Flower power

Flower power

Flower power

The Valley of Flowers
Frank S Smythe
Speaking Tiger
2015, pp 261, Rs 299

The Valley of Flowers. The name today conjures up that magical place nestled in the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand famous for its breathtaking beauty. Now called the Valley of Flowers National Park, the 87 sq km area is renowned for its alpine flowers and endangered species of wildlife such as the snow leopard, the musk deer, the brown bear and the red fox.

To mountaineers and lovers of high-altitude botany, this would be the title of that famous 1938 classic by mountaineer, photographer and writer, Frank Sidney Smythe. When Smythe wrote this book on the beautiful valley, he was also revealing to the whole world the existence of this magical place. Indeed, this team was perhaps the first to name this valley. This classic book has now been re-published, and for lovers of mountains, it comes like a cold, refreshing Himalayan breeze.

Smythe and his group of mountaineers stumbled upon the place in 1931, while returning after climbing Mt Kamet for the very first time. Mt Kamet, a 25,447 foot mountain in the Himalayas, was then the highest peak to be climbed by anybody in the world. Smythe, Eric Shipton and R L Holdsworth, part of the British team, were caught in a storm on their return from the summit. There was shrieking winds and sleet and snow above 16,000 feet, and heavy rains below that level.

Working their way down in the storm, the team descended upon this enchanting place, and did not quite realise where they were. Holdsworth, who reacted first, yelled out, “Look!” In the relative calm and warmth of the valley, they were astounded by the beauty of the blue primulas that carpeted the floor. As Smythe says, “…at first I could not see anything but rocks, then suddenly my wandering gaze was arrested by a little splash of blue, and beyond it were other splashes of blue, a blue so intense it seemed to light the hillside…” They descended a little lower down to lush meadows and set up their camp. “…Our camp was embowered amidst flowers: snow-white drifts of anemones, golden, lily-like nomocharis, marigolds, globe flowers, delphiniuns, violets, eritrichiums, blue corydalis, wild roses flowering shrubs and rhododendrons…The Bhyumdar Valley was the most beautiful valley that any of us had seen…we camped in it for two days and remembered it afterwards as the Valley of Flowers…” 

Smythe was also thrice a part of teams that tried to climb Mount Everest in the 1930s. He returned in 1937 to the Garhwal Himalayas, “…the great floral storehouse…” to collect seeds and plant samples.

Smythe will keep you entranced with his remarkably contemporary style of writing. And there are so many things covered here — the sheer beauty of the mountains, the climbs (the author climbed Mana Peak, (23,860 feet), was beaten back by Dunagiri (23,182 feet), and Nilkanta (21,640 feet). The ‘Abominable Snowman’ also finds a mention — Smythe’s team found large footprints of a biped during their attempt to climb the 21,264 ft Niligiri Parbat…

And it is not just writing about mountains and the sheer joy of being amidst one of nature’s most wonderful creations. Way back in 1937, Smythe talks of the havoc wreaked by civilisation on mother earth. On his journey up to the lofty Himalayas, he has to pass through a place called Garur, “…the terminus of the motor road…a sordid little place, like any native place to which ‘civilisation’ has penetrated disguised in the form of motorcars….flies swarmed over the offal in the street, beggars whined for alms…there is no doubt that the farthest-flung tentacles of civilisation debase, not improve human conditions…” It is worth remembering here that the Valley of Flowers was closed off by the Government of India between 1974 and 1982 “…due to degradation by users…”

  After its declaration as a biosphere in 1988 and a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 2004, visits to the Valley of Flowers are more controlled. But what Smythe said in 1937 echoes so resoundingly today. That is the bittersweet flavour that rises up like the Himalayan mist in this book — the beauty and splendour that Smythe and his contemporaries observed with such reverence is not the same today.

This is a classic book that I greatly enjoyed. And, as a mountain-lover myself, I revisited the primordial feeling of awe at experiencing the eternal grandeur of the Himalayas.
To end with Smythe’s words from the book during his ascent of the Mana Peak: “…But of all my memories, distinct or vague, one memory stands pre-eminent: the silence…How many who read this have experienced silence? I don’t mean the silence of the British countryside…that day there was no wind, not the lightest breathing of the atmosphere, and I knew a silence such as I have never known before…I felt to shout or talk would be profane and terrible…for it was not the silence of man or earth, but the silence of space and eternity…”

Those who love mountains will find an echo in many parts of this book, and the chief emotion would be the wonder about the immutable power of nature.

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