Planning an expedition to the Himalayas is of course part of the fun, and not least choosing the district. In the autumn of 1954 it was to be Nepal again. In 1953 I had been able to do a little exploring south of Everest and to see something of the eastern ranges and in 1950, with Tilman, we had been among the central giants, Annapurna, Manaslu, and Himalchuli. So now I turned my eye westwards and scanned the 200 miles of almost untouched country between Api and Dhaulagiri. Apart from Pokhara there are few big lakes in Nepal and I was attracted by the 2-mile splash of blue on the map which was the Phoksumdo Tal, 14,000 feet above sea-level and circled by high mountains. Kanjiroba, 22,880 feet, especially seemed a worthy objective for a small party. This country is some 50 miles north-west of Dhaulagiri. The approach would be from Sallyan to the south-west, up the Thuli Bheri river to the small town of Tibrokot at about 8,000 feet. Sykes and Polumin of the British Museum Expedition had collected in these parts in 1952 and supplied useful information, but for high-mountain exploration it was to all intents virgin ground. So I applied for permission early in 1954, but as a precaution specified an area within a fifty miles radious of Tibrokot.
I say as a precaution, as I have to confess to a weakness for making one or more changes in plan before the party actually reaches a road-head, fortunately at last bound by the lie of the land to a definite objective. Having finally and enthusiastically decided on a certain area, two or three months’ planning and meditation begin to breed a staleness almost, and the roving eye scanning the map alights on a new and more exciting mountain, possibly many miles away, I may note too, three phases in the preparatory stage of an expedition: one begins with wise and modest aims, determined not to make the mistake of attempting too much, but as time passe confidence and ambition tend to soar and an attempt on a peak of 21,000 or 22,000 feet is discarded in favour of ‘having a look at’ I something a good deal higher. Phase three comes a little later, before the actual plunge of departure. Now doubts begin to creep in and airy plans surrender for the time being to the immediate and limited object of getting the party intact to the base camp.
In the present case the second, or the sky-is-the-limit, phase coincided with a further examination of the map and it was impossible now not to notice that some 20 miles upstream from Tibrokot the Thuli Bheri became the Barbung Khola, and the Barbung flowed down from behind the main ridge of the Dhaulagiri Himal north of three peaks of over 25,000 feet, possibly the last of the giants of the Himalayas not yet reconnoitred even in main outline. So I Mukutgaon near the head of the Barbung and in the northern shadow of Dhaulagiri II became our intended base. This constituted in fact no very major change in plan, but suggested a realignment of the approach route farther to the east of the Bheri valley. Meanwhile, the final decision on this point was kept as a later tit-bit.
A leader liable at short notice to fly off on a personal compass bearing of his own is well advised to keep his party small. It cuts down argument. To go alone with Sherpas permits maximum freedom of movement, but it is also pleasant to travel with a companion of one’s own race, and I was lucky to find an ally in George Iyorimer. We had been to the Karakoram together in 1946. Our object now was to climb a big mountain and apart from the possibly debatable point of size of party we were determined in all other ways to give ourselves a chance of achieving this object, topographical details permitting. Thus our four Sherpas were to be proved South Col men, and we opened negotiations for their employment in February : several hundreds of pounds .were spent on equipment and while subscribing myself more or less to the bag-of-rice school, I instructed Lorimer, buying our supplies in Calcutta, that no expense should be spared to maintain morale below the snow line and life above it. As for dates, a post-monsoon party is more or less committed to a monsoon approach march so as to arrive at a base camp on about the day the weather lifts and make full use of the immediate post- monsoon lull. In our case it was, however, desirable to gain some distant views of the mountains before we made a definite base and we settled for a departure on about 10th September, putting us half- way by 21st September, when the monsoon might be expected In end.
I was to fly to Calcutta from Singapore to join Larimer on 1st September, and on about 15th August preparations entered phase three. The Nepal permit had not yet been granted, the equipment had been in the Calcutta customs for two months and looked like staying there for another two, and severe flooding and loss of life along the Nepalese Indian border bade fair to make a mockery of thoughts of a holiday trip through these stricken regions. To cap other worries a letter now arrived from Angtarkey, with whom I had not previously corresponded, saying that he had noted my demand for Sherpas and intended sending four honest men. Honesty is a quality which I much admire below the snow line but subordinate to climbing ability above, and I sent off a panicky cable to Iorimer. But asusual these difficulties disappeared one by one. The Nepal permit came through and we travelled together from Calcutta to Lehra near the frontier with the expedition equipment in one enormous wooden box, sealed by the customs and only to be opened in Nepal. The floods had evidently affected the west but little, and on arrival in Lehra I was only mildly put out by the news that our head Sherpa, Passang Dawa, was in hospital with pneumonia.
By the time we arrived Passang was much better, but he would not be fit to accompany us. Thus at one stroke we had lost, sirdar, our most experienced climber and cook. I was glad to see Ang Nyima again. Below the snow line he is a somewhat wayward character and one needs to know and understand him. On a mountain and especially under difficult conditions he becomes a genuine example of that often misused term, a born leader. We owed a great deal to his climbing ability and.drive. The other two Sherpas were Lhakpa Tensing, Darjeeling born, but a likeable and capable young Sherpa, and an older and rather depressed looking man, Pemba Norbu, who is the father of the Passang Phutar who gave trouble before Everest in 1953. Pemba’s latest reference said he was not yet an expert rock climber, which gave me a fellow feeling for him, a remark which, however, he disproved towards the end of the expedition when given his head for about the only time. Meanwhile he was cast as cook, it would be ungrateful to say miscast, as he did try very hard. Just before we left Angtarkey had, from the safety of Switzerland, issued an order that porters were in future to demand five rupees a day, as opposed to the old rate of three or four. This we agreed under pressure, but we did stipulate that as we had no sirdar that each man would have his own department, as it were, and receive equal pay. At the end of the expedition it was to our surprise, stolid, and reliable old Pemba who complained. He claimed extra wages for cooking. As I had for the past month been suffering from what I was privately convinced was a gastric ulcer, and stabbing pains which were not at that moment yielding to a treatment of cold beer, I fear that Pemba received a very curt reply to his request. In place of Passang we took a Gurkha rifleman, Hasta bahadur Ale. Poor Haste did not care for mountaineering but he was invaluable in base camp and kept us supplied in game with the aid of our twelve-bore gun. And to complete the party Dougla Carter of the Lehra Depot joined us for the first two weeks of the approach march.
Now we discarded the low-lying but circuitous Bheri valley approach in favour of a route to the east which would bring us into the Barbung at Tarakot, some way above Tibri. This was obviously a more direct way but we had been doubtful; as the last seven days to the Barbung lay over high and very sparsely populated country, culminating in the 15,522 feet Jangla Bhanjyang. We feared that a, bad track, monsoon wet and cold, and coolie shortages might combine to halt the party. However, local advice in Lehra indicated that all should be well, and this route had the added advantage of giving us views of the Dhaulagiri range from the south, monsoon permitting, which might have a bearing on our future movements. Finally, there was the beneficial effect on Singapore and Calcutta constitution of some preliminary jogging up and down between the six and fifteen thousand foot contour. About a third route, much farther to the east, to Mukut from above Tukucha in the upper Kali valley, we had at this time even less information. The track was clearly marked on the map, but so was a track on the other side of the Kali leading almost to the summit of Annapurna. This route we decided to keep for our return journey when we would be travelling light.
On 7th September we rose at three o’clock and loaded the expedition box, the food loads, and ourselves into two trucks and set off for the hills. As we motored across the plains 100 miles of the main Himalayan Range slowly caught fire in the north, a gigantic semicircle of sentinel mountains which watch over, the rolling green hills and forests of the cradle of the Gurkha race, traversed by the gorges of the unseen river valleys, Buri Gandakr Marsyangdi, and Kali. The mountains were Himalchuli, Manaslu, Annapurna, Machhpuchare, the gash of the Kali, and then the enormous bulk of Dhaulagiri and its 25,000-feet outliers stretching west to Putha Hiunchuli. Great names all, and great country. Within an hour they were hidden behind thick haze, and as we negotiated long and tedious customs formalities a dust storm swept the countryside followed by torrential rain. In Butwal we unloaded the box for the last time and broke open the seals with savage satisfaction. All that Afternoon we packed and sorted loads and by the evening all were ready together with twenty men to carry them. Phase three was over. With mugs of rum we lay at ease on the upper verandah of a friendly inn below a blue silhoutte of wooden hills: there was a distant roar of running water, the air was fresh after the rain and life was very good.
The days that followed were of the usual pattern of a march in the late monsoon. It rained every day but not particularly heavily or continuously. The valleys were very hot and the rice fields full of water: the track edged along muddy, slippery banks or waded through fields and irrigation channels and then shot steeply up blue ridges into the mists. There were rivers to cross by dugout or by swing bridges in various stages of apparently perilous decay, and after that vision on the road to Butwal we hardly saw the snows for a month.
After twelve days we reached the pleasant green valley of the Uttar Ganga at 10,000 feet in alpine country and halted a day to change coolies. The Butwal men had carried well and were keen at first to continue, but they had brought insufficient clothing for the more rigorous days ahead. Here in Dhor we were surprised to find that our carriers would be Kamis, the menial metal-worker caste of Nepal. We did not care for the Kamis, a rather mean and grubby crowd who talk too much and struck a hard bargain. Having said this I must add that once under way they carried well and with few individual exceptions stuck to their bargain. Their toughness and fortitude in wind and rain in more or less open camp sites at over 12,000 feet with little firewood amazed us, wrapped ourselves in high-altitude clothing and with sleeping bags and tents in which to take refuge. Now for seven days our way lay through a fine country of high ridges, alpine meadows, and pine forest. This was the time we should have been gazing at the southern and western aspects of the mountains of our desire, but hardly a glimpse we caught through the monsoon clouds. We crossed the Jangla Bhanjyang and descended to Tarakot. Here we changed transport and it was Kamis again. They even had a large village of their own, apart from the main settlement of Gurkha stock mingling into Nepalese Bhotia. A meaner lot this, who demanded cash in advance and took three days to cover two days’ march to Kakkotgaon. From here the people were Bhotia and the track became passable for yaks. We bade farewell to our Kami army without regret but our satisfaction was shortlived for the men of Kakkot demanded a quite impossible sum to take us the remaining three days to Mukut. Twenty-four hours’ bargaining by Lorimer by now firmly established as the Dr. Schachti of the expedition, reduced this by half. We now left the pine country and travelled through barren gorges and over windy uplands, relieved in places by beautiful oases of crystal springs and birch and juniper copse.
On 5th October our yak caravan marched into Mukut. Including halts the journey had taken twenty-eight days and we had spent much more than our budget of transport money. But we had arrived and here in Mukut we found friends and fine mountains, and six weeks stretched ahead. This day, too, the monsoon ended at last and for three weeks there was hardly a cloud in the sky.
Leaving Pemba and Haste to look after base the four of us took a week’s food up to camps at 17,000 and 18,000 feet above Mukut, which lies itself at 14,000. From here we climbed without great difficulty two peaks of about 20,500 feet: the snow-line north of the main range is high and these climbs cannot be compared with similar altitudes to the south. The summits, however, gave us views of the fine twenty-two thousanders around, none too easy but mostly climbable to the eye of faith. It was tempting to continue here, but we had not walked all this way to bag such lowly peaks. During our advance up the Barbung we had seen little of the northern slopes of the Dhaula range owing to the weather, and now we were round the corner, to the east. But the eastern face of Dhaulagiri II was visible, the amazing back-drop to our camps and climbs during this time. This surely is one of the great mountain walls of the world. The summit is 25,429 feet high and the snout of the small glacier at its foot only 14,000 feet. The fall of fluted ice is almost sheer for three-quarters of this height.
We descended to Mukut full of confidence after our early successes, and intent on now finding a way up Dhaula II from the north. Down in base we found that during our absence Haste had shot some forty head of snow pigeon, snowcock, and hill partridge. As his cartridge allowance had been three a day, or eighteen in all, this was a good example of Gurkha skill and cunning. Later on he shot two bharal with a twelve bore. I don’t suppose many climbing expeditions have before consumed so much meat in the Himalayas or featured fresh roast partridge on the high-altitude menu. But apart from this matter of food, and we seldom had the gun at hand at the right moment anyway, the close presence of game gave an added fascination to our walks and explorations below the snow line. One day while by myself I saw within a single hour two herds of bharal, several coveys of partridge and snowcock, two hares, and the usual snow pigeon.
Lorimer had been falling out below the 20,000-foot contour on our preliminary climbs and it was now decided that he should stay with Ang Nyima in order to gain further acclimatization, while Lhakpa and I retraced our steps down the Barbung to view the lower peaks of Dhaulagiri from the north. During one long day, 16th October, I reached from a camp at Tarenggaon a height of about 17,000 feet above Pemringgaon, and thanks to excellent view- points and fine weather was able to make a fairly accurate assessment of the problem. In the Himalayan Journal for 1934 Professor Kenneth Mason lists:
Dhaulagiri 26,810 feet
Dhaulagiri II 25,429 feet
Dhaulagiri III 25,271 feet
Dhaulagiri IV 25,064 feet
Dhaulagiri V 24,885 feet
And farther to the west:
Churen Himal 24,158 feet
and Putha Hiunchuli 23,750 feet
All these points of Dhaulagiri were clearly visible including the main peak itself which lies, however, some 4 miles south of the axis of the Dhaulagiri Kimal, far removed from the Barbung, and in which our interest was only academic. The clue to all four of the remainder lies in the attainment of the great open slopes of snow and ice which supply the ice-falls emptying down into the cauldron of the upper Churen Khola. From these slopes at about 22,000 feet no critical difficulties apart from distance and altitude appear to bar access to the summits, excepting Dhaulagiii IV, a much tougher proposition than its higher neighbours. The ice-falls below are very steep but should be surmountable provided their snouts extend down to the valley floor and do not overhang ice-worn rock precipices. This latter condition seemed quite probable but it was not possible to look over the rock peaks which buttress the upper Churen, and down into its head. And herein lies the second difficulty, for there is no route up the river gorges and the only course would be to outflank them by a wide detour over very precipitous ground to the east. The locals at this time denied the existence of the possibility of any such route and it did seem that any move in this direction would be ill supported by them.
Wandering along by myself over these pleasant rolling uplands with one of the great views of the Himalayas before me, I was in something of a quandary. It seemed that we should really make an attempt to gain the head of the upper Churen and examine the ice-, falls, but this double problem of both the gorge and the ice-falls would probably put an ascent of Dhaulagiri II completely beyond the reach of a small party and I was doubtful about devoting the rest of our time to a reconnaissance which might give a negative result. I was beginning to wish that the whole face was a downright precipice without the ghost of a route, so that we could return to the smaller Mukut peaks with a clear conscience, when my further wanderings, higher and westwards in a vain attempt to see over the bulwarks of the Churen, brought me into sight of Putha Hiunchuli and an excellent compromise. From a height of about 21,000 feet the north-east face, an enormous slab of snow and ice only moderately inclined, led to the 23,750-foot summit. What lay below I could not see from here, and I avoided the fact that above this height Dhaulagiri II also looked climbable but was very doubtful below. In the case of Putha I had, however, a feeling that there was a route and returned to Mukut the following day to persuade Lorimer as to our future course. We agreed at once on an attempt on Putha Hiunchuli, but to be preceded by a week of climbing and further acclimatization above Mukut to fit us for the trial, followed by an attempt by Lorimer to force the gorge of the upper Churen while I made certain that a route existed up the Kaya Khola from Kakkot, at any rate to the foot of my day-dream.
This first week was not a great success. After three days’ hard work we reached a height of about 20.500 feet and only 500 feet below the summit of a mountain we called Conical Peak, only to find ourselves cut off from the base of the steep but climbable final ice cap by a 200-foot knife edge of rotten rock, which we were unable to negotiate. A higher camp or a more careful reconnaissance would have probably ensured success. From this valley called the Chimukarmu we moved north in a single day to a camp 18.000 feet at the head of the Langru glen and at the foot of a fine 22,000- foot mountain. Now we were careful and determined to make certain of our summit. Iyhakpa and I made a track up the first 2,000 feet and found a site for a proposed camp. From here the ice slopes to the top looked steep but even now possible of attainment despite a late start. However, we descended.according to our careful plans, and to a second disappointment, for at last the perfect weather broke and we were chased down to Mukut by heavy snowfalls.
This snow came after three clear weeks, and fearful of the arrival of what we called the winter snows we decided to turn to Putha Hiunchuli without further delay. This was as well, as the trip lasted three weeks in all and despite continued clear weather during much of this time the cold and wind of November did not encourage high climbing. Above the tree-line lest pictures of blue skies deceive, we were usually inside tents and sleeping bags two hours after noon if in camp.
While Lorimer, at one time chest deep in the main stream between retaining walls 2,000 feet high and 6 feet apart, failed to find a way up the Upper Churen, Ang Nyima and I were little more successful in our search for a route up the Kaya Khola to the base of Putha Hiunchuli. Unlike the Churen there was, however, a route, by a detour to the west, although the men of Kakkot did their best to deny it until six braves were offered a very high wage to take us into the valley above the gorge. A long day above Kakkot failed to give me a single view of Putha, which is a very elusive mountain from the north, and my morale sank low as the subsidiary caravans of the expedition approached my camp, convinced by my silence during the past few days that the way was clear. However, we were committed to an attempt on a mountain of which we had seen only the top 3,000 feet and we left Kakkot on 2nd November. To complicate matters it snowed in the afternoons for the next four days and in places we had to cut steps in the frozen earth below the snow covering for the porters’ soft-soled boots. On the third evening we dropped down into the Kaya Khola and camped beyond the gorge at 15,000 feet, but only some 2 miles and 3,000 feet upstream of its junction with the Barbung and the main path to Mukut.
The Kakkot men left us here and the following days were spent relaying loads over difficult and tedious ground to Camp I at about 17,500 feet. This was finally stocked on 7th November and at last we saw the lower slopes of our mountain for the first time and that the way to the summit appeared to be clear. To save food we now sent Pemba and Hastabahadur back to Kakkot and told the former to return after four days with two local men. Further relays and a steep ice slope above Camp II at 19,500 feet brought us to Camp III at about 21,250 feet established on 10th November. The weather was now improving and although the wind was strong and discouraged thoughts of a higher camp on these exposed slopes, it was never a serious menace. The cold was, however, already beginning to affect my feet and at Camp II I changed into our remaining pair of American insulated rubber boots, the Sherpas having adopted with our blessing this elephantine foot-gear lower down. This I did after discussion with Iyorimer, who in plain leather boots seemed happier than I was in my specially made double-skinned Himalayan boots, and was now coming on form.
That night in Camp III was noisy with wind and rather depressing. I had had a trying time with crampons, which slipped off my rubber boots every few feet, and worked until darkness joining the two with the aid of boot-laces. But it was this combination which gave us the summit the following day. Without crampons the long climb up these wind-hardened slopes patched with ice would not have been possible in a single morning, and poor George in his leather boots had to give in to the cold after two hours. Lhakpa went down with him.
Ang Nyima and I continued. The climb is unfortunately a photographic blank as the camera had been left out of my sleeping bag and both shutter and wind-on were frozen. The summit cone was considerably steeper than the lower slopes but lacked any real technical difficulty. None the less, conscious mainly of warm feet and the fact that I had never been so high, the climb gave considerable pleasure and 200 feet below the top I cramponned slowly past a young man who had been to nearly 28,000 feet on Everest. At 1.13 p.m. four hours after leaving camp, we were looking with gratitude across to the southern sea of green hills and valleys and the country we had traversed six weeks before. The descent was pure joy. striding straight down towards the two tiny tents at Camp III.
Here we spent a second night and then continued down to meet Pemba at base. Descending to Kakkot we used a much shorter ridge route, snowed up at the time of our ascent. And so back to Kukut, climbing on the way the slopes north of the Barbung to examine once again that side of the Dhaulagiri Himal. Now, after our Kaya Khola experiences, the route into the top of the Churen looked more promising, but my mounting enthusiasm was tempered by a further examination of the lower ice-falls. We had talked before of what we would do after Putha, but now we were tired and time and weather were running out. It seemed best to turn at once to the return by the route eastwards into the Kali valley, leaving the problem of Dhaulagiri II and even our half-climbed Langru mountain until another year.
We left Mukut on 20th November with yaks, and after a week of high passes, dust, and bitter wind reached Tukucha. Now in wooded and softer country, but with Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna still towering in the background, we walked towards Pokhara. There, on 10th December, we changed transport for the last time and boarded an aeroplane for India.
The Survey maps of the country covered during the approach marches, i.e. between Nautanwa on the frontier up to Mukutgaon, are reasonably accurate, but north-east of Dhor they are much the reverse. The main peaks of Dhaulagiri are easily identified from the north. From Putha Hiunchuli eastward as far as the summit of Dhaulagiri II sheet 62 P appears accurate as far as the general outline of the main ridges is concerned; as indeed it should be, for the hills to the north of the Barbung provide the surveyor with a grandstand view of the range. In Nepal individual names are seldom given to other than outstanding peaks, such as Machhapuchare or the great mass of Dhaulagiri itself. Names given in response to offhand questioning of locals should be treated with caution. The system of numbering the lower peaks of Dhaulagiri seems fairly satisfactory, although in the upper Barbung these peaks are known as Churen Himal. The name Putha Hiunchuli evidently derives from the south or south-west. The meaning of Putha is not known, but ‘hum’ is snow, in Nepali, and ‘Chilli’ is often used for summit or high place. South-east of Mukut a diagrammatic correction of the map has been attempted. About the nalas Chimakarmu, Langru, and Hangde the peaks offer a fine climbing field for a small party. Lastly, in comparing heights with mountains south of or on the main Himalayan chain about 2,000 feet can be cut from the effective altitude of these northern summits, owing to the higher snow line. And a mountain presenting to the north and north-west fine slopes of ice and hanging glacier will, on its southern side, be little more than an immense and toilsome hump of rotten rock and scree, sometimes, and more infuriating, caused by a small, but impossible lump of ice.
In collaboration with and by courtesy of the Alpine Journal.