Mountain Literature Classics: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

© Eric Newby

Real Travel involves the unexpected. Better still if the unexpected items include danger, extreme discomfort, and exotic diseases. The long and difficult journey, undertaken for absolutely no reason at all: according to Evelyn Waugh, who supplies the Introduction, it's a particularly English thing.

"A generally wretched and pointless trek through a remote mountainous region..."  © Eric Newby
"A generally wretched and pointless trek through a remote mountainous region..."
© Eric Newby

The mountain needs men of hard flesh

For no reason at all, author Eric Newby and his pal Hugh Carless (as in 'careless, but with a bit missing in the middle') decide to travel to Nuristan. Nuristan was, and is, the north east corner of Afghanistan.

Why? Well, no English person had penetrated the country since Eighteen-something; the most recent European, an Austrian called Herr Someone, had lost 12lb in weight in just over a fortnight. Despite being a lean and eager sort of Austrian to start with. What better reasons could a chap ask for?

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush  © Eric Newby

But there's a complication. In order not to be shot as spies, they need some convincing pretext for their presence. Or, failing that, an unconvincing pretext. The borders of Nuristan contain, or contained in the 1950s, several unclimbed 5000m peaks. So they would go to Nuristan in order to climb one: the 5809m Mir Samir.

Boots full of blood, he does start to explore his own motivation

Neither of them has ever climbed before. They don't know how to climb. Fortunately they have three spare days before their boat sails to Constantinople. They book in at the Pen-y-Gwyrd, and the waitresses take them up Spiral Stairs (V Diff) – a nice climb, says the UKC logbook, but "not a good route for complete novices to second".

The book's title tells you what you need to know. This is English travel writing of the mid Twentieth Century. It is understated. It is self-mocking. It entirely lacks introspection, unless "oh dear" counts as an expression of emotion.

Is it amusing? Well, it made Evelyn Waugh laugh.

Completely inexperienced, they learned to climb on the job  © Eric Newby
Completely inexperienced, they learned to climb on the job
© Eric Newby

An Amazon reviewer sums up their journey: "A generally wretched and pointless trek through a remote mountainous region of central Asia characterised largely by unattractive impassable terrain, surly miserable locals (including their porters), inadequate and generally revolting food and inevitably lots of diarrhoea."  Except, of course, it isn't pointless at all. They're going there to climb up a hill.

At one point, on page 116, Newby finds his boots full of blood, and does start to explore his own motivation. Abandoning his "dotty dream… of becoming an explorer" – self-identifying as one of the many who say they're setting off for Nuristan but never do? "There seemed to be no alternative but to go on. The fact that there was none cheered me considerably."

What the seventeen-syllable haiku is to poets, the zero-stars hotel review is to travel writing. Going back to Dorothy Wordsworth at the Kingshouse in 1803 (Never did I see such a miserable, such wretched place) and Dr Johnson at the Glenelg inn in 1773 (Other circumstances of no elegant recital concurred to disgust us). Eric Newby is a master of this small-scale form.

Everywhere, like a miasma, was the unforgettable grave-smell of Oriental plumbing. 'Room with bed for two', said the proprietor, flinging open a door at the extreme end. He contrived to invest it with an air of extreme indelicacy which in no way prepared us for the reality. It was a nightmare room, the room of a drug fiend or an epileptic or perhaps both. It was illuminated by a 40-watt bulb and looked out on a black wall with something slimy growing on it. The sheets were almost clean but on them there was the unmistakeable impress of a human form and they were still warm.

But soon enough, all such luxuries are behind them. After crossing Europe and Asia Minor by motor-car in no more than two months, they reach their mountain.

Ideal reading matter for a short walk in the Lake District  © Ronald Turnbull
Ideal reading matter for a short walk in the Lake District
© Ronald Turnbull

Their first attempt, from the west, made huge progress. Newby worked out how to put on his crampons. But after being turned back by stonefall, heat, and "our own lack of guts" – they moved around to the eastern side of the mountain.

As we all know, having been told so by all the football pundits, the important element in any sporting endeavour – far more crucial than technical skill or lack of it – is morale.

We both harboured a determination to reach the ridge and, if possible, the summit that in retrospect I find unbelievable. Our drivers watched us go sadly and Abdul Ghiyas [their local guide] asked us what he should do if we failed to return. Apart from telling him to go home it was difficult to know what to say. The air was full of promise of disaster.

They climb on splintered schistose rubble, weird snow formations, and ibex dung, to 5200m."It was nothing like anything we had seen in Wales." They retreat to heal up their hands, and on their third attempt –

It would spoil it to reveal whether or not they achieved the first ascent of Mir Samir (5809m). A later ascent gave the rock pitches as Grade V. It's still a mountain that receives few if any ascents, despite having, sometime early this century, sneaked up past the 6000m mark to reach 6059m. In 2021 an attempt sponsored by the BMC was turned back by deep snow and the theft of its equipment.

That 2021 account, which you can find online, shows that for an inexpensive, dangerous and delightful expedition, with rewards going far beyond the mere failure to reach some 6000m peak, Mir Samir in Afghanistan remains "a true adventure".

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3 Oct, 2022

Nice article, thanks

I read the book a couple of times years ago (I owned a copy but have somehow lost it). I highly recommend it

3 Oct, 2022

Second that, great book

3 Oct, 2022

As are his other books - Newby really was good at finding ways to suffer :)

3 Oct, 2022

I could have sworn they got taken up Ivy Sepulchre by way of preparation. What am I remembering, I wonder?


4 Oct, 2022

You have to laugh, though (not at them, but with pleasure and admiration at the whole thing) about seconding Spiral Stairs (VD) as training for a 5809 metre peak in Afghanistan

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