Daily Archives: April 27, 2011

Gasherbrum

Imagine yourself climbing one of the highest mountains in the world, a steep jag of rock in a corner of the Karakoram, pinched between Pakistan and China. You are hanging on a rope, swinging against a rock face, a mile above the glacier below but not so far from the glacier to your side. A chunk breaks off the glacier hanging just over there… it resounds: “Gasherbrum!” You swing on the rope, thrash for room, bump on the rock and gash your bum.

Heck, why settle for one of the highest mountains in the world? Take seven of them. Or anyway seven peaks in one massif. That’s the Gasherbrum. One might be forgiven for thinking it’s Gascherbrunn, which would seem properly Germanically alpine, but these peaks are nowhere near Switzerland or Austria. And their name is from Balti, a language that is a form of Ladakhi, which is in turn a dialect of Tibetan.

Its Balti source is the words rgasha “beautiful” and brum “mountain”. I do think brum is more suited to naming a very large thing made of rock than it is to naming a hand-holdable thing made of wood and straw, as its English homophone does. But rgasha for “beautiful”? And note that, unlike in Standard Tibetan, that opening /r/ is actually pronounced. (Tibetan is loaded with onset consonant clusters – stops preceded by such as /r/ or /d/ or both – that are still written as such but have simplified in pronunciation to the last consonant in the bunch.)

But why can’t rgasha be beautiful if an 8000-foot-high striated crag of rock, rock, rock, and rock, covered with snow and ice, can be beautiful? I do admit that such things as are made of rock and ice seem to me to be more suited to voiceless stops – make that /rg/ voiceless and it would seem quite perfect for the terrible beauty of a lethal peak – but the word doesn’t exist for the mountain, after all. Well, the three highest peaks could have retained the names given them by Thomas George Montgomerie in 1856: K3, K4, and K5 (K is for Karakoram). But why not call mountains what the locals call them, if they call them something?

Ironically, the other thing Gasherbrum makes me think of is Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, a ghoulish abecedarius of small deaths, none of which involve mountains or glaciers. There have, of course, been quite a few deaths on the Gasherbrum peaks and on their neighbour K2, none of which were small or cartoonish or involved household implements and substances. But the lure of high hard things can be irresistible – and they are to be climbed and conquered for the same reason their names are to be tasted and those onset consonants are to be said: because they’re there.