Reading: Mike Searle — Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet

Here comes a deluge of serious reading. Well, another serious than the sci-fi I’ve been on of late (though with a new one from Charles Stross, and Iain Banks’ – sadly sans-M – last one in the next weeks, I’m well-stocked for that flavour of serious), or perhaps gratuitously indulgent, after all, what could be more appealing that bloody massive upheavals of granite which can be either climbed or geologised, or in the case of Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents, both at the same time?

This turned up in my feed from Oxford University Press’ blog, and I decided to dispense with the actual reading of their post for the important act of ordering the book. Which arrived on Saturday, and which, obviously, I’ve devoured a third of already.

This is one of those very nice, medium-large hardcovers with barely a page empty of maps, illustrations, diagrams, or more importantly utterly gorgeous photographs of mountains. It’s light on the technical side of geology, meaning someone with no prior knowledge of the subject would nonetheless not feel bewildered, yet equally there’s a lot of terms even I, who used to slip into the Geology department and temporarily purloin monographs of the Karakoram had to pause to visualise what was actually meant. Lucky there’s 30 pages of appendices covering all of this, and I think reading those first is probably a good idea.

Quite a bit of my interest in that region where Tibet becomes Central Asia becomes Indian subcontinent comes from geology. Also it comes from Deleuze and Guattari and reading of Steppe nomads, then looking at maps and trying to pin into that vast blankness between the Black Sea and the east coast of China names like Gobi, Taklamakan, Kashgar, Karakoram. Vast and blank indeed. So I set out to rectify my ignorance, becoming years – probably a lifetime as I’ve never been bored by this – of reading and reading and yes, still planning to go there.

A book like this is mainly a small moment of satisfying this love of mountains and this part of the world, and it does both superbly. Searle is one of those sensible geologists who realise early on it’s the obvious career choice for someone who thinks suffering their way up glaciers and cliffs is most excellent fun, and whose love of both subjects only adds to his abilities in each.

The only thing that’s missing for me is a map or maps of his annual-ish field trips. There are plenty of geological maps accompanying each chapter but either my map-reading skills have descended to bathic levels, I’m missing something fundamental, or there’s a lack of correlation between those maps and the paths of the journeys he undertook. Perhaps unnecessary, but for me this would be an essential inclusion.

So, 464 pages of mountains! The cover pretty much sums it up; it’s all just a lover’s ode to the most beautiful upthrusting of granite in the world.

Chinese Mountaineering Team on K2

The climbing season on K2 has kicked off, with 54 expeditions attempting to summit the mountain made famous by prominent use of nitro-glycerine, exploding pigs and a sociopathic Richard Branson impersonator in Vertical Limit. This year is the 50th anniversary of its first ascent, so like Chomolungma/Mt Everest last year, and encouraged by cut-price permits from the Pakistani authorities, there will be an assembly-line procession of rich CEOs whose training consists of several months on a stair-master being pushed up the hill by cigarette-smoking sherpas. Amidst their glory moment, some real mountaineering will be taking place, ranging from the siege tactics of the massive Italian expedition, to some pure alpine climbing.

Somewhere in the middle is the China Tibet Mountaineering Team, who have been spat off the second highest mountain twice before, and are giddy with anticipation at the prospect of ticking the second-to-last of the 14 mountains higher than 8 000 meters. The 10 person team currently beginning their ascent in collaboration with the Alpine club of Pakistan hope to become the first Chinese to reach the summit.