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.