On the face of it, a book titled “A Slender Thread: Escaping Disaster in the Himalayas” may seem like a mountaineering chronicle or even a war history full of self-driven adventures. This is what I always thought when it popped up every now and then in the suggestions list of the online portals from where I often make purchases. Quite frankly, it is not very usual of me to buy and read a book which is mostly a climbing log. But this one, a bestselling work by the author and an acclaimed climber Stephen Venables mercifully, is not just about mountain climbing. It was while researching about Panchachulis that I stumbled upon this book as a recommendation by a certain someone from the Himalayan Club, Mumbai.
In actuality, the book is modestly a regular mountain expedition book, well acclaimed nonetheless; more because of the unusual heroic effort put together by his expedition members who saved author Stephen Venables’s life after both his legs got fractured high in the glacial Himalayas. I found the first half of the book, which deals with research, planning and preparation of the expedition, to be most attention-grabbing as well as informative. The author nicely weaves the mountaineering history of the region, including the patron Goddess Nanda Devi, with the story. The legends and explorations of the likes of Smythe, Longstaff, Shipton and Tillman have been righteously presented.
Soon after the author is airlifted by the Indian Air Force’s chopper from a cwm at above 5500 m alt, the book becomes rather emotional with the focus shifting to Stephen’s personal life back home in Britain. The family and profession related emotional trauma every climber goes through has been very well expressed. For someone who wishes to carve a career out of mountaineering or just armchair climbing in general, every detail is grippingly informative. At the end one would often argue that Venables was actually lucky to have partnered with some of the finest of mountain climbers from India and Britain for this expedition. An acclaimed climber himself, Venables authentically brings forward that gone are the days of gentlemanly camaraderie among the fellow climbers or expedition members. “Looking back now, at the end of the century, one gets a sense that the 1936 Nanda Devi expedition was the highlight of the golden age of exploration – an unusually contented, cordial pairing of American innocence with British experience”.
The unexpected fall faced by Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb the Everest without supplemental oxygen, on the descent from his successful first ascent of Panchachuli V in the central Himalayas is something which is most dreaded by climbers – an abseil-point failure which guarantees nothing but death. The extraordinary sodality and courage demonstrated by his companions Victor Saunders, Dick Renshaw, Stephen Sustad, Chris Bonington, Harish Kapadia and not to forget the IAF pilots would go down as one of the best rescue and teaming efforts in the annals of mountaineering history. Having broken both his legs and trapped at above 5500 m alt, he was totally reliant on his team mates for his survival. This is an account of his laborious journey and nearly miraculous rescue as well as of the sheer brilliance exhibited by the team. All is well that ends well. Right!
Although, the author engagingly describes the planning as well as execution of the expedition, I still feel that he has been unable to do full justice to the raw beauty of higher Himalayas. Nevertheless, this unflustered story of the author’s struggle high up on a remote Himalayan peak is still a worthwhile read especially if you are a devotee of mountaineering literature. For about 200 pages interspersed with clean black n white photographs of Indo-British joint expedition – of which the author was also a part – to the Panchachulis, the publisher Random House has priced the book at about Rs 1100. The book is available at both Amazon as well as Flipkart.