For centuries, mountain communities have lived all along the great Himalayan range. From one end of the Himalaya near Arunachal Pradesh in the east, to the Western Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges in Pakistan in the west, farmers, herdsmen and traders have eked out a precarious living on the slopes of the highest mountains in the world. The first outsiders to venture in the area in the mid-19th century were explorers and surveyors, looking to fill the blank areas on the map and calculate the heights of the peaks. They were followed by shikaris lured by the abundant game in the dense foothills of the mountains and also by botanists and zoologists delighted at the treasure trove of exotic plants, butterflies and birds. By the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, they were joined by an ever increasing tribe of climbers. It is no surprise therefore the creation of a mountaineering club was talked about long before it came into existence. In fact when it did, not one but two clubs cropped up almost simultaneously – The Mountain Club of Calcutta and The Himalayan Club in Simla. The first meeting of The Himalayan Club took place on February 17th, 1928 and at this meeting it was decided to invite The Mountain Club to amalgamate with it; a proposal that was accepted. The first AGM of this united Himalayan Club took place in February 1929.
Sir Geoffrey Corbett, the first Hon. Secretary of the Club defined its objectives:
‘To encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend the knowledge of the Himalaya and adjoining ranges through science, art, literature and sport.’
At that first AGM there were 250 members: 127 founder-members, 49 former members of The Mountain Club and 74 ordinary members. The Raja of Jubbal was the only Indian on the rolls.
The first job of the Club was to appoint ‘Local Secretaries’ in places where people set off for expeditions – Darjeeling, Chamba, Kashmir, Kumaon and Simla. These local secretaries would help with information and the hiring of porters and interpreters. Darjeeling soon became the most active chapter with an increasing number of expeditions both small and large setting out every year.
A special relationship developed between The Himalayan Club and the Sherpas and Bhotias of Darjeeling. Lists of available porters were drawn up, porter books were issued in which leaders of expeditions would rate the work done by individual porters and in 1939 the Club decided to award TIGER badges to exceptional porters with proven ability on ice and rock. The possession of the TIGER badge meant higher rates of pay above the snow line and bestowed upon the porters respect and status. This relationship continued down the years. The last of the TIGER badges were given to select porters of the Indian 1965 Everest expedition. During the Club’s Millennium celebrations in 2000, tribute was paid to three surviving TIGERS: Ang Tsering, Nawang Gombu and Nawang Topgay. Ang Tsering subsequently passed away in 2001, Nawang Gombu in 2011 and Nawang Topgay in 2012 bringing to an end the era of the great Sherpa Tigers.
The Himalayan Journal was started to carry expedition reports and articles about the Himalaya. Volume 1 appeared in April 1929 and Major Kenneth Mason was the editor. He remained editor for the next 12 years till 1940 when WWII made it impossible to continue functioning. In the issue for 1940, Maj. Mason wrote:
As may readily be imagined, The Himalayan Journal has been edited and published this year under considerable difficulty and great pressure of other work. Some papers have had to be held over until 1941. There is little time in England now for anything but concentration on the task of ridding the world of the disgusting cruelty and sadistic brutality of the creed which permeates Hitler’s Germany.
The next issue of the journal was not in 1941 and in fact did not make an appearance till the war was over, and this time with C. W. F. Noyce as editor. However it was to be the only volume he edited as he had a climbing accident in 1946 – his third – and he withdrew into a retired life.
1946 was also the year that C. R. Cooke of the Eastern Section designed a badge for the Club consisting of the initials ‘H.C.’ superimposed on the outline of the Chorten that can be seen on the way to the Rongbuk glacier. The badge was first used on notepaper and then on Club ties. From 1960 it acquired a permanent place on the cover of The Himalayan Journal.
In 1947, H. W. Tobin took over as editor in England and continued editing the journal till his death in 1957. Interestingly, when he began in the year of India’s Independence, Tobin thought his job would be to lay the journal to rest. He wrote:
… alas, the swift evolution as independent states of India and Pakistan brings in its train the early repatriation of nearly all active members of the Himalayan Club.
Nationalization of the Club or its successor will mean production of its Journal by a national editor and a national publication. So it seems that volume xiv is almost certain to be a final issue.
An apologetic Tobin acknowledged in the next issue:
It is devoutly hoped that the issue of this volume of our Journal will help to dispel from the minds of members the unnecessarily dismal apprehensions expressed last year in vol. xiv.
The Himalayan Journal did indeed dispel apprehensions and continued to grow in strength having over the years a string of illustrious and successful editors. T.H. Braham (1958–1959) took over after Tobin and in turn was succeeded by the first Indian editor – Dr K. Biswas in 1960. Soli Mehta took the reins from 1969 – 1979 and then again from 1987 – 1989. Harish Kapadia became one of the most successful editors with the longest spell of any from 1980 – 1986 and then again from 1990 – 2010. Rajesh Gadgil became editor of The Himalayan Journal in 2011. In 2012 and ’13 the Journal was jointly edited by him and Nandini Purandare and since 2014, it has been in the capable hands of Purandare – the first woman to hold this prestigious post.
The Himalayan Club newsletter was started in 1951 and published annually to wide appreciation. Technological advances however also necessitate appropriate responses, so The Himalayan Club website was launched in 2002 and in July 2005, an E-Letter was started. In its inaugural issue, the following announcement was made:
The Himalayan Club annually publishes The Himalayan Journal and The Himalayan Club Newsletter. Between them they cover mountaineering and related activities in the Himalaya. Now with the availability of electronic media and its quick reach this is the first “E-Letter” sent to members and others. This will be ultimately posted on the Himalayan Club website for a permanent record. In the “E-Letter” series we intend to cover activities of the Himalayan Club members with other topical news.
To date 39 volumes of the E-Letter have appeared, the most recent being in March 2020.
And finally in 2006, an E-group in the form of Facebook group was launched to provide a forum for queries, interaction and the sharing of experiences. This has proved immensely popular and at the time of writing this article the group has of over 712,095 members and counting.
Himalayan Club special publications
For the 60th Anniversary in 1988, the editors of the Journal, Soli Mehta and Harish Kapadia produced the book, Exploring the Hidden Himalaya and copies were distributed free to all the members. It ignored the 8000 m peaks seeking out instead the less known and more challenging summits. The popularity of the publication occasioned a reprint in 1998 and then again in 2008.
To mark the millennium, the editor published A Passage to Himalaya – a selection of the best writings from the Journal nos. 1 to 55 (1928-2000). This was also distributed free to all members.
At the Annual Seminar in 2017, to celebrate the beginning of the 90th year of The Himalayan Club, the editor unveiled a special edition of the Journal. Reproduced to closely resemble the early issues, this volume has reprinted the best articles, correspondence and advertisements from the first ten issues. This was also distributed free to all members.
In its early years, the Club’s primary role was to assist travel and exploration in the Himalaya. By the 50’s however, certain events took place that affected this role and the influence of the Club.
One change was occasioned by the setting up of the HMI. When Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing climbed Everest for the first time in 1953, a young India looking for heroes saw in Tenzing the very role model it sought. A euphoric Nehru, wanting the creation of ‘a thousand Tenzings’ gave his blessings and active support for the setting up of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Major Nandu Jayal was made the first Principal and Tenzing became the first Director of Field Training. The first instructors Tenzing Norgay, Ang Tharkay, Da Namgyal, Gyalzen Mikchen, Nawang Gombu, Ang Temba and Nawang Topgay were sent to Switzerland for training and the Institute opened its doors in November 1954 to the first batch of students. At the beginning, Basic and Advanced Courses in mountaineering were open only to boys but later offered to girls as well. Soon other institutions were set up in Uttarkashi and Manali. The influence of these institutions began to create a community of climbers who saw no need for clubs like The Himalayan Club.
Another change that occurred was in the Club’s placement of porters. The announcement that appeared in HJ vol. XVIII, 1954, listed six Sherpa Sirdars who would arrange teams of porters if applied to directly. It added:
As it was never the intention of the Club that the Hon. Local Secretary in Darjeeling should permanently be responsible for organising Sherpa porters for expeditions and as there are now Sherpa Sirdars able themselves to accept this responsibility, the Committee recommends that members should apply direct to the Sirdars. The Local Secretary will continue to maintain a register and will always be glad to render advice and assistance to members.
As a result of this development, this valuable contribution of the Club began to dwindle and by the ‘70s ceased entirely. Accompanying this change was the slow shift in starting point of expeditions going to the Everest region from Darjeeling to Kathmandu. Many Sherpas left Darjeeling for their home villages in Khumbu, anticipating better chances of employment.
Yet another factor to change the profile of The Himalayan Club was the establishment of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. It was registered in 1961 with the objects of organizing mountaineering expeditions, encouraging the indigenous manufacture of equipment, and rewarding and helping Indian mountaineers. With its formation, the provision of liaison officers also passed out of the hands of The Himalayan Club.
Since then the Club’s primary functions have been the publishing of the Journal, the sponsoring of expeditions and as a repository of information and archival books and maps.
As mentioned earlier, with Indian Independence came uncertainty regarding the fortunes of the Journal and the Club. Most of the British members had departed the country and The Himalayan Club was left with barely any office bearers. An emergency meeting of the few remaining members took place in Delhi in November 1947 and it was decided to shift the Club Headquarters and the Club library to Calcutta. Then in 1971 two problems arose. The first problem was with the housing of the library within the National Library premises. After charging nominal rent for years, it was suddenly seen fit to present a whopping bill to the Club with arrears. What would have been a catastrophe was averted with the timely assistance of the Ministry of Education and the IMF. All the precious books were packed and shifted to the Central Secretariat Library in New Delhi. In 1976 the library was moved again to the India International Centre where it remains even today. Within a special section, a large and irreplaceably valuable collection of books, periodicals and archival material are available for perusal with permission.
The second problem faced in Calcutta was the lack of enough active members to oversee the functioning of the Club. It was decided to shift the Club headquarters to Bombay. The following explanation was given in the Club News of HJ 31 (1971):
With the loss by transfer and departures from India of several members, the Committee at Calcutta found it increasingly difficult to operate and, with a more enthusiastic and numerous membership building up in Bombay, considered it advisable to shift the Secretariat there. This was done and after a period of uncertainty the new Committee has settled down to some hard work.
Thus it was that The Himalayan Club started a new chapter of existence in a new city. For many years, the Club operated from the offices of Jagdish Nanavati at Ballard Estate. Owning space in an expensive city like Mumbai was a dream that seemed almost impossible to fulfil. Then in 2006, owing largely to the untiring efforts of Dr M. S. Gill, President of the Club, and Tanil Kilachand, the dream came true. A princely amount was raised and premises acquired at the Turf Estate, within stone throwing distance of the Mahalaxmi race course. The office was inaugurated on 6th May, 2006 and named The Himalayan Club Centre. It has one of the largest collections of maps of the Himalaya, a video and CD library of films, a reference library of books and priceless mementoes.
While the headquarters shifted to Bombay, the Sectional offices in New Delhi and Kolkata continued to operate. The New Delhi office was restarted in 1951 and all three Sections began organising a steady stream of activities and programmes through the year. On June 25, 2006, the Pune office was opened. Under the dynamic leadership of Dr. Raghunath Godbole it has managed to attract a steadily growing youthful membership through outdoor camps and activities. At present The Himalayan Club also has local secretaries in the Indian cities of Almora, Bangalore, Leh, Darjeeling, Jammu and Kashmir, Manali, Shimla and Mussoorie among others and in the countries of Australia, France, Japan, Korea, Nepal, New Zealand, UK, Pakistan, Spain, South America, Sweden and Switzerland.
The last history of The Himalayan Club was written by Aamir Ali (HJ number 64, 2008) and titled ‘The Himalayan Club at Eighty’. This excellent article carries a list of all the earlier histories appearing in the Journal and readers are encouraged to read Aamir Ali’s article and those he mentions for a most vivid and comprehensive understanding of exploration and climbing in the Himalaya before the Club was started and for the role played by the Club in the eighty years of its existence until 2008. This article attempts to carry the story forward from 2008. However, a background based mainly on the earlier histories is provided here for the sake of completeness.