Prolific writer Stephen Alter has won the prestigious Mountain Environment and Natural History Award at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival 2020 in Alberta, Canada, for his book “Wild Himalaya” (Aleph) that brings alive the greatest mountain range on earth in all its terrifying beauty, grandeur and complexity.
Traveling to all the five countries that the Himalayan range – 2,500 kilometres in length, between 350 and 150 kilometres in breadth and rising to a maximum height of almost nine kilometres above sea level (Mount Everest) – traverses through India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and China, Alter braids together on-the-ground reports with a deep understanding and study of the history, science, geology, environment, flora, fauna, myth, folklore, spirituality, climate and human settlements of the region to provide a nuanced and rich portrait of these legendary mountains.
Adding color to the narrative are riveting tales unearthed by the author of some of the range’s most storied peaks – Everest or Chomolungma, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, and Nanga Parbat, among others.
The book is divided into eight sections which delve deep into particular aspects of the Himalayas.
“Orogenesis” explores the origin, evolution, geology, geography and other such core aspects of these mountains; “The Third Pole” concerns itself with weather, glaciers, wetlands and rivers; “Flora Himalensis” details extraordinary Himalayan plants and trees; “Winged Migrants” goes deep into the world of Himalayan birds and insects; “Mountain Mammals” crosses high passes and goes above the tree-line in search of brown bears, blue sheep and snow leopards; “Ancestral Journeys” takes a close look at human settlement in the Himalaya and stories of origin and migration, both ancient and contemporary; “At the Edge of Beyond” recounts epic adventures and great mountaineering feats; and, finally, “In a Thousand Ages of the Gods” examines the essence of Himalayan art, folklore and mythology as well as enigmatic mysteries such as the existence of the Yeti, along with key questions of conservation.
Although there have been hundreds of books, and some masterpieces, about one or the other aspect of the Himalaya, rare is one that has come close to capturing the incredible complexity and majesty of these mountains.
Stephen Alter, a cousin of the late actor Tom Alter, is the author of 20 books of fiction and non-fiction. He was born in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, and much of his writing focuses on the Himalayan region, where he continues to live and work.
His honours include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright award. His recent memoir, “Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime”, received the Kekoo Naoroji Award for Himalayan Literature in 2015. His most recent work of fiction, “In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel About Jim Corbett”, was shortlisted for the DSC South Asian Literature Award in 2017.
Alter was writer-in-residence at MIT for 10 years, before which he directed the writing programme at the American University in Cairo. He is the founding director of the Mussoorie Mountain Festival.