20-26 March 2015 #750

Climbing to the divine

Belgian climber Damien François tries to explain the mystical fascination for mountains in his book
Stéphane Huët

Cynics would say that mountain climbing is just a reckless attempt to gain fame and glory by challenging one’s physical capabilities. Yet this activity in Nepal’s Himalaya seems to have a mystical, spiritual dimension, too.

Belgian climber Damien François tries to explain this fascination in his book, Holy Mountains of Nepal. The idea of the book came after a series of photographs François had taken during several expeditions in the Himalaya were published in the French journal, Religions et Histoire in 2013. After a lecture tour about his expeditions, he decided to write a book summing up the information he had collected in Nepal.

François himself experienced the spiritual call of the mountains ten years ago. In 2005, he abandoned his first Himalayan expedition after a bout of mountain sickness. But as he was climbing down Mt Everest, he already knew he would prepare for a second attempt the next year. “I felt there was something great waiting for me in these mountains,” he told Nepali Times.

Aside from the spiritual call of the mountains, François recalls the strong religious associations with the Himalaya – Mt Kailash, for example, is sacred for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bönpo. To illustrate the universal sacredness of mountains, he compares the Himalayas to the mountains of North America that are worshiped by many Amerindians communities.

The author is critical of the reductionist ego-centric western notion of climbing. “I wanted to compare indigenous approaches and those of foreign visitors,” he explains. “Holiness has been traded for hard currency.”

This book is a sort of tribute to raw nature for François who says he has learned more in the wild than in many years of studying. “To me, being in the mountains is more about the sublime, the immanence – which can lead to the divine,” he says.

Holy Mountains of Nepal

90 pages

Vajra Books, 2014 Rs 550

Comparing it to his three previous books, François says Holy Mountains of Nepal was a more personal project. In fact, the slim volume sometimes looks like a travelogue rather than a treatise on the metaphysical aspects of mountains.

Damien François isn’t a technical photographer, but says he has a good eye. The majestic landscapes he shot surely help to give some spectacular pictures although the quality is not uniform.  

The writing is accessible to anyone who would like to know about the subject. Still we feel François had enough material to go deeper – maybe a lack of space because the book is written in three different languages (English, French and German)?

We can expect more anecdotes related to the sacredness of Nepal’s mountains in François’s next book to be published in the spring of 2015 which will deal with the Everest avalanche of April 2014.

Damien François will deliver a lecture on holy mountains on 23 March, 5.30 pm at Yala Maya Kendra, Patan Dhoka.

Read also:

Working in high places, Ayesha Shakya

Climbing and ‘superfluous thought’

The Everest industry, Kunda Dixit

Mountain fight, Kunda Dixit