Himalayan Journal vol.14
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

H. W. Tobin
    (J. O. M. ROBERTS)
  4. NANDA GHUNTI, 1945
    (P. L. WOOD)
    (L. CHICKEN)
    (R. V. VERNEDE)
    (C.G. Wylie)
  10. NOTES


C.G. Wylie

According to the programme announced in the Swiss Alpine Club Journal, Andre Roch's Swiss Himalayan Expedition was scheduled to make an attempt on Nilkanta in August 1947. At the time of writing we have not heard how they have fared. Whether they succeed or fail it may not be out of place to record an attempt in May 1947 by our modest party and the impressions gained by us of this most attractive and difficult peak.

Nilkanta has been described by Frank Smythe as the Queen of Garhwal and second in beauty only to Siniolchu in all the Himalaya. It was largely his descriptions, and his beautiful photographs, which inspired us to choose it as our objective. His view by moonlight from Badrinath in Kamet Conquered, and his telephoto from the Kuari pass recently published in Snow on the Hills, will be familiar to many. It stands alone, directly above Badrinath, rising in a single sweep, serene and awe-inspiring, to a beautifully shaped snow cone summit, its nearest rival being Ghaukhamba, 8 miles to the west. More mundane considerations clinched the choice; our leave was short and Nilkanta was quickly approached: its height, 21,640 feet, seemed within the capabilities of the party. The difficulty of the climbing remained the doubtful factor. We knew its formidable appearance must have been the reason for only one previous attempt having been made-by Frank Smythe and the late Lt.-Gol. Peter Oliver in 1937. Though they had met with hard climbing they were turned back by monsoon weather and not by technical difficulties. R. L. Holds worth was the only other person we knew of who had been at close quarters with the mountain; he had crossed the col at the foot of the south-east ridge, and wrote saying he thought that ridge would go, though he had not seen it closely owing to mist.

We were six to start with: Peter Munden, a gunner Auster pilot from the Air O.P. Squadron in Peshawar; the Sherpas, Dawa Thondup and Gyalgen Myckje; an ex-paratrooping Gurkha, Rifleman Purkabahadur Pun, from my Battalion, the 2/ist Gurkhas, who had been to 20,000 feet with Jimmy Roberts on Saser Kangri in 1946; and Lance-Naick Netasing Ghawan kindly sent with us by his G.O., Lt.-Gol. Oliver of the 1st Bn. Royal Garhwal Rifles, to help us with his local knowledge of the approaches to the mountain. 11 was a well-balanced party, and it would have been hard to imagine a happier one. We paired off naturally-Peter and I, the Sherpas, the soldiers. Any fears that the difference in caste between the Gurkha and the Garhwali might prove difficult were quickly dispelled, for they soon became ivseparable, Purkabahadur taking upon himself the roles of interpreter and chief lecturer in mountaineering for Netasing. He would explain to him at great length, and in the most atrocious Urdu (of which he was secretly very proud), any proceedings which went on in Gurkhali, and deliver orations (by virtue of having been on one previous expedition) on the higher strategy of mountaineering. Unfortunately Netasing had to return to his home after carrying to Camp I, owing to defective boots. The Sherpas were, of course, the sine qua non of the party-invaluable in every way, though in making up loads and pitching and striking camp they must have few equals anywhere. Gyalgen naturally became Cook and Q, and dealt firmly and efficiently with talkative, scrounding coolies. Dawa, veteran of fifteen major expeditions, who had carried to Camp V on Everest and held the German Red Cross medal-complete with citation from Adolf Hitler-for good work after the Nanga Parbat disaster, was quite incredibly self- effacing; easily the nimblest and safest climber of the party, he cheerfully played second fiddle in camp and quietly got through three times as much work as anyone else. Purkabahadur, in addition to being guide, philosopher, and friend to Netasing, soon found his metier as 'joker' and raconteur of the party. If anything started to go wrong Purkabahadur would be sure to fall over a guy-rope or produce some absurd remark that set us all laughing again. And in the evenings round the camp fire, while the rum circulated, he would hold the Sherpas spellbound with tales of how he (Errol Flynn like) had recaptured Burma single-handed (sometimes there was a chap called Roberts who had helped).



The pilgrim’s first view of his goal-Badrinath

The pilgrim’s first view of his goal-Badrinath

Nilkanta; the north face from the source of the Alaknanda

Nilkanta; the north face from the source of the Alaknanda

Nilkanta; a much-foreshortened view of the north face

Nilkanta; a much-foreshortened view of the north face

Nilkanta; a much-foreshortened view of the south-east ridge. Peak 20,580 to the right

Nilkanta; a much-foreshortened view of the south-east ridge. Peak 20,580 to the right

Through the sponsorship of Brigadier Daunt, R.A., we were lent a considerable amount of experimental army high-altitude equipment , on condition we reported on its serviceability. With the exeeption of kapok sleeping-bags, which were not warm enough, we found all items good, especially 'carriers, man-pack' for coolies and porters, string vests, wind-proof and sleeping-bag outer covers. Jimmy Roberts also kindly lent us much of his equipment.

After a hectic month's preparation, fascinatingly enhanced by a sence of adventure to come, our plan, necessarily somewhat D-Day- like in its intricacy, was set in motion.

I look a flying start, dumped half the kit at Lahore, and went up to Dharmsala with Purkabahadur to collect Jimmy Roberts's equipment. We were to meet Peter and Netasing with the rest of the kit in Lahore again; the timings only allowed a bare half-hour to transfer ourselves and all the kit to the Calcutta train. We had forty- odd packages; some in the left luggage office, some on the Pathankot train, some on the Frontier Mail. We knew it would be a near thing, but as luck would have it, Peter's train was late and there followed the most frenzied ten minutes of the whole trip. While Peter wrestled with some misguided official who refused to allow the kit off the Frontier Mail, the rest of us marshalled bands of coolies and ploughed frantically to and fro through the sea of humanity brandishing ice-axes and hurling oaths. In the midst of this pandemonium, I spotted two Sherpas sitting forlornly on a small pile of kit. A greeting, and their faces lit.

'Going climbing?'

'Ji, Hazur.'



'That's funny, so are we-what peak?'


Then it dawned on me. 'Then you're Dawa and Gyalgen?'

'Ji, Hazur,' they beamed.

'But I sent you the most detailed instructions to meet us in GarhwaL'

Their grins broadened; they looked like unrepentant schoolboys. We all burst out laughing. Hurriedly I pressed them into the good work of transferring the kit. I did not hear the full story until the train pulled out, with us and the kit miraculously on board. They had turned up in Peshawar, grinning and penniless, but fortunately no later than D - i. They had never seen Peshawar, and the Sahibs had sent them enough money to get there. Their plot was so naive and their glee so disarming it was impossible to scold them. Anyway we were much too pleased to see them and be all together at last. It was a good start.

The time-factor dictated an approach by the Pilgrim Route rather than the more pleasant but longer march from Ranikhet over the Kuari pass. We spent a day at Kotdwara, the railhead, buying food (as there was a famine in Garhwal' we took in everything for ourselves and the coolies for the march in and back), hiring a bus and making up loads. We were fortunate to meet a fellow mountaineer, Ken Walsh, in charge of the Garhwali Rest Camp there, who helped and entertained us nobly. We bussed in two days to Karnaprayag and a third day took us by bus to Nanda- prayag and on foot to Ghamoli. At Nandaprayag, the beginning of the march, we were lucky to be able to engage some incredibly jungly coolies, who were returning to their homes near Niti. Owing to the famine the Government was employing all coolies in carrying grain, and neither the D.G. nor the local Tehsildar had been able to find any for us. Eight coolies, four mules, and a cow (produced by one of the coolies to carry his load) finally completed our baggage train.

From now on we walked alongside the pilgrims. One could not help admiring the faith that kept the weak and sick and aged alike steadily plodding towards their goal-Badrinath. But it was hard to appreciate their attitude to the hills; theirs and ours were about as different as could be. While we revelled in every moment of the superb scenery, and were uplifted by the glimpse of snows, so they seemed determined to make this pilgrimage in the most abject misery, and appeared cowed and awed by the unfamiliar mountains. Sunk in their own dejection, they would look at our white faces and unusual equipment with obviously unseeing, listless eyes. Occasionally a brighter one would notice us. One such, airing his English, opened, 'Where is your native land?'

'England,' I answered.

'Ah! But which England?'

I replied that as far as I knew there was only one England.

'But no. Also there is Poland.'

I went on my way ruminating that maybe he'd got something there. Having since stayed in London, I can think of a few more 'Englands' to add to his list.

Four easy marches brought us on the 1 oth May to Badrinath, where we had our first breath-taking view of Nilkanta, only 5 miles away and 11,000 feet above us. We paid off our Niti coolies and next day, while waiting for the Mana coolies who were to carry to Base Camp, we watched the official opening of the temple after the winter, and the ceremonial arrival of the Rawal from Joshimath. Somehow, at this, the holiest of Hindu Temples, set so appropriately amidst some of the finest scenery in the Himalaya in the pure clear air of the hills, one had not expected to find the same filth and squalor, disease, misery, and apathy so familiar in the plains. But it was so at Badrinath, and we were thankful to get away towards Base Camp as soon as the Mana men arrived.

Nilkanta is buttressed by three well-defined ridges which may be called the south-east, west, and north-east, and the faces they enclose the south, north, and east. From Badrinath we could see the east face, and north-east and south-east ridges. The face was quite out of the question. It rose some 8,000 feet as nearly precipitously as made no odds; and was, at that time, continually streaming with ava^ lanches of melting winter snow. The same applied to the slopes of the north-east ridge. This ridge, which connects Nilkanta with Narayan Parbat, is never much lower than 18,000 feet and even if it could have been reached, was completely blocked about 1,000 feet below the summit by an ice wall slightly overhanging, running right round from the east face to (as we saw later) the north face. The south-east ridge, as Holdsworth had said, looked possible with ai* average angle about equal to that of the Hornli ridge of the Matters- horn, and we knew it was possible to get on to the ridge, as Holds' worth had crossed the col at its foot. Incidentally, Dawa Thondup had been with him then.

After an idyllic camp amid carpets of iris in the Rishi Ganga Nala, we pitched Base Camp at about 15,000 feet near Holdsworth's col- We found that the col had a long flat approach, almost parallel to the south-east ridge, so we pitched the camp at the nearer end of the approach whence the slopes directly up to the ridge looked easy. The Mana men were not equipped to camp above the snow-line, so they returned from here.

Now doing our own porterage, it took us two carries to establish Camp I, which I wanted to make into an advanced Base for the difficult climbing to follow. Our route gained the south-east ridge directly above Base Camp about a mile from, and 1,000 feet above, Holdsworth's col. We followed the ridge for about half an hour until we came to what the Swiss guide-books would call an Auf- schwung, which we turned on the south side. This led us to a small level snow-field which made a suitable site for Camp I, out of the way of avalanches, at about 16,500 feet. The second day, while the Sherpas were fetching the remaining loads from Base Camp, Peter and I climbed back up to the ridge above the Aufschwung and followed its crest to the foot of the first of a series of large rock gendarmes, which were obviously the crux of the climb. So far the climbing had been easy; now it looked doubtful if laden porters could be expected to go farther. We found a site for Camp II on the crest of the ridge, and decided that Gyalgen and I should sleep there next night and reconnoitre the gendarmes unladen before getting the whole party up to Camp II. Dawa Thondup and Purkabahadur helped to establish this light camp and returned to Camp I.

On the 18th May Gyalgen and I set out in perfect weather on our climb. The rock was steep and rather loose, but went fairly easily at first. As we were not carrying loads, the climbing was most exhilarating and we enjoyed superb views over the morning mists below to Nanda Devi, Dunagiri, Hathi and Gauri Parbat, and Kamet. The climbing grew more difficult and I began to get the feeling that this was all wrong-that one was not supposed to climb rocks as hard as these in the Himalaya. After about 700 feet we came to a steep, ice-covered slab, which Gyalgen said he would not like to cross unless it was quite necessary. It was time to make up our minds whether we could reach the top by this ridge, and the answer was obviously No. We were still some 3,000 feet from the top and had only just started on the difficulties; from where we were the next gendarme but one looked unclimbable and unturnable, and beyond that were more we could not see, and then the final rock ridge below the summit cone, which looked much worse on close acquaintance than it had from Badrinath. We should have to make at least two more camps, and that meant carrying over rocks which were too difficult for porters with heavy loads. From Badrinath we had only seen that part of the ridge above the gendarmes, and it may well have been that they were also hidden from Holdsworth in the mist when he had crossed the col. With its wealth of gendarmes, and in its height, length, and steepness the ridge resembles the Peteret ridge, though the section we climbed is not more severe than the Viereselgrat on the Dent Blanche. We had proved to our satisfaction that it was beyond the capabilities of any party not prepared to adopt siege tactics; and so we returned.

From Nilkanta south-east ridge showing Gauri and Hathi Parbat, Dunagiri (centre)

From Nilkanta south-east ridge showing Gauri and Hathi Parbat, Dunagiri (centre)

Dawa Thondup and Purkabahadur were waiting at Camp II, and with their help the camp was evacuated. With mountainous loads (Gyalgen's weighed 115 lb.) all but two loads from Camp I were evacuated to Base in one carry. Thence Purkabahadur and I went on down to Badrinath to fetch Mana coolies, returning with them on the 20th to evacuate Base. We camped just above Badrinath, amid iris and anemones on a grassy sward through which flowed a crystal-clear brook. Here we spent a delightful off day, bathing and sun-bathing, sleeping, and eating by turns.

We still had sufficient time in hand to reconnoitre the west ridge, so on the 22 nd we moved round through Mana and past the source of the Alaknanda (one of the sources of the Ganges) to the Satopanth glacier; and camped about a mile short of the grazing-ground shown on the ½ -inch map as Majna, between the moraine and the mountain.

On the way we passed someone who was to become an old friend for we saw him many times again. He was an enraged god. He was the god of a village farther down the Pilgrim Route, and he was enraged, so the people of his village were taking him on tour to placate him-up the Pilgrim Route to Badrinath, and beyond to Vasudhara and back again. He was given a little curtained dandi and two bearers, and a band complete with conches and horns and cymbals, and followers to wave yaks' tails over him to keep the evil gods away. But whenever we saw him, he continued to be enraged; he would try to upset his dandi and get a fearful list to starboard, while the poor bearers struggled to keep him upright and the cymbals clashed and the horns blew the louder; then he would try to catch them on the wrong foot and heel over suddenly to port. Sometimes he would go suddenly into reverse, scattering band and followers mercilessly; or sometimes just sulk and jiggle up and down in the middle of the path.

The view of the north face was most impressive; a series of ice cliffs and slopes of fearsome steepness. Even to reach the north-east ridge at its lowest part would be most difficult, if not impossible. However, the west ridge, though steep and rocky, was promising, and the col at its foot looked comparatively easy. So next day we moved camp on to the small glacier at the foot of this col, and examined the west ridge carefully through binoculars. It looked much easier than the south-east ridge, largely because it was shorter, both in length and height (as the col at its foot was some 3,000 feet higher than Holdsworth's col) and because the gendarmes were smaller and looked as if they could be turned. We were so enthused that we decided to turn our reconnaissance into an attempt on the summit. This meant more food and, if possible, more leave, so we sent the Sherpas back to Badrinath to bring more food, and with wires to our respective units asking for extensions of leave. It had snowed quite heavily the day before, and climbing was out of the question until this snow had melted or avalanched away. After one idle day at this camp on the glacier, which we now called Base, conditions were good enough to climb to the col. We reached it after seven hours' most gruelling slogging through soft snow. Peter and I occupied Camp I on the col (18,000 feet) and Purkabahadur returned to Base.

The following morning Peter and I set out without loads up the west ridge. The first problem was the first of twin gendarmes, which we called Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which started straight from our tent door. We tried two routes unsuccessfully and only climbed the first pitch rather in desperation by an awkward step, vowing to fix a rope when the porters were to climb it. The summit of Tweedledum was easily turned on the south; then followed a descent down a narrow couloir to regain the ridge between Tweedledee and the next trio of gendarmes-the Ugly Sisters. From here three or four pitches on the ridge crest-one of them distinctly difficult-led to an unclimbable wall, the turning of which on either side looked most severe. Perhaps it looked worse because at that moment it started to snow;.at any rate we had to return to camp. We had been out three hours and had not got beyond 19,000 feet, but we had seen enough to convince us that the west ridge is the easiest and best route to the top. We had also seen that the final rock Aufschwung of about 700 feet-which we called the Red Tower-could be turned on the south by a snow couloir which led on to the summit ridge. Also each difficulty, as we came to it, appeared to be the last, and easier ground seemed to lie ahead; whereas on the south-east ridge there was always a mass of gendarmes ahead, looking more formidable as one approached.

Back at Base Camp the Sherpas had arrived from Badrinath with more food, but the snow continued all day and most of the night. The morning dawned threatening worse to follow; even if the weather cleared there could be no rock-climbing for several days. If no extra leave were granted, we should be late back; so we packed up again and returned to our Satopanth camp-where, miraculously, owing to a mistaken date, we found our Mana coolies waiting for us-and so next day to Badrinath.

Before we left Badrinath we passed the word around the bazaar and held an auction of our remaining food stores. The banniahs were much too shrewd to pay good prices; or perhaps it was my .tiK'tioneering. I fear this is not my metier. I remember holding nlnil a bag of tsampa the Sherpas had brought with them.

First-class tsampa,' I announced. 'The real thing. All the way from Darjeeling.'

Must be b---old,' came a voice from the rear, and there was no bidding.

And so back to the stifling plains. But not before we had enjoyed the kind hospitality of the D.G., Mr. Stubbs, at Pauri, where we had real hot baths, and shaves and clean clothes and good company.

In conclusion, the only part of the mountain we had not seen was the south face. Even of this we had seen the upper slopes and those slopes in ix the west and south-east ridges, and they looked unclimbable. It is just possible that there is a rib up the lower central part of the south face from which one might gain the west or south-east ridges above their difficult portions. It is much more likely that this face, like the others, is impracticable. It seemed clear to us that the ridges are the only safe way to the top, and of these the west ridge is the easiest and shortest. The col at its foot provides a good camp site, and could probably be reached from the south side, from the Khirao valley. From the col, the attractive 20,580-foot peak along the ridge to the south-west could be climbed in a day. This would give an enjoyable airy ridge climb, and from the top one would get an excellent view of the west ridge of Nilkanta, which might save mistakes in route-finding later. Probably two further camps would be needed above the col. The climbers in the party should be prepared either (and preferably) to carry for themselves to these two camps, in case the porters found the rock-climbing too difficult, or 10 fix sufficient ropes to get porters over the hard pitches. The best i i me of year would be the immediate pre-monsoon period; we were loo early, there was still too much snow about. Smythe's attempt showed that Nilkanta is too near the southern edge of the Himalayan chain to be climbed during the monsoon without a lucky break of weather. Mana coolies would carry to the col and perhaps above if equipped with boots, socks, gloves, blankets, and a tent.

For any mountain-lover, the Himalaya must be the greatest of all adventure-grounds; operation 'Quit India' must not be taken as ruling out small Himalayan expeditions for British climbers. There are always ways and means; as I write two London business men are spending their five weeks' holiday in Garhwal, having flown to India. Certainly our leave was so incomparably the best we had ever spent that we intend to return, whatever the difficulties.