It was seven years since I had been in the Himalaya. I had seen something of the eastern end of the range during the course of a journey in Sikkim and had spent some months in Kashmir and Ladakh at the western end. A visit to the central part of the range, to Garhwal, to the region of Nanda Devi and Kamet and Badrinath, to the valleys of the Alaknanda and the Dhauli was a long-desired experience. Plans were hatched, irrevocable steps taken, the nucleus of a party collected and application made to our good friends of the Himalayan Club for a pass to Garhwal for the summer of 1952. The party consisted of David Bryson, of the B.B.C., John Jackson, a schoolmaster in Lancashire, John Kempe, Principal of the Hyderabad Public School, J. K. Misra, of Burmah-Shell, and myself. It was solely due to the Glub and to the perseverance and enthusiasm of its local secretary in Delhi, and of his deputy during his absence on leave, that we reached Garhwal at all. It was not their fault or ours that, after a pass to the area had been granted, it was subsequently so curtailed by the Indian authorities as to become almost valueless.
We decided to start from Ranikhet and to carry out the long trek, so often and so well described by Frank Smythe and others, across the foothill ranges west of the Trisul-Nanda Ghunti massif to the Dhauli and the Alaknanda valleys below Joshimath, up the Pilgrim Road to Badrinath, and thence to a base camp in the Satopanth valley for an attempt on Nilkanta (21,640 feet). This beautiful and much-photographed peak, queen of the Garhwal Himalaya, remains unclimbed. It was then intended to carry out a journey to the Banke and Raikhana glaciers to the east of Kamet and expected to be beyond the worst monsoon influences, returning to the outward route at Tapoban.
At Ranikhet eighteen Dhotial coolies were engaged. They worked well and we had no reason whatever for complaint. In addition we had four Sherpas: Lhakpa Tensing (Sirdar), Ang Tsering, Nima Sitar, and Nima Tensing. The two latter were rather inexperienced but there is no doubt whatever that Sherpas are worth taking. Expedition wear and tear is noticeably reduced thereby.
It is small wonder that this journey has been so fully and so frequently described. It must be one of the most attractive in the Himalaya. In the lower valleys the chestnuts were in flower. We passed through long avenues of them, with intriguing glimpses of Trisul through the foliage. Higher the brilliant scarlet and crimson of the blooms on the tree rhododendrons served as a frame toi the distant snows of Nanda Ghunti. It was good to be back. We slept out in the open, using our sleeping-bags and dispensing with tents. As we rose it became cool at nights, even cold at the wretched camping ground at Dakwani. It was still early in the season-only the end of April. The following day in perfect weather an orgy of photography was indulged in on the Kuari pass. The immense panorama more than justified its reputation. We all climbed a friendly hill above the pass and enjoyed long glissades down the upper slopes towards the woods of Tapoban.
From Joshimath we intermingled with the pilgrims on their way to the opening of the Temple at Badrinath, though we actuaLr preceded the Rawal by a few days. Great beds of winter snow blocked the track in places and the two ponies which we had taken on at Joshimath had a hard time. Badrinath was not only snowed up but more or less in ruins. Winter snows had been much heavier than usual and the spring avalanches had been devastating. The famous Temple, however, together with most of the other buildings at the north end of the little town, had escaped. Through the jaws of the nala behind Badrinath the upper part of the east face and north-east ridge of Nilkanta was visible. Conditions seemed wintry to a degree and the peak is in any case hardly assailable from this angle. The suspension bridge having been destroyed, we crossed the Alaknanda by huge snow beds between Badrinath and Mana. Mana itself was silent and deserted, the buildings secured against intruders by ancient padlocks. The Marcha Bhotias had not yet arrived from their winter quarters. Ahead the junction of the Bhagirath Kharak and the Satopanth glaciers was visible, each glacier curving round from its own valley and the two glaciers flowing together for a short distance before ending in a joint snout. In the angle between them rose the twin spires of Balakun (21,230 feet) with Chaukhan ba (23,468 feet) visible beyond. From the cliffs on the north emerged the two Vasudhara waterfalls, vanishing in spray before reaching the rocks at the bottom. A short distance beyond we established our base camp and here paid off all our Dhotial porters except twc three whom we retained for a few days to bring up a few loads behind at Badrinath.
After a day or two we set out in deteriorating weather for Bhagirath Kharak. This glacier has been traversed by several parties since the time of Meade who examined the col at its head. The ablation valley between the glacier and the hill-side was more or less snowed up, but the narrow top of the moraine was practicable. Two camps were established and from the second, at about 13,500 feet, an easy snow peak of about 18,000 feet on the north side of the valley was ascended in springlike conditions. The ascent gave us useful acclimatization as well as magnificent views of the east face of Ghaukhamba. The enormous avalanches falling from this peak and its neighbours obviously precluded further examination at this season, though as spectacles they were worth a long journey. We returned to camp in a mild snowstorm.
Photo.by J.A. Jacckson
Nilkanta from Avalanche Peak. West ridge and Col on the right.
Photo.by J.A. Jacckson
Trisul from Kanal Pass.
Photo.by J.A. Jacckson
Pilgrim route up the Alaknanda Valley.
Above the Bangneu Glacier
The following day, 14th May, Jackson, Kempe, and Bryson, with the Sherpas, established a further camp at about 17,000 feet on a large snowy plateau near the 18,000-foot peak with a view to the ascent of some fine mountains in the vicinity. The Sherpas returned to the lower camp. It snowed almost continuously and the higher camp proved bitterly cold, much sleep being lost in consequence. A clear morning induced an attempt on a fine peak of 20,250 feet, about 19,800 feet being reached, but the decision to retreat was the right one in view of mist and heavy snowfall. The party were lucky to find their tents, their outward tracks being obliterated and visibility only a few yards. The following day they returned to the glacier camp and the day after that the whole party reached the Base Camp,
After a day off at the Base Camp, Kempe and I, with two Sherpas, set off up a very steep nala just beyond the camp, at the top of which was a glacier system, the Bangneu Bank, bounded by a ring of high peaks. The nala became a sinister looking gorge, overhung with green ice. In a flurry of snow, camp was pitched high up snow- covered slopes on the left and the Sherpas returned. The following day a vertical step in the bed, which had now become a glacier, was by-passed, and after a further camp had been established it proved possible to avoid an impossible ice-fall by means of further steep snow-slopes on the left which led to a branch of the Bangneu Bank. Another and milder ice-fall conducted us to a rocky rib separating the two branches of the glacier. A steep descent led to the other branch in the middle of which we camped. The glacier was surrounded by fine but difficult-looking peaks. At the head one mountain of 20,320 feet and another of almost 21,000 feet, both rock peaks, appeared impossible under existing conditions. Immediately opposite the camp a massive mountain of 20,330 feet seemed to possess two routes which might repay examination.
Kempe, unfortunately, had to retire to the Base Camp escorted by two Sherpas, having distinctly the worst of a violent attack of dysentery. This was the only illness of any kind suffered by any member of the expedition. Leaving the other two Sherpas at the glacier camp (about 17,000 feet), the other four left for the peak at 7 a.m. It was a fine though cold morning and the snow was in perfect condition. An easy, winding snowy rib led up the centre of the south-west face of the peak joining the main westerly ridge only a short distance from the summit. This seemed the easier of the two routes, the other being the ridge mentioned, the continuity of which was interrupted by many rocky towers and gendarmes. Good progress was made and after a stop or two for photography and to recover breath, the steep slope leading up to the western ridge was tackled. The sun had been shining on the slope for some time bur the snow, though softened, did not appear to be avalanchy. Good steps were made and fairly rapid progress was possible. The peak seemed to be in the bag.
It seems possible that the avalanche may have started through some snow sliding off the sun-warmed rock of the main ridge and caused the surface at the top of the slope to slip. The members of the party were now at about 20,000 ft. Misra was at the foot of the slope and was not involved. Bryson soon felt his feet on the solid snow, the.avalanche having slipped away beneath him. Jackson and I were carried on the surface of the avalanche, he from nearly the top of the slope and I from more than half-way up, to the bottom. Jackson only suffered from superficial bruises but received some laceration of the right arm. I was unhurt except for a badly strained or twisted knee, which would not take my weight so that I was unable to walk. We both practised swimming motions on our backs and it may well be that this kept us on top of the sliding snow masses. Prodigies of valour and endurance on the part of Bryson and Jackson succeeded in getting me back to camp before dark. Two days later the Base Camp was attained.
Unhappily a note had been sent up from the police that our pass had been altered. It had indeed! Movement was absolutely prohibited, except in a homeward direction, with the exception of an attempt to climb Nilkanta. The long journey to the Zaskar range was at an end. It proved impossible to persuade the authorities to relent. Accordingly on 28th May, my leg rendering me immobile, Bryson, Jackson, and Kempe left with three Sherpas to reconnoitre Nilkanta. They established a camp beside the Satopanth glacier but appalling snow conditions and worsening weather rendered an attempt to reach the snow col at the foot of the west ridge hopeless. On 2nd June the party were reunited at the Base Camp and it was time for Kempe to leave us to return to his work in Hyderabad. The weather, which had been poor, now became hopeless. Floods of rain followed by heavy snow fell day and night at the Base Camp for forty-eight hours.
My knee had improved very little but, nevertheless, I decided to test it by accompanying Jackson and Bryson in another attempt on 'Avalanche Peak' so as to utilize the period of waiting for Nilkanta to get into climbable condition. The steep gorges were successfully traversed but the soft snow of the upper part of the glacier demonstrated that the knee was actually useless, so after a night at Camp II (as we called the Bangneu Glacier Camp) I descended to the Base Camp assisted by Lhakpa and returned to England.
Bryson and Jackson left camp at 6 a.m. to attempt 'Avalanche Peak’ by the ridge route. At 11.30 a.m., having attained an altitude of approximately 19,800 feet, it was realized that another three or four hours along the ridge would be needed to reach the summit. The ridge had developed a series of rocky gendarmes composed of smooth slabs covered with snow. It was realized that the return would be highly dangerous if the attack were pressed further. Nevertheless, it had been a memorable mountaineering day, with splendid views across the rugged Arwa Nala to the peaks of the border of Tibet. Nanda Devi and Trisul soared distantly but majestically over the ranges of eastern Garhwal.
It was decided to place a Camp III at 19,000 feet below the snow bulge in the hope that the ascent and descent of the dangerous avalanche slopes could be made before the sun had gained much power. Accordingly on 13 th June, with the help of Lhakpa and Ang Tsering the lightest Meade tent was placed below the bergschrund on the bulge, the two Sherpas then returning to Camp II. Bryson and Jackson, after a cold night and a cheerless breakfast, left the Meade tent at 4.30 a.m. The old avalanche route was tried, but as the slope steepened doubts and fears increased about the underlying snow. Retracing their steps they then tried an even steeper slope to the left of the snow bulge. It had been noticed that the sun only reached this slope late in the morning and at once they found the going easier. It was possible for Bryson to kick excellent steps all the way to where the rock gendarmes joined the corniced snow ridge leading to the summit. Here the two roped together and began to traverse the steep ridge above the bulge. Always there seemed a doubt. After their previous experience the thought of avalanches was uppermost in their minds. On arrival at the last gendarme before the summit they traversed its base and ascended a steep little couloir to reach the summit rocks. It was 7.30 a.m. and for the first time they were able to relax and enjoy the superb mountain panorama. Mists filled the Arwa Glen and the valley of the Alaknanda, but across a rolling sea of cloud could be seen Kamet, quite near, Mana peak, and the other great peaks of the central Himalaya almost overpowering in their grandeur. Northwards rose a long line of high nameless mountains on the Tibetan border. The knife-edged east ridge of 'Avalanche Peak' drew the eyes across silvered clouds to Rataban, Hathi Parbat, Nanda Devi, and Trisul.
The snow remained good on the descent and as calculated the sun was only beginning to touch the snow of the traverse along the ridge and the dangerous slopes beneath. Back at Camp II the Sherpas produced a telegram from the Indian Government refusing a further request to cross the Bhyundar Khanta to Gamsoli in the Dhauliganga. It was decided to return to the Base Camp for a further reconnaissance of the west ridge of Nilkanta. Accordingly, on 17th June Bryson, Jackson, and Lhakpa, after a trip down to Mana and Badrinath, ascended the Bhagirath Kharak glacier to the Base Camp of the French Expedition to congratulate them on the ascent of Ghaukhamba. The French broached a delicious cognac to toast the expeditions. Victor Russenberger and Lucien Georges, the two who had made the ascent of Ghaukhamba, decided to join forces with Bryson and Jackson in an attempt on Nilkanta. Accordingly, two days later the French and British parties met at the confluence of the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers, and with the help of Mana Bhotias established a Base Camp near the grazing alp of Majna on the Satopanth glacier. Compared with Sherpas and Dhotials the Bhotias were very slow and the camp site was not reached until late in the day—and that only by resorting to the expedient of hiding the Bhotia pipe and tobacco in rucksacks. Majna had changed much since the attempt on Nilkanta five weeks before, and the lower slopes leading up to the basin at the foot of the slopes below the Nilkanta Col were partly covered by grass with a lovely show of purple primula, potentilla, and an aromatic dwarf rhododenron. The sun shone brilliantly the following morning and Jackson, Bryson, and Lucien Georges with four Sherpas left Base Camp and placed a Camp I at 16,000 feet at the foot of the slopes beneath the col. In the afternoon layers of ominous-looking clouds moved relentlessly up the Satopanth from the Alaknanda, but above them 'Avalanche Peak5 and the Kamet group could be seen.
Though awake by 3.30 a.m. the following day an early start was delayed until 5.30 due to primus trouble. Snow conditions on the route up to the ridge were infinitely better than before and Camp II was placed on the col at 18,500 feet. Monsoon clouds were massing. Snow fell throughout the night. A reconnaissance of the west ridge was started the next day but quite early hail and snow reduced visibility to little more than a dozen yards. At the second gendarme Georges5s head was cut by a fall of ice and stones. The three returned to the col in hopeless weather conditions. Soon three Sherpas arrived with food and fuel, and apparently had had a trying time on the steep slopes below the col, with small stone and snow avalanches passing them on either side. It began to snow heavily again towards evening and through the night. Clearly this was the monsoon.
It seemed doubtful whether Sherpas could carry beyond the col owing to the difficulty of the rocks and it had been planned to bivouac at about 20,000 feet. The new snow made this hopeless. Rocks plastered with snow also increased the dangers of the supply route between Camps I and II. It was decided to descend. Through a break in the clouds, far to the north could be seen the Kamet peaks, and Ganesh Parbat on the Tibetan border, cloudless, and clearly outlined against a blue sky. These were to have been the main objectives in June, but withdrawal of the permit prevented the carrying out of the plans so carefully devised to avoid the rigours of the monsoon. It was galling to see these mountains as the party finally left the col and descended. The weather showing no signs of improvement after four days, a further descent was undertaken on the 26th to the former base camp at Vasudhara, with several tricky and amusing moments crossing streams swollen to raging torrents by monsoon rains. The party returned by way of Chamoli.
It was unfortunate that, owing to circumstances outside the control of the members of the expedition, the original design had to be abandoned. In addition the weather was poor on the whole and snow conditions were rather dangerous. Nevertheless, the expedition was greatly enjoyed by those who took part in it. For Bryson and Kempe it provided at least an introduction to Himalayan travel wThilst to Jackson and me it served to recall days long gone by and revive memories which were becoming dim.
We acknowledge with gratitude the co-operation of the Fell and Rock Club with whom this article is shared.