On Maps

By Jeff Greenwald

Sometimes, in the lonely parts of the world, a strange kind of love will blossom between the traveler and his map. He will come to admire the map more and more, and defer to it constantly, until he is completely seduced by it and utterly lost without it.

In truth, of course, the traveler has fallen in love with the territory. But in the constant process of bouncing between one and the other, that distinction has blurred and vanished.

To see a person thus smitten is a beautiful thing—especially in the autumn, as red leaves fall over the Himalayan trails and yak dung, damp with dew, steams in the brilliant morning sun.

In preparing for our three-week walk into the Khumbu—the region of the Himalayas that includes Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest), Lhotse and Nuptse—it was decided that Bill, my trekking partner, would be responsible for the map. Why didn't I get one, too? That's easy: weight. Like an obsessive bicycle racer who shaves his legs to cut wind drag, I thus managed to trim a good half-ounce off my 40 lb. load.

Although I hardly noticed the few grams, I was compelled to watch—with no little envy—the budding romance between Bill and his colorful, beautifully scaled topographical map of the Everest Valley. They were like young lovers; by the end of two weeks Bill was intimate with every soft swell and lush contour of that map. He had admired it in sunshine and by candlelight, mastered it in every position, and—love for a map hath no greater deed—even learned to fold it up properly, along the original creases.

In spite of all the hardships we encountered on the trail, the only times I ever saw Bill wince were the rare occasions when some misfortune befell his map. A leather Sherpani cook spilled a bit of dhal onto it; I, in the numbing cold, lost control of my mouth and dribbled coffee onto it; an ember leapt from a crackling firepit like the finger of God and touched it, burning a tiny hole. At each incident Bill dropped everything and sprang into action, a model of efficiency and damage control.

This vigilance paid off in spades when we reached our destination: the crest of a round black hill called Kala Pattar. Over 18,000 feet high, surrounded by an army of rumbling glaciers, sublime white peaks and cracking, deadly ice falls, Kala Pattar hung above the clouds like an island in the sky. The panorama was staggering, and we were immediately seized by a desperate longing (so uniquely human!) to identify every landmark in sight.

As we set about slaking that thirst—orienting ourselves, guessing heights and distances, and deducing the name of each unique mountain—the landscape underwent a profound change. Before, it had seemed aloof and anonymous; now it was imbued with personality. It had soul. It had a plot—we could see where things had been and where they were going. There was even a hint of celebrity in it all, as we let our eyes wander up the flanks of Everest, finding the paths used by the great mountaineers.

It was a giddy afternoon, wide-eyed in the cold, thin atmosphere. Gaping at the wind-swept peak of Everest, 10,000 feet above us, the three of us (Bill, the map and myself) had literally reached the highest point of our lives.

A couple of weeks later I returned to the richly aromatic air of Kathmandu, obsessed with the desire to buy my very own Schneider map of the Everest Valley. It was hard to find, but I finally dug one up in an obscure bookshop. I ran back to my hotel and opened it at once, eager to re-experience our fabulous voyage; to recapture, vicariously, the thrill of standing upon Kala Pattar with the high, thin wind beating against my ears.

It was no use. The map seemed the same; but something was terribly wrong. Where was the smudge of dried Spam on the western face of Nuptse? Where was the ugly coffee stain, meandering recklessly along the banks of the Dudh Kosi? Or the jagged grin, burnt at the edges, in the contours of the mighty Chhukhung Glacier?

Where was the soul? I tossed the new map aside as if it were a cheap impostor, painfully aware that nothing I could do—short of repeating the entire trek—could imbue that piece of paper with the power and magic of the map that Bill had hung, like a lover's portrait, on the wall above his desk.

* * *

Is it fair to think of maps as perfect journalism? Like that related art, they attempt to objectify, to inform, and even to influence the course of events. But maps have one thing going for them that journalism can't touch: mathematics.

Because of their celebrated precision, maps are not traditionally subject—as is their brash and opinionated cousin—to the banter of public outcry. They are held to be sacrosanct, the products of undeniable physical truth rather than mere mortal contrivance.

This almost universal subservience to maps has given them substantial powers, benign or deadly, over humanity. For hundreds of years, for example, conventional wisdom that the world was flat stifled exploration. When Columbus at last sailed west, he mistook North America for the East Indies; our Native Americans are “Indians” to this day. On the other side of the world, more than 500,000 Indians in India itself (a country whose national, racial and religious names were invented by western invaders of the Indus Valley) died in the chaotic uprootings of 1947-48, when a British cartographer rewrote the map of their country to establish East and West Pakistan.

These are severe, and obvious, illustrations. But there is something else; something far more subtle. Maps, since they are rarely questioned, can also be subliminal tools for propaganda. How many people realize, for example, that a common Mercator projection—your typical classroom world map—is skewed to show the northern hemisphere, which includes the United States and Europe, in twice the size and detail of the southern hemisphere, where lie most of Africa and South America?

Any attempt to represent the round world as flat is bound to end in some degree of distortion. The point is, cartographers can choose which distortions to make. For years they've been making the mistakes in favor of their home addresses: the colonizing powers. The choice hasn't been malicious; since 1569, when Gerardus Mercator's map was first printed, the overwhelming percentage of world travel and commerce has been conducted in the northern hemisphere.

As South America, Africa and Australia emerge as world powers, though, irritation over the bias inherent in the old view has inspired several new world maps. The best example is the recently released Peters projection, designed in the early 1980s by German historian Arno Peters. The Peters map, unlike Mercator's, shows all countries, continents and oceans at their true relative size. You can clearly see, for instance, that Europe—which appears larger than South America on traditional maps—is actually about half the Latin American continent's size. Greenland, looming so enormous on the maps we grew up with, looks like a shriveled fig compared to China. And Africa, so manageable by Mercator's scale, dwarfs both Europe and the United States completely.

The Peters projection simply strives to attain greater accuracy. Other new maps are more combative; they keep the old, biased Mercator scale, but literally flip everything upside down. North and south (which are arbitrary anyway, since there is no “up” or “down” in space) are switched, and Antarctica becomes the north pole. This satirical reversal of the generally accepted “missionary position” (colonists on top) gives South America, Africa and Australia plenty of room to stretch out; and it gives the northern hemisphere countries, which suddenly find themselves cramped into the lower third of the map, plenty to think about regarding maps and self-image.

This is not to disparage maps, or cast doubt on their credibility. Quite the contrary. The very thing that makes maps so fascinating as journalism is their ability to reflect (usually in retrospect) the deeper currents of elitism and allegiance that flow beneath periods of human history. At the moment a map is published, it is as accurate as the prevailing world view will allow, taking in all the changes that have led up to that point. To study it is to see a mirror of that world, frozen in its epoch.

* * *

Howard Sacks was a buddy of mine in Nepal. He was inner-city, street-wise and bluntly honest, but with a wild, impulsive streak that sometimes frightened his friends. He lived his life in a seemingly haphazard fashion, without any discernible plan. As I think of him now I recall two things: his passion for poker, and the pride and pleasure he took in correcting maps.

Since WWII, technology has given maps, like parachutes, an awesome degree of reliability. As a result, most of us have come to take the accuracy of maps for granted. As we leap out into the world, huddled against the headwind of possibilities, we rely on them absolutely.

But on the maps of some remote parts of the world—like the northern border of Nepal, where the Indian and Eurasian plates collide—much is uncertain, or changing. One town will have three different names, based on how each surveyor heard it; earthquakes, glaciers or erosion will have sliced off a hillside, permanently erasing a major trail; a well may have moved, and only the collapsed stone walls of a recently thriving village remain.

Howard enjoyed nothing more than pressing into the Himalayas, usually alone, always in sneakers, into obscure regions where the caprices of the earth play havoc with the accuracy of maps. For some of his destinations, the only maps of any integrity were decade-old topos, drawn from satellite data by the Defense Mapping Agency.

Defense maps are not for public sale; you can only get them by writing to the Agency and “justifying your need.” How Howard got his first DMA map is uncertain. Maybe he had used his credentials as a lawyer, or his connections with the Tibetan autonomy movement. Maybe he had won it at poker; the man was a shark. At any rate, he brought it back from his first solo expedition full of corrections, and mailed this edited version to the Defense Mapping Agency. They wrote back on official stationary to thank Howard, and offered him a freelance assignment to correct other maps, of his choice, in the future. The payment for each job would be the coveted map itself.

Howard showed the letter to everyone. It was as if he had been given a dare. After some deliberation he followed up on the offer, requesting a series of maps showing the landscape north of a mountain called Dhaulgiri, which lay very close to the prohibited Tibetan border. In March of 1984, shortly before leaving Kathmandu, he encountered an expedition of Japanese climbers who were going to attempt an ascent of Dhaulgiri and somehow talked them into letting him come along. They left in mid-March, 1984.

I left that spring too, on a relatively well-mapped trek up the Arun Valley. When I returned to Kathmandu in April, dreaming only of pizza and a hot shower, I was stunned to hear that Howard was dead.

Nobody seemed to have any concrete details; everything came by word-of-mouth. According to Singh, his housemate, the expedition had been driven back by inclement weather. Howard decided to continue northeast, toward the border, into the shady portions of his maps. As he climbed, whole Sherpa families passed him—going the opposite direction, fleeing the ice, warning him to do the same.

Somewhere, sneakers on ice, he slipped off the trail. The fall didn't kill him; he was apparently able to call a passing porter, who took his SOS and ran it to the nearest village by evening. The following day, a rescue helicopter from Kathmandu was turned back by the weather. The day after that it managed to fly in; but only Howard's body could be recovered.

I would like to see a map which commemorates the spots where those who have tried to correct maps have perished. A map to mark the sunken vessels of discovery; the beast-eaten expeditions; the blackened launch pads. The last stands of people like Howard, who dare to collar territory that turns to bite the leash.