Steve Berry, Straight Up
'One of the most honest accounts of climbing in the Himalaya'
A couple of years back Steve Berry published his book Straight Up, a collection of stories about his early expeditions to the Himalaya. Steve is a highly-experienced mountaineer who founded the successful adventure-travel company Himalayan Kingdoms (now Mountain Kingdoms).
Straight Up is told warts and all. It starts with tales of youthful naivety in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, progresses to what Steve describes as his best ever adventure, the first British ascent of Nun, and finishes with the truth of what really happened on the failed attempt to climb Bhutan’s highest peak, Gangkar Punsum. There are encounters with bears, escapes from avalanches, summit successes and failures, love stories, Himalayan storms, near death accidents and raw travel across the Indian sub continent.
We had a chat with Steve to find out how he feels about mountaineering, how the Himalaya has changed since those early climbs and what made him write a book so different from the everyday mountaineering epic:
Steve, you are somewhat a veteran of trips to the Greater Himalaya, just how many trips have you been on?
To the Himalaya, probably around sixty or seventy.
You started visiting the Himalaya to climb mountains, and indeed made something of a career out of it running the successful Himalayan Kingdoms, now renamed Mountain Kingdoms, organisation. Your second book, Straight Up, talks a lot about those early climbing trips, do you look back on those days and miss the mountaineering aspect of visiting the region?
Yes I do. Those climbing days were the most intense experiences and I wouldn't have missed them for anything. I count myself very lucky to have survived them. So many friends and acquaintances did not. I have had several very close friends die on the big peaks and when I add up the number of other people who I knew quite well it is a frightening total. I think over a period of thirty-plus years it amounts to forty or fifty people. Pretty much all of them died on peaks in excess of 6,500 metres. Two good friends died in rock climbing accidents and the rest on the big hills. As it was I had some narrow escapes myself and but for the toss of a coin it could easily be me pushing up daisies. Would I do it again - yes, I sure would!
Of all the places you've opened up for Western travel, which has been for you the most special?
Bhutan I guess. When I went in 1986 there was one British company running a trek to Chomolhari base camp and that's all. Since then virtually all the Bhutan treks have been pioneered by mountain kingdoms and I am very proud of that. There still remain fantastic looking areas in Bhutan left to explore, and I hope I will even yet get the opportunity to reach them. Many of these places are regions of political sensitivity but attitudes are changing and new things are becoming possible. Over the years there have been so many places mk has been the first to visit and it is not easy to say which one stands out above the rest. Personally I really love Ladakh and Zanskar and have done some fantastic treks there on very off-the-beaten-track routes - hard to beat the incredible gorges in Ladakh.
What has changed about the region, is it still the almost mystical destination that it once was, and which you so expertly describe in your two books, Straight Up and The Thunder Dragon Kingdom?
Of course there are changes all the time, some of them good and some of them bad. I have to say there are many roads (mainly jeep tracks) that have been pushed into places where they should not have been built in my opinion. Much of this road building is fuelled by corruption and the road builders, once they finish one project, are looking for the next road to build, and the politicians are all too ready to approve the projects as kick-backs are much the norm. Having said all that the Himalaya is so vast that it is easy to get away from the grubbings of mankind, and to be amazed at the vast wilderness and awesome mountains. Also the more I have travelled up and down the range the more I have been amazed by the culture of the Tibetan peoples. I have heard so many incredible stories of a mystical nature, and experienced many strange things myself, that I am more firmly a believer in the mystical power of the mountains than when I set out on my first trip.
Straight Up has been described by many as one of the most honest accounts of climbing in the Himalaya, personal, perceptive and above all a truthful tale about life on expedition. What made you write a book so different from the everyday mountaineering epic?
I set out wanting to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth because the truth was stranger than fiction. Even then there are some things that I still left out and it is my intention to write a version of the book called 'absolutely straight up' that tell every single piece of the story. However, I need to have become a multi-millionaire to fight the court cases, or so close to the end of my life that it wouldn't matter any longer. In the meantime I plan to write it and lock it away in a safe!
Where's the next holiday planned?
Bhutan, departing 28 September …
Straight Up is available from Baton Wicks, priced £12.99 with FREE UK P&P.