There is a widely prevalent misconception that the origins of Indian mountaineering belong largely to the second post-Independence decade, when Everest became the main focus of its climbing endeavours. To set the record straight, the Editor of this esteemed journal invited me to attempt to fill an important historical gap by recapitulating the significant early years of pre-and post-Independence which in fact not only gave birth to Indian mountaineering but set it firmly on course.
The Doon School, the first public school in India, was founded in 1935 at the feet of the Himalaya in Dehra Dun. Fortunately, its first Headmaster, Arthur Foot, a member of the Alpine Club, was a keen climber, and perhaps his love for the mountains influenced him in recruiting three house masters, John Martyn, Jack Gibson and R. L. Holdsworth (Holdie) who were all experienced alpinists. Indeed Holdie had climbed Kamet in 1931 with Frank Smythe’s expedition. From those early years in the late thirties and early forties, it can well be imagined that this ‘trinity’ of bachelor-masters and mountaineers would play a crucial role to encourage
their pupils to first venture into the forests and hills in and around the Doon valley and the outer Himalaya during the short midterm breaks, and later farther into the interior of the Garhwal Himalaya during the long summer vacations for more adventurous trekking and climbing. The first such expedition was organised in 1942 when John Martyn and Holdie, with two Sherpas, took three boys of whom Narendra Dhar (Nandu) Jayal was one, Ravi Matthai and Balram Singh the other two, to an Arwa valley glacier camp at 19,000 ft beyond Badrinath. The objective to climb three or four easy peaks of around
20,000 ft, by way of introducing mountaineering to the three boys was unfortunately frustrated by persistently bad monsoon weather. Nevertheless, it was no less an achievement for three 16-year old boys to have climbed to 19,000 ft, perhaps the first Indians to have done so, and far from being the least discouraged, Nandu wrote of this experience: ‘The hills have claimed another willing slave.’ For Doon School boys this expedition did indeed mark a significant transition from climbing in the foothills to climbing in the high Himalaya. Gurdial Singh joined the staff of the school in 1945, and very soon mountains became an important part of his life for which he paid rich tribute to the British ‘trinity’ among his colleagues who inspired in him a love for mountains in all their wondrous variety. And indeed very soon he became an important part of Indian mountaineering. In the years to follow the association of the Doon School with the Himalaya continued to grow, and the School had become a cradle of Indian mountaineering.
Early Indian Expeditions, 1946 – 1958Bandarpunch, 6315 m (20,720 ft), 1946 -1950
Bandarpunch, 20,720 ft in the Garhwal Himalaya (‘The Doon School Mountain’ as Tenzing later described it in his autobiography) was first reconnoitered by Jack Gibson and John Martyn in 1937, who concluded that its southeast ridge was the only feasible route to the summit, having climbed along it to a height of 18,200 ft In July 1946 an expedition organised by Jack Gibson, and including Holdie, Nandu Jayal, M.P. Chengappa (15), John Munro, with Sherpas Tenzing and Dawa Thundup, and Dhian Singh, attempted Bandarpunch by the south-east ridge. Holdie with 19-year old Nandu and Tenzing climbed higher than any previous expedition, when poor monsoon weather conditions forced them back. Bandarpunch was again attempted in June 1950 by Jack Gibson, H. Williams, Gurdial Singh, Roy Greenwood, and Jagjit Singh, with Sherpas Tenzing, Kim Chok Tsering and Kusang. On 20 June success was finally achieved when Tenzing, Roy Greenwood and Tsering made the first ascent of Bandarpunch. (Gurdial reached the summit in 1975 with an advance course of women trainees of the NIM, Uttarkashi. P.M. Das, an Old Boy of the Doon School, also climbed Bandarpunch ‘alpine style’ with a St. Stephen’s College Hiking Club team in 1978).
Trisul, 7120 m (23,360 ft), 1951
Bandarpunch the previous year spurred the appetite of Gurdial Singh for higher adventure in the Himalaya when in early 1951, he started planning with his Bandarpunch companion, Roy Greenwood, an expedition to Trisul, which had been climbed twice before. The account of the first ascent as far back as in 1907 by Tom Longstaff in his book This My Voyage was so absorbing and ‘lyrical’ that no doubt remained in Gurdial’s mind about attempting this beautiful peak on the rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Two old boys of the Doon School, Surendr Lall and myself, who were novices but dreamed of the high hills, were invited to complete a foursome. Three experienced Sherpas were arranged by Tenzing (who had meanwhile been appropriated by the French on Nanda Devi) namely, Gyalgen Myckje, Dawa Thundup (a ‘Tiger’ of fame and merit) and Lhakpa Tsering. Gurdial, the leader, was himself the most capable organiser of the expedition, against such odds at that time of appropriate equipment and finances. The army and the Himalayan Club helped with the former, and each of the four members themselves covered the costs, partly met by subsequent contributions to newspapers.
With woefully limited experience of climbing in the high Himalaya, our expedition of seven members in all left Dehra Dun on 7 June 1951, and after a long approach march and setting up of two camps on snow, 16 days later at 1615 hrs. on 23 June, the two members, Gurdial and
Greenwood, on their second venture in the high Himalaya, attained the summit, ably supported by the redoubtable Dawa Thundup.
For the two novices of the team, Surendr Lall and myself, who were slow to acclimatise, it was a wonderful, unforgettable introduction to the high Himalaya, no matter how inaccessible the summit remained for us. We returned enriched in every sense, the comradeship fostered by shared adventure, the incomparable beauty and grandeur of the snow-draped mountains, Nanda Devi the eternal Goddess in particular, and lush flower- strewn meadows, the music or wail of the whistling thrushes, choughs and snow cocks, and so rich a bounty of Nature that can only be deeply felt, not described. Little did we realise then that several years later this small expedition’s success, with Gurdial reaching the top of the first major Himalayan peak of Trisul, would make history, gaining recognition as marking the ‘beginning of Indian mountaineering.’
With three of its four members from the Doon School – two ex-students and one assistant master – this too, like the previous expeditions to Bandarpunch, could appropriately be called a Doon School venture, conceived and planned as it was in that School. I say this only to emphasise the values and philosophy we imbibed from that great institution on what mountains and mountaineering are all about – largely from the legendary ‘trinity’, now a ‘quartet’ with the addition of Gurdial . I may be permitted in conclusion to quote from my own reflections on the ascent of Trisul, published in the Indian Mountaineer to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the event. ‘Gurdial, Greenwood and Dawa Thundup reached the summit of Trisul after a gruelling seven-hour climb of 3,650 ft No flags were taken or hoisted on the summit, nor any objects to defile the holy crest, only prayers and thanksgiving were offered. No “assault” was mounted in arrogance to “conquer” the peak, only gratitude expressed in all humility to have been “permitted” to achieve the ascent. Four friends, including an Englishman, teamed up and through their own resources, amounting in all to no more than 4,000 rupees covered all the costs as frugally as possible, including the hiring of three Sherpas and fifteen porters. While the common objective was to climb the peak, each member made his own personal equation and spiritual link with the mountains to savour the totality of the experience, especially the exaltation of communing with Nature at its very unspoilt best. We returned humbler than before – the stupendous sight of Nanda Devi ensured that – and left a unique garden of the gods unsullied. We claimed no distinction other than what was thrust upon us, but we did generously share our experience with others, though not in any spirit of self-glorification.’
Kamet, 7756 m (25,447 ft), 1952
From 1952 to 1955 the focus was on Kamet, the inspiration provided by its first ascent in 1931 by an expedition led by Frank Smythe, which included Eric Shipton and R.L. Holdsworth, the last member one of the ‘trinity’ who was readily available at Doon School to advise on the route to the summit. The idea was born at a meeting in 1951 between Gen. H. Williams, who had been to Bandarpunch in 1950, and Nandu Jayal, both army engineers, and so the organisation was centered at the Bengal Engineer Group H.Q. at Roorkee. With Gen. Williams as leader, the eight members included Gurdial, myself and five Bengal Sappers, with Nandu Jayal the only climber with some experience. The object was to prove that sizable expeditions to the higher peaks could be mounted within India and not remain an alien monopoly. Equipment, always a problem in those early years, was partly provided by the Army, with essential items being procured from the U.K. Finances were ensured largely by individual
contribution by members on a pro-rata basis, while gifts of food were gratefully received.
The party of eight members and five Sherpas left Roorkee on 2 June and set up base camp on the East Kamet glacier on the 14th at about 15,000 ft, followed by five camps on the mountain during the next eleven days, the highest Camp 5, near Meade’s Col, at c. 23,000 ft. Attempts on the summit from 26 to 28 June in turn by Nandu, Gurdial, Johorey, accompanied by two Sherpas, Ang Tsering and Pemba Norbu, and two Bhotias, Kalyan Singh and Indar Singh, were frustrated by adverse weather and poor snow conditions. To their credit they reached a height of over 24,600 ft, before evacuating from the last camp on the 29th June. Unfortunately, one of the members, P.P.S. Bhagat suffered a thigh injury from his ice axe which turned septic, and despite every attempt to evacuate him to Joshimath, he succumbed to his illness at Bampa on 6 July. Despite this tragedy, and failure to attain the summit, it was a bold and courageous adventure with a novice, Johorey, having climbed to 24,600 ft, and the leader, Gen. Williams, at the age of 55 climbing up to Camp 5 at over 23,000 ft.
Abi Gamin, 7355 m (24,130 ft), 1953
The following year in 1953, the Bengal Engineer Group was able to mount another expedition to Kamet with the help of the Commandant and General Williams. The team, led by Nandu Jayal, included five other Bengal Sapper officers, Gurdial Singh, Cadet Jagjit Singh from the NDA, and Dr. R.K. Chopra. Only three members, Nandu, Gurdial and Valladares, had been on the previous year’s Kamet expedition. This time also a summit team, comprising Nandu, Gurdial, Jagjit and Nardip, accompanied by Sherpa Pemba and a Bhotia porter, had to abandon an attempt on Kamet due to sickness and bad snow conditions from Meade’s Col, and switch their objective to climbing Abi Gamin at the opposite end of Kamet. This was accomplished easily by Nandu, Pemba and Puran Singh on 17 June. Back at Camp 5 that evening, Nandu got the exciting news in his mail about Everest having been climbed, very deservingly by Tenzing also with whom he had climbed twice before on Bandarpunch and Nanda Devi. It appeared to Nandu that his 23,000 ft camp was a very appropriate place and day on which to hear of this great achievement!
Nandu and Gurdial decided to detour through the Valley of Flowers, via Bhyundar khal, revelling on 12,000-14,000 ft meadows thick with flowers in full bloom. Of this Alpine heaven, Nandu wrote : ‘It provided a perfect picture of Alpine pastorale, something the poet dreams and writes of, the artist images and paints but only the mountaineer lives through. In and around this valley snow-covered peaks, rocky crags, luxuriant grasslands, myriads of flowers in a variety of colours, stately firs and pines on the fringe of the tree-line, the shy thar and agile barrhal, all merged harmoniously into a glorious concord.’
Aerial Photography of Everest by IAF, 1953
It may be worth recounting here, in parenthesis, the historic flights over Everest organised by the Indian Air Force on 6 & 7 June 1953 to closely follow the British expedition’s successful climb on 29 May 1953. The objective was to obtain a comprehensive still photographic and cine film record of the Everest massif from various heights and angles from which it had never been seen before. It was a stupendous achievement to coax a World War II vintage piston-driven Liberator bomber to attain heights at which it was never intended to fly, equipped with similar dated F-24 cameras suffering frequent blockages from the cold blasts through open doors at – 270 C. With Sagarmatha’s blessings, however, of perfect weather on both days, the results were outstanding, and the portfolio of photographs brought back adorn not only Sir John Hunt’s book on the Ascent of Everest, but almost all important mountaineering journals across the world. I was privileged to be invited to join the Air Force team on these flights as the mountaineer-consultant to guide the pilots to the targeted mountain and also to shoot it with 16 mm films from a small cine camera – the extensive footage proved to be a significant component of the film later produced by the British expedition. (My account of this unique adventure was included, with three photographs, in the chapter on Everest, 1953 in the Himalayan Journal Vol. XVIII of 1954.)
Kamet and Abi Gamin, 1955
With interest and enthusiasm for mountaineering fired by the ascent of Everest, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), to impart all round training in mountain craft, was set up in 1954 with Nandu Jayal as its Principal. He lost no time in arranging a joint sponsorship, with the Bengal Engineer Group, yet another expedition to Kamet, as an advance course also of the HMI. Ten members were chosen, two nominees of the Bengal Sappers, Gurdial from the Doon School and R. K. Agarwal, two students of HMI, John Dias and R.K. Malhotra, and six instructors of
HMI, with Nandu Jayal as the leader. The five very experienced instructor Sherpas of HMI included Sirdar Ang Tharkay and Sirdar Gyalgen Myckje, Da Namgyal, Ang Temba III and Nawang Topke. A powerful team destined to succeed! After setting up the usual five camps, by 26 June, the first summit group led by Nandu took the southeast ridge route and by 1900 hrs was only 150 ft from the summit. As darkness was closing in and temperature dropping, the group having been 12 hours on the move, decided to retreat to Camp 3 to recuperate for a few days.
During this break, while climbing for exercise at about 21,000 ft, Nandu and Gurdial found three flowering plants which were collected and later identified by Dr. K.C. Sahni, botanist of the Forest Research Institute, as Christolea himalayaensis, the highest known flowering plant in the world, to find a place subsequently in the Guinness Book of Records. In the 1931 Kamet expedition too, Holdie records in his chapter on ‘The Flowers of Kamet’ in Smythe’s book Kamet Conquered that ‘Smythe found a plant on the rock wall of Kamet at over 21,000 ft. he threw it down to me. but I failed to make the catch, and the adventurous crucifer, as it probably was, was lost to science.’
Preparations for a second and final attempt were made on 3 July when a large party comprising Nandu, Gurdial, Dias, Agarwal, Ang Tharkay, Da Namgyal, Ang Temba, with eight Sherpa and local porters reached Camp 4 at over 22,000 ft The following day a suitable site for Camp 5 was chosen for an attempt by a new north ridge route early on 6 July. It was at 0430 hrs a windy and bitterly cold morning but the sky was clear, as the team set out in two ropes. Nandu, Ang Tharkay, Namgyal and Temba on one, and Gurdial, Dias and Lhakpa on the other. Soon Nandu realised his goggles had been left behind. Dias offered his and, with Gurdial, descended to Camp 5, while Lhakpa joined the first rope. At 1230 hrs when Nandu, Ang Tharkay Namgyal and Temba were almost at the summit, Nandu put Lhakpa in front as he wanted him to be the first to step on the summit ‘in tribute to his youth, to the Sherpas and to the prospect of numerous mountaineering years and many more peaks ahead of him.’ ‘On reaching the summit,’ Nandu wrote ‘I had no overwhelming feeling of exultation as I had imagined, that would come later. Three times I had been rebuffed at the portals of this snowy fortress and at last Kamet had yielded.. .It had been a hard fight which to me had proved more exciting and ennobling than the ascent itself.’
Meanwhile, Gurdial and John Dias decided to return to Camp 5, collect Garhwali porters and make a bid for Abi Gamin. They left at 0945 hrs, accompanied by Kalyan Singh, Bijay Singh and Diwan Singh. At 1100 hrs while resting they could see the Kamet team making good progress barely 600 ft below the summit, while the latter could see the former’s progress on Abi Gamin across the Meade’s Col. At about 1340 hrs this team also reached the summit of Abi Gamin, and by some telepathic communication with Nandu, Gurdial too made sure the three Garhwali porters were the first to attain the top ‘in tribute,’ Gurdial wrote, ‘to those intrepid men, past and present, of the Dhauli valley who had accompanied us in the high ranges of Garhwal and who had been responsible for giving us such moments of supreme joy as this one.’
The comments of this Journal (Vol. XIX) on this expedition are worth repeating: ‘A very fine effort indeed, and a notable example of the great strides forward which mountaineering has taken in India.. ..The lust for mountain adventure appears to have maintained its post-Everest increase.’
Mrigthuni, 6855 m (22,490 ft), 1956 and 1958
In 1956 Gurdial organised a team comprising N. Chuckerbutty, assistant master at the Doon School, Mahinder Lall, his brother Roopinder Lall and myself – all three old boys of the Doon School, to attempt to scale virgin Mrigthuni, a peak on the outer rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Unfortunately, this expedition was cut short by tragedy with Chuckerbutty falling ill at Dibrugheta. I rushed non-stop from Dibrugheta back to Joshimath, wiring the Air Force for medical help which was promptly given by air-dropping oxygen and penicillin. Chuckerbutty died of pulmonary oedema before these could be of any help. We did not have the heart to continue and abandoned the expedition.
In 1958 to continue the unfinished task, another expedition was organised by the veteran by now of several climbs, Gurdial, comprising three old boys of the Doon School, Aamir Ali (also an ex-master), Mahinder Lall and Rajendra Vikram Singh. The party left Dehra Dun on 2 June and at Lata recruited thirty porters most of whom were familiar to Gurdial, with Kalyan Singh an old associate as Sirdar, joined later by Dewan Singh, both of whom had climbed Abi Gamin with Gurdial. All the Garhwalis earned lavish praise for the admirable and cheerful support on the mountain, obviating the need to recruit expensive Sherpas even for the higher altitudes. Base camp was set up on 14 June at 15,500 ft from where
the north face of Mrigthuni was visible and the route to the right of a heavily crevassed slope and a line of seracs seemed feasible. Camp 1 was pitched at about 17,500 ft on 16 June, and the following day Gurdial, Aamir, Rajendra, with Kalyan and Dewan Singh and two other porters established Camp 2 at about 20,300 ft The three members, with Kalyan and Dewan taking turns to lead the rope, set off at 0800 hrs on 18 June and though the route was fairly straight-forward progress was slow, with Aamir’s problem with acclimatisation, and by 1615 hrs, unfortunately in mist and with no views at all, they reached the summit ridge. To make sure of having reached the highest point, since Mrigthuni has a long summit ridge, the team carried on further and located a point 50 feet higher, the true summit, gained as a first ascent. An occasion for joyous celebration, when Gurdial, Aamir, Rajendra, Kalyan and Dewan descended to reach Camp 2 by 1900 hrs, in by now clear weather and a delightful sunset to compensate for the lack of views from the summit. The team were lucky, as a few hours after reaching base camp the next day, the monsoon broke! For this small group, with modest ambitions and modest needs, it was a most enjoyable and exhilarating 5-week holiday, which cost each member no more than Rs. 914 !
Climbing With Foreign Expeditions
Before the HMI was established in November 1954 at Darjeeling to impart mountaineering training, there were no facilities available in India for any kind of training to equip all of us young amateurs in the complexities of climbing in the high Himalaya. We often ventured boldly as novices, some of us introduced to mountain-craft by the British Doon School ‘trinity’, some from the already experienced Sherpas we engaged, who had quickly mastered skills from accompanying as high altitude porters foreign expeditions over several earlier decades. Good quality equipment was also not available in India and perhaps we were foolhardy to attempt major peaks with the most rudimentary equipment – Gurdial climbing Trisul and Abi Gamin without crampons, managing somehow by step- cutting on ice!
When in the early fifties foreign expeditions sought the Indian government’s permission to attempt the many unclimbed Himalayan peaks, the latter decreed that they must be accompanied by Indian liaison officers who were required to be fully equipped by them. This was also a good opportunity for such officers to gain valuable experience and acquire mountaineering skills
Nanda Devi, 7816 m (25,645 ft), 1951: French expedition
Nandu Jayal, already a mountaineer of some experience and great promise, was the obvious first choice as liaison officer to a bold French team, bidding to traverse the main and east peaks of Nanda Devi in June 1951. The French were already high on the mountain when Nandu had to race through the formidable Rishi ganga gorge and rush up the mountain overcoming technical difficulties to reach a high camp at 22,000 ft. It was clear to him that tragedy had overtaken the summit pair, and there was no alternative for the anxious support party to retreat from the mountain. The weather had been fearsome when the French climbers, exhausted and demoralised, were met by this rather unusual ‘Sherpa’, none the worse for his daring climb from the base camp over steep rock and ice. Large quantities of camp equipment, which needed to be ferried off the mountain, were piled high on their new and obliging ‘Sherpa’. Not until all were safely back in the calm of the ‘Inner Sanctuary’ base camp was the identity of the gallant ‘Sherpa’ revealed amidst expressions of much regret. To Nandu this was a big joke, for the French frankly confessed their pleasant surprise at the existence of an amateur Indian mountaineer with courage and skill of no mean order.
Nun, 7135 m (23,410 ft), 1953 : French-Swiss expedition
When an invitation from the leader of this expedition, Bernard Pierre, arrived early in 1953 to attempt during July-August that year to climb Nun-Kun, the highest inviolate peak in Ladakh between Nanga Parbat and the Garhwal Himalaya, I was delighted to join a mixed team comprising four French, of whom one, Claude Kogan, was a famous woman climber, and one Swiss, Pierre Vittoz. I was later designated as a liaison officer, along with one other officer, K.C. Johorey, who had climbed high on Kamet, but had to withdraw early from this expedition. The outstanding veteran, Ang Tharkay, led a team of six experienced Sherpas.
It was a long and weary 19-day approach march from Doda to the base camp at 16,000 ft by the southern route. Early in August, Camp 1 at 18,000 ft and Camp 2 at 19,800 ft were set up. Then followed a long spell of atrocious weather after Camp 3 was set up at 21, 400 ft, in which Bernard, Claude and Pierre, with Ang Tharkay providentially survived an avalanche that carried them 150 ft down towards Camp 2. The party retreated to base camp and when the weather finally cleared on 25 August, a second attempt at the summit was mounted, to discover that Camp 3 had, along with valuable equipment, disappeared under a huge serac fall.
On 28 August Claude and Pierre left an improvised Camp 3 at 0740 hrs and after a long, tiring climb across the southwest face and the west ridge reached the summit at 1500 hrs to achieve its first ascent. I had to descend from Camp 2, while the blizzard raged, and leave the mountain in mid- August as my leave was nearing expiry. What an experience it was though, struggling to overcome the week-long fury of the elements, and after the shared ordeal, making lifelong friendships with a fine group of mountaineers without a thought for any difference of nationality, language or gender.
Lahaul Triangle, 5800- 6400 m peaks (19,000 -21,000 ft), 1955: British RAF expedition
In 1955 I was invited to join a Royal Air Force Mountaineering Association nine-member team, led by A.J.M. Smyth, to climb in the Kullu- Spiti-Lahaul divide of Himachal Pradesh, as the team, with some proficient rock climbers wished to gain mountaineering experience in the high Himalaya. I was member and liaison officer, and Dev Datta joined as an additional liaison officer to gain further experience after completing an HMI basic course. We arrived on 20 May at Manali where we were joined by four Sherpas, rather too early in the year as the Rohtang pass (13,050 ft) was still blocked by heavy winter snows, impassable for mules. So a suggestion to take the higher Hamta pass (c. 14,000 ft) was followed. Reaching the top of the pass in a snowstorm, I slithered down a considerable distance checking my fall just above an uninviting precipice! Plans were changed in the difficult wintry conditions and, instead of attempting peaks flanking the Bara Shigri glacier, we decided to attempt a galaxy of unnamed peaks between 18,000 and 21,000 ft in the Lahaul triangle, north of the Rohtang pass, of which no record of climbs were known to exist. Base camp was established on 1 June at 11,500 ft in the Kulti basin. Surmounting a 300-foot near vertical icefall, two of us set up Camp 1 at 14,000 ft on the Kulti glacier on 3 June. The view ahead was enthralling of a vast snowy white amphitheatre surrounded by cirque of impressive peaks. From an intermediate camp we climbed the dominant 19,567 ft high peak before descending to report on our reccee to the rest of the team at the base camp. A second party of four, including the leader, after scaling three c.19,000 ft peaks on 10 June, climbed a 21,000 ft peak set four miles northwestwards after a gruelling climb on 11 June. The next few days, not to leave any untouched, two more peaks, an attractive 18,199-footer and a second at 19,700 ft were climbed, so that all members of the team had the joy and satisfaction, in perfect weather, of climbing at least two peaks each.
However, three members, Stewart, Bennet and Lees, with five peaks already to their credit, decided to add a sixth when, alpine style, they climbed the 20,350 ft Shikar Beh, south of the Chandra valley in the Pir Panjal range on 16 June. This crowned a tally for the expedition of ten peaks, perhaps all or some first ascents, ranging from 18,000-21,000 ft, representing, from my perspective, mountaineering at its supremely enjoyable best. What a wonderful month’s adventure which remains vividly etched in my memory even after 51 years!
Early Indian Mountaineers of Forties and Fifties Nandu Jayal (1926 – 1958) – A trail-blazer
No historical record of the beginnings of Indian mountaineering can be complete without recording the unique role of Nandu Jayal in leading the way. He was born in Garhwal to a Garhwali family, and was fortuitously
educated in the shadow of the Garhwal Himalaya at the Doon School in Dehra Dun. There he grew up in an atmosphere where the ‘trinity’ of English masters, Martyn, Gibson and Holdie, nurtured his latent passion, especially with Holdie’s guidance and inspiration, as his housemaster, to love and grapple with the high hills. And so the first introduction of Nandu in 1942 by Holdie and Martyn at the age of 16, as recounted earlier, came about with his reaching 19,000 ft high camp on the Arwa valley glaciers. Going higher to climb a peak or two was ruled out by atrocious monsoon weather. At the first opportunity in July 1946, now a subaltern in the army engineers, Nandu joined the Bandarpunch expedition, climbing within reach of the summit, but frustrated again by bad weather. In 1951 Nandu was with the ill-fated French expedition when he raced up to over 22,000 ft only to return with the demoralised support party following the loss of the summit pair. In 1952, Nandu’s summit attempts with a Bengal Engineer Group (BEG) team on Kamet were again frustrated by adverse weather. In 1953, Nandu led another Bengal Engineer Group team to Kamet, but had to switch the target to Abi Gamin, which was successfully climbed for the first time from the south.
In 1954, following the inspirational first ascent by Tenzing and Hillary the previous year, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was established in Darjeeling, with Nandu Jayal being appointed its first Principal. With the enthusiastic support of Prime Minister Nehru and the West Bengal Chief Minister, B.C. Roy, the Institute was set up very quickly. Shortly afterwards, Nandu and the chief instructor, Ang Tharkay, were deputed to Rosenlaui in Switzerland for professional training in all aspects of mountaineering. Nandu was awarded the Swiss Guides Badge and Diploma, rated a very great distinction indeed, and the only Indian mountaineer ever to be thus honoured. Later, in 1957, the Austrian Alpine Club also honoured him with their Ski Teacher’s Certificate. Nandu was a very accomplished skier too, having earlier in 1948 been chief instructor at the Army’s Winter Warfare and Ski School then at Sonmarg. Following the example of Holdie, he carried skis to Meade’s Col on Kamet in 1953 and skied down from Camp 5 at an altitude of 23,000 ft.
Finally, on the third attempt on Kamet in 1955, leading a joint HMI and BEG expedition, Nandu scaled Kamet, the highest summit for Indians at the time, as described earlier. As Principal of HMI, Nandu led an expedition in 1956 to explore and attempt Saser Kangri I (25,170 ft) in the Eastern Karakorams. The team was, however, able to climb on 25 July a
formidable and frightening unnamed peak, but not without giving them many anxious moments, at the head of the Sakang Lungpa glacier on the Saser range, which Nandu later proposed to name ‘Sakang’ (24,150 ft). Among those who accompanied Nandu to the summit were Das, Topgay
Pulzer, Vijay Raina and his Sherpa colleagues of HMI, Da Namgyal, Nawang Gombu and Topgay. Mohan Kohli, of subsequent Everest fame, began his mountaineering career as a member of this expedition. It was another commendable first ascent of a virgin peak and the third highest climbed until then in the Karakorams, after K2 (28,250 ft) and Gasherbrum II (26,260 ft).
In July 1957, Nandu led a seven-member combined Services expedition, with three Sherpa instructors, to climb Nanda Devi (25,645 ft) as an advanced course of HMI. On 21 July, the first summit team was barely 600 ft from the summit when a most fearsome blizzard lasting for three days struck the mountain which had to be evacuated with the utmost speed and difficulty – miraculously, all members returned safely to the base camp, reflecting leadership of a very high order.
Cho Oyu, 8156 m (26,750 ft), 1958: Tragedy mars success
In April 1958, after relinquishing charge the previous month as Principal of HMI, Nandu had been asked by Prime Minister Nehru, by virtue of his being the most experienced Indian mountaineer, to join an ambitious, Indian Govt-sponsored expedition to the ‘eight thousander’ Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world in the Everest region of the Nepal Himalaya. The initiative for the venture had been taken by Keki Bunshah, who had earlier climbed Trisul, and included Jagjit Singh, John Dias, Sonam Gyatso, and Pasang Dawa Lama who as a Sherpa had climbed it in 1954 with the Austrian, Herbert Tichy. Having got delayed handing over charge of HMI, Nandu had to make double marches from Darjeeling to catch up with the expedition which had already meanwhile set up high camps on the mountain. He felt worn out when be reached base camp on 23 April, but pushed ahead to Camp 1 at 20,800 ft after a day’s rest. His condition worsened and despite oxygen and medication, on the morning of 28 April, Nandu was no more, succumbing to pulmonary oedema. According to his wish, he was buried near Camp 1, in eternal rest among the mountains he loved so much with all his heart and soul. Cho Oyu was climbed at 1515 hrs on 15 May by Sonam Gyatso and Pasang Dawa Lama in exceptionally severe conditions of gale force winds and extreme cold, compelling the third member on their rope, John Dias, to turn back so as not to slow down the summit pair and courageously returned alone from a height of25,000 ft. Earlier, Jagjit Singh after heroic efforts in setting up the highest camps withdrew to the base camp fearing he would be a drag on the summit team. Acrowning achievement indeed for Indian mountaineering!
The loss of Nandu Jayal, however, on the same expedition was, ironically, a serious setback for Indian mountaineering as, unquestionably, he was the most experienced climber, with an intuitive philosophic approach, among Indian amateurs of the sport. A naturally gifted mountaineer, he joined every climbing opportunity that came his way in the early years of Indian mountaineering. His love of mountains clearly transcended the merely physical aspects of ascending peaks, exemplified in his writings of what was for him a total experience – not only in the ineffable beauty of mountainscapes around him but in their character building role and in forging human relationships. In his brief life of 32 years, Nandu packed in a life-time of mountain endeavour, and adventure, braving extreme hazards fearlessly, and thus inspiring a whole generation of early Indian mountaineers with rare qualities of mind, spirit, physical grit, courage and stamina, and articulated with rare feeling what the noble sport of mountaineering was all about. Nandu’s shining magnetic quality in the mountains included an enormous generosity of spirit and deed to a fault, and an eloquence that I can never fail to recall in his following words: ‘The Himalaya will forge men who, when they come back to everyday life will do so with a changed perspective ignoring the petty and trivial.. with an attitude of mind in which they feel ‘physically small and spiritually great,’ and the realization that it shall profit a man even if he lose the whole world and find his own soul.’ These were the perceptive concluding words of Holdie’s obituary of Nandu: ‘ He died very much the master of himself and of most of the world that is worth mastering .’
Gurdial Singh (1924- )
Gurdial joined the Doon School as assistant master in 1945, and it was natural that his interest in the mountains would be kindled not only by their proximity to the school, but by his close friendship with the English ‘trinity’ of Martyn, Gibson and Holdsworth to whom he paid generous tribute in these words : ‘These then were the early creditors from whom we drew our inspiration and whom several of us consulted before setting out on Himalayan travel. They gave a fillip to the quest for adventure, whether in the mountains and valleys of Garhwal or elsewhere, by their example, stimulus and precept during term-time and long vacations. It is only fitting to record that we owe them a vast debt of gratitude.’
In 1948 the seed was first sown to grow into a fascination for the Himalaya with a four-week high altitude trek with Willi Unsoeld, later of the Everest West Ridge fame. In 1950, Gurdial joined Jack Gibson’s
successful expedition to Bandarpunch to initiate his mountaineering career. He himself climbed the peak later in 1975. In 1951, Gurdial led a small team to Trisul and was the first Indian to climb a major Himalayan peak. The following year in 1952 Gurdial was member of the unsuccessful Bengal Engineer Group’s
expedition to Kamet in which he climbed to over 24,600 ft. Again the next year in 1953, he joined a BEG team to Kamet and Abi Gamin. In the final expedition in 1955, Kamet was at last climbed, but Gurdial climbed Abi Gamin. In 1956 Gurdial led the ill-fated expedition to Mrigthuni which withdrew when a member was lost, but in 1958 he repeated the attempt when the first ascent of the peak was accomplished. He climbed Devistan I (21,910 ft) and Maiktoli (22,320 ft) in 1961. In 1962 and 1965 he was a member of the Indian expeditions to Everest. In May 1962, he spent an amazing unprecedented six consecutive days on the wind-swept South Col at c.26,200 ft!
He became eminence grise to mountaineers, often accompanying training groups from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering at Uttarkashi, and acting as adviser to expeditions organised by the IMA and Indian Artillery, and introducing young mountaineers to the plants, birds and animals of the high hills. In 1952 Gurdial was the first Indian to become a member of the Alpine Club. He was awarded the Aijuna Award in 1965, the Padma Shri in 1967, and the President’s Gold Medal of the IMF in 1982, in recognition of his enormous outstanding contribution to Indian mountaineering.
Jagjit Singh (1933- )
An old boy of the Doon School, and Gurdial’s younger brother, Jagjit began his mountaineering adventures on Bandarpunch in 1950. Later in 1959 he led a team of Gunners and climbed Kalanag (Black Peak). In 1953, he joined the BEG expedition and did very well to climb up to Meade’s Col at c.23,000 ft. In 1958 Jagjit, a member of the Cho Oyu expedition, worked hard, in severe wind and cold conditions to establish the high Camp 2 at c.24,000 ft, which led to the first successful ‘eight thousander’ ascent by Indians. Jagjit led some 31 expeditions to the Himalaya in the sixties and seventies most of which were successfully accomplished – by any reckoning an outstanding achievement of Himalayan mountaineering.
John Dias (1929-1964)
John was a very accomplished mountaineer who climbed Abi Gamin while with the successful 1955 Kamet expedition. In 1958, as a member of the Cho Oyu expedition, he was one of the three climbers on the summit rope when forced to withdraw from a height of 25,000 ft. Later in 1962, he led the second Indian expedition to Everest and spent four days on the South Col c.26,200 ft. Another most promising mountaineer, and a very close friend and companion of Nandu, lost through illness to the country at the young age of 35.
Sonam Gyatso (1923-1968)
Sonam, a Sikkimese of Govt’s Frontier Constabulary, was a very strong natural mountaineer, who climbed to within 600 ft of Nanda Devi in 1957 when bad weather thwarted a bid for the summit. The following year, Sonam climbed Cho Oyu along with Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama, becoming the first amateur Indian climber to attain an ‘eight thousander’ peak. He was thus an obvious choice for the first Indian expedition to Everest in 1960, in which also he was beaten back by bad weather from an altitude of 28,200 ft. In 1965 Sonam climbed Everest with an Indian expedition. In 1968 Sonam passed away after a brief illness. A grievous loss of an outstanding mountaineer to the country at the age of only 45.
Aamir Ali (1923- )
A lover of the mountains since his school days at the Doon School, Aamir, accompanied by Gurdial Singh and Rajendra Vikram Singh, made the first ascent of Mrigthuni in 1958. His career with the ILO in Geneva kept him away from the Himalaya, his first love, but he climbed and skied extensively in the European Alps.
Keki Bunshah ( c.1931- )
Keki climbed Trisul in 1956, and conceived and led the successful Cho Oyu expedition in 1958.
Nalni D. Jayal (1927- )
Inspired by my cousin, Nandu, I joined the Trisul expedition as a novice in 1951. Bitten by the mountaineering bug, I joined the Kamet expedition in 1952. In June 1953 I flew over Everest in an Air Force Liberator to operate a cine camera and guide the crew to the correct peak. In July, 1953 I joined a French expedition as member and liaison officer which
made the first ascent of Nun. In 195I I joined a Royal Air Force expedition to the Lahaul triangle in Himachal, in which every member climbed at least two peaks ranging between 18,000 and 21,000 ft. In 1956 I joined the tragic Mrigthuni expedition cut short by the loss of one of our companions. From 1960 to 1967 I served as Deputy Commissioner of a newly formed border district of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. During these seven years I travelled, mostly on foot, to every village in my District, often crossing high passes. My travels included a circumambulation (parikrama) of the revered mountain, Kinner Kailash, at the early stage of my unusually long tenure in a remote, enchanting Himalayan district which encompasses three mountain ranges – the Dhaula Dhar, the Great Himalaya and the Zanskar.
Sherpas and Garhwalis : Role at High Altitudes
No praise is high enough for the role of Sherpas and Garhwalis in providing critical support for establishing camps high up on mountains, carrying vital equipment and securing routes in often difficult rock, ice and snow conditions. The early Indian expeditions were particularly fortunate to obtain the services of such outstanding Sherpas as Tenzing, Ang Tharkay, Dawa Thundup, Gyalgen Myckje, and Garhwalis of the border villages of Dhauli ganga valley, Kalyan Singh, Diwan Singh, Puran
Singh, Kesar Singh and Bijay Singh. These stalwarts of the mountains with their enormous stamina and natural acclimatisation to high altitudes often led ropes of summit teams to the top, as on Bandarpunch and Trisul. It defies belief to recall that the Garhwalis, such as Kalyan Singh and Diwan Singh, climbed to as high as 24,000 ft in the then popular footwear, Bata’s (rubber) Hunter boots!
Requiem for the’ Golden Era’ of Mountaineering
From this narrative of the early years of the forties and fifties it would be quite fair to state that the Doon School was indeed the cradle of Indian mountaineering, which nurtured and produced some fine mountaineers of a quite distinctive vintage. The tradition set by their peers in Doon was of a many dimensional sport, not concerned only with physical prowess but also with a keen perception of the wonderful gifts of Nature in all their diversity, whether in the ever changing mountainscapes or in the flower- strewn meadows, or in the rich profusion of birds and animals, and so much else that defies comprehension. To discover ourselves too and our companions brought together in small friendly groups in a spirit of camaraderie and shared curiosity, to respect and admire local people and their rich cultures evolved from closeness to nature… such was the ethos that propelled the early adventure lovers to the mountains year after year, not to earn fame and fortune, but to inspire others to enrich their lives the way they had influenced ours.
The early expeditions were in low key, small in numbers never exceeding ten, financed very frugally largely by the members themselves, anxious primarily to enjoy a mountain holiday, with equipment so basic and rudimentary as to be laughable by present day standards. While climbing to the top was always a desired objective, the discovery of a flower, Christolea himalayensis, at the highest known altitude on earth on an unsuccessful expedition transcended any sense of failure. Flag- waving on the top in a spirit of ‘conquest’ was not a practice that harmonised with a sense of humility and gratitude to the mountain gods for successes granted.
Following the inspirational first ascent of Everest in 1953 that led to the establishment the following year of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and an autonomous sponsoring agency, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation a few years later, mountaineering in India gained considerable popularity. From the sixties, at the national level, the sights were set on Everest as the ultimate objective, and three large, and expensive expeditions were officially mounted in 1960, 1962 & 1965, the last being successful. Hopes of then leaving the mountain alone proved illusory, with a spate of even larger and more ambitious expeditions – costs being no consideration – followed, mostly organised by the armed forces and para-military organizations, not excluding some women’s teams. Thus the ultimate in climbing proficiency and kudos came to be equated with success on Everest, whether by individuals for their personal glorification or for the groups they represented. But in the process, a certain degree of recklessness and mismanagement, alien to mountaineering ethics, caused the avoidable loss of many precious lives.
It is also rather unfortunate that among this class of mountaineers, the sole objective has been to somehow even at great risk attain summits, usually by the easiest well-trodden routes rather than by challenging new ones, and to plant flags on them, with not a care or thought for pausing, observing and writing about the abundance of Nature’s bounty. One honourable exception that merits notice was the late P.M. Das, a Doon School alumnus, whose many commendable mountaineering ventures in recent decades have been recorded, which cover his keen observations of alpine flowers, thus enriching natural history through his prolific writings. A complete mountaineer indeed, his tragic loss in the Sikkim Himalaya last year was a grievous blow to contemporary Indian mountaineering.
The most regrettable consequences of mountaineering, increasingly on grand scale in large numbers, are not only the degradation of the ethics of a sport imbued with the high ideals described earlier, but also a predictable devastation of the delicate Himalayan environment. Thus, unless generous official sponsorships of large expeditions are forsaken, and the sport reverts to small private groups of the kind the Doon School fostered in what can only aptly be described as the ‘golden era’ of Indian mountaineering, a requiem for the Himalaya and the glorious sport that revered it, will remain to be sung.
Recalling the history early Indian mountaineering.
 The detailed accounts of these expeditions have been compiled in the book For Hills to Climb, edited by Aamir Ali, and published in 2001 by the Doon School Old Boys’ Society.