Graeme Dingle & Peter Hillary: First Across The Roof Of The World

Cover of First Across the Roof of the WorldWe’ve been watching Levison Wood‘s Channel 4 series Walking the Himalayas. (And I’ve now reviewed his book of the series here.) The Boon Companion and I had to fight down a wave of nostalgia during the second episode, having spent a happy couple of weeks in Kashmir back in the early 80s, albeit followed by a brief admission to an Infectious Diseases hospital for The Oikofuge.

Anyway, Wood’s Himalayan traverse has prompted me to reread an account of the first such expedition. In 1981, mountaineers Graeme Dingle and Peter Hillary followed a rather free-style 5000-kilometre route from Kanchenjunga to K2. They did this “Alpine style”—travelling light and fast, after the fashion of Alpine mountaineers, rather than using the major-expedition style of classic Himalayan mountaineering. It was extremely Alpine-style: they carried only a tent fly-sheet for shelter, bought their food along the way, and generally walked in Adidas trainers (including during many of their glacier ascents and high col crossings). They only dug out the mountaineering kit when they had to venture over 17,000 feet in eastern Nepal. They walked usually with just one companion, and only occasionally hired porters if they were setting off with a large load of newly purchased food. At widely spaced intervals, where there was road access to the route, friends would bring in additional supplies.

Sometimes they ran out of food. Occasionally their trainers fell apart at inconvenient moments. They didn’t have very good maps, and the directions they got from locals were sometimes of poor quality. They tried to stick as close as possible to the spine of the Himalayas without climbing any peaks, so the journey was an endless up-and-down trek across the southern spurs of the big summits, crossing cols between 16,000 and 20,000 feet high. In 300 days of walking, they racked up a jaw-dropping 1.5 million feet of ascent. Their journey was not quite continuous—they couldn’t make legal border crossings in the high mountains between Sikkim and Nepal, or cross the Line of Control in Kashmir, and so were obliged to make detours by bus to official crossing points, and then take up the journey again as close as possible to the other side of the border. (Levison Wood had the same problem.)

It’s pretty clear that they hated each other for most of the journey, often walking separately for long periods, which must have been immense fun for their single travelling companion, a Nepalese-Tibetan mountaineer called Chewang Tashi. They wrote alternate chapters of this book, each apparently making some effort to spare the other’s feelings, so it’s difficult to know quite why there was so much animosity from so early in the journey. At one point Dingle describes some sort of near-mutiny, in which the support team members demand that Hillary step down as overall leader in favour of Dingle, but Hillary makes no reference to this.

Neither is a great stylist, it has to be said—they both overuse the word “mighty” (mighty peaks, mighty rivers, mighty cliffs); some of the “amusing” anecdotes are simply impenetrable; and neither of them can make up his mind whether they are traversing “the Himalaya” or “the Himalayas”. Only one phrase stood out for me in the whole book, and that was Dingle describing the disappointment of being drunk when everyone else is sober: “Unfortunately, the whisky I drank did little to cheer up those that didn’t drink it”. Even more unfortunately, this led him to try cheering everyone up by pretending to be a blind man falling over a cliff. At which point he … um … actually fell over a cliff. The resulting dislocated shoulder and fractured collar-bone put a bit of crimp in his style for the next few weeks.

But it’s a steady narrative that gets you from A to B. There’s unfortunately only so much that can be said about yet another col, another valley, another river—so the story mainly comes alive during encounters with other people; some friendly, some hostile, some local, some foreign.

Hodder & Stoughton produced a lovely hardback for them—it’s well laid out, with plenty of photographs nicely reproduced. For me, Colin Maclaren’s sketch maps should have been printed a bit larger, by turning them sideways on the page, but that’s probably a side-effect of my worsening presbyopia and the low winter sun at this reading. I don’t remember having the slightest problem with the maps when I first read this book in 1982!

So my only real complaint is the alleged typeface on the cover. I know the 70s and 80s weren’t great decades for typography on book covers, but this one really takes the biscuit:

Typeface from First Across The Roof Of The World
A crime against typography

Doesn’t that look more like a ransom note than an effort to produce a “set of glyphs that share common design features”?


Note: For interest, I’ve prepared the map below comparing the route taken by Dingle & Hillary with the later traverse by Wood. (Both routes were interrupted by problems with direct border crossings, necessitating detours to official crossing points, but Dingle & Hillary incurred a much bigger gap at the Kashmiri Line of Control.)

Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood and Dingle & Hillary
Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood (2015) and Dingle & Hillary (1981)
Click to enlarge
(Original base map)

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