Himalayan Journal vol.05
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (Lieut.-Colonel B.E.M. Gurdon)
    (HELLMUT DE TERRA Tale North India Expedition)
  7. KULU
    (A. P. F. HAMILTON)
    (Captain G. C. CLARK)
    (G. A. R. SPENCE)
    (Lieut.-Colonel KENNETH MASON)
  14. NOTES



Any one possessing some acquaintance with the literature of mountaineering as a sport must be struck with the great advance in achievements since the days of Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers. I refer not only to the great pioneering ascents and deeds of individual brilliance, but also to the attitude of mind of the average climber and small fry generally who follow in the wake of the giants. The latter have raised the standard of what is humanly possible-that is their great value-to their weaker brethren-and all the way down to the weakest we benefit by a corresponding gain in confidence.

So it came about last October that Mr. John Hale and myself found ourselves bound for Chomiomo, with three weeks' leave, small experience of real climbing, and a fund of enthusiasm for the project which went some distance towards filling the gap. For porters we were fortunate in having Lewa, whose feet had already sufficiently recovered for him to take part in such a trip, and Nima Dorje, in addition to three other Sherpas each with at least one big expedition to his credit. The history of the peak, which is 22,430 feet above sea-level, is soon told. It was climbed in 1910 by Dr. A. M. Kellas, who ascended by the North-west Ridge and descended by one of the eastern ridges, exactly which one is not clear from his brief and over-modest account of the climb. I am not aware of any serious attempt to climb it since, though many parties bound for the Donkya La must have cast longing eyes on its shapely mass. In company with Kangchenjhau it dominates the whole of the upper reaches of the Lachen river, which flows between them, forming a magnificent portal.

From the fact that Kellas descended on the eastern, or northeastern side, a study of photographs from various sources, and a small reconnaissance made by Mr. G. B. Gourlay and myself in 1931, we had decided that an approach from the east offered a good chance of gaining the main mountain massif, in the shortest possible time. Eleven miles or so beyond Thangu, the Lachen valley broadens and deploys on to the plain-like continuation characteristic of its remaining stretch to Lake Cholamo at the northern foot of the Donkya La. About here a conical hill, over 18,000 feet in height, and terminating the Eastern Ridge of Chomiomo, comes into prominence on the left. Our choice of route lay round this to the Northeast glacier. Not till later did we discover that the conical peak was connected to the Eastern Ridge of Chomiomo by an easy scree col about 18,000 feet high, the use of which brings a perfect base-camp site within two reasonable marches from Thangu on the way up, and one descending. The distance from the bungalow to this site is about 14 miles; it is 2 ½ miles longer round the hill, and if the transport includes yaks or mules their owners will probably insist on going round.

The tents were pitched on a sandy patch of moraine about 200 yards short of the snout of the North-east glacier (18,200 feet), partly masked by a pile of frontal debris. Surmounting this one gets a footing on the gently inclined lower portion of the glacier which here is quite free of any serious crevasses. It is bounded on the northern side by the high North-east Ridge connected with the main peak by a col reminiscent in outline of pictures of the North Col on Mount Everest, while the (true) right side abuts on the lower East Ridge, through a fascinating col on which views of the fantastic south-eastern ridge of Chomiomo and the elephantine mass of Kang- chenjhau may be seen as one moves up the glacier. There are some splendid examples of the curiosity known as 'glacier tables', particularly on the northern fringe of the ice-stream, which is obviously bombarded with ice and stone avalanches during the summer. High up on the eastern slope of the peak, the neve is broken off to form 'hanging' ice of menacing aspect perched over a precipice of considerable height; an ominous bulge on the opposite side of the glacier below betokens the grave of many a spring avalanche from this source.

This first venture on the glacier took us to a height of 19,000 feet1 on the ninth morning after leaving Siliguri. The comparatively rapid rate of progress to this elevation had not permitted any degree of acclimatization, and when Lewa confidently asserted that October's cold had bound and made the ice perfectly safe, we permitted ourselves, rather against our wills, to run the gauntlet of the hanging glacier. I have already said we lacked experience, and this is particularly true of Himalayan ice in October. However, no ice broke off during the time we spent on the mountain and its glaciers.

Hale and I were easily outdistanced by the porters, who were without loads on this occasion, and we pottered about on the glacier photographing any view that took our fancy, while Lewa and his men established the fact that the 'North Col' of the high Northeast Ridge was easily accessible by a scree wall, arduous but devoid of technical difficulty.

The weather had for two days shown signs of changing, and next day produced the threatened snowstorm. Although we learnt subsequently that extremely wet weather had been experienced for two days down at Lachen, at our Base there was only a light dusting of snow after the storm had ended, and during most of the time Chomiomo was visible through a thin veil of snow, sufficient testimony to the comparatively sheltered conditions prevailing on the lee side of the peak.

1 All heights are aneroid readings with estimated corrections based on comparisons at known altitudes.

The enforced day's rest at the Base did not seem to aid our acclimatization to any degree, but it did convince us that we ought to avoid that hanging ice if at all possible. The decision was accordingly taken when the weather improved to traverse the North-east Ridge at its highest point. As far as we could see it was a scree climb, and the small ice cap on its brow could easily be turned. As height was gained with painful slowness, Kangchenjhau seemed to increase in bulk, and Chombu, on the other side of the Sebo La, disclosed a shape strongly suggesting the Schreckhorn, as seen from the Wetter- sattel. On the broad stony top of the ridge, a cheerless-looking piece of ground that reminded me with absurd persistence of the summit of Ben Macdhui much enlarged, we encountered a bitter head wind; we were too far away from the main bulk of Chomiomo to enjoy its friendly protection from the chilling blast; it was, however, the only occasion when wind troubled us much. The view into Tibet was extensive, stretching as far round as the Everest group. We could discover no easy way down to our objective, the col, for though the vertical distance was small, there was some steep rock of a rottenness I have seen equalled only in the Pyrenees, so a descent had to be made to the northern glacier, again by a loose scree slope, where we pitched our little camp. This northern glacier is considerably higher than the north-eastern, and skirting its edge southwards next morning to a point opposite our col, we had only a few feet to climb to gain the ridge. True, but these few feet consisted of rock ready to peel off in large flakes with the slightest encouragement, and we were both definitely unwell. It was accomplished, however, and we thankfully deposited ourselves in the tent Lewa had ready for us. The altitude was 20,600 feet. The porters Kitar and Ung Tsering had already cut steps some distance up the ridge towards the eastern summit, and next morning the same two men, relieved at times by Galay and Nima Dorje, continued the good work. The snow was very hard, requiring as many as twenty blows to fashion a satisfying step. By this time it was getting obvious that we should not go much farther. Apart from the Sahib's illness, the porters were poorly shod in their own boots, those we had supplied having unfortunately succumbed to the roughness of the screes below. A rib of rock that would have provided a substantial advance without the labour of step-cutting was temptingly near; the ascent by the eastern summit and along the summit ridge appeared quite straightforward, and the weather was ideal, so it was with great reluctance that the order to retreat was given. The height was put at 21,000 feet; the date was the 27th October. We descended to the camp on the col, and rested in the marvellously still air for an hour while we enjoyed the view eastwards to Chomolhari, spying another peak far north of the latter group. Such was our distaste for the horrors of the scree ascent over the North-east Ridge that we returned straight to the Base along the northern edge of the North-east Glacier, thus again running the gauntlet of the ice above. There is no doubt, however, that a fit party could return from the col by the safe route over the North-east Ridge in half a day, to the Base Camp.

Hale was fit enough to make Thangu on foot by the 18,ooo-foot col, but I had to resort to a yak, and go the long way round, with one of the porters who had a bad foot. The necessity of frequently dismounting to rest (I defy any one unaccustomed to the saddle to ride seventeen miles downhill on the back of a yak with an improvised saddle and stirrups without wanting to rest frequently) provided an acceptable variation, while excitement rose to heights on occasion, as when, for instance, my mount suddenly conceived a strong dislike for the tail of the animal in front, or when, shying at a shadow, it bolted, leaving me to fall gracefully into the arms of the ever-ready Namkang, an excellent porter from Lachen village. A mile from Thangu, when it was almost dark, there was a mild stampede, caused by Galay's white trousers, but no one was unseated, though Galay and Namkang both felt the weight of a yak's hoof.

Our appetites returned at Thangu, the luxury of the bungalow tempting us to put in a day's rest there. We had sufficiently recovered to enjoy to the full the beauty of form and autumnal colouring of the Lachen valley below Thangu. Interesting vistas of rock and glacier were seen on the left (east) between miles 55 and 56 from Gangtok; in particular a fine rock pyramid which looked high and rivalled the Matterhorn in apparent steepness. These constitute, of course, the southward continuation of the Kangchenjhau-Chombu range and seem to promise a good field for future expeditions. Gangtok was reached on 2nd November, nineteen days after leaving Siliguri; and, as we had both secured an extra two-day's leave in the fourth week, we utilized the remaining time by trekking to Darjeeling by Song, Temi, and Namchi, a ridge and valley route of surpassing beauty.

Although we had not succeeded in climbing Chomiomo, we believe the attempt may help to encourage parties of equally modest attainments to further ventures, and so do its mite towards spreading the cult of short climbing holidays in the Himalaya. It is in this hope that the account has been written.