SOME SCRAMBLES ON THE DHAULA DHAR
J. O. M. ROBERTS
Stationed on the Punjab plains with no chance of getting more than ten days' leave at a stretch, it had seemed to my friend C. D. Buckle and myself that a very dull year lay ahead of us. One day, however, we saw to the north a great range of snowy mountains, the battlements of the Dhaula Dhar, fading away into the Kulu peaks and the blue distances beyond.
In May 1937 we went up to Dalhousie with our regiment. There were plenty of high mountains, but all of them were rather too far away for a flying visit. We therefore decided to begin our climbing by first motoring to Dharmsala, 100 miles away by road, and lying at 5,800 feet on the Kangra slopes of the Dhaula Dhar.
We knew little of the district; but in General Bruce's Twenty Tears in the Himalayas we had read that 5,000 feet above Dharmsala was the grazing-ground of Laka Got, and that another 4,000 feet above this was the Indrahar pass, which could be used as an approach to some of the peaks of the main ridge. On this somewhat scanty information we based our first leap in the dark.
We were granted leave from after our duties on the 11 th May till 10.30 a.m. on the 14th, and left Dalhousie in a hired car at 2 p.m. on the nth. The afternoon was cloudy, but as we drove down the valley in the evening the great ridge stood out clear, towering 12,000 feet above the Kangra road. We reached Dharmsala at 7.15, and at about eight o'clock we swung on our backs weighty rucksacks and stumbled off into the darkness. Presently we reached a reservoir, which seemed to be the end of all things; and as we were about to take a wrong direction a white shape with a hurricane lantern emerged from the gloom and put us right. The situation was complicated by the behaviour of our bazaar-made folding candle-lantern. This lantern, though it had always shown a disinclination to fold, had looked very pretty when it was set up. It was therefore annoying when, after only fifteen minutes of active service, the solder securing the handle to the top melted and we were plunged into darkness.
At ten o'clock we came to a broader place in the path and laid out our sleeping-bags for the night. After a meal of half-cooked, disintegrated chupattis, helped down by digestive biscuits and bovril, we settled down under a star-lit sky. We were away at 5.30 the next morning, Coronation Day, and continued upwards to Sappar Got, or Triund. Here, on a green alp at a height of 9,300 feet, we met the sun and had our first near view of the 4,ooo-foot upper granite wall of the Dhaula Dhar. Here, too, we met our first Gaddhi, a cheery, likeable fellow who smoked our cigarettes, sampled our food, and felt the weight of our sacks.
We looked around. To the left of the great triangular face of 'the Mon' were two broad snow gullies, leading evidently to the Indrahar pass; and, after a time, we saw some small black dots in the left-hand gully, and guessed correctly that they were Gaddhi shepherds, moving with their flocks over to summer grazing-grounds in Chamba. Laka was reached at 9.30. The snow was down to 10,000 feet and the Got well covered. We rested here for about an hour and a half and then set off up the snow gully.
For the first hour or so all went well, but soon the softness of the snow and our own lack of training reduced the pace to a pitiful crawl. I shocked myself by beginning to feel really mountain-sick for the second time in six years, and this at only 13,000 feet. At 4.30 we were still about 1,000 feet below the summit of the pass. Stretched out on a rock in the bed of the gully, taking one of our frequent rests, I plucked up enough courage at last to say that I wasn't going any farther. Buckle seemed to have already come to the same decision, so, without more ado, we pointed our feet downwards and began the glissade of a lifetime. Reclining luxuriously in great armchairs of moving snow, we were carried in thirty minutes down those 3,000 feet which had cost us over five hours of weary climbing.
We were rather depressed and very tired that evening as we sat by a smouldering fire. Neither of us felt like returning to the attack, but the weather was magnificent, and we turned in without coming to any definite decision. We awoke to the blue sky and sunshine of another perfect day, and although it was nearly eight o'clock we decided to have another try at the pass. This time we reached the summit in a little over three and a half hours, when we stood gazing thankfully across to the great mountains beyond the Ravi. We scrambled a short way along the ridge and settled down on some sun-warmed rocks to sleep and eat away three happy hours.
The glissade back down the couloir took fifty minutes. On Laka we had a long halt and then continued downwards, reaching Dharmsala at 7.20. Our car was waiting for us as arranged; we were surprised to see it, but not half so surprised as the driver was when he saw us. We drove through the dark to Pathankot, where we feasted on eggs and bacon in the station restaurant, and slept the night, the third of our trip, in the station waiting-room. The next morning we caught the five o'clock gate up to Dalhousie, a hot bath, breakfast, and uniform.
For our forthcoming and much longed-for ten days' leave we now decided to return to the Dhaula Dhar. And once again, on the 28th May, we found ourselves at eleven o'clock at the beginning of the Laka track, eyeing with marked distaste our 50-lb. sacks. The day was hot and sultry, and on the lower slopes we almost died; our condition, however, improved with the height, and at Triund we were well on the way to recovery. We reached Laka at half-past six and found it thronged with Gaddhis, none of whom, however, showed the slightest desire to earn an honest rupee on the morrow. We laid out our sleeping-bags on the soft grass under the moon, just off the edge of the snow.
We left at dawn the next morning, and taking things very easily reached the Indrahar pass by noon. We pitched our little 3j-lb. tent on a snowy spur, about 100 feet below and slightly to the right of the pass, on the Chamba side. The scenery here is much softer, and until the coming of the monsoon rolling snow-fields extend to within 500 feet of the summits of the main ridge.
The Dhaula Dhar from Laka Got: ‘Two-Gun Peak’ on left. May 1937
The main ridge of the Dhaula Dhar from near the Indrahar Pass, towards ‘Cairn Peak’ and ‘the Mon’
View south-east from ‘the Mon’. The rounded summit of the Dhaula Dhar ‘Matterhorn’ is seen between ‘Christmas’ and ‘Toral’ peaks on the right. June 1937
The cold drove us into our bags at sundown, and I spent the next ten hours wriggling to keep warm. Morning came at last and, leaving the tent at 6.30, we kicked our way to the crest of the main ridge which we planned to follow south-eastwards to the summit of 'the Mon'. We roped. The ridge was fashioned from corniced snow and firm granite, and the climbing, though never very difficult, was interesting all the time. From 'Cairn peak' the final north-west ridge of 'the Mon' looked difficult. To save time, therefore, we descended to the Chamba snows and traversed across its face to its farther, south-east, ridge. This proved quite easy, and half an hour's scramble landed us on our first big Dhaula Dhar peak. Aneroids seem to be given to registering 16,000 feet on 'the Mon', though it is almost certainly the point marked on the Survey map as 15,124. 'Cairn peak' appears to be some 400 feet lower.
We left the top at 12.45, the return to camp over the Chamba snows taking only one hour. The rest of the afternoon we spent paving the floor of our tent with grass sods, stripped from nearby rocks.
We rose late on the morning of the 31st May, meaning to have an easy day. Feeling energetic, however, I set off at half-past eight to reconnoitre the country to the north-west of the pass. I began by scrambling round the base of 'Two-Gun peak', 14,752 feet. The Chamba side looked quite easy, the ridges more difficult. I did not try the ascent, as I wished to reach the col between 'the Coolins' and 'Dromedary peak' and to see what lay beyond. Feeling very l hirsty I lost some 800 valuable feet of height by glissading down to a fairly large frozen lake which had appeared under 'the Coolins'; and while resting there I saw a tiny figure emerge on the snow slopes under 'Two-Gun peak'. A long-range conversation followed from which I gathered that Buckle was going to climb the peak.
I reached the col at noon after a tiring snow grind. From here 'the Dromedary', 14,937 feet
> seemed fairly easy, so I climbed a short way along the ridge from the col and then struck out on to the north face, a mixture of steep snow and highly unstable rock. Twice I had the unpleasant experience of feeling the apparently sound rock to which I was clinging slowly coming away from its parent mountain. However, I reached the top without disaster and in time to wave across to Buckle on the summit of 'Two-Gun peak'.
Coming down I stuck as much as possible to the snow, which, though steep, was in good condition. I reached camp at 3 p.m., to find Buckle waiting with a welcome cup of hot tea. We felt anything but rested that evening and decided that the 1st June would really be an off day. We spent it sleeping on a rock outside our tent and eating such delicacies as sardines embalmed in chupattis.
Every group of mountains has its local 'Matterhorn', and although the Dhaula Dhar can boast no great individual peak, nevertheless, when seen from certain angles-notably from the east and south-east-the Dharmsala 'Matterhorn' almost deserves its name. It was ascended for the first time by H. D. Minchinton of the 1st Gurkhas, before the War. Major Minchinton was killed on 'the Mon' in 1927, and since his ascent no one appears to have reached the summit. We had not yet been able to identify the mountain from the Chamba side, and it was therefore to clear up this question and to reconnoitre the approaches that we set off across the snow- fields on the morning of the 2nd June.
We kept fairly low and after a time saw a mountain which we felt must be the 'Matterhorn', showing over a col on the ridge which runs up from point 13,659 feet to meet the Dhaula Dhar ridge at right angles. When we arrived on the col, however, we found ourselves separated from a fine group of peaks by a deep and very wide snow-filled nullah, the Ghuri Maul, and the peak we had been making for was obviously not the 'Matterhorn,', which we now identified definitely on the extreme right of the group. Up its north-west face ran three wide snow couloirs, the centre one of which led directly to the summit and evidently provided a fairly easy line of ascent. However, there was not the least chance of reaching even the base of the mountain in time for a return that day, so we turned right- handed from the col along the ridge, meaning to descend to the snows and climb 'Christmas peak'. The ridge, however, was not so easy, and it was not long before we had jettisoned our peak- bagging ideas and settled down to a really interesting climb of three hours along its perfectly built crest and many gendarmes. At 2.45 p.m. we reached a snow col at its southern end, and from here it appeared to us that, with an early start, it might be possible to climb the 'Matterhorn' from our camp in a single day.
It was snowing as we plodded wearily back to camp and during the night the wind cracked the tent like a whip, Buckle hanging on to the pole like grim death lest we should be whisked away to the Ravi. The weather the next morning was, as usual, perfect, but our start was delayed until eight o'clock.
We reached the col at the southern end of the rock ridge at 10 a.m., and ran blithely down to the first surprise of the day: a 200-foot drop of broken precipice. After a time we discovered a fairly easy line down the face, mostly on grassy ledges; then a few feet of awkward rock, followed by a jump across a miniature bergschrund, landed us in the extensive snow-filled basin at the head of the Churi Maul nullah. At 11.30, when we were half-way across the basin, Buckle, who had been rather off colour for the last few days, said that he thought it would be unwise for him to continue, and suggested that I should carry on and try for the summit. We descended for a council of war to a rocky outcrop a few feet below, where we found grass and a clear little stream of snow-water. In these pleasant surroundings I soon decided that I would much rather lie and watch the mountain of our desires than continue the climb alone.
Manx Mahesha and peaks in Chamba from below ' Two-Gun Peak’, June 1937
‘Toral Peak’ and the ‘Matterhorn’ from Dadh, October 1937
The Dhaula Dhar ‘Matterhorn’ from Dadh, October 1937
After an hour or so we began to retrace our steps. We wanted, if possible, to avoid the rock wall, and therefore kept farther to the left, up fairly steep slopes, until we reached a small frozen lake. Above this a broad couloir led to a snow col. We breasted the crest, expecting to find easy snow slopes leading down to our tracks of the morning. Instead, we saw the Punjab plains, glimmering in the heat haze, some 14,000 feet below. We evidently had made a bad mistake, and were now standing on the depression between 'Christmas' and 'Toral' peaks. Time was getting on and we had two alternatives; either we could follow the ridge northwards to 'Christmas peak', or we could descend and return by the morning's route. The ridge looked as though it would provide some sensational rock-climbing, for which we were at that time in no mood. We resolved, therefore, wisely I think, to follow the known, if longer, route. By following this we reached camp at 5.15 p.m. to find the tent collapsed and the usual evening snow-storm blowing up from the Ravi valley; but we felt that we could endure anything for one more night, for on the morrow we were bound for the grass and trees.
We spent the morning of the 4th June lying about in the sun until midday, and then glissaded, myself rather out of control, down to Laka Got. From there we went on to Triund, where we decided to spend the rest of our leave. The events of the past week seemed rather unreal that night, and, as we sat and talked beside a great roaring blaze, shepherds' fires gleamed and flickered across the dark depths of the Tartary nullah and the occasional note of reedy music from some nearby Gaddhi camp added a romantic touch to the atmosphere.
After one more day of laziness we spent our last night of freedom. On the morning of the 6th we left Triund at seven o'clock and reached Dharmsala in two hours. From there we drove to Pathankot and up the hill to Dalhousie in the afternoon.
Towards the end of October I was once more in Dharmsala with designs on the unclimbed south ridge of the 'Matterhorn'. The three days of intermittent storm, however, which followed my arrival covered the upper 10,000 feet of it with fresh snow and put an end to any climbing for the time being. As the weather improved I moved to the Dadh rest-house, some 10 miles south-east of Dharmsala, and spent the remaining four or five days of my leave wandering about the lower hills with my gun and a Gurkha orderly, reconnoitring the approaches and climbing possibilities of this section of the main ridge. The south ridge of the 'Matterhorn', all but climbed by Major Rundall nearly ten years ago, looks feasible, and could be tackled conveniently from a good camping-site at 10,000 feet.
The Dhaula Dhar has, I feel sure, a big future before it in the history of Himalayan mountaineering; for here is an ideal and very accessible training-ground. Although there are no glaciers, there are snow-climbs in plenty before the monsoon breaks and scores of first-class rock-climbs, especially on the Dharmsala side. Even a party of Munich experts, complete with hammers, drills, pitons, and other ironmongery, would take some time before they solved the problems presented by the faces of ‘Two-Gun peak', 'the Mon', and the Dharmsala 'Matterhorn'. Furthermore, there is a regular bus service from Pathankot, on the North-Western Railway, to Dharmsala, a distance of about 60 miles, and Laka Got is a four hours' walk from upper Dharmsala. Thus a high camp could very easily be established within twenty-four hours of leaving Lahore, and a climbing week-end becomes a possibility. The approach to the south side of the 'Matterhorn' is, however, by Nagrota, on the main Palampur road, and by Dadh, and requires a little more time. Any one planning a visit to the Dhaula Dhar should consult Major Rundall's Rambles and Scrambles in the Kangra Himalaya; incidentally he considers that most of the Survey of India heights are too low, and he gives the height of the 'Matterhorn' as about 17,000 feet, rather than 15,849. The most useful maps are the quarter-inch map 52 d for the whole of the Dhaula Dhar and Chamba mountains, and 52 d/sw, half-inch, or 52 d/7, one-inch, for the country described in this paper.
Dharmsala and the Dhaula Dhar, described in this paper, are well shown on the Survey of India one-inch maps 52 d/7 and d/8, and on the half-inch map 52 d/sw.-Ed.