Reimagining the Himalayas

Reviewed by Peter L. Bayers

In the introduction to False Summit, Julie Rak makes the bold claim that “[s]ince the eighteenth century, the act of climbing the highest mountains has played a central role in the way that much of the world has imagined conquest, human achievement, and the place of wilderness in social life,” an ethos that has been, and still is, defined by a “narrow version of masculinity” predicated on an individualistic mastery of self and the environment (5). Traversing a wide-ranging archive of expedition narratives, False Summit makes an important and valuable contribution to the study of mountaineering literature, gender studies, and environmental studies in its nuanced, complex, insightful critique of the way the cultural formation of mountaineering on three iconic Himalayan peaks—Annapurna, K2, and Everest—has been historically (mis)shaped by cis, white, male writers in a corrosive, exclusionary, imperial, masculinist literary tradition. Though counter-narratives have emerged in mountaineering non-fiction that imagine alternatives, Rak maintains that the dominant master narrative persistently overrides these “false summits.”


In chapter 1, Rak focuses on expedition literature about Annapurna, beginning with one of the best-known memoirs in mountaineering history: Annapurna (1951), Maurice Herzog’s highly influential, romanticized account of the French expedition of 1950. Rak convincingly argues that the siege-style nationalist narrative reads as “a kind of grammar of masculinity” in its portrayal of men “as heroic and selfless, as if they were soldiers” (45), with Herzog as a “leader of men” (49 emphasis added) who, at the same time, leverages tired orientalist tropes to contrast “modern” Western mountaineers with supposedly unmanly Sherpas. In addition, Rak offers a well-argued reading of Arlene Blum’s celebrated feminist memoir of the all-Western-women expedition to Annapurna, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (1980), which Rak maintains “has the most sustained discussion of gender politics that can be found in any expedition account” (64)—a discussion that offers a counter-narrative to the “machismo culture” of mountaineering. Rak does not by any means romanticize Blum’s book, arguing that it illustrates “the possibilities and the limits of feminist ideals when second-wave feminism was at its height” (65). Rak is particularly critical of Blum’s blind spots about Sherpa gender politics, as well as her siege-style leadership tactics, which reflect “the masculine heroic ideal” of hierarchical “militaristic style” (75). Rak’s chapter concludes with a critique of the sexist backlash to Blum’s expedition by well-known male and female climbers alike, a depressing testament to how climbers of the era were deeply tethered to the dominant masculinist narrative.


Rak shapes chapter 2 around the literature about K2, which she argues has been defined by the idealized metaphor of “the brotherhood of the rope” (88). “All climbs on K2,” Rak writes, “before and since [the] 1953 [American] expedition, have been measured by this idea of brotherhood . . . to remind people of the loss of a certain kind of masculine ideal of heroism and selflessness. It is an ideal which is meant to be unattainable” (89). Regrettably, “this phrase has contributed to the effect of rendering unthinkable the participation of other kinds of climbers, such as women, working-class men, or Indigenous people in this ideal realm” (89). As Rak makes clear, even when women were included in expeditions to K2, as with the 1978 American expedition, they were considered by male climbers as a threat to their masculinity, leading to the “dissolution of this team because of its gender politics” (119), a sexism reinforced in 1986 by male disparagement of the elite Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz and the British climber Julie Tullis. At the same time, Rak offers a fascinating reading of Tullis’ climbing partnership with Kurt Diemberger, which she argues challenged masculinist ideology, as male climbers were puzzled by what Rak calls their “ungendered” brotherhood of the rope, which  “exceed[ed] the limits that the discourse se[t] for them” (134).


Chapters 3 and 4 centre on Everest, with chapter 3 tracing the contours of gender dynamics from the British expeditions of the 1920s to the present, and chapter 4 focusing on Jon Krakauer’s recounting of the disastrous 1996 season in his bestselling Into Thin Air (1997). I found Rak’s perceptive analysis of the staying power of the romantic mythology surrounding George Mallory as the exemplar of heroic masculinity are compelling, particularly her reading of the macabre discovery of his body in 1999 and its symbolic import for the climbers who found it. Rak argues that “Mallory’s body itself became the most substantial sign for the climbers who found it of climbing authenticity grounded in the perfection of the [white] male climbing body” (156). This is an exclusionary Everest narrative, despite the reality of existing counter-narratives such as those of the Japanese climber Junko Tabei and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. In chapter 4, Rak illustrates how the “argument” of Into Thin Air, in keeping with the dominant literary tradition,


rests on Krakauer’s portrayal of climbing authenticity as counter-cultural, masculinist, and Western, based on ideas of sacrifice connected to the figure of George Mallory and Sir Edmund Hillary, and not to anyone (but particularly women and Sherpas) who does not fit that mold. (199)


I think False Summit is a strong, well-argued book. My only criticism is that much of the terrain Rak covers in regard to Everest and gender politics—whether regarding the British expeditions in the 1920s and the symbolic import of Mallory’s body; the 1953 British expedition; Tenzing Norgay and Sherpa culture; or Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—relates to or parallels threads of argument in my own book Imperial Ascent: Masculinity, Mountaineering, and Empire (2003). Yet surprisingly Rak never acknowledges, critiques, or distinguishes how her insights depart from this previous work, something that, to my mind, could have been easily addressed. That said, False Summit is a welcome addition to the scholarship on mountaineering, gender, and environmental studies, and given its accessible prose and Rak’s storytelling skills, I would highly recommend it to the climbing community and lay reader as well.

This review “Reimagining the Himalayas” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 184-186.

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