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



After the retreat from Kangchenjunga in late September 1931, we had still some two weeks to spare which we could devote to a closer inspection of Sikkim and its mountains. Pircher and I therefore planned to make a route over the Simvu saddle into the quite unknown Passanram valley. We picked three porters, Norsang, Angchu, and Ketar, and provided ourselves with provisions for five or six days, by which time we hoped to reach the first settlements in the Talung valley.

Near the Green Lake, on the 1st October, we parted from the main body of the expedition. After crossing the Zemu glacier we ascended the steep moraine on the right-hand side1 of a short glacier, and over its flat upper portion moved towards the Simvu saddle. Near the last boulders we pitched camp at 5,100 metres (c. 16,750 feet). The weather was perfect when early next morning we stood on the saddle (17,760 feet), where we had an amazing view down the Passanram valley and upon the mountains on either side of it. To the north-east it is flanked by the appalling southerly wall of Siniol- chu which rises to 22,625 feet; to the south it is wedged in by the spurs of Simvu (22,360 feet). While the ascent from the Zemu side had been comparatively level, the ground at once falls very steeply down the other side towards the Passanram glacier. From the saddle already we could plainly see that the existing map was quite incorrect; for the Passanram glacier does not rise from the Simvu saddle, its main source being rather the great glacier cirque of the Simvu massif from which it sweeps down to the main Passanram glacier with a mighty ice-fall; a big tributary glacier seems to originate on the upper Simvu saddle (point 5660 of the photo- grammetric map),2 while a mile east of that point the Simvu saddle proper, on which we stood, gives birth only to a small but extremely steep hanging glacier, falling directly to the main glacier 2,600 feet below. The main glacier at first trails away in a south-easterly direction until, lower down, where it is already buried under debris, it bends southwards.

First of all we had to reach this valley glacier; the hanging glacier itself was impassable, being completely broken up into ice-barriers and towers. We trudged down along its right-hand side, in the ravine between rock and ice, to a debris-covered expanse which, however, some distance down developed into bare forbidding rocks. Finally, over a ledge, we succeeded in reaching a long rock- couloir which we descended to the junction. Here we found ourselves at once amidst a bewildering labyrinth of crevasses that delayed us for a while, until at last we managed to get out on the main glacier to the right. On it, in the afternoon, we marched down the valley, the weather changing for the worse, and eventually, in pouring rain, pitched camp on the grassy moraine of the right bank of the glacier.

1 All side indications are given in the sense of looking down the valley, river, or glacier.

2 This map is published with Herr Bauer's book, Um den Kantsch, see Review, p. 143. The Passanram and Talung valleys are shown on Survey of India map 78a.-Ed.

It was a wonderful morning, with a deep blue cloudless autumn sky, when we crept out of the tent. Hastily we cooked breakfast, then made a little ascent up the slope rising behind the tent to get a preliminary survey of the surrounding country. Right opposite towered the rock and ice wall of Siniolchu; from the point, where the glacier bends south, to the summit, which is almost vertically above it, there is a difference of height of nearly 13,000 feet: this might well be one of the world's highest rock walls. Some curious secondary glaciers, markedly distinguishable from the main glacier, that are exclusively fed by the avalanches thundering down from Siniolchu, are to be seen at the foot of the wall. On a ridge radiating south-eastwards is set a mountain strangely contrasting in character to the mass of Siniolchu, a kind of Dent du Geant, but vastly larger in scale, with a mountain character one would scarcely expect to meet among the icy giants of the Himalaya.

We marched down the glacier; below the first bend it becomes steeper but is free of debris and crevasses. Some ibex were grazing on the slopes to the right; they were not to be frightened away, as they certainly had never seen man before. We were the first Europeans in this valley, and few, if any, natives have been up so far. At midday we passed the snout of the glacier, and an hour later pitched camp in a basin of the valley which from this point takes again a more easterly trend. On the slope a little above the camp appear the first trees, while the valley-bottom is covered with herbaceous plants and dense bushes.

Next day in perfect weather we marched along the right bank down the valley. At first all went well, though in one place a smooth rock wall, rising straight up from the river-bed, necessitated a deviation up the already densely forested slope. In the afternoon we found that the valley was narrowing, and twice we had to climb high; for the first time we had to cut a way with our bowie-knife. Towards three o'clock we reached a basin beyond which the valley narrows to a glen. Here we found a camping-place with some remains of charcoal-the first signs of man's presence; we could not, however, explain where he had come from, for the glen itself was quite impassable, while the forest-clad slope of the valley, on our side of the river, was very steep and composed of smooth rock. About 300 feet above the opposite bank of the river there seemed to be a flat terrace. But now, in the afternoon, the height of the water did not allow us to cross the river. We camped at the old fire-place, intending to ford the river next morning if possible.

In this, however, we were unsuccessful. A yard from the bank the water reached far above our knees, and the torrent was so rapid that we were forced to return at once. There remained no alternative but to ascend the densely forested slope towards a saddle that seemed to lead into a secondary valley. But even in this we had no luck. For the whole day we ascended without having a view. When in the afternoon we reached a clearing we saw the saddle far down below our standpoint; we had gone too high, but it would not have been much use to us, since the secondary valley ran into the glen not far from our camping-place. We now decided to leave the Passanram valley altogether and to force a way directly into the Talung valley into which the Passanram valley had failed to lead us. We had to bivouac in the forest, for it was impossible to pitch the tent, though we were lucky to find a flat, though muddy, spot where we prepared a dry layer of rhododendron leaves for our sleeping- bags. The day's work had been rather fatiguing: first we had had to struggle through dense forest, then through timber-forest (Hochwald) almost bare of undergrowth; this was broken by a smooth rocky step, over which we found, only after a long search, an upward passage. Higher up the underwood became more dense, so that our progress was impeded. For five days now we had been on the way; our provisions were getting scarce, for we had expected to reach the first settlements in the Talung valley, shown on the existing map as being in that part of the valley we hoped to reach the next day.

The 6th October was a trying day, and at the end of it we were still far from the Talung valley. Directly from our camp, that lay approximately on the edge of the timber-forest, we laboured up through thick rhododendron jungle, ten or twelve feet high. This was very tiring, every yard was gained only after a long struggle; the obstructing branches clung to our rucksacks, making them hideous nuisances. Constantly we had to force our way through narrow clearings. The wood of the rhododendron is incredibly tough; twigs of the mere thickness of a thumb are almost impossible to disentangle from one another. Under such circumstances the passage of an alpine slope with creeping firs appears comparatively a pleasure! Every now and then we had to wait for the porters, who were particularly handicapped by their voluminous loads. Finally, we came out on a clearing that offered a wonderful view of Siniolchu, the Needle, and down the whole Passanram valley, and as far as Singhik, where the road leading down to Mangen could be distinctly seen. Not far off there was the saddle, leading into the Talung valley, but thick rhododendron jungle intervened. Again a long struggle with the tough underwood followed, until we finally stood on the saddle, from where we hoped to descend quickly into the valley. But a fresh obstacle in the shape of a high plateau, a thousand yards broad, on the other side of the ridge, took us four hours to overcome, being, as it was, covered with huge boulders and dense rhododendron jungle. At last we emerged to find ourselves in a little high valley where we found a beautiful camping-place with lots of black berries which our porters knew to be edible and which in flavour reminded me of grapes.

Again we had to camp in the forest, for even on the next day we failed to reach the Talung valley. We started early in the morning, and at first all went well. We descended through the bed of a torrent, but after a few hundred yards we found ourselves on the edge of impassable precipices. We tried to find a way to the right and up to what looked like a practicable ridge bordering our glen, but dense bamboo thickets and steep rocks drove us back. Along the left bank we succeeded, through bamboo jungle and down steep walls, in descending 300 feet, then everywhere forbidding rocks barred the advance. We traversed to the right and at last were rewarded by success. Through bamboo and the usual rhododendron jungle, then timber-forest, and up a few rocky steps we attained the ridge, where we experienced an agreeable surprise: there were distinct traces of a path, twigs were broken, trees marked with the axe, sporadically there was an actual path; but after a short distance all this ended. Like hounds we crept about in the bush, looking for the trail, then turned back to the last traceable mark, traversed to both sides, went up and down, but were unable to find the continuation of that path. For the present this did not matter much. The timber- forest of the ridge caused us to indulge once more in the hope of reaching before dark the first hamlet, but again we were doomed to disappointment: a precipice of from six hundred to a thousand feet lay before us, and along its upper edge we traversed until nightfall.

The following morning, after another short traverse, we found a possible way down. Zig-zagging over rocks and precipices we descended slowly; there were places which could only be negotiated with great difficulty, and once we even had to let ourselves down carefully with the aid of the rope. Thick rhododendron jungle intervened. But at ten o'clock we stood at last on the bank of the Talung river. The place where we had reached the valley was shown on the map as being between the two settlements of Pangong and Sanyen, but not a trace of the path, also recorded by the map, was to be seen. Our situation was now getting serious, our provisions being almost exhausted, since we had been on the way for eight days, instead of only five or six. The Talung valley by no means promised an easier passage than the Passanram; it was as deeply cut and as narrow. The slopes, particularly those on our side, were steep, the bare rocky walls rising immediately from the rapid torrent being fringed with dense forest and almost impenetrable undergrowth. One hope remained: on the other side of the river the map recorded another path, which we dared to suppose would actually exist! We therefore searched for a suitable spot to make the crossing. After an hour of hard labour, we gained a hundred yards and found such a place; here the river was divided by enormous boulders into three channels, each fifteen to twenty feet wide. We felled some trees and began to construct a bridge. Old Norsang at first looked on rather sceptically, but Angchu and Ketar were in their element. They put off their shoes, climbed about the rocks of the bank, sneaked like cats over the first thin poles pushed across the river-arm to the boulder in the middle, and fastened the thick trunks there. In three hours the bridge was ready and crossed without incident. But not a trace of a path on the other side! At the junction of a tributary torrent we pitched camp, while Pircher went high up the ravine on a vain search for the path.

The 9th October was another exhausting day that brought us little progress, a mile and a half at most as the crow flies. In a rather depressed mood we pitched camp and cooked the last poor remnants of our provisions. The river became wilder as we advanced, forming rapids and falls; the slopes of the valley were as steep as ever, and the forest as dense. Once we tried a detour which led us high up into the flank but in the end resulted in little progress. On the contrary we got into a maze of wild rocks, a porter fell, and we had to risk a difficult retreat; in three and a half hours of hard labour we only gained 200 yards! At this rate it would take us a fortnight to reach the first settlements. We therefore now kept close to the river-bank, climbing every now and then over rocks polished round by the water. Every rock rising immediately from the river necessitated a long detour into the thick bush. Every pace had to be cut with the bowie-knife, and when we pitched camp we had not even reached the junction of the Passanram valley with the Talung. Our skin and clothes were torn by sharp thorns. We were lucky to have fine weather; but no end of our difficulties was to be seen.

Under similar conditions the following morning we continued our way. But at last there appeared the first traces of human presence, some trees being hacked and twigs broken; finally we came on a track, freshly beaten through the jungle, the cut foliage scarcely having withered. The porter's faces brightened and with fresh energy we went on. An hour later we came to an uninhabited hut, which was, of course, immediately searched most thoroughly for eatables; a few nuts and some pumpkins, growing before the hut, were the poor result. Some time afterwards we met the first native, who seemed to be hunting with bow and arrow; he was gone like a flash. Our porters declared that as he disappeared he exclaimed Migd9 meaning 'wild men'. According to the old tales of the natives, the migos, living in the mountains, at times descend into the valleys to vex the people. Some younger people who followed were more plucky, and they told us that we were soon to come to the next village, where rice, chicken, eggs, and milk were to be had. Here in the Talung valley still live the Lepchas, the aborigines of Sikkim, unmixed by other races, while out in the Tista valley they are gradually displaced by the more robust Tibetans and Nepalis. They are a strange people of whom science can tell us little, wood-dwellers who have to wrest laboriously from the forest their scanty crops of rice and buckwheat.

Sakyong is the name of the first village we reached in the afternoon, where we prepared a hearty meal. For the first time our travels assumed the character of a pleasure trip, such as had been intended at the outset. We engaged a native porter who knew the way. The village lies several hundred feet above the river, to which the path leads steeply down and where it is crossed by a rope- suspension bridge. This is built in the old style as practised by the Lepchas since early times. Stone piers on either side are connected by ropes of twisted creepers, the gangway consists of two or three bamboo stalks suspended by short ropes of creepers. The biggest rivers are bridged in this fashion, the Talung river in this reach being certainly from 100 to 130 feet wide. On crossing, the whole construction begins to oscillate and swing; with the deep river roaring below and the ropes creaking ominously, these bridges are not made for nervous people.

On the far side of the river the path leads once more high up the slope, and finally, across a gap of a ridge, into the Tulung valley, where in the hamlet of Be we pitched camp, at midday, because we were told that in the next village there were no supplies to be had, a matter of decisive importance to us at the time.

A march through an amazing forest next day brought us back into the main Talung valley, which we followed downwards till midday. We crossed the river by a bamboo bridge and on the other side ascended to Ronglu, lying on a terrace 1,000 feet above the river, where in a garden we pitched the last camp in the Talung valley.

Straight away from the hamlet the path, leading into a secondary valley, begins to ascend, until high up it traverses to the left and crosses a ridge where there is a fine view of the lower Talung valley. Then it descends steeply to Lingtam with its monastery and chortens. A lama met us with a salaam, bringing chicken and butter, for which in turn we gave him our bowie-knife that we would no longer need; after the pattern of the bayonets of our engineers this had a saw- edge on the back which visibly impressed the people. The valley in this part is comparatively densely populated, and we passed many small villages, while on the opposite slope some extensive settlements were to be seen. There are many rice and millet fields; of domestic animals there are kept small cows, black pigs, goats, sheep, and fowl. About midday, after a steep ascent, we reached a gap exactly opposite Mangen, but to get there we had to cross the intervening Tista valley, cut to a depth of over 1,500 feet. The ascent to Mangen was steep and hot, and we were pleased when, in the shade of the village lime-tree, we could settle for a rest. We ought to have gone on to Singhik, where our comrades were awaiting us, but were much too lazy! We sent a messenger, who took so long, that Bauer came to look for us, having felt some anxiety about the delay in our return.

Passanram glacier and valley from Simvu saddle

Passanram glacier and valley from Simvu saddle

Passanram glacier, Simvu saddle, and Siniolchu from about 11,ooofeet on the Passanram-Talung divide

Passanram glacier, Simvu saddle, and Siniolchu from about 11,ooofeet on the Passanram-Talung divide