IN the spring of 1953 my friends and I assembled in Bombay to discuss plans for our next bid in the mountains. By this time it had become almost customary with me to visit the Himalaya once a year. My visits, however, did not mean just 'Expeditions' as such or climbing to 'conquer' a peak. I have always looked with profound reverence at the Himalaya, not merely as the highest mountain range on our planet, but rather as the traditional seat of Indian sages for self-contemplation and as the fountain-head of Indian civilization and culture. My visits to the Himalaya, therefore, have always been pilgrimages to me.
The colossal ranges of Himalaya offered us endless choice. My friends and I had been to several parts of the Himalayas before, but none had ever been to Nepal. Earlier, we had gone through Mr. Shipton's book on Everest's reconnaissance with great interest and were fascinated by the lovely photographs of the Everest massif they could take from the shoulder of Pumori.
Though Pumori had not been reconnoitered before, we thought that a possible route leading to its summit (23,190 feet) could be found out once we were on the spot. Our decision to make an attempt on Pumori was, therefore, unanimous. We had the solace that in the event of our failure to get to the summit, we would at least be compensated to a small extent by the magnificent views of the Everest group and of many a peak in the Khumbu region. In the Sherpa dialect 'Pumori' or rather 'Pumari' means an unmarried daughter. Mallory, the ill-fated Everest climber, called this mountain Pumori to remind him of his beloved daughter. There had never been any serious attempt to climb Pumori before and we could not, consequently, draw upon the experience of any predecessors. Our Expedition, therefore, had to deal with the dual task of reconnoitring and climbing.
We had selected autumn for our attempt on Pumori and had, therefore, a long time before us for our preparations. However, we ultimately discovered that it was not adequate to complete all the preliminaries of the Expedition. To secure, in India, proper and sufficient equipment for our climb was the greatest hurdle. We could borrow some equipment from the Himalayan Club at Bombay and at Calcutta and when we left for Nepal we had an idea of getting some more from the Sherpas at Namche Bazar. Our permit from the Nepal Government to go to Pumori also arrived only a couple of days prior to our departure and only after a series of letters and telegrams were exchanged.
Our party originally consisted of three friends besides me. Jaya- want Gaitonde, who had made an attempt on Panch-Ghuli the previous year, was the eldest amongst us. Rusi Ghandhy with wide trekking experience of various parts of the Himalayas and P. V. Patankar were the other two. Later on, Rusi's brother Homi Ghandhy as well as my devoted cook Gebilal also joined our team.
Before we left Bombay, I had heard from Mr. Shipton as well as from Sherpa Tensing. Both were very kind in forwarding me their valuable suggestions concerning our proposed attempt. We also learnt more about the route along the Khumbu glacier from Mr. W. H. Murray who happened to pass through Bombay on his return from western Nepal only a few days before our departure.
It became apparent from the information gathered that any attempt on Pumori from the south was very likely to meet with failure. The ascent on Pumori from the Khumbu side would be extremely steep and even risky. Our optimism, therefore, was greatly subdued by stark realism. We hoped, however, that our attempt would, at least, reveal any possible approach to the summit from the south and would be helpful for any future attempt.
To save time, Patankar and I flew to Kathmandu from Patna, ,-hile others took the land route via Raxaul to bring the heavy equipment and supplies on laden porters. The motor road to Kathmandu had not been completed then. At the Nepalese capital, however, we received a very hearty welcome and co-operation from everyone we had to deal with—from the Ghief of Protocol, Shri Prakat Mansingh, to Prime Minister Koirala. Our genial Ambassador, Shri B. K. Gokhale, and others of the Indian Embassy made us feel quite at home in Kathmandu. The Nepal Government kindly made their guest-house available to us for our stay.
We were lucky in securing twenty-three sturdy porters who had already been with the British Everest Expedition up to Namche Bazar, and we had to spend two days in rearranging our packages to form 60-lb. loads. We also found time to do a little sight-seeing in and around Kathmandu.
Most roads in this valley are primitive and the only convenient transport is the 'jeep'. We hurriedly went round the valley and visited all the well-known shrines—both Hindu and Buddhist-palaces, museums, and the bazaars. The most striking of which were the Pashupati Nath, Bodh Nath, Swayambhoo Nath, and the Singh- Darabar. But Kathmandu was not our destination and so we left the valley on 22nd September for Sola-Khumbu. Our first objective was Namche Bazar, the principal village of that district and the home of the famous Sherpas.
Our departure from Kathmandu was carefully synchronized with the end of the monsoon and we, therefore, escaped the heavy showers which otherwise would have made our going extremely irksome. In the early hours of the first day we covered about 16 miles by 'jeep' to arrive at Banepa to catch up our porters who had started a day earlier. The same day we marched over 12 miles farther to reach Dolalghat at the confluences of three rivers—the Cha-Khola, Indravati, and the Sun-Kosi.
It was already nightfall by the time we crossed the suspension bridge of the village and climbed to a primitive rest-house on a hillock. But the full moon soon come out from behind the eastern ranges and brought to light a rather unearthly view of the sandy river-beds on both the sides.
From Chaubas, which we reached after a stiff climb of 5,000 feet on the second day, we had our first glimpse of the snow-clad skyscrapers. Our path to Namche Bazar lay through forests of pines and firs alternating with thickets of rhododendrons and birch-trees growing at altitudes as high as 12,000 feet. The rhododendrons were covered with bearded moss all over the branches while at still higher altitudes a variety of stunted junipers flourished side by side with primula.
The agriculture varied with the altitude and climate of the regions we traversed. In the lower valleys they mostly grew paddy in summer and wheat in winter, while on higher elevations they cultivated potatoes, barley, maize, and buck-wheat. Like the Tibetans, the northern Nepalese prepare sattu or ‘tsamba’ which is baked flour of barley or wheat. They also brew two varieties of liquor—the crude chhang and the refined raksi—out of barley or wheat or even maize.
On arriving at Junbesi on the tenth day, we found that we had entered the Sherpa district. In the monastery of Sange Lama where we had lodged for the night, we saw an enormous image of Buddha made of clay and painted gold. There were also complete volumes of Tibetan 'Kanjur' and 'Tanjur' in the Gompa. On the twelfth day we crossed the Karyolung pass with great hardship. The last leg of our trek to Namche lay along the bank of the Dudh-Kosi, which drains from the environments of Everest. 'Kosi' in these mountains means a river while 'khola' denotes a rivulet or a stream.
Our first glimpse of Mount Everest was both a delight and a thrill. We had been, in fact, looking out for it ever since we left Kathmandu, but it had managed successfully to keep its tall head hidden behind a veil of clouds all the while. It was not, thus, till the day we reached Namche, that we had this unforgettable sight just before we arrived at the village. The summit of Everest was peeping out from behind the lofty Lhotse-Nuptse wall, and even from this distance, the long plume of snow-dust was clearly visible. Our heads bowed to Chhomo- lungma—the Goddess Mother—in silent reverence.
Photo. By Navnit Parekh
Nuptse from shoulder of Pumori.
Namche Bazar is a snug little village of about eighty houses rising in tiers in a horse-shoe form at over 11,000 feet. On arrival there we received an enthusiastic welcome from the inhabitants, the Sherpas having slant mongol eyes, prominent cheek-bones, and a cheerful smile. We were made guests of Sherpa Gyaljen who was later to be the head of our Sherpa team. During the couple of days I spent at Namche Bazar, I had ample opportunities to study the peculiar customs and the costumes, the religion and rituals of the Sherpa community. As guests in a Sherpa home we could study their life at first hand.
The Sherpa house, built of stone and wood, usually has an upper story. The ground floor is divided into a store-room where are piled bags of sattu, wool, and other necessaries, and a stable for the cattle. In the darkness we had to fumble over yak-dung and hay to reach the wooden stairway at the end of the dingy stable. The two living- rooms were on the upper floor. In one corner of the main hall was the fireplace where water for tea was always boiling. There were long wooden seats with cushions on them and low tea-tables in front. There was a remarkable number of copper and brass utensils of various shapes and sizes.
In Gebilal we had an excellent cook and commissary. However, our hostess, the wife of Gyaljen, often offered us a variety of Sherpa dishes. Being a strict vegetarian, I could avail of only a very tasty loaf made of boiled potatoes while my companions relished thukpa and other delicacies. In no time, we had become very friendly with the check-post officers at Namche. At my earnest request, they arranged a special dance of the Sherpa women on a hill-top near the village. Though their movements were rather slow, it was very fascinating to watch them, clothed in their colourful attires and with their numerous ornaments while the Everest massif glowed in the background.
A steady descent and a steep climb on the right and left banks of the Imja-Khola brought us to Thyangboche, about 6 miles from Namche Bazar. Here stands a famous monastery on the knoll of a short spur amidst idyllic surroundings. The hill was covered with an amazing variety of luxurious vegetation, blazing with autumn colours, while towering peaks all round held the deep blue firmament high up like a canopy. Grimson-robed Lamas, rosary in hand, frequented the courtyard of the monastery while musk-deer and partridges occupied the surrounding woods.
From Thyangboche we had a clear view of Kangtega (22,180 feet), Ama Dablam (22,300 feet), Khumbila (19,200 feet), Taweche (21,390 feet), Thamserku (22,000 feet) and, of course, of the giant Everest massif. Ama Dablam is evidently an inaccessible peak and we saw its different faces and shapes as we advanced towards Pumori during the following days. The pointed peak of Khumbila was almost completely free from snow, and being so close to Namche Bazar, it is regarded as very sacred by all the Sherpas. The very sociable lamas of Thyangboche were obliging enough to dress up in their ceremonial robes and pose for photographs with enormous trumpets glued to their lips. A junior lama, wearing a striped yellow robe, performed a ritual dance for us and I returned their courtesies by performing a special 'Pooja' in the monastery the next morning.
At Pangboche we came across Dr. Charles Evans, one of the first two men to reach the south summit of Everest, who had been exploring the region for the last few months. We were told by the local Sherpas that the scalp of a yeti (Snowman) was preserved by the Lama of Pangboche monastery. Greatly interested in the story, we hurried to the Gompa where they took out an old piece of brown, thick skin. It had a conical shape and much of its hair had already fallen off. The lamas had, apparently, been wearing it as a headgear for ceremonial occasions. My bid to buy up the 'scalp', for a scrutiny by experts, bore no fruit and we had to console ourselves by taking pictures of the piece.
The same evening we reached Pheriche, consisting of a few scattered stone-huts, then deserted. Here the Chola-khola flows through a wide marshy valley full of stunted junipers and birds of the crow family. It is likely that originally this portion was a long shallow lake fed by the streams rising from the Khumbu glacier. By now our thermometer had started registering temperatures below freezing-point at night. 5
We marched for two days along the Khumbu glacier, pitching our tents on the sandy shore of a small lake at over 17,000 feet on the second day. Our Sherpas told us that the Swiss Everest Expedition had established its base camp near this lake which they call 'Goroshep Pokhri'. The upper layer of the lake was partly frozen. We had obtained an unusual view of Everest before reaching Goroshep Pokhri. Here, from the south-west of Everest, we could see the peak quite separated from the western shoulder.
One more day's march brought us to the foot of Pumori on the western side of Khumbu glacier. Gyaljen pointed out the site of the British Everest Base Camp on the other side of the glacier, amidst huge ice-seracs at the foot of the Khumbu ice-fall.
We could not spend any time for acclimatization and on the very next day we started ascending Pumori. At first we had to go up a rocky side of the ridge and it became increasing difficult to climb as we went up. The effects of high altitude on us were evident and we experienced loss of sleep and appetite coupled with a mild but constant headache.
Pumori rises very steeply from the Khumbu side and any route leading to the summit involves a stiff climb over slippery ice and up perpendicular rock-faces offering rare foot-holds. The only possible way to the summit seemed to be by way of the col which links Pumori with Lingtrentse. The access to this col may, however, be from the side of the west Rongbuk glacier in the north. In order to take up this route, any party assaulting Pumori from the Nepalese side, will first have to divert from Namche Bazar to the north-west and cross the Nup-La to the north after negotiating a very difficult ice-fall at the foot of the pass. Such an attempt appears impracticable for the time being since it would involve treading on Tibetan soil now under Chinese domination.
After climbing up to about 19,500 feet only, I became convinced that it was futile to go farther up from this side. We therefore divided our party in two. The Ghandhy brothers stayed on the mountain camping at 20,000 feet and climbed considerably higher up the following day before coming down. The rest of us descended and crossed the Khumbu glacier on the next day to reach the base of Everest not far from the ice-fall.
Before abandoning our attempt on Pumori, however, we obtained one of the most magnificent sights visible anywhere in the world. Towards the north-east was an icy rampart formed by Lingtrentse, Domino, and Khumbutse while Changtse towered behind the Lho-La. In front of us was spread out the majestic Everest massif and we could clearly see most of the route leading to its summit. A long white plume of blown snow-dust emerged from the summit of Everest against a deep blue autumn sky.
I had earlier been informed by Sherpa Tensing that he had sighted from the summit of Everest a small green lake on the southern side of Pumori. Apparently it had never been reached or sighted by any other person. During my descent on Pumori, I took a chance to locate this small lake. With two Sherpas and Gebilal I made a short detour south-westwards and crossed two low spurs covered with crags and boulders. From the top of the second spur, we sighted the lake and descended to its shore. With its light-green surface of solid ice the lake presented an enchanting appearance and we hurled a few stones at its hard surface out of sheer jubilance. The lake measured roughly 150 feet by 60 feet and its altitude must have been a little under 19,000 feet.
Crossing the Khumbu glacier was not a tame affair. We had to make several short detours entailing tiresome ups and downs in order to avoid the deep crevasses. We saw a number of ice-tables on the glacier, formed by huge stones resting on short ice-pillars, protected underneath from the sun. We also came across a beautiful frozen waterfall while negotiating the glacier. It looked as if it had been chiselled out of marble by some talented sculptor, while giant pinnacles of ice spotted the entire glacial area.
Our return trip to Namche Bazar from the foot of Everest took less than three days. Before going to Namche we visited Khumjung, another noted village of the Sherpas. Our return march from Sola- Khumbu was straight southwards to the rail-head of Jayanagar. Okhaldunga was the only town en route, where we had arrived on the day of their weekly fair. The region below Okhaldunga is highly malarious and our porters recruited in Sola-Khumbu refused to come down for any inducement. The enlightened Governor of the district, Shri Makra Bahadur, rendered timely assistance to us in securing new carriers.
One day later, we dropped to Sun-Kosi and crossed it by a canoe dug out of a tree-trunk. The path beyond lay through the bed of Bahadura-Khola, a tributary of Sun-Kosi. The two following days were spent in the densely forested Terai belt which offers sanctuary to a variety of wild game and an abundance of snakes. We spent a night on a wooden structure, erected in the bed of the river to protect the lodgers from the reptiles below.
On 3rd November we all returned to Bombay, in time to celebrate Diwali amidst our families and friends. Despite our failure to reach the summit of Pumori, our disappointment was not great. We concluded that any attempt on Pumori from the south would be a hopeless proposition and the only possibility, visible from this side, would be from the saddle connecting Pumori with Lingtrentse.
We returned with the hope that our experience would guide the next team in a successful bid to climb Pumori.