaken on foot (“Which is how I prefer to travel,” he adds), but also by jeep and car. And while each journey was a unique experience, the most exciting of all was the Nanga Parbat region, at the westernmost extreme of the Himalayas in Pakistan. “Climbing out of the dry and desolate valley of the Indus, we suddenly found ourselves in alpine meadows surrounded by fir trees. Nanga Parbat is one of the most spectacular mountains, rising up directly in front of you without any ridges in between. It has been called ‘The Killer Mountain’ because 30 mountaineers died before it was finally climbed!”

Interestingly, he says the book could have had an alternative name — “1001 Himalayan Nights”. “In Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, by complete coincidence, I spent several nights camped with a tribal storyteller who recounted wonderful folk tales about ancestral hunters who tracked wild boar from the high mountains to the plains, as well as Tibetan queens who gave birth to demons, and yaks that hatched out of the giant eggs of carnivorous birds.” Talking of legends, how can one not bring up the yeti, which caught the nation’s imagination this year after the Indian army claimed it found footprints of the mythical beast at the Makalu Base Camp? The author says, “The yeti is a fascinating creature, whether real or not, because it represents our fears and fascination for the unknown. There is nothing more compelling than mysterious footprints in the snow!”

For him, the mountains are part of a living landscape that has evolved over millions of years. What fascinates him the most, he says, “is the way in which the diversity of species that exist in the Himalayas depends on and interacts with each other. Human beings are part of this rich biome, and the stories we tell explore the connected complexity of a Himalayan environment, of which we are an integral part.” Then there is the large lurking question of global warming. There is no question, says Alter, that the Earth’s climate is changing and that people are responsible for the acceleration of these meteorological trends, which are causing all manner of disasters, from melting glaciers to unpredictable monsoons. “The Himalaya, more than any other place on the planet, is vulnerable to these shifts in temperature and precipitation,” he says. And the answer for him is simple, “We must control human greed and waste”.

Anyone listening?

Prachi Raturi Misra is a Delhi-based journalist and author

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Published on October 11, 2019
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