…Fairest of Them All

Which is the world's most beautiful mountain? The winner must be decided on the score of sheer aesthetic appeal and the ability to inspire wonder. Beauty does not depend on height, and the contender can, of course, come from any country.

The Alps, and even more so the Andes, would yield many contenders for the first round of a mountain beauty context. In the final round, however, it would be surprising if all the competing peaks did not originate in the world's youngest and highest range, our own Himalaya.

It is significant that so few of the 14 octausender big league peaks feature in the beauty stakes. Merely being 8000 metres high does not make a mountain attractive and at the outset we may dump the claims of Everest, which is positively plain from its souther approaches, though as "Mother Goddess" from the Tibetan sid, e the peak does assume a more regal air. Kanchenjunga, with its several summits clustered in one massif, is attractive but lacks the distinctiveness so necessary for the Top Ten list.

Of the 14 Himalayan giants, only K2 fulfils the dream of beauty that floats. Too isolated to possess a name, the passage to the feet of this mountain is unbelievably grand. The K stands for the Karakoram Range, which outdoes the Himalaya for its hugeness of surroundings. However, the density of the high peaks in the Karakoram tends to cancel out their individual impact.

Kashmir's Nanga Parbat, which marks the western end of the Himalayan chain, is in the 8000 club. The peak wins the medal for heroic rather than beautiful outlines. Nun and Kun are distinctly appealing in their clean sweeps and would certainly make it to the "reserve" bench. The same goes for Himachal's many snow mansions, including lovely peaks such as Mulkila and Dharmsura.

As we approach Garhwal, a run of beautiful peaks strung out on necklace of delight immediately claim a spot on the Top Ten. Srikant is a lonely, lovely peak that rides as an overture to the chorus that is to follow. I would plump Shivling over Nilkanth because of its perfect positioning above the source of the Ganga, which gives it the edge of harmonious association.

If K2 and Shivling are on my short list, I need to move east to Nepal and Bhutan to find other entires because the top two places I would also award to Garhwal (we will have to come back to conclude with their virtues). On the way to Nepal, I would include the superb Nanda Kot, shaped like an icy axe blade, which is the Kumaoni contribution to my list. Known to local hillmen as Bankatiya, this scintillating peak as seen from the dak bungalow at Dhakuri is one of the most memorable sights in the entire range.

The Nepal peaks that immediately leap to mind are Menlungtse and its neighbour Gauri Shanker. The former's lovely curtain of snow constrasts with the delightful pinnacles that cap Gauri Shankar, which gives the impression of Shiva with his consort on his lap. Another lovely peak which lies north of Kathmandu, my wild-card entry to the list, is Langtang Lirung — no great shakes as a first prize winner but wearing the most feminine of lines with elegant fluted ridges to give the appearance of a draped mantle of ermine.

If by now you are screaming "What about Machhapuchare!", be assured that the fishtail peak resides where she belongs, among the top three most beautiful peaks. Its base, Pokhara, is the most stunning of all Himalayan towns for the largesses of a lake, in which the superlative lines of Machhapuchare are reflected. No purer mountain vision for the unathletic could be devised.

Eastward from Nepal, according to many mountaineers, Sikkim is the home of the world's most beautiful mountain, Siniolchu. Further east in Bhutan lies Chomolhari, a ravishing sentinel on the border with Tibet Then there is the newly-discovered sweep of the breathtaking sheerness, Jitchu Drakke.

It looks like I will have to sacrifice one of the two Bhutan peaks to leave room for the top two, both of which happen to be from the same neighbourhood — Changabang and Nanda Devi. Whether Changabang is more beautiful than Nanda Devi or vice versa is immaterial to anyone who has been blessed by their vision in the prosimity of the Sanctuary of the latter goddess.

Mountaineers who reach the base camp of the soaring grey polished shark's tooth of Changabang (the shining mountain) just sit there and gape at the unlikely wonder of this naked sheath so perfect in its poise. On Nanda Devi's ultimate beauty, little need to be said for she sails in open view from all points in Kumaon. The most romantic aspect (frontally with the twin peaks) is seen from above Pithoragarh, especially at sunset. The most dramatic angle is from the Rishi Valley gorge, with the main peak side-on to the gaze of the approaching devotee. The mountain shoots up like an arrow bearing the message that true beauty lies in the ability of nature to lift our thoughts "unto the hills" whence cometh our inspiration.

Or, as the Rigveda would have us pronounce, "Let us worship that wonder by whose greatness these snowclad mountains exist."

Aitken is a traveler and columnist who writes on mountains and railways. A longer version of this article appeared in the Sunday Mail in January 1991.

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