The silence of dead places: An excerpt from Frank S Smythe’s “The Valley of Flowers”

31 October 2015

British mountaineer, author, photographer and botanist Frank S Smythe, initially renowned for his expeditions in the Swiss Alps, is now best remembered for his Himalayan explorations. In 1931, during his climb of Mount Kamet in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas, Smythe discovered a valley in which “it was impossible to take a step without crushing a flower.” He later named the region the “Valley of Flowers,” and it is now a protected national park. At the time that Smythe climbed it, Kamet was the highest peak to have been scaled. Smythe was also a part of one of the earliest attempts to climb Kanchenjunga, and tried to scale Mount Everest thrice. Smythe’s expeditions resulted in several notable works on mountaineering such as The Kanchenjunga Adventure and Kamet Conquered. In this excerpt from his book The Valley of Flowers, originally published in 1938, Smythe reflects on the “longest, grandest and hardest” mountain climb of his life—the first ascent of Mana Peak—a peak adjoining Kamet. Smythe, who completed the last leg of the climb alone, recalls what he considers more memorable than the ascentthe silence at the top. 

Since I left Peter I had been concerned with climbing and my whole physical and nervous energy had been concentrated to that one end, but now that the deadening work of hoisting the weight of my tired body uphill was at an end, my mental faculties were released from physical bondage. The one concession of high altitudes is that as soon as the climber rests for any length of time he is enabled to forget his physical weariness. To me that day it was as though I had been led blind fold up the mountain and that the bandage had been removed on the summit. It was this more than any sense of “conquest” or achievement that made my few minutes on the summit unforgettable, so that if I live to be old and feeble I can still mount the golden stairs of memory to inspiration and contentment.

The summit of the Mana Peak is the highest and southernmost point of an undulating snow-ridge about 200 yards long which extends northwards in the direction of the group of peaks known as the Ibi Gamin. Kamet is immediately to the west of this group, and the first object I saw when I had recovered from my fatigue was its huge reddish pyramid, to which clung a vast banner of cloud floating slowly westwards yet ever forming against the mountain as it did so.

It would be easy to reel out a string of names of ranges, peaks, glaciers and valleys, but to occupy the mind with trifling topographical details on the summit of a great Himalayan peak is a petty anticlimax to weeks of reconnaissance, strenuous work, and a final glorious scramble. On a mountain-top time’s sands are grains of pure gold; must we then obscure their brightness with a leaden mess of trifling detail? After Kamet I remember clearly but one detail in all that enormous landscape, the plateau of Tibet. I saw it to the east of the Ibi Gamin, a yellow strand laid beyond the Himalayan snows, shadowed here and there with glowing clouds poised in a profound blue ocean like a fleet of white-sailed frigates. For the rest there were clouds and mountains; clouds alight above, blue caverned below over the deeper blue of valleys, citadels of impermeable vapour spanning the distant foothills, and mountains innumerable—snow-mountains, rock-mountains, mountains serene and mountains uneasy with fanged, ragged crests, beautiful mountains and terrible mountains, from the ranges of Nepal to the snows of Badrinath and the far blue ridges of Kulu and Lahoul.

Would that Peter had been there to share this with me.