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The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon &the-phantom-atlas-by-edward-brooke-hitching Schuster 2016)

I love maps. There’s something magical and mind-transporting about them, but the maps in this book are even more special than usual. They don’t transport your mind elsewhere, they transport your mind nelsewhere – to places that never existed, but might have done.

Or did they once exist? That’s one of the fascinating things. In some cases, phantom islands have been seen by more than one ship and in more than one year. Sometimes reports came in for centuries. Sometimes phantom islands have appeared on Google maps, like Sandy Island or Île de Sable, “northeast of Australia” (pp. 206-7). Possibly first discovered by James Cook in 1774, it was “undiscovered”, as Edward Brooke-Hitching puts it, in 2012, when a group of Australian scientists tried to find it and failed.

But perhaps it really exists and was simply mislocated. Even the most skilful navigators could go astray in the long years before electronics and position-fixing satellites. Or perhaps it lived up to its name and was washed away. That may have happened to more substantial land-masses:

Tracing the cartographic history of the island of Mayda is like tracking a spy through a series of forged identities, although, as it moves about the North Atlantic over the years, adopting a range of names and shifting in shape, it never quite escapes recognition. Mayda is one of the oldest and most enduring of phantoms, stubbornly clinging to the skin of maps for more than five centuries; it was one of the last mythical North Atlantic islands to be expunged. But in a strange twist, it may be that the phantom label is too readily applied. (“Mayda”, pg. 158)

The strange twist, Edward Brook-Hitching goes on to say, is that a ship’s captain south of Greenland “decided to measure the depth” of the supposedly very deep water he was passing over, “perhaps noticing a variation in water colour” (pg. 161). Water that was supposed to be “2400 fathoms” deep turned out to be only “24 fathoms”: there appeared to be a sunken island beneath the ship.

Or was there? Probably not, but islands do indeed come and go, as volcanoes vomit them to life and the sea swallows them again. Mountains come and go too, but over much longer stretches of time, so it’s unlikely that any of the phantom mountains here really existed. The Mountains of the Moon certainly didn’t. They were supposed to be the source of the Nile and appeared prominently on maps when “virtually nothing was known of Africa by Europeans” (pg. 162). Sir Richard Burton tried to reach them in the nineteenth century, during the great age of African exploration, and helped prove they didn’t exist. By then, another African legend was long discredited: the Kingdom of Prester John had melted away into legend.

He was supposedly a Christian king who sent a letter to “Manuel I Komnenon, Emperor of Byzantium” (pg. 194) in the twelfth century, claiming “enormous wealth and power” and descent from the Three Magi of Matthew’s Gospel. The letter proved to be a forgery and historians have long speculated about the identity and motives of the forger. But belief in Prester John took a long time to die and his kingdom appeared on many maps before explorers laid it finally to rest.

Prester John is a legend that most readers will probably have heard of before, like Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu and El Dorado. But it’s good to have them collected here in one book with lots of more obscure legends, from “Crocker Land”, the “Isle of Demons” and “Australia’s Inland Sea” to the “Sunken City of Vineta”, “Wak-Wak” and the “Phantom Lands of the Zeno Map”. The maps and drawings are always interesting, often beautiful, and Brooke-Hitching doesn’t stick strictly to geographic phantoms: he also has chapters on the “Sea Monsters of the Carta Marina”, Olaus Magnus’s “hugely influential and imaginative map of Scandinavia” from 1539, and the “Creatures of the Nuremberg Chronicle Map” from 1493.

This book is indeed a cartophile’s delight, detailed in its text and delightful in its imagery, but I would have liked a little more than maps and cartography. The chapter on the Mountains of the Moon or the Kingdom of Prester John could easily have incorporated something about H. Rider-Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or Alan Quatermain (1887), just as one of the chapters on the Pacific could easily have incorporated something about H.P. Lovecraft and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). And something about At the Mountains of Madness (1936) could have gone into the chapter on Terra Australis.

As the maps were filled in and the phantoms were exorcised, imaginative writers like Haggard and Lovecraft invented new sources of wonder and mystery. R’lyeh is a phantom land in more senses than one and deserved some mention here. Lovecraft would certainly have delighted in this book and drawn inspiration from it. Its appeal is captured in a story about Pedro Sarmiento, a Spanish explorer taken prisoner by Sir Walter Raleigh. He was questioned about “his maps of the Strait of Magellan” and “one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage.” Sarmiento replied that

…it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew that map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. (Introduction, pg. 10)

When we look at maps, we all have islands of our own.

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Blind Descent by James M. TaborBlind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James M. Tabor (Random House 2010)

When men climb mountains, they confront their own minds. There are psychological barriers to conquer as much as physical ones: fear, uncertainty, mental fatigue. But all those barriers, psychological and physical, are bigger in caving – and particularly in the caving described in this book. It’s about the quest to explore super-caves, the deepest and most dangerous places on earth.

As a result, they’re also the most challenging. Climbing a mountain doesn’t cut you off from the sun, stars and sky or from easy communication with the rest of the world. Super-caving does and that isolation alone is difficult to endure as days underground stretch into weeks and months. It isn’t alone, of course: there are also wet, cold, dirt and constant danger down there. Sometimes deafening noise too, as underground rivers pour over waterfalls or churn through huge tunnels. But super-caving won’t make you famous: it isn’t as photogenic as mountaineering and the two great cavers discussed here, the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk and the American Bill Stone, aren’t household names.

Perhaps they never wanted to be. Mountaineers move towards the sun, higher and higher into the light. Cavers move away from the sun, deeper and deeper into the dark. It would be interesting to compare the psychology of the two groups. Some people belong to both, of course, and Tabor points out that exploring a super-cave is like climbing Everest in reverse. Except that Everest doesn’t drown people. Super-caves do, because to explore them cavers often have to don scuba-gear and swim through flooded tunnels and highly dangerous sumps. In that setting, mistakes and accidents that mean little in open water often become deadly. Like motorcyclists and heroin-addicts, cave-divers will tend to know a lot of people who died young.

And fear of dying can cause it: it’s easy to panic when the risks are so high and the pressures so great. Cave-diving is one of the biggest psychological challenges that a human being can face. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone beat the odds, but only one of them could win the race Tabor describes here: reaching the lowest point on earth. Stone sought it in Mexico, Klimchouk in the Republic of Georgia. According to Tabor, Klimchouk won the race, but I’m not sure how anyone can be sure of that. The highest point on earth is easy to identify, but how can anyone be sure where the lowest point is?

Geoscopes may eventually answer that question, but by the time we can peer deep into the earth using instruments, the depth-record set by Klimchouk’s expedition – 6,825 feet deep in Krubera Super-Cave – may have been far surpassed by a subterrene, or earth-invading equivalent of a submarine. If that happens, earth-explorers will face a new problem: not cold, but heat. Rocks are still solid at 6,825 feet and we still know very little about molten depths of the earth. That’s why earthquakes are still impossible to predict. Klimchouk and Stone haven’t made great advances in geology, but they wanted to be seen as scientist-explorers, not as explorer-adventurers.

They found adventure all the same and Tabor points out that they stand in the tradition of men like Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. That tradition is coming to an end: up till now, technology has assisted minds and muscles. In future, it will re-shape them. Humans will turn into superhumans. And perhaps that will mean the end of exploration and adventure. Blind Descent may be a record of one of the last great triumphs of the old human race. If so, it’s an appropriate record: intelligent, well-written and vivid. There are some breathlessness and journalistic licence too, but Blind Descent is a good book about great feats.

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Front cover of Himalaya edited by Philip ParkerHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker with foreword by Peter Hillary (Conway 2013)

A book with spectacular images and spectacular stories. In the nineteenth century, early mountaineers confronted and conquered the Alps. Then they looked for new challenges. They found them in a much higher and much harder mountain-range lying to the north of India:

For thousands of years the Himalaya has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers and those who have lived among this spectacular, remote and often dangerous landscape. This is a land that demands superlatives – it is the highest mountain range in the world, one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, home to all of the world’s independent mountains exceeding 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level, the “eight thousanders”, and some of the greatest river systems on earth. (ch. 1, “Anatomy of the Himalaya: The formation and topography of the range”, Madeleine Lewis, pg. 13)

Opposite that description is one of the spectacular images: a satellite photo showing India colliding with Eurasia to throw up the crumpled band of the world’s highest mountains. The collision has taken place over millions of years, creating a patchwork of blue ocean, green and brown lowlands, and white mountains. Himalaya means “Snow-Abode” in Sanskrit, the ancient Indic language that inspired European scholars to discover the common roots of two linguistic outliers separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years: Icelandic, spoken on a cold island in the far north, and Bengali, spoken on a warm delta in the deep south.

This book is about a parallel exploration by incoming Europeans: of geography, geology, ethnography and the limits of their own biology. Orography, or the mapping of mountains, is part of geography, but Europeans had to climb a psychological barrier before they became true orographers. For example, one of the first great explorers of Tibet was the Italian missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). For him, the Himalayan mountains were “the very picture of desolation, horror and death itself” (ch. 3, “Early Travellers and Adventurers: The Himalaya to 1815”, pg. 41). As Stewart Weaver, the author of that chapter, remarks:

It is clear that in 1715 the romantic appreciation for mountain glory had yet to take hold of the Western imagination; the Himalaya was a desolate and fearful obstacle to be crossed out of missionary necessity, perhaps, but otherwise to be strenuously avoided. (Ibid.)

Mountaineering rose in Europe as religion declined. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Divinity retreated and humanity advanced, climbing to new heights in all kinds of ways, from science to music. Vivaldi and Mozart didn’t write music to conquer mountains by; Beethoven and Wagner did. This spirit of adventure – or hubris – was European and the older idea that climbing a mountain is sacrilege has kept Europeans off the top of a mountain even more challenging than Everest: Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown could have been the first, but refrained from climbing the last few yards to the very top: the leader of their expedition had “promised the Sikkimese authorities that they would not step onto the summit out of respect for Kangchenjunga’s status as a holy mountain” (ch. 8, “The ‘Golden Age’: 1953-1960”, pg. 147).

That was in 1954. Forty-nine years earlier, in 1905, another Briton had made an attempt viâ the notorious “Yalung Glacier”. He became much better-known in other fields: mountaineering is not how Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made his notorious name. But he confirmed his courage and daring in the Himalaya, having climbed extensively in the Alps, and fully deserves the sidebox he receives here as a “Mystic, poet, magician, pansexual and Satanist” (ch. 5, “The Opening Phase”, pg. 62). After all, he was “part of the first serious attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga” and “identified the route that would eventually be used in the conquest of each mountain” (ibid.). “Eventually” is the operative word: Crowley and the expedition-leader Oscar Eckenstein shared an “iconoclastic contempt for the ‘stuffy’ Alpine Club”, but “once again, accomplished Alpine climbers” proved “unprepared for the scale of the Himalaya” (pg. 61).

No-one had thought to use “supplemental oxygen” in the Alps, for example, but it began to seem essential in the Himalaya: “at the top of Mount Everest there is approximately one-third of the oxygen available at sea level” (pg. 63). There were debates about the propriety of its use, just as there had been about the use of crampons and other climbing aids in the Alps. One thing was a big argument in its favour: death. People have regularly died of altitude sickness in the Himalaya. Avalanches, rock-fall, cold and disease take an even heavier toll: four men died during Eckenstein’s and Crowley’s attempt on Kangchenjunga. The great Austrian Hermann Buhl (1924-1957) died in the Himalaya too. He had solo’d Nanga Parbat and was making an attempt on “the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa” when he and his companion Kurt Diemberger were forced to retreat by a storm “when only 305 metres (1,000 feet) below the summit” (ch. 8, pg. 131). During the ascent, Buhl “fell to his death through a cornice”.

His body has never been discovered. The body of George Mallory (1886-1924), another famous Himalayan casualty, was discovered in 1999 after lying on Everest for seventy-five years. Had he reached the summit? And if he did, how did he feel? Sometimes conquest isn’t satisfying. In this chapter, another spectacular image shows a bearded mountaineer sprawling on a rock-outcrop above a sea of clouds and a near-vertical snow-slope. It’s described like this:

Bill Tilman takes a precarious rest on … Nanda Devi during his 1936 ascent of the mountain. When he and his summit partner Noel Odell reached the top, Tilman’s initial euphoria was followed by melancholy. As he later wrote, he had a “feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed”. (ch. 6, “Himalaya Between the Wars 1919-1939”, pg. 79)

And yet Tilman was a “famously taciturn misogynist”: the psychology of mountaineers is another part of why mountaineering is so interesting. Mallory may have conquered Everest in 1926; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay definitely did in 1953, but Hillary didn’t ask Norgay to photograph him on the summit. The only photos of the moment are of the Nepali, not the New Zealander, apparently because Hillary didn’t want any taken of himself. Quixotry or modesty aside, it was an appropriate partnership: one by one, the Himalayan peaks have been conquered by combining European psychology with Nepali physiology. The environment of Europe has created human beings who want to climb very high mountains and the environment of Nepal has created human beings who can carry supplies in thin air.

This book also covers the medicine of mountaineering: the effects on the human body of thin air and low temperatures. Nepalis are adapted to both: they’ve evolved the right kind of lungs and blood to live at high altitude. That’s why they were hired as porters by the unadapted outsiders from Europe, who were sometimes killed by the challenges they set themselves. But there’s another kind of biology in the Himalaya, and another mystery. Crowley was To Mega Therion, or “The Great Beast”. But does another great beast live in the Himalaya: the Yeti? Probably not: bears seem to explain all the stories, tracks and hair-samples.

And the chances that there’s really something mysterious there dwindle by the year: Himalayan mountaineering is increasingly crowded, increasingly bereft of solitude and glamour. Everest is becoming strewn with rubbish, for example, and the climbing challenges of the Himalaya are increasingly contrived: not first ascents, but new routes, new methods, new times of the year. Sic Transit Gloria Montis – “So Passes the Glory of the Mountain”. But this book explains that vanishing glory and opens a window on a fascinating region of the earth, describing history, humanity, geology and technology, and displaying everything from multi-coloured Tibetan script and glaring death-gods to awe-inspiring walls of sun-slanted ice-rock and Aleister Crowley outside a tent.

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