Charles Houston

IN the fall of 1950 I had the unique opportunity of travelling across eastern Nepal to the foot of Mount Everest. The trip was planned and organized by my father, Oscar R. Houston, who in common with other mountaineers had long dreamed of such an expedition, but like others had repeatedly been refused permission because of the tradition of exclusion of foreigners by the government of Nepal. The political atmosphere of Nepal has recently changed drastically, however, and late in the spring of 1950 permission was unexpectedly received, first for a brief visit to Khatmandu, and subsequently to travel frotn Biratnagar on the Indian frontier to Everest on the Tibetan border.

Eastern Nepal has been almost untouched by Europeans. Joseph Hooker in 1857 travelled for several days inside the border and reached the Tamur river from which he gazed longingly up the valley to the hill village of Dhankuta which he considered one of the loveliest villages in the foot-hills, a judgement with which we heartily agreed nearly a century later. In 1934 J. B. Auden was invited into eastern Nepal for a post-earthquake survey, and his journeys took him about 30 miles inside the foot-hills. More recently Dillon Ripley in 1947 travelled along the foot-hills for a month, but his travels did not bring him closer than 70 air miles to Everest. Finally, in 1949, St. George and a companion crossed from Khatmandu to Solah Khombu below Everest, but so far as I know no account has been published of their trip.

The southern face of Everest has a great attraction for mountaineers, though it has been photographed but seldom from the air and never closely examined prior to 1950. Should an attractive climbing route be found on the south, it would offer many advantages over the conventional north-east ridge. For one thing the sun would be on the climber most of the day to mollify somewhat the extreme cold on the shadowed northern slopes. The strata of the sedimentary rocks, which slope downward like the shingles on a roof on the usual northern route, would offer better hold on the south. Access to the mountain is through low, fertile, and very pleasant valleys in Nepal, and requires less than three weeks, as compared with the long six weeks' approach across the inhospitable Tibetan plateau. Most important of all, Tibet is closed to westerners by the Communists, whereas the Nepalese seem eager to welcome a small number of foreigners to their country, at least for the present. But, of course, the attraction of the south side of Everest would depend upon the existence, or the discovery, of a climbable route.

In the short time available after permission was received it was not possible to plan a serious attempt on the mountain, nor did the uncertainty of the project make this desirable. Since we did not even know the access route across Nepal, nor even whether Everest could be reached easily from the south, it did not seem wise to plan a major reconnaissance, for we knew that little time was available between the end of the monsoon (which renders the southern approach difficult due to high water in the rivers and attendant malaria) and the beginning of the winter snows which would close some of the passes on this route. All we could hope to do was to approach the mountain from the south and to make a superficial examination with as many photographs as possible.

The party, consisting of Mrs. Elizabeth Cowles, Anderson Bake-well, my father, and myself, assembled at Jogbani at midnight on 26th October. There we met Major H. W. Tilman, whom my father had encountered in Khatmandu, a month previously, and who had yielded easily to persuasion to join us on the second part of the trip. He and I were old friends, having climbed Nanda Devi together in 1936. We spent that night in the government rest-house at Biratnagar, and at sunrise next morning had superb views of the snows of Kangchenjunga, Chamlang, Makalu, rising ever so faint and ethereal above the fiat plains. By air they were little more than 100 miles distant, but our trail would cover nearly twice that distance.

By truck we rode lot 40 miles over execrable roads through the jungle, to the village of Dharan, at the base of the foot-hills which rise abrupty from the hot, dusty jungle which forms a dense band along the southern boundaries of Nepal. There we recruited sixteen local porters, who, with the Sherpas brought from Darjeeling, would carry our equipment. The rest of that afternoon was spent in a hot, dry climb over a 5,000-foot ridge and clown to an abutment where we camped, the rosy snows of Makalu directly before us. On the next day we crossed the Tainur liver, passed the place where Hooker, nearly a hundred years earlier, had yearned to see Dhankuta, and climbed up the long winding road lo this lovely village.

Dhankuta is a town of 4,000 people, capital of this district, and is situated astride a narrow ridge with room for barely one row of houses on each side of the paved street. The houses are clean and well built, freshly whitewashed, with nice wood carvings along their second-story balconies and eaves. Here as usual we were the centre of attraction, as if a new and exciting eircus had come to town. The children surrounded us- alert, cheerful, bright-eyed, and eager for our candy, although none of them begged. We were astounded to hear many words of English, but after we had pitched camp in a lovely glade of lone-leafed pine the mystery was explained by the arrival of the village schoolteacher who spoke good English and who took us on a tour of the town.

First we visited the town library which included twenty-two volumes in English: Victory, Lilliput, David Copperfield, and Now We Are Six being among these. We learned that the town had a small police force, a jail, a municipal water-supply, and radio communication with more remote villages, as well as a telephone of sorts to Dharan. By now, thoroughly staggered by these 'improvements', we were escorted through the school. Here, in several small, clean, but poorly lighted rooms, about 400 boys and girls were taught algebra, composition, and English. School was not in session at the moment, but we read the school motto over the doorway, written in large English letters—a good one for all the world today- 'Gather courage, don't be a chicken-hearted fellow'. We left Dhankuta regretfully, and I often think back to the clean, attractive; houses with magnificent views down the deep blue-green valleys and the English school.

For the next five days we marched up the Arun river. In places our path led along gravel flats, impassable during the high waters of the monsoon, and in others we climbed steep spurs or traversed wooded slopes high above the river. Though most of the trail might be suitable for horses, with considerable difficulty, we saw only one or two horsemen and no transport. We met several hundred, and sometimes as many as 2,000, travellers on this main road, and, of course, were the centre of attention everywhere. Above the village of Tunlingtar we crossed the Arun at Khatia Ghat in a public ferry made from a huge hollowed tree, and maintained by the State. We then climbed a well-settled and terraced shoulder, and descended to a tributary of the Arun—the Irkhua Khola, up which we marched to the village of Phedi. This lovely crystal-clear mountain stream was full of small mahseer, but these failed to respond to my wide selection of lures. Above Phedi (5,000 feet) we climbed to the Salpa La (nearly 11,000 feet), on the summit of which we saw our first chorten, marking our entry into Buddhist territory.

On 10th November we crossed our second 10,000-foot pass bove the village of Bung, and camped higK above Ithe Inukhu Khola, in a narrow almost unpopulated valley. That evening we could look across the valley for perhaps 2 air miles and see our third base, but we had to descend nearly 4,000 feet, cross the river on a precarious bamboo bridge, and climb back up the full distance next day. After crossing our third pass we found ourselves in the Dudh Kosi valley, whose milky glacier water drains from the Everest massif. In this valley are most of the villages from which come the Sherpas. The natives look more Tibetan, there were fewer signs of western culture, and the villages were more primitive. Curiously enough in all our travels we saw no saws or axes, for the natives use only the universal kukri to fell and hew their timbers, and what ploughs we saw were of a very primitive type. And yet we saw real window glass in at least one house. By contrast to the barefoot, scantily clad Nepali of the lower valley, these people wore sturdy felt and leather boots, and heavy homespun coats and trousers. The women usually wore an attractively woven coloured skirt or apron, and took pride in the large collection of silver coin and stone jewellery which in many cases represented their entire wealth.

Up the rugged Kosi valley we walked for three more days, and finally reached the village of Namche Bazar on 14 th November, the fifteenth day of our march. Here we were well received by every one of the 400 inhabitants, and camped on a terrace outside the home of the village headman, who served us a formal tea. Privacy as usual was a luxury we did not have, and there were dozens of friendly faces peering at us far into the night and again next morning when we awakened to the first bad weather of the trip, a light snow-fall. In a very unhappy frame of mind we packed up and divided our loads into two sections, for Tilman and I with four porters were to go on for the following week to the south side of Everest, while the others would stay at the lamasery of Thyangboche, 5 miles above Namche Bazar.

The snow was falling wet and heavy as we walked up the valley, blocking from us our first view of Everest. For two weeks we had travelled through the foot-hills with never a glimpse of our objective, and here on the first day when it should be in sight the snow had hidden it. We wondered whether the winter had finally arrived, and the happy, sunny days were at an end when we climbed over the steep ridge on to the plateau of Thyangboche, we were wet, cold, and discouraged. Surprisingly enough the lamas had not heard of our impending arrival, and since none of them had seen a white man before they were astounded by the two ragged ravellers who dropped into their midst. But they soon made us welcome with rugs and charcoal braziers, and our spirits were accordingly cheered. The remainder of the party came up just as we were about to leave, and we saw them safely ensconced in one of the stone houses adjoining the lamasery, where we shared luncheon before a roaring fire on the open hearth. Early in the afternoon the snow stopped, and as Tilman and I walked up the valley the clouds before Everest seemed about to break. We camped in a stone shepherd's hut near the village of Pangboche, and on the following morning we had our first view of the breath-taking precipice of Everest which filled the upper end of the valley. Bathed in the first light of morning, its ridges of sttep and broken rock stood out boldly, accentuating the purity of the white snow which in places lay almost vertical. The morning was biterly cold, and we hurried up the valley, reaching the confluence of the- two main sources of the Kosi by mid-morning.

As we faced the great massif of Everest, many details previously obscured from us became obvious. We were not, we now realized, looking at the true southern face of Everest, but at the tremendous rock and ice buttress of Lhotse (east peak) and Nuptse (west peak), an unbroken 5-mile ridge. We could not as a matter of fact even see Everest from where we stood, for its summit was hidden by this ridge. Though we did not appreciate it at the moment, the summit of Everest is about 4 miles behind this bulwark, and the intervening distance is filled with fantastically broken ridges and glaciers. Our inspection from this point confirmed decisions made previously: there was little point in examining the east side of Everest (beneath Lhotse) for no route was likely to exist there. Instead we decided to concentrate our little time on the western side. Accordingly we turned to the left, and after a few hours crossed a large level plain, obviously the bed of an ancient lake, now covered with low shrubbery and plants which gave cover and food to large numbers of snipe-like birds.

We were now at approximately 13,000 feet, well above standing timber, although dwarf juniper and other stunted bushes were abundantly available for fuel. About us rose magnificent peaks, 21,000 to 26,000 feet high, but so precipitous as to put all thought of climbing out of our heads. We camped soon after noon in a stone hut recently abandoned after the summer grazing, and after lunch Tilman and I climbed to about 17,000 feet on the north side of this valley where we had superb views of Ghamlang, Makalu, and Amdanglungma.1 Though we had hoped to reach the ridge a rid closely examine the south face of Lhotse, this proved impracticable and we returned to camp at dusk. After a cold night in our stone hut we resumed our march up the valley, now turning at right angles towards the north, planning to camp as high as possible in this valley which contained the Khombu glacier. In the afternoon Tilman and I set out to try to turn the corner at the head waters of the Khombu glacier, thereby gaining a look into the great West Cwm, which lies directly below the summit of Everest and into which the true south face falls. We soon found that this was far too ambitious plan, and in the late afternoon we crossed out on to the glacier, in order to pass a small tributary glacier, deeply crevassed, which fell from the wilderness between Nuptse and Everest. Once on the glacier it seemed wiser to try to cross to the west bank, hoping for a look around the corner, but this, too, was denied us—the going was slow and darkness would fall soon after five. We now realized that entry into the West Gwm was the crux of our examination of the south side of Everest.


  1. The tentatively accepted name is now Ama Dablan.


We returned gloomily in the dark to a cold and windy camp. The small camp-fire of shrubs did not do much to warm or cheer us, and the night was pessimistic. Next morning we started at first light on the second overcast day of the trip, planning to cross the glacier, climb high on Pumori, and to return to the lower camp where the porters were to meet us. We found a good crossing of the glacier, reached the western shore about nine, and climbed to approximately 19,000 feet by noon. This seemed to be about the farthest point which we could reach in our limited time, and would have to serve for our examination of the mountain we had come so far to see.

Well below and almost due east the upper Khombu glacier curved tortuously around the rocky 'corner' we had tried to turn on the day before, falling in fantastic pinnacles to the lower glacier. This was the mouth of the West Cwm, a narrow ice-choked corridor less than 1,000 yards wide, through which is crowded all of the snow and ice which falls from the Lhotse-Everest saddle (the South Col). From our vantage point we could see no obvious route up this ice-fall. Not only was the glacier badly broken and crevassed, but it also appeared to be swept from side to side by falls of ice and rocks from above. We both believed that the ice-fall could be forced, but it did not appear to offer a very attractive route of access to the upper West Cwm, a view of which was still denied us by intervening ridges. Rising 9,000 feet or more above the debouchment of the West Cwm was the summit of Everest. We could see the two 'steps' of the northeast ridge silhouetted on the sky-line, and the 'yellow band' was very prominent, as was the Great Couloir, which has given so much trouble to former parties. To our astonishment there was almost no snow on the summit cone; it stood out as bold, bare rock against the cirrus clouds above. The southern side of the pyramid was very steep, and even though the strata appeared to slope inward as expected, there was little there to encourage the climber. Running straight toward us was the west ridge, deceptively foreshortened, so that it appeared to be only 1,000 yards from the western buttress to the summit, instead of about 2 miles.

The western buttress fell sharply to the Lho La, the 20,ooo-foot saddle on the Tibetan border. The Nepalese side of this pass looks very steep, and is swept by snow and rock fall, but the Tibetan side, climbed by Mallory in 1922, is known to be relatively safe and easy. From the Lho La one would have access to the North Col, approaching it via its western face which has been climbed by several parties. Thus it may be possible to reach the North Col from the southern side of Everest if and it is a big 'if'—the Lho La can be climbed from the south. We cannot answer this 'if', but I am sure the climb would be dillieult and would lead only to a well-known route which has defeated some of the world's finest climbers.

Continuing to the westward from the Lho La our eyes were carried over a series of splendid peaks and passes to the bulk of Pumori above us—a mountain which, in contrast to most around us, seemed to offerjsome prospect of success for the climber. Named by Mallory ‘Daughter Peak' in 1921, the Tibetan translation appears on such maps that exist of the area: it is a splendid wedge-shaped peak some 25,000 feet high which should be climbable from Nepal. Directly to the south of Pumori lies a large, flat glacier surrounded by lower and unattractive rock peaks, which appears to drain from a low pass which may lead to the valley of Cho Oyu.

We sat for quite a time in the warm sun sheltered among the huge granite boulders which had fallen in the ancient pass of Pumori, discussing possible routes on the peaks and ridges before us. So far as the south face of Everest was concerned the prospect was gloomy: we could see no feasible route up the western buttress, nor did the passage of Lho La offer much hope. As we examined the opening of the West Cwm, we felt that although it could undoubtedly be forced, its passage would offer many hazards and obstacles to a full-scale expedition with laden porters. Should the West Cwm be entered, there remains the snow slope below the South Col, an unknown quantity probably very similar to the corresponding slope on the North Col, and finally the summit pyramid of steep rock which we could see clearly. Much of this putative route was hidden from us, but the parts we could see were most unattractive, and our considered opinion was that such a route was probably impracticable. From where I sit today, thousands of miles and many months distant, with my mind's eye I can recall that view, pore over the pictures, and persuade myself that some route may lead to Everest from the deeper recesses of the West Cwm; we could not see it then, and the chances appear to me to be small.

One important observation was the freedom from snow of the summit of Everest. No European has seen the mountains so late in the year from this side, and if it is characteristic of the mountains to be blown free of snow during the late fall, then the climbing a t that season should be much easier than before or during the monsoon. We saw very strong winds blowing clouds across the peaks, which would present a considerable hazard to the climber, but these winds are also present during and before the monsoon. One disadvantage of the late climbing season would be the great cold and short daylight. During the week we spent near the foot of Everest, the temperature was only a little above freezing during the day and closer to zero at night. But it is quite possible that temperatures do not fall continuously as one climbs higher on these very great peaks as it does on lower mountains. Undoubtedly cold would be a greater hazard in the fall than in the spring, and the short daylight would be a considerable handicap. All in all, however, the perfection of the weather and the freedom of the high rocks from snow should offset the cold and shorter days, and if the snow is adequately consolidated lower down, the post-monsoon season would appear to me to be the best season for an attempt on the mountain.

Reluctantly we started homeward in the already lengthening shadows. Along the western moraine of the Khombu glacier going was somewhat easier although the way was considerably longer, and we crossed a number of large, flat meadows with small streams meandering through them, ideal locations for a base camp, although firewood would be scarce. Soon after dark we stretched out before a roaring fire which our Sherpas had built of materials which we suspected came from the shepherds' huts, content to be at rest although unhappy at the discouraging outcome of our mission, and frustrated by the incompleteness of our accomplishment.

One of the Sherpas was quite ill next morning, apparently with a recurrence of old malaria, and we were forced to carry him for the six-hour march down the valley to Thyangboche. We were a tired and bedraggled group late that afternoon as we straggled into the warm welcome of our companions and their new friends the lamas. They had had a wonderful time. Bakewell had made three fine expeditions up the sides of the Kosi valley, reaching 17,000 feet where he had commanded splendid views of the mountains. He had completed a number of panoramas of areas previously not clear to us, and felt that a way might exist between the valley south of Makalu and Lhotse, having seen a low pass in that direction. He made a great many rough triangulation sights, which will be of assistance in correcting maps of this area. The rest of the party had spent the entire time at the lamasery, the subject of many attentions and kindnesses from the entire lamasery. They had attended several of the four daily religious ceremonies, consisting mostly of chants and musical pieces played on long Alpine horns, trumpets, conch shells, huge kettledrums, and cymbals. The lamas had produced their gorgeous rose silk and brocade gowns with devil masks, and had put on a full-dress dance in the stone-flagged courtyard enclosed by the four walls of the monastery. The party spent a great deal of time in the library, a dimly lit room on whose shelves lay over 500 volumes of Buddhist writings, each volume consisting of a hundred or more pages of handmade paper (from oleander root) about 18 inches long and 4 inches wide, printed with hand-cut wood blocks. The labour and time expended on this library, an unusually fine one, are staggering. Each volume was wrapped in old rose silk, with a neat label affixed, and the whole had an atmosphere of tender, loving care. Another room was filled with statues of Buddha, some of brass, some of gold or silver, and some small ones of jade and crystal. Here, too, we saw beautifully wrought silver prayer-wheels, teacups, ceremonial vases, incense burners, and beautifully painted silk scrolls (tankas). We were given a solemn reception by the head lama, a young man of sixteen elected when a baby, after portents and auguries had indicated that he was a reincarnation of the previous lama who had died at the moment of his birth. This system of succession seemed strange to occidental minds but is inherent in the Buddhist faith, and we were greatly impressed by the appearance and bearing of this young lama, though he spoke only a few words to us. After whispered instructions as to our deportment we were escorted before his low dais, and after a few gestures and a whispered prayer he hung about our necks a small, neatly made charm box containing as we were told the ashes of a dead lama, draped us in a ceremonial scarf, and gave us a small packet of 'food' for our safe return. The brief reception was quite impressive and confirmed our respect for the religion of our host.

Everest from Thyangboche. (Mrs.E. Cowles)

Photos by Mrs.E. Cowles

Everest from Thyangboche.

Abbot of Thyangboche. (Mrs.E. Cowles)

Photos by Mrs.E. Cowles

Abbot of Thyangboche.

After exchanging gifts with our new friends, and giving all the children of the village below the lamasery candy, we turned sadly down the steep path that led back to the outside world. The return trip was happy and uneventful, for we were in wonderful condition and the familiar trail to Namche Bazaar, Phedi, Tumling Tar, Dhankuta, rolled away beneath our feet. Old friends greeted us along the trail, we were given gifts at every turn, and entertained in the village of Majhua by dignified old gentlemen whose hospitality brought tears to our eyes. Some twelve days later we stopped briefly at Ghatra to inspect the Kosi dam, a joint project of Indian and Nepalese governments, and met our transport which brought us back to Viratnagar on the thirteenth day from Thyangboche.

We had been for some forty days in a part of the world seldom visited by Europeans, we had marched 150 miles or more over rough mountain trail to the foot of the highest mountain m the world, there to find a small community, centred in religion, self-sufficient, self- respecting, healthy, and happy. In all our travels we had met nothing but friendliness and courtesy. Our eyes had been opened to a different way of life, a different religion, and our minds to different thoughts and motives. Surrounded by scenery beyond description, the lamasery of Thyangboche and its attendant village seemed to us a beautiful oasis in a troubled world. Our impression of the south side of Everest was one of impressive and massive bulk. Such access as we saw to the summit did not offer much encouragement to the climber, and although a route may be worked out with hazard and toil through the West Cwm to the South Col and thence to the summit, it does not appear to us a practicable route. As we returned to the worries, burdens, and responsibilities, and the pleasures imposed upon us by our way of life, we would always remember the motto over the door of our favourite school in our favourite town of Dhankuta: 'Gather courage, don't be a chicken-hearted fellow.'

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