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



The mountaineer who has the good fortune to visit the Kumaun Himalaya is irresistibly reminded of Sir Leslie Stephen's The Playground of Europe; for, as Dr. Longstaff has said, Kumaun has the most Alpine character of those Himalayan districts which have as yet been explored. Vast though the scale is, communications are as good as in the Switzerland of eighty years ago; and numerous valleys pierce the ranges, affording easy access to peak and glacier, as well as the means of living on the country'. The superstitious dread of mountains, so common among primitive hillmen everywhere, is rapidly disappearing-a process accelerated by the Great War, when large numbers of 'paharis' served in regiments or labour-corps in France. It is a little startling when, in some remote valley, you run across a wild-looking shepherd, clad only in a blanket and his own long hair, who accosts you cheerfully with 'Comment vous portez-vous, Monsieur?' If you can cap this in French, and continue in intelligible Hindustani, your shepherd will take you, figuratively one hopes, to his bosom; and will often prove a most excellent guide on his own hill-sides, a universal provider of transport and simple food, a first-rate rock-climber, and, if suitably clothed and booted, no mean performer on snow and ice. His fear of deotas and other ghostly phenomena will usually be in inverse proportion to your capacity as a mountaineer. Once convince him that you know your business, and he will follow you anywhere. Before that stage is reached he may try to lead, convinced that he is a better mountaineer than any foreigner; but a fall into a crevasse or two is a wonderful steadier.

We have, then, in Kumaun easy access to the snows and a sporting peasantry. In spite of this, and of the fact that some strenuous climbing and exploration has been done during the last one hundred years, only two of the major peaks-Trisul and Kamet-have been climbed; while no one has reached even the foot of the grandest of them all, the highest peak in purely British territory in the Empire, Nanda Devi, 25,645 feet. It is the purpose of this paper to explain the difficulties of approach to this mountain, the Goddess Mother of the Central Himalaya. Though the region is not volcanic, Nanda Devi stands within a vast crater-like ring, 70 miles in circumference, the average height of which is some 20,000 feet. On this ring are twelve measured Nanda Devi peaks over 21,000 feet high, while there is no known depression less than 17,000 feet; except on the west, where the Rishiganga river, rising at the foot of Nanda Devi and draining some 240 square miles of ice and snow, has in the process carved a stupendous gorge.

Two internal ridges, converging from north and south respectively upon this river from the walls of the ring, form a kind of inner sanctuary.

Nine several attempts have been made to reach the mountain, in the course of which the ring has been crossed once, and reached but not crossed three times.

It was naturally supposed that the Rishiganga gorge, however difficult in appearance, should provide easier access than the tremendous walls of the 'crater'; and the first recorded attempt was made here in 1883 by Mr. W. W. Graham and two Swiss guides. They were beaten back by the difficulties of the lower section, turned these by a goat-track to the north, and were again brought to a standstill higher up.

In 1905 Dr. T. G. Longstaff, with the brothers Brocherel of Cour- mayeur, tried a new line of attack, by the Lwanl Gadh on the east. After some hard climbing, and still harder load-carrying, they placed a light camp on the south-east ridge of the East Peak of Nanda Devi, which forms part of the barrier wall. From this point, at 19,000 feet, they were able to see the whole southern face, and the southern glacier of the inner sanctuary. But it is doubtful if laden porters, however good, are capable of making a pass here, and the attempt has never been repeated.

In 1907 Dr. Longstaff, with General Bruce, the Brocherels, and some Gurkhas, made the only recorded crossing of the ring; from the north, by the difficult Bagini pass (20,100 feet). According to the Survey map, this should have led them straight to the northern face of Nanda Devi. Unfortunately, handicapped by lack of resources and time, the surveyors, whose general accuracy in this tangled region is the admiration of the traveller, had been forced to guess at the internal economy of the ring. Distant views of ridges, seen from comparatively low ground, are notoriously misleading. The party found itself forced away to the south-west, to a point about half-way down the course of the Rishiganga, the view of the mountain being screened by the northern inner arm of the barrier.

From here Dr. Longstaff ascended Trisul (23,360 feet), on the southern wall; and, leaving his companions to rest after the exertions of that famous climb, made a desperate attempt to ascend the upper gorge of the Rishiganga, but was pulled up by impassable cliffs less than two miles from the source. The party then broke out of the ring westwards, by a track used only by shepherds; and the upper gorge has since that day been left severely alone.

After efforts such as these, most people would have been content to cry 4enough5. Not so Dr. Longstaff. The remainder of the climbing season proper was devoted to an exploration of the Kamet region; and then, with the monsoon-and the leeches-in full swing, he attempted to enter the ring from the south, first by the Nandagini and then by the Sunderdhunga valley. But the Kumaun leeches are voracious, and even the kind of eyes which Sam Weller did not possess cannot pierce monsoon clouds, so both these reconnaissances were inconclusive.

Much refreshed by a twenty-years' interval, Dr. Longstaff returned to the assault in 1927, when my wife and I were privileged to accompany him. After some hardish work, in the course of which I received the finest lesson in route-finding of my life, the crest of the ring was reached and the existence of a feasible pass over into the Rishiganga gorge established. Bad conditions of weather prevented further progress, but in any case this line of approach leaves the problem of the upper gorge unsolved.

Before this, in 1926, a party consisting of Colonel-Commandant (now Major-General) R. C. Wilson, Dr. T. Howard Somervell, and myself attempted to get into the ring via the Timphu glacier on the north-east. Though we were unable to push this attack to the limits of possibility, enough was seen to justify an opinion that further advance, especially with laden porters, requires a very complete previous reconnaissance, preferably up the left bank of the glacier, turning the ice-fall by the north. Future parties might well try this, or alternatively the Shakram and Mangrau glaciers, basing their operations on the big Bhotia village of Milam. Finer weather may be expected here, on the north side of the main chain, than on the southern ridges.

During my 4 ½ -years' service in Kumaun, my eyes often turned to the col at the head of the Sunderdhunga valley, directly to the south of Nanda Devi, which was reconnoitred in such difficult conditions by Dr. Longstaff in 1907. On account of intervening ridges only the upper slopes can be seen from a distance, and these look practicable. Could the whole be climbed, and descended on the other side, by far the most direct and accessible route to Nanda Devi would lie open. From every possible view-point in the district I fed a steadily growing optimism on study with the telescope, but could never find time for the test of practical experiment. Retirement in 1932 brought the longed-for opportunity, and with the guide Emile Rey of Courmayeur, grandson of his famous namesake, I left Europe in April of that year. We were joined at Almora by six Sherpas kindly recruited for us at Darjeeling by Colonel Tobin and Mr. Wood-Johnson. These men had served their apprenticeship on Mount Everest, Kangchenjunga, Jonsong, or Kamet. It was intended that they alone should attempt the serious climbing with us, the preliminary work up to the base camp being done by fourteen locally recruited Dotials and Danpurias.

We received the greatest assistance and support from Sir Malcolm Hailey, President of the Himalayan Club; from the district authorities; and from local residents, English and Indian; and were able to reach the base camp, at the head of the Sunderdhunga valley, by 24th May. From this point an interesting miniature glacier leads up through a very narrow, gloomy gorge to the grazing-ground of Maitoli, directly under the barrier wall. The gorge should be treated with respect, for it has a knack of throwing avalanches or stones upon the unwary from the cliffs above.

Emile had been able to see a good deal of the face below the Sunderdhunga col from Dhakuri, sixteen miles away, and had already ventured an opinion that it looked as formidable as the Brenva face of Mont Blanc. He was much more emphatic when we turned the last corner, to look up at some 6,000 feet of exceedingly steep rock and ice.

The col is probably 18,500 feet high. The left, or western, half of the face below it is defended near the top by an ice terrace some 200 feet thick, extending for about a mile and a half. This terrace resembles those on the north-west face of Kangchenjunga. From it large masses of serac continually break away to sweep the face and form the avalanche cones which decorate the base of a precipice at the foot. The face might be climbed; but this would involve three days and two nights prolonged step-cutting, and continual danger from the ice terrace. Emile, quite rightly, I think, ruled it out at once.

The right, or eastern half of the face presents a choice of three remarkably unpleasant aretes. For two-thirds of the way up they are steep-in some places apparently overhanging; and we could see no suitable platforms on any of them for tents. The couloirs between are constantly raked by ice.

Emile, by no means a pessimist, studied this problem for two hours, and then frankly gave it up. He thought that the two of us might possibly work out a route up the middle arete, but that it was out of the question for the laden, or unladen, Sherpas. The latter agreed, unanimously and without hesitation. They remembered the fate of their comrade, and my old friend, Chettan, on Kangchenjunga.

So ended in disappointment the plan of this little expedition. It was the old story-lack of previous reconnaissance, which the Himalaya never forgive.

The only objective which now suggested itself was a peak 21,624 feet high, standing on the ring and above the right bank of the Pindari glacier to the east. If successful we should get a good view of Nanda Devi and her southern glacier; perhaps even see a way down into the sanctuary.

In bad weather, we almost ran round into the Pindar valley, and, to make a long story short, established a last camp at 17,500 feet under the east ridge of our peak. Emile, unacclimatized to anything higher than the Alps, was indignantly wrestling with the first headache of his life. It eventually yielded to a dose of ammonium chloride-a remedy almost more nauseating than the disease. Some very amusing climbing landed us on the ridge, minus materials for another camp, as only two out of the six Sherpas were able to get up at all, and none with loads on their backs.

This second and final disappointment was to some extent compensated for by the exhilaration of the climb, and by a remarkably fine view of both peaks of Nanda Devi which lasted ten minutes; and by a somewhat sensational descent. In fact, our peak was in no condition for an ascent, and the weather of 1932 was the worst I have seen in the Himalaya. There had been no winter snow, but a heavy fall in April, followed by continuously unsettled conditions. We found nothing but new snow overlaying rotten ice, and Emile's comments bristled with nom de nom and nom d'unepipe, and other emotional Gallicisms; especially when his topi fell off and disappeared spinning like a top, in full career for the Pindari glacier thousands of feet below.

But both he and I would like to return to that fascinating ring. I doubt if the Sunderdhunga will ever 'go'. It is in itself both difficult and dangerous, and exposed to the full force of the monsoon. Better, perhaps, is the Rishiganga gorge; though two very strong parties have failed there, time and patience and skill might find a way across those tremendous cliffs. Lastly, there remains further exploration of the Milam side.

In no circumstances will access to the Goddess be easy. Parties should take every precaution to ensure a safe line of retreat, for a regular line of communications is impossible, and bad weather may mean imprisonment for life, and that a short one.

After all this pother over the approach, what of Nanda Devi herself? The few men who have seen her at close quarters are unanimous that the chances of an ascent are terribly small. It is just possible that a party of exceptional strength and determination might, after prolonged reconnaissance, find a way up the south-west shoulder. It is worth trying.

Nanda Devi from ridge near Traill’s pass

Nanda Devi from ridge near Traill’s pass

The Tso Moriri : Snow massifs of spiti on left.                   The snowy range east of the upper shyok (Muztagh - Karakoram ) as seen from Ku-Lungpa.

The Tso Moriri : Snow massifs of spiti on left. The snowy range east of the upper shyok (Muztagh - Karakoram ) as seen from Ku-Lungpa.