THE FUTURE OF CLIMBING IN TIBET
F. SPENCER CHAPMAN
As the Lhasa Government have, in a single year, given permission for expeditions to Mount Everest and Chomolhari, the two mountains most holy to Tibetan Buddhists, optimistic mountaineers are naturally wondering if the Tibetans are at last abandoning their policy of seclusion, and, if so, what are the mountaineering potentialities of this vast plateau to the north of the Himalaya.
The relations between Tibet and Britain during the last few centuries are an interesting study. In 1774, after some trouble with the raiders of Bhutan, Warren Hastings dispatched a writer of the East India Company to visit the Tashi Lama at his monastery at Tashi Lhunpo near Shigatse. This visit was repeated once more after an interval of ten years. At the end of the century, trouble arose between the Tibetans and the Gurkhas of Nepal, and, as Britain was supposed to have been friendly with Nepal, the Tibetans, encouraged by the Chinese, became suspicious of our designs and henceforward maintained a policy of rigorous exclusion.
In the year 1811 a friend of Charles Lamb, a strange and eccentric Englishman called Thomas Manning, succeeded, by exploiting his knowledge of medicine, in reaching the Holy City of Lhasa. Though his diary is at times delightfully whimsical, it is a disappointing work, and shows him to have been a very poor observer. He certainly had no eye for mountains.
At the end of the nineteenth century our relations with Tibet became strained. Owing to the remarkable secret explorations of the Bengali Sarat Chandra Das, carried out under the auspices of the Government of India, the Tibetans became increasingly suspicious of our intentions. Then the Tibetans, instigated by the State Oracle at Lhasa, occupied a mountain in Sikkim. After we had driven them out, a treaty was signed giving us permission to establish a trade mart at Yatung, in the Chumbi valley. The Tibetans, however, refused to recognize any treaty obligations, and letters from the Viceroy to the Dalai Lama were actually returned unopened. The Tibetans feared that we had not only designs on the country but were attempting to subvert their religion.
In 1904 Younghusband's party, which started as a peaceful mission and was forced to become a military expedition, pushed through to Lhasa and forced the Tibetans to sign a treaty. The Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and China. It was at this time that the Gyantse Agency was established.
The good behaviour of our troops on this occasion, and the fact that they did not desecrate or loot the monasteries, caused the Tibetans to change their opinion of the British and at the same time to fear increasingly the grasping hand of China. After a series of aggressions in eastern Tibet, two thousand Chinese troops, in 1910, appeared in Lhasa. This time it was to British India that the Dalai Lama fled. Only the Chinese revolution of 1912 saved Lhasa from the Chinese, who had forcibly taken over the government of the country. The Dalai Lama had learnt a great deal during his two years' exile at Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and when he returned to the Holy City in 1912, he regarded Britain as the friend and protector of Tibet. Within a few years the man who had refused even to open the Viceroy's letters was now inviting us to visit his capital. In 1920 Sir Charles Bell, who had formed a close personal friendship with the Dalai Lama, visited Lhasa and stayed there for almost a year, and since that time the Tibetan Government has occasionally invited the Political Officer of Sikkim to go to Lhasa to maintain contact between Tibet and Britain or to advise him if any special political difficulty has arisen. It was due to the cordial relations between Sir Charles Bell and the Dalai Lama that in 1920 the permission for the first Mount Everest expedition was obtained. Had this been asked for in a letter it would almost certainly have been refused; but the Tibetans, though still suspicious of Europeans in general, seem to like them when they actually meet them and get to know them. It was in this manner that I was able to get permission to attempt the most holy peak of Chomolhari. Having spent six months in Lhasa and knowing all the officials personally, they would have considered it a breach of friendship to have refused; and I only hope that there was a good harvest last autumn so that they will not consider my expedition to have been inauspicious.
As Chomolhari is on the borders of Tibet and Bhutan, permission from the Maharaja of Bhutan had also to be secured. This was done through the genial Raja Tobgay Dorje, who spends most of his time at Kalimpong. In answer to a letter sent up by Raja Dorje, the Maharaja immediately gave his consent, but whether this means that there will be no objection to other climbing parties entering Bhutan I do not know. Chomolhari is not so holy to the Bhutanese, and I passed through no Bhutanese villages on my way there.
When we were in Lhasa and on the journey to and from it, I frequently took the opportunity of climbing nearby mountains, but as I had no experienced companion I would not have been justified in taking any sort of risk, so my ambitions had to be curbed. As many of the mountains are just beside the trade route, they can be approached with the minimum of time and expense. South of Gyantse, Ma-song-chong-dzong-ri (22,500?) and Pauhunri are very tempting. The former can be seen to the south-east just before Phari is reached. Although the slope steepens for the last 500 feet, the long western arete would almost certainly 'go5
As the snowfall is considerable, ski would be necessary. Pauhunri is on the borders of Sikkim and Tibet, quite close to the Kampa Dzong route to Mount Everest. It is a very large massif and would provide several miles of excellent climbing. As we have the right of travelling up the trade route as far as Gyantse it might be possible to obtain permission to attempt these mountains, but it would depend very much on the Political Officer of Sikkim. The Tibetans, in spite of their friendliness, obviously dislike their holy mountains being visited, and the Political Officer would probably prefer not to trouble them with what he might consider an unimportant matter.
Ning-dzing-zonka, or Nodzinkangsa, 23794 feet, near the Karo La, on the route between Gyantse and Lhasa, showing the fluted north ridge and the gentler southern ridge. Taken from the north-east from the hill behind Pede 17th December 1936
Near the summit of the Karo La, Gyantse-Lhasa road, December 1936. A photograph of this glacier, taken in July 1904, appears opposite page 266 of Percival Landon's 'Lhasa’, vol. 1. The glacier appears to have receded considerably since that date
Ning-dzing-zonka (Nodzinkangsa), 23,794 feet, and the Karo La mountains from the frozen Yamdrok Tso, 14,500 feet, 20th February 1937
The other peaks of the Chomolhari massif, especially Kungpu (22,300 feet) and Takapu (21,429 feet), would provide some exciting climbing, though I must say that they looked extremely difficult;2
but after the recent ascents of Siniolchu, which I had considered quite unclimbable, I hesitate to use the word impossible. In view of the surprisingly great snowfall that occurs here even before the monsoon breaks, I think that post-monsoon climbing would be the most satisfactory, though the mountains are frequently enveloped in cloud except in the very early morning.
The Tibetans go into the hills when they have to; and many mountains are the objects of pilgrimage. But they do not climb for pleasure. They were somewhat surprised when I ran up the peak to the north of Gyantse one morning before breakfast. It is 16,916 feet high, but as Gyantse itself is at about 12,900 feet, this was no great feat. On the summit was an enormous square cairn decked with prayer flags attached to bamboo poles. The Tibetans are very fond of cairns: I imagine they are usually built in the name of religion, otherwise I am sure such trouble would not be taken. When I was staying at Pede, a village on the Yamdrok Tso between Gyantse and Lhasa (map 77 k), I climbed two mountains called locally Pede Ri, 17,699 feet, and Yasik Ri (a delightful name), 17,809 feet. On the summits of both these were innumerable cairns and stone buildings, more like fortifications, consisting of complete rooms except that they lacked roofs. I was reminded of the ruined observatory on the top of Ben Nevis, except for the lack of orange- peel! Just behind Drepung monastery in Lhasa (map 77 o) there is a very holy hill called Gyenbay Ri, 17,450 feet. Only the Dalai Lama's yaks may graze on its gentian-clad slopes, and only his physician may collect herbs there. All the ministers, too, are supposed to ascend it on certain occasions of their lives-for instance, when they come into office. For a mile the track along the eastern approach to the summit is lined with cairns and in some parts paved with flat stones. The gently rounded summit contains more cairns than I have seen in many years of ‘peak-bagging'. It simply bristles with cairns; there must be literally hundreds.
Two days' march east of Gyantse the Karo La, a pass of 16,200 (?) feet, is crossed. Here are wonderful facilities for climbing, and I very much regret that I had no time to stay there. Any amount of supplies could be taken to a base camp at about 16,500 feet, only twelve stages from Gangtok up the Lhasa mule-track. The highest peak here is Ning-dzing-zonka (23,500 feet).
Looking back from the hills behind Pede I had an excellent view of this mountain (photograph 1) and felt then that both the exquisitely fluted northern arete and the more gently sloping southern one would 'go'. This peak forms one end, and Ghomolhari the other, of a great ridge that runs from south-west to north-east for 100 miles. I can imagine no more delightful expedition than a few weeks spent in this accessible but completely unexplored district. From the Pede hills I also looked south-east across to the snow peaks beyond the Yamdrok Tso. It would be difficult to obtain permission to visit this district, but it looked as if the climbing would be excellent. When we crossed the Tsangpo at Singma Kangchung I noticed two magnificent rock and snow peaks a little farther up the river to the west, more in the nature of aiguilles than other mountains I saw in Tibet.
I was able to work out routes up them but, alas, had no opportunity of putting my theories to the test. If any climbers were attached to a future mission to Lhasa, the peaks could be attempted from Singma Kangchung if the leader of the mission could be persuaded to stay there for a day or two. The local Tibetans would make excellent porters. Though they do not themselves venture on snow and ice-except when the exigencies of the weather force them to do so-they are naturally very tough and resilient and have sufficient enterprise and courage in their characters to follow almost anywhere. In this respect they are akin to their cousins the Sherpas.
Mountains north of the Karo La, called Nichi-kang-sang in books on the Lasha mission (probably part of Nodzinkangsa). The Karo La lies up the valley to right. 8th August 1936
A rock chimney on mountain face behind Sera Monastery, north of Lhasa 21st October 1936
Dolomitic Ridge near Shingdonka, south-west of Lhasa 17th February 1937
From the mountain-tops in the vicinity of Lhasa many snow peaks were seen, but with no kindred spirit among my companions and little opportunity to go far away no serious mountaineering was attempted. But we usually kept Sundays free to wander into the hills, and during our stay most of the mountains that surround the valley of Lhasa were climbed. The highest of these, just to the south of the city, is 18,500 (?) feet high. The top was practically always free from snow and no more difficult than Striding Edge on Helvellyn.
The slopes of the mountains round Lhasa are for the most part gentle and grass-covered, but with bare stony summits. There are, however, several places where wonderful rock-climbing is to be had. Just before the Minghu La, the pass across the hills to the south of Lhasa and immediately west of the above-mentioned peak, there is a terrific precipice, haunted by choughs and lammer- geyers.1
A few miles to the south-west of Lhasa on the main road to India there is a village called Shingdonka, and to the south-west of this village, on the left-hand sky-line as one approaches Lhasa, is a great serrated rock ridge reminiscent of the Dolomites. Vultures and lammergeyers nest here and are always to be seen soaring above it. The rock is excellent and would afford innumerable climbs of every shade of severity. There is another immense rock-face on a mountain-side behind Sera monastery north of Lhasa. Near the top of this crag is a lonely hermitage perched precariously above 1,000 feet of granite slabs. I noticed some magnificent chimneys here, but dare not start to climb lest I should be tempted to go beyond the bounds of caution imposed on members of a diplomatic mission. The monks, by the way, have an easy route to this house, which l traverses the foot of the slabs.
The Tibetans at first asked me what I did up in the hills. Was I searching for gold or collecting plants or geological specimens ? They could not understand the idea of climbing for the sake of hiking exercise or to look at the view; but when I explained that it was part of my religion they were better able to understand.
It is a little difficult to follow the peaks mentioned by the author, on the exisiing Survey of India map 770. There are probably several peaks over 115,000 feet on the ridge south of Lhasa; three at least have been fixed by triangulation, Tri Ri, 18,485 feet, and two others, unnamed on the map, 18,274 feet and 18,167 feet- It appears to be the second of these, 18,274 feet to which the author refers, but it is not the highest. A track is shown crossing the ridge near these peaks by a pass called the Trango La.-Ed.
Although the Tibetans are becoming more friendly towards the British, I cannot see any possibility of much change occurring in the near future. In these days of wars and industrial depression one cannot but envy and respect their seclusion from European influence; and it is good to feel that there is still a part of the world offering a boundless field for the energy and enterprise of generations of future mountaineers.
See panorama No. 8 accompanying the author's paper on Chomolhari, on j». 138 of this Journal.-Ed.
See photograph No. 2 of the author's paper on Chomolhari, p. 127, above.-
On Survey of India quarter-inch map 77 l, this peak is spelt Nodzinkangsa; two summits have been fixed by triangulation, heights, 23,794 and 23,583 feet.- Ed.
Evidently Katrachabchib, or Jong-sar-kyang, 19,908 feet, and Nila, or Karar, 19,799 feet, on map 77 k.-Ed.