Peak performance

Shyam G. Menon | Updated on February 17, 2011 Published on February 17, 2011


Bernadette Mcdonald, author of the book on Tomaz Humar. Photo: Shyam G Menon

An upcoming book on the incredible climbing successes of Poland during the austere years of Communist rule.

Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar neither climbed Everest nor chased the Seven Summits.

Both missions fascinate young Indians pursuing branded mountaineering goals on the back of a growing economy even as fantastic routes up lesser-known peaks in the Himalaya have been fetching overseas climbers due recognition. Humar went near Everest but climbed the difficult North West Face of Ama Dablam with Vanja Furlan. It was adjudged best climb of the year in 1996, winning the Piolet d'Or award. In 1997 he was back in Everest's vicinity but did a challenging route up Nuptse.

Notorious for his daring climbs in the Himalaya and the punishment at altitude he endured for it, Humar wasn't spared travails even in his day-to-day life. He was born in 1969 in Yugoslavia, a regulated economy with few luxuries, leave alone ample resources for aspiring alpinists.

On top of that, Humar was drafted for military service when the war that eventually splintered the region into the countries of today, started. Despite hardships, he kept climbing. In a country that is among few worldwide to nationally revere mountaineering (for its small population Slovenia has sizable membership in its alpine clubs), he became an iconic climber, a Slovenian hero who was once the subject of a controversial high-altitude rescue in Pakistan and would in the end die climbing at altitude.

A film on Humar's solo attempt of the South Face of Dhaulagiri reached Mumbai a few years ago, courtesy The Himalayan Club.

Humar's biography is a remarkable book stopping ahead of his death on Langtang Lirun in Nepal in November 2009. It isn't always a great person that shines through. Sometimes it is a tortured, confused soul finding refuge in the clarity of a climb; at other times, there are others in the frame whose life-support helps a climber focus on climbing.

At still other times, it is just a weakness for the driven life. Author Bernadette McDonald, a climber herself, had previously written the biographies of Dr Charles Houston, noted mountaineer and authority on high-altitude medicine and Elizabeth Hawley, that meticulous chronicler of Himalayan climbs who lives in Kathmandu. With Humar, McDonald spent time researching the subject and getting to know the maverick, occasionally joining him on his climbs.

“I knew enough of Tomaz to know that he was a complex character. If he was a one-dimensional kind of person who was a great climber, it wouldn't interest me for five minutes,” she said when I met her in Mussoorie last October. McDonald's proposed next book has an engaging topic.

Traditionally, the poorer economies of Europe and stigmatised for being once Communist, East European countries and Russia have nevertheless produced terrific mountaineers. Theirs' is a story of climbing in every sense — awesome objectives, few resources, fantastic motivation; all of which added to some crazy high-altitude routes and punishing climbs to make the few chances they got, deliver (the first time I met Polish climbers at altitude was some years ago; they sold my friends two tents to part-finance their passage back after a climbing expedition in India).

The Himalaya, where every nation into climbing wants to leave an impression, has a mountaineering history periodically overshadowed by one nation or the other. The British, for instance, enjoyed a lengthy chapter in Himalayan exploration including the first ascent of Everest. East Europe, with more mountains than England, was however lost to the Iron Curtain after World War II.

Poland had to wait until 1989 for free parliamentary elections. There was a period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, in the East European chapter of Himalayan ascents, when the Poles dominated just as the Russians do now. In a free-spirited, daring manner that contrasted restrictions back home, a Polish route up a Himalayan peak was usually in a class of its own.

Bernadette McDonald's upcoming book dwells on the Polish climbers and climbing of this period. “The reason they climbed so well is that they climbed so much. But the reason they climbed so much is that it was a way for getting out of the country. It was kind of like a self-actualisation process and they could do something creative by being climbers.

And of course, the more you do something, the better you get at it,” the author said. She admitted that the contrasting picture of top-notch alpinism by the Poles in the Himalaya and the austere economy of their East European home in the same period had been a point of fascination for the writer. “I personally think there is a direct connection between what is going on in a country and what is going on in its alpinism,” she said.

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Published on February 17, 2011
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