THE CHORTEN NYIMA LA FROM THE TIBETAN SIDE
N. E. ODELL AND PETER LLOYD
The Pass (by N. E. Odell).
It had long been a cherished ambition of mine to visit Lhonak, that remote tract of highland in extreme north-western Sikkim, which even down to the opening years of the present century had been claimed by the Tibetans.
The word indeed implies in Tibetan 'the Black South'. And when in 1938, on our return from Mount Everest, the rats-to quote Tilman-were leaving the sinking ship, Lloyd and I decided that no better bolt-hole from Tibet could be utilized than this romantic pass over the Dodang Nyima range into Lhonak. The attractions of the range itself, moreover, were not single, for from earlier reports its limestone character suggested something significant to the structure of the whole region, and indeed a possible link in that respect with the Mount Everest massif-a surmise which has been duly borne out. More particularly had L. R. Wager raised a veritable geological hare by finding some important fossil-beds in the vicinity of Lachi, farther east along the strike. Incidentally, on their return from Mount Everest in 1933, he and E. E. Shipton had crossed the range by a pass between Jonsong and Lhonak peaks, which they, and Kurz before them, had mistakenly designated the Lhonak La.
The latter name was given by Kellas to the pass which he crossed at the head of the Podon Chu, west of the The La, and was unjustifiably altered by Kurz on his map to 'Podon La'.3
The known history of the Chorten Nyima La goes back to 1879 when that famous traveller, Sarat Chandra Das, made its crossing from south to north on his way to Tashi Lhunpo.
The pass was visited from the Lhonak side, but not crossed, by T. O'Connor in 1896;5
by Claude White in 1902;6
by A. M. Kellas in 1911, for the purpose of ascending 'Sentinel Peak' ;7
and by Gourlay and Eversden during their attempt on Ghorten Nyima peak in 1930.1
Apart from Chandra Das's traverse-which was questioned by Freshfield and Garwood, but confirmed by Kellas-no one appears to have made the complete crossing into Tibet from Lhonak except Major O'Connor in 1897;2
while the only known passage in the reverse direction is that of Tilman's party in 1935, when a second ascent of 'Sentinel Peak' was made, and a first ascent of 'Chorten Nyima La, West Peak', 22,486 feet.3
With characteristic reticence Tilman had told us little, if anything, of the nature of the pass, and we pictured either a possibility for yaks, or at any rate a feature which unequipped natives were reputed to have no difficulty in crossing. And so on the 1st July Lloyd and I abandoned the 'sinking ship' at Tengkye Dzong in Tibet, and with three Sherpas and a local pack-pony set off on our adventure. In glorious sunny weather we crossed the low ridge to the south, waded the Yaru Chu, and a vast dusty plain brought us to Muk, where the pony was surrendered for eggs, tsamba, and deep draughts of moderately strong chang. While refreshing ourselves we became conscious that we were a source of considerable amusement to the native inhabitants who had collected round us to view the strange beings from another world; and our wrist-watches and the zip-fastenings on my shirt, in particular, seemed to make an immense impression.
Beyond Muk our route lay across the great piedmont slopes of torrential material that have been carried down through countless ages of wasting from the Dodang Nyima range. It was a long and somewhat tedious walk, of which the monotony was broken only by an odd patch or so of lovely blue poppies or other flora, and by the agony of wading the several glacial torrents with our legs in a terribly sun-scorched condition.
Arrived at last at Chorten Nyima Gompa, we were allowed to pitch our tent in the yard of the adjoining house. This gompa, situated in a remote and bare stony valley, seemed to have but one presiding lama, who kept at a respectful distance, but the few local laymen in evidence were, as usual, greatly intrigued and puzzled by our presence, while sundry dogs and cows forced their way into the entrance to view us.
Awakened before 5 o'clock, we were soon up to witness the interesting local method of milking the sheep, by which rows of twenty animals were yoked tightly together head to head on alternate sides; then, after a good breakfast, amply fortified by this milk, we were off from the gompa by 7 o'clock.
CHORTEN NYIMA GOMPA. ‘SENTINEL PEAK' IN THE CENTRE, 7 A.M., 2ND JULY 1938
'Lungthars' on the way south from Choren Nyima Gompa. 8.15 a.m., 2nd July 1938
When we asked the way to the Chorten Nyima La the local people merely pointed vaguely to the mountains: but in which of the several valleys leading therefrom it actually lay it was by no means obvious or certain. Lloyd thought that the right-hand of the two nearer valleys might be the correct one to take-and in this he later proved to be right, in part-but I felt sure that the left- hand one with a good track, and adorned with large numbers of lungthars, or small cairns, must be correct.
Setting off up the latter, after about 2 miles we came abreast of two small cells containing large newly painted prayer-wheels, which were being propelled by water-wheels. The track petered out at the cells, but we continued up the boulder-filled valley, and soon saw ahead of us a large glacier extending from side to side of it, and appearing practically impassable owing to its array of ice- pinnacles. Further inspection showed that to proceed would be a mountaineering proposition of no mean order, much less an undertaking suitable for yaks, which we had understood our pass to be. We therefore returned to the cells, where we asked two men who had just arrived with ponies where the pass was situated, but they confessed complete ignorance of it.
Traversing round the mountain-slopes in a westerly direction, we determined to explore the possibility of Lloyd's right-hand valley mentioned above. This proved to have no semblance of a track, and some of the going would have been difficult for even the most athletic of yaks. At 1 p.m. we reached a point where the valley divided, and all being very tired after our prolonged ramblings under heavy loads and perplexed as to where the real pass lay, we decided to camp.
In this barren valley there appeared to be no fuel of any kind, but from nooks and crannies amongst the rocks we eventually collected sufficient mossy plants for the Sherpas to kindle a small fire. The supply, however, had to be eked out with a few tent-pegs before 'rumble-tumble' and tea were ready for tiffin.
At 3.15 p.m. Lloyd and I set off on a reconnaissance for a possible pass up either of the branch valleys which lay ahead. While he chose to investigate the one to the left, I staked my luck this time on the right-hand one of the main valley. I soon reached the end of a pinnacled glacier terminating in an ice-cliff which periodically calved bergs into a lake at its foot. Making a way up the true right side proved awkward at places, owing to steep stretches of stagnant ice appearing through a light moraine-cover, across which steps had to be cut. Above rose precipitous limestone cliffs which threatened disintegration at any time (photograph 3). About a mile and a half up the glacier a small trough led to its open surface, which here consisted of extremely coarse-grained and honeycombed ice. Owing to cloud, it was impossible to see the true character of the cols between the peaks ahead, but they all appeared high, steep, and guarded by much crevassed glacier and neve. To the right, however, seemed to lie the least uncompromising col, but its passage was clearly no mean mountaineering excursion, and it was probably quite unfit for heavily laden porters like ours, and most certainly not a yak-pass, nor even one suitable for native travellers. From what we saw later from the Lhonak Chu, this col may lie between the two summits of Chorten Nyima peak, or between the latter and Dodang Nyima peak.
I returned to camp at dusk, not a little puzzled by the local topography, and hoping that Lloyd might have discovered something more feasible. And so he had, as far as our side of the range was concerned-a practicable approach to a rocky col at the head of an apparently easy glacier. But what the descent on the farther side might turn out to be was still a matter of extreme doubt. We therefore went to bed feeling more sanguine about our chances for the morrow, although the weather seemed anything but promising, with heavy clouds and threatening rain.
Although still cloudy, appearances on the morning of the 3rd July were not unhopeful. Owing to lack of fuel, breakfast could be speedily dispatched, since it was confined to tsamba with jam and a little tea. Striking camp at 7.40, we set off at some pace up the long moraine and boulder slopes, eager to follow up Lloyd's reconnaissance, which appeared to provide the only reasonable bolt-hole over the range. A lovely little glacial lake was reached at 8.15, a feature which the Sherpas agreed with grinning acclamation could be given no more appropriate name than 'Lloyd Sahib Pani'. Incidentally, neither it, nor the glacier which feeds it, nor yet any of the glaciers in this vicinity are shown on the J-inch map 78A (Darjeeling), and any sketched-in details on Kurz's map are inaccurate or equally lacking. Chandra Das, however, mentions the lake in his 'Narrative', and gives its dimensions as about a quarter of a mile by 250 yards.
Arrived on the glacier beyond the lake, I led over an easy un- crevassed surface broken only by a number of longitudinal ribs. But soon our troubles commenced, for the neve was very soft and I sank in thigh-deep. The retaining slopes of the col were of very broken rock lying at the angle of rest, and a final short wall of rotten limestone was none too easy. Lloyd's estimate had proved correct: we were up in three hours from camp. Towers of rock, the natural 'Chortens of the Sun’
and two artificial ones, crowned the narrow crest, while we thought fit to add one more, convinced that we had found our hard-won objective, though quite unconvinced that the country people, let alone yaks, ever aspire to make its passage. Its altitude is given as 19,036 feet.
Camp on Tibetan side of the Chorten Nyima La. View SW. The pass lies to the left of the rock peak. 7.15 a.m., 3rd July 1938
THE TIBETAN SIDE OF THE CHORTEN NYIMA LA. VIEW SE. ‘SENTINEL PEAK’ ON LEFT. 8.15 A.M., 3RD JULY 1938
The Choren Nyima La from the Sikkim side. 11.20 a.m., 3rd July 1938
Giant Rhubarb (RHEUM NOBILE) below the Lungnak La (east side). 11.15 a.m., 5TH July 1938
To our joy the farther (Sikkim) side of the pass was seen to be not only feasible, but an easy run down steep screes, and any anxiety for our laden porters vanished at first sight. This impressive view into Lhonak showed no glacier, in contrast to the map, but an unexpectedly brown and russet landscape of stony slopes and little vegetation. After our long sojourn in Tibet it seemed surprisingly lacking in green; indeed, my imagination had run somewhat ahead in time and space, for I had expected a glimpse almost of Sikkim's luxuriant tropical vegetation, or at least something of her alpine conifer forests. But I was not altogether disappointed, since I soon persuaded myself that this landscape had much in common with the far northern Scottish Highlands, or perhaps the Jotunheim of Norway, and one seemed, after all, to be not so far from home.
Looking back into Tibet, what an amazing contrast of glacier- filled valleys nearby and far distant haze-veiled plateau that we were now, at last, to leave behind! It seemed indescribably sad, that last glimpse of Tibet, with the thought of enforced banishment from a country whose spirit and atmosphere can so easily permeate one's whole being. Siren-like and irresistibly it almost called me back! In such a frame of mind my geological observations here could be but few, but, driven from the crest by the cold south wind, my companions were far ahead on their descent before I could tear myself away.
Clouds enveloped all the higher summits and we could see little of anything but the lower walls of 'Sentinel Peak9
or of the one immediately to the westward. However, after crossing a vast extent of boulders and old moraine, whose original surface-relief has been perfectly preserved since the glacier responsible for it vanished, we came in sight of the magnificent east face of Chorten Nyima peak, a superb sight and now clear from base to summit. We noticed, moreover, that both the Survey of India and Kurz's map require correction here, for there is no glacial river draining the large branch valley below the eastern face. The old moraines form a closed basin, and any melt-water from the present hanging glaciers on the face of Chorten Nyima peak sinks into the permeable limestone debris with which the whole valley is spread. These old moraines extend to the edge of the main valley of the Lhonak Chu, forming a bank some 400 to 500 feet high above the latter. On this bank we halted, realizing that we were now on the classic ground of Freshfield and his successors.
This is the meaning of the name for the pass as given by Sarat Chandra Das in his 'Narrative', and is quoted by Freshfield, op. cit., footnote 7, p. 322. The spellings Chorten, Choten, and Choten have all appeared on maps. Sir Charles Bell prefers Cho-ten, which seems to him to represent the pronunciation as he heard it. According to him the Tibetan spelling is mchhodrten, meaning 'the receptacle of offerings', which may possibly account for the V in the commonest English spelling, which I have adopted for this paper, as it is used on the latest Survey of India maps.
The view southward to the 'Fluted Peak' was fine, but Langpo peak was largely obscured. The flowers, increasing in numbers, provided perhaps the greatest joy, and from now onwards it was a delight to be on grassy meadow. We proceeded down the Lhonak Chu and soon reached Dzanak, the highest Tibetan summer encampment hereabouts. After being previously accosted by two aggressive dogs we were received into the yurt-like tent with due hospitality, and were soon refreshing ourselves with delicious hot yak-milk and fresh cheese, which we ate in French fashion with sugar. It rained a little while we lunched, and on departing the rain increased. In less than 2 miles the downpour was so persistent that we decided to camp. But the Sherpas preferred to return up the valley to the yak-encampment to cook our supper, although there was ample yak-dung and juniper about.
Next day, in clearer weather and some sunshine, we continued down this beautiful valley of ever-increasing flowers, Lloyd meanwhile displaying considerable industry on behalf of Kew. On reaching the broad alluvial plain at Taga, a continuous stream of moist monsoon-cloud was pouring up the lower Lhonak Chu from the south, and we were glad to turn northward into the Chaka Chu valley. Opposite Makotang and the Lungnak La we found a large yak-encampment and decided to insinuate ourselves into the ready hospitality of a picturesque old Tibetan and his boy. At this point Lloyd will take up the story as an epilogue to one of the most entrancing mountain-journeys which it has been my privilege to undertake; it will serve also as an appropriate conclusion to the larger enterprise of 'Everest 1938'.
Epilogue. (By Peter Lloyd.)
We struck camp, made up the loads, and shouldered our much lightened sacks. And as we set out on our day's march, first fording the deep stream where we had seen the cattle cross the night before, and then striking off past the main encampment to the branch valley which led up to the Lungnak La, we had much to occupy our thoughts. We had camped for the last time; that night we were due to reach the first dak-bungalow, and so after many, many weeks of tent life we would again have a roof over our heads, again sit at a table and sleep in beds. The prospect held no charms, for the minor discomforts of camp life had long been taken for granted. But the change implied other things than these. It meant fresh food, for which we had long been yearning, and we promised ourselves, prematurely as it happened, a roast fowl, eggs, and potatoes for our evening meal. Beyond that we looked forward to a drink of beer somewhere down the valley, to fresh fruit, and in the end to the distant fleshpots of the plains. It meant news of friends, letters from home, new faces, new talk, new experience. But most of all, it meant the end of one life and the resumption of another. The life that was ending was that of a Himalayan expedition, lived by a handful of Englishmen and a score of Sherpa porters. In it we had been as a limb cut off from the world, hearing only dim echoes of its cares and intent on our own problems alone. We had spent our strength and failed in our purpose, but our defeat had no bitterness in it, and so our long homeward march had been a happy affair, a full enjoyment of easy days on the wide Tibetan uplands, so lovely under the summer clouds and with a sprinkling of fresh pasture. And now the moment was fast approaching when we must put down our rucksacks for the last time, and take up in exchange the unchosen burdens of the world, everyday cares, professional responsibilities, and fears of greater problems still unsolved.
I thought especially of that last camp whose memory would soon become so precious, and tried to catch again the essence of its simple pleasures. Only the five of us had been there round the Tibetan herdsman's fire, Odell, like a genial but fastidious Viking; Angkarma, his disreputable and incompetent little servant, whose only accomplishment it was to push his fingers in his mouth and pierce our ear-drums with his whistle; Danu, uncouth, but forgiven because he was the brother of Pasang Phuta who had been with us on Nanda Devi; and Gyalgen Miekche, the 'big-eyed', our cheerful and competent cook. As on many other occasions, we enjoyed a yakherd's hospitality, drinking his tea and eating his tsampa, while later he in turn ate of our cheese and drank of our tea-not salt, like his, but sweet, for our sugar supply held out.
On the earthen floor of the tent lay a small heap of shrivelled mushrooms, and when I asked whether more were to be found on the pastures, the yakherd's answer was to scoop a hole in the ashes of the fire, and thrust some in to bake. When they were done a chunk of the hairy white yak-butter was dropped into each and a crystal of salt. After that, our supper of lentils and cheese had been dull enough even to our uncritical appetites, but we were all content, in the comfort of our fatigue, to lie idly in our sleeping-bags, toying with memories of our journey and thinking of our companions: Warren, with the bandobast nobly escorting a sick porter back to Darjeeling; Shipton, surveying in the Gyanka range; Peter Oliver, hurrying back to rejoin his regiment, with Smythe close on his heels; and Tilman, characteristically independent, making a solitary ascent of Lachsi with two Sherpas. Our own way home was by Lhonak, that valley hanging between Tibet and Sikkim; and at Thangu all our paths converged. Confident of fresh supplies we had smoked our last cigarette.
As we made our leisured way up towards the pass, the heavy monsoon cloud filled all the valley and the rain beat gently down on us. Two days before, seeking our passage across the main Himalayan chain, we had found, ourselves in a tangle of perplexing valleys faced with an unexpected difficulty, and had spent many hours in search before we hit upon the way that led us over the watershed. But to-day the mountains were friendly, leading us effortlessly on without problems of route or distraction of view, our thoughts interrupted only by the boulders looming out of the mist, or by the edelweiss suddenly so brilliant in this dewy setting. Our bodies, schooled by many harder days, moved in an unbidden rhythm.
Reaching the summit of the pass alone, I looked down into the mists before me and behind. The moment had indeed come when our backs were turned on the mountains and deserts, and our faces set for the jungle, the valley, and the plain. I thought then of some of the great moments that stood out among the memories of those months; of myself struggling up the wintry valley to Thangu many long days ago, sick at the unaccustomed height and annoyed at my own weakness, cheered suddenly by the sight of an eagle swooping out of the mists above me and away between the dark trees; of days marching across that magic desert country of Tibet in the face of the harsh winter wind and under a steely sky; of midday rests in primitive villages; of evenings' talk in the Arctic tent at Camp II; of days of solitude before the attack on the mountain. And I saw many sights in my mind's eye: the sudden vision of Shekar Dzong springing out of the plain; the water-fowl on the Tengkye marshes; the patient face of an old woman weaving; Sherpas making obeisance to the Abbot of Rongbuk; the long snow slope above the North Col; the monsoon clouds striding across the Tibetan plateau. It seemed no good thing to be leaving all this behind; but there was no return, and the new life that lay ahead was claiming me.
The Sherpas were in no such regretful mood. They strode past me, laughing and shouting, careless of the steady rain and not troubling even to put on their wind-proofs. Soon Odell and I were following them down rocky spurs and snowy gullies out on to grassy slopes studded improbably with the great candles of the giant rhubarb,
then down again over screes, stopping only to pick an occasional flower, to the valley-bottom filled with alder and briar.
I had seen these valleys but once before, when the hand of winter held them, with deep snow covering all save the trees, the stream frozen into silence; so now it was a new country, bewildering in the colours of its foliage and filled with the scent of flowers. But, in spite of all changes, the landmarks were still there, the scar of a landslip, a branching path, the bridge over the stream, the rock by which the carcass of a mule had lain, the big clearing in the forest. Soon now we should see the Thangu bungalow and re-enter that well-remembered room with its great stone fireplace round which we had so often sat, its walls fantastically decorated with pictures from the Society papers of 1902.
But there was a surprise in store for us yet; for as we rounded a corner and saw our goal at last, we realized that there was something amiss. In the garden behind the bungalow were signs of activity, and away in front of us a man wearing a topee, much too immaculate a figure to be one of us, walked slowly up the paths. Soon our questions were answered. Tents in the garden proved the presence of a large European party, and over the tents fluttered an incongruous flag. The swastika on it was unmistakable, bearing a message so different from those scrawled on the Tibetan monuments.
And so our yakherd and his black tent were forgotten, for our hosts of to-night were the members of a German scientific expedition : a botanist, a zoologist, an entomologist, a photographer, filling the bungalow with their rifles and shot-guns, their cameras and food-boxes. How different this was from the return we had imagined, for we had come, quite unwarrantably, to think of the bungalow as our own, and now, preoccupied with a social problem, we felt strangers where we had thought to be at home. But we were soon reconciled to the change, for they were a friendly people, and after dining separately, we off lentils and wild rhubarb and they hardly less frugally, we were soon sitting round a bottle of their Schnapps, playing records on their gramophone and talking. We spoke of birds and beasts, of European cities, of Tibetan journeys, of food and drink, of the Alps, and of the 'abominable snow man5
. It seemed the most natural thing to be sitting at a table, drinking out of glasses, talking another language, and listening to Strauss’
Politics first crept in, I suppose, when, turning over the records, we came to the Horst Wessel song; and before long the new topic was irresistible. The discussion was just like any other-'Why couldn't the English trust Germany?’
-'If treaties had been broken surely that was inevitable when they were unfair and outworn!’
- 'Why couldn't the English get together with the Germans and teach the other fellows a lesson?’
-'Why were we blind to the Jewish plots for world domination?5
Soon, glad enough of fresh minds on which to sharpen our wits, we were lost in the flurry of a barren argument. In camp, in that life which seemed suddenly so remote and unreal, we had been used to turn in at dusk; but that night the talk went on until all hours.
We were back in civilization with a vengeance!
Himalayan Journal, vol. ii, 1930, p. 4.
Ibid., vol. vi, 1934, pp. 51-3.
Government Report, 1881; Himalayan Journal, ii, 1930, p. 3.
The remarkable wild rhubarb (rheum nobile), growing often 5 feet high, was seen by Freshfield on the north side of the Tangchung La, above the Zemu glacier, and was mistaken in the distance for stone-men. In 1880 British troops are said to have mistaken a number of them for the enemy and to have fired on them! (Round Kangchenjunga, pp. 130-1).-N. E. 0.