Nokmedemla Lemtur


Mountaineering as transcultural encounters: labour in the German Himalayan expedition (1929–1953)


By the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the peaks of the Himalayan range, whose height sur­passed any of those in the Alps, had become the new “play­ground” for many west­ern nations to enact aspects of pow­er and mas­culin­i­ty. This par­tic­u­lar peri­od wit­nessed the arrival and attempts of many west­ern climb­ing expe­di­tions to “bag a peak.” My project attempts to specif­i­cal­ly look at the Ger­man moun­taineer­ing expe­di­tions in the Himalayan range between the 1920s and 1950s and bring togeth­er the com­plex­i­ties of colo­nial fron­tier pol­i­tics and var­i­ous dimen­sions of the expe­di­tion labour force, fac­tor­ing in the intractably of the moun­tain-scape. Over­all this project looks at the prac­tice of moun­taineer­ing expe­di­tions in the Himalayas and attempts to study high-alti­tude labour in the ver­ti­cal fron­tiers of the empire.

The moun­tains were routes and spaces that were shared between the climbers and sub­or­di­nate labour­ing com­mu­ni­ties, a rela­tion­ship that was high­ly asym­met­ri­cal, but was bound togeth­er by social aspi­ra­tions relat­ed to the project of scal­ing a peak. Var­i­ous Himalayan com­mu­ni­ties – the Baltis and Chi­la­sis of Kash­mir, Bho­tias and Sher­pas of East­ern Himalayas– were recruit­ed from their respec­tive regions for work on the moun­tain. For the com­mu­ni­ties that were mobi­lized for car­ry­ing loads and open­ing routes, the moun­tains were seen as paths, resources, refuge and the peaks were the ‘abode of gods’. Ques­tions of recruit­ment meth­ods, com­pen­sa­tion (giv­en the high mor­tal­i­ty rate of their work), con­tracts and nature of work arise through their engage­ment in the expe­di­tions. These expe­di­tions also held a spe­cial role in Anglo-Ger­man rela­tions as cul­tur­al bro­kers between the two nations in the inter-war peri­od. These well doc­u­ment­ed entan­gle­ments pro­vide the oppor­tu­ni­ty to look at sources from beyond the colo­nial state and hold the poten­tial to re-look at these “tran­scul­tur­al” encoun­ters and hid­den his­to­ries of labour at the fringes of the empire.