Up to now, those interested in Himalayan exploration have focused their attention mainly on the giant peaks but as these have fallen one by one to large-scale expeditions, the lesser peaks are coming into their own and the day of the small party of moderate means and capacity is here. Nor is this any longer the prerogative of the male, for already two women's expeditions have been successfully carried through.
When I heard that a small party of Scottish women had climbed in Nepal and reached 21,000 ft., I decided to look into the possibility of organizing an expedition myself. A whole year was to elapse between the germination of the idea and its fruition; twelve months of hard work, planning, organizing and surmounting difficulties. The first problem was to find three companions, good climbers, experienced campers, adventurous spirits who were free to leave England for at least two months and were prepared to pay a large part of their own expenses.
The first companion was at hand and ready to go—Hilda Reid with whom I had shared a tent at the Assiniboine camp of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1951. She is a theatre-sister at a London hospital and so was well qualified to look after the health of the party. She also agreed to organize the food while I studied surveying and had lessons in Hindustani.
While we were seeking two others, we began to plan where we should go. After reading articles in several journals and talking to people who had knowledge of Himalayan conditions, we came to the conclusion that the Kulu-Spiti-Lahul watershed of East Punjab provided all that a party such as ours could wish for. Mr. A. E. Gunther, who had been to the Bara Shigri glacier in 1953, convinced us that here was a worthwhile objective and we used his sketch-map as a basis for our plans.2
At this stage, a third conspirator was found in Eileen Gregory, a strong climber, and an enthusiastic camper. On hearing details of the proposals, she decided to give up her job as a biochemist and join us as equipment and climbing leader. We still lacked a fourth member, but in November 1955 the name of Frances Delany was given to us as an enthusiastic climber, who for some time had wanted to join a Himalayan expedition. The drawback was that she was working as a geologist in French Equatorial Africa and we could not meet beforehand.
With the party now complete and the area agreed upon, we were able to get down to details. We were helped considerably by the Himalayan Club, who arranged for 4 Sherpas to meet us in Manali and assisted with the transport of stores in India; by the Colonial and Foreign Offices, who gave valuable advice about customs and travel formalities; and by the Royal Geographical Society, who lent us surveying instruments. Major Banon, an Englishman settled in Manali, arranged for the hire of mules and local porters. Many firms provided gifts in kind, while others gave us special terms. The greatest encouragement came from the Mount Everest Foundation, who considered the objects of our expedition worthy of a substantial grant.
By working day and night, all was ready by the end of February. We travelled by different routes—Hilda and I by car; Eileen by sea, taking the equipment with her; and Frances by air from Nairobi. We met early in May at Manali, a village 6,000 ft. up at the head of the Kulu valley. Under Major Banon's hospitable roof we spent ten days sorting and repacking stores and acclimatizing ourselves after our long journey. On May 12th the Sherpas arrived. The Sirdar, Ang Tsering (Pansy) a veteran of 49, had been on Everest with Shipton in 1936; Pasang Dorje, the cook, was experienced and knew all about pressure cookers; Mingma Tsering had been to 25,000 ft. on Makalu and proved an excellent climber; and Nima Dorje had been postman at Base Camp on Makalu.
We were naturally anxious to be off but the news of snow conditions was disquieting. The Chandra valley was still filled with snow and ice and the Rohtang Pass, 13,050 ft., was impracticable for mules. Then news filtered through that the annual trek of nomads over the Hamtah Pass, 14,027 ft., had begun and we decided to change our plans. We would hire porters to carry three weeks' supplies over the Hamtah, leaving the rest to be brought over the Rohtang as sood as conditions permitted. So on May 18th, an impressive caravan of 4 Memsahibs, 4 Sherpas, 4 Ladakhis and 24 local porters set off on the great adventure. The sun was shining as we crossed the bridge outside the village and ascended the slopes ahead. On the second day, we reached the top of the pass and gazed down with some misgivings on a 45° slope covered with treacherous ice. For heavily-laden porters, shod with rope-sandals, this seemed no place at all. My heart sank as I recalled tales of previous expeditions whose porters had simply put down their loads and refused to go any further on meeting lesser hazards than this. However, after fixing ropes and stationing Sherpas at intervals, all the porters made the descent without serious mishap.
Bara Shigri Glacier
We found the river almost completely blocked by ice, with here and there a glimpse of water rushing under ice-bridges and churning through ice-caves. We traversed the slopes well above the river and camped three nights on the few flat areas available. On the sixth day after leaving Manali, we were at the flats at the foot of the Bara Shigri glacier where we paid off the local porters, keeping only 4 Sherpas and 4 Ladakhis for the actual glacier climbs.
We had now arrived at a height of 13,400 ft., and we spent the next two days acclimatizing and practising our surveying.
On May 25th we struck camp and felt that at last our real adventure was about to begin. Turning our backs on the Chandra, we traversed a mile or more of moraine and started to climb the Bara Shigri. The going was hard and unpleasant for the glacier bed, over a mile wide here, had cracked over the years into a series of hills and dales up and down which we laboured. Rocks and boulders, brought down by the ice, had piled in odd-shaped masses around which we made a tortuous path; deep snow overlaid all. On our left, was a sheer rock face, but on the true left of the glacier magnificent tributary glaciers poured down one after another. Before dark, we stopped to set up camp opposite the fourth of these glaciers on top of a moraine ridge.
After a day spent exploring a side glacier and surveying, we climbed on to the centre core of the Bara Shigri (16,300 ft.). Here the glacier makes a wide sweep to the south-east leaving a short straight arm ahead. Gunther had named this Concordia; it was a mile and a half in diameter, its circumference filled with giant peaks. There was the Cathedral, a broad nave ending in a pointed spire, the adjacent Chapter House, Tiger Tooth rising in jagged outline against a rounded ice-boss, and the Devil frowning above us, his five fingers pointing in scorn at the puny mortals below. We climbed a mere 17,500-ft. pimple and took a panoramic photograph to record the area, using for the first time the camera attachment incorporating level and compass, made specially for the expedition. Glissading down its slopes to Camp III in the early afternoon, we named it e Jeldi Jeldi' (quickly). By now, we had seen enough to plan for the next few days and were anxious to get on while the weather held. A brilliant sun shone day after day, but the cold at night was intense and we spent the hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. snug in our double sleeping-bags on air-mattresses, our material needs supplied by the ever-attentive Sherpas.
After a day's rest in which we were busy with plane-table, cameras and diaries, Hilda and I moved up to the head of the short arm of the glacier (Camp IV). This provided perhaps the most perfect setting of the whole expedition. Our little tent was a mere speck in a vast arena of sparkling white, bounded by a steep-sided cirque of peaks. We searched in vain for a possible break until our eyes moved round to the south-east, where a promising pass gave access to a high peak. We were joined the following day by Eileen and Frances who had stayed to move Camp III nearer the bend. On June 1st at 5-30 a.m., all four Memsahibs with Mingma and Namgel set off for the Col. This rose in a series of ice-pitches up which we cut steps to a height of 18,000 ft., and looked out over the unknown Gyundi valley.3 We were not yet fully acclimatized so Hilda and I stayed on the Col, taking a panoramic view and colour pictures, while Eileen and Frances with the porters made a first ascent of the northern buttress of Outlook Peak.
Back at high camp, we came to the conclusion that we had done all within our powers at this end of the glacier and decided to return to Concordia for an exploration of the upper northeastern reaches of the main glacier round the big bend. This proved to be much further than it looked, and we called a halt under the shadow of the 20,000-ft. peak climbed by Gunther in 1953. Eileen and Frances, who climbed this next day from Camp V, found it difficult to reconcile his description of an enormous 'Lion Glacier', seen from its summit, with the numerous glaciers and valleys all flowing to the north.
Sixteen days had now passed since leaving Manali and it was time to expect the mules with our next three weeks' supplies, so Pansy went down to Base with all the porters. The three remaining Sherpas moved camp up to the head of the glacier (Camp VI), and we picked out a moderate summit that the whole party could climb together. However the weather, after giving us two glorious weeks, now deteriorated and shortage of fuel forced us to retreat to Concordia. The weather certainly improved but there was no fuel awaiting us. It was no good sitting in our tent counting our miseries however, so we planned to climb the jagged peak, 'Convex' Peak, at the turn of the glacier the next day.
Frances was not able to start as she was feeling the altitude, but the three of us were off before the sun reached the tents. After three hours' climbing in intense cold, Hilda, her hands and feet frozen, had to give up. I went on as far as the gendarme overlooking both the upper and lower glacier from which excellent views and bearings of peaks were obtainable. Eileen crawled along the sharp ridge to the summit reaching it as the sun emerged. That evening back at Concordia we burnt our only wooden box, gloomily ate our last hot meal, and got into our sleeping-bags. At 10 p.m. we were awakened from unpleasant dreams by distant shouts, and soon two figures could be discerned coming up the glacier with heavy loads. Two porters had made a forced march of 24 hours from the Chandra to bring us fuel and food. But they also brought a message from Pansy asking one Memsahib to go down, so early next morning Hilda and I reluctantly faced the descent. After eight hours" of hard going, we reached the site of the old Base Camp, only to find that the tents had disappeared. A Sherpa was waiting to give us the cheerless news that the mules had had to come along the north bank of the Chandra and as there was no means of crossing, all packages were being brought across on a jhula, a wooden cage suspended on a double rope which could be pulled backwards and forwards by a man at each end.
Hungry and tired, and unable to face a further seven miles at this late hour, Hilda and I decided to pitch our tent there amidst the boulders and debris now uncovered by the melting snow, even though this meant going supperless to bed. Early next morning we completed the journey to Karcha, and immediately despatched two porters to Concordia with food for Eileen and Frances so that they could continue their explorations. While the porters ferried loads to the glacier, we took the opportunity to go further upstream towards the Kunzam La,4 an important pass of about 15,000 ft., where, through the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, we looked out into Spiti and beyond.
Eight precious days had been taken up with this unforeseen trip up and down the glacier, and now we had to revise our plans. Food was once more repacked, some being left at Base for the return journey. Pansy, Pasang and Namgel returned with us with all possible speed to Concordia and we established a camp on Stony Hill from which to fulfil a long-cherished ambition of exploring the ice-pass overlooking the Pir Panjal. Here Frances joined us, still suffering from heart-strain brought about by carrying loads at high altitudes. The next morning as we climbed the steep icefall leading to the Col, we saw dots on an adjoining ice-field which turned out to be Eileen and her party descending after their successful ascent of the Cathedral, c. 20,500 ft. She had named the lump at its northern end the Chapter House. Frances returned with them to Concordia while Hilda and I pressed on and set up a camp at about 18,000 ft. From the pass we looked down a precipitous but not impossible slope across to the ranges of the Pir Panjal, and we formed the opinion that a future party might well return to Manali that way.
Next morning Hilda returned to Concordia to repack food for the final journey back to Base Camp, which we planned to make in two parties so as to find two new routes down to the Chandra. Pansy, Namgel and I had a wonderful rock climb on Tiger Tooth, but within 400 ft. of the summit were defeated by avalanche conditions brought about by the impending monsoon. The next day we descended to Concordia and found that Eileen and Frances had already set off on the homeward trek choosing the route along the first glacier after the bend; and that Hilda had spent the night alone, an insignificant figure in the centre of a circle of 20,000-ft. peaks, seven days' march from the nearest habitation.
Our plan now was to go up the pass by Gunther's peak and then to follow the valleys north and rejoin the Chandra via the Kunzam La. But the initial difficulties proved too great: the pass was overhanging on the far side, and a big snow-cornice made it quite out of the question for laden porters. As our days in the Himalayas were now numbered, for monsoon clouds swept the skies every afternoon, we had to decide to return by our original route. I could not, however, resist the beauty of the Snow Cone, so Nima and I made the ascent the next morning. Visibility was very bad and a very worried Pansy greeted us on our return to camp.
We now pursued a steady course down the glacier to the Chandra, where the mules should already have arrived to carry back to Manali. What a change had come over the scene! Below 15,000 ft., ice-caves and snow mounds had changed to wet and stony wastes, and in many places dirty black patches had replaced the earlier glistening slopes. How glad we were that we had first seen them in all their pure white splendour of snow and ice.
At the original Camp II, Eileen caught us up with the request to send more food to Frances who was waiting higher up while her heart adjusted itself to ever-changing altitudes. A reluctant Nima and Atisha consented to return with Eileen, taking with them all we could spare from our dwindling stores, while the main body went on to Manali.
On the last day in June, the whole party was reunited at Major Banon's, and after a few days in which we did nothing but eat and sleep, we separated for home. Eileen, the indefatigable, stayed on for two more weeks and, with only two local porters, succeeded in climbing Deo Tibba, 19,687 ft.5 She then returned home by sea with the equipment. Frances went back by air from Delhi to Nairobi; Hilda and I, after putting the car on a cargo- boat at Karachi, flew to London.
Following hard on the heels of the Scottish Women's party, we have confirmed that women can organize and carry through a Himalayan expedition. No doubt, many other all-women parties of the future will taste the joys of Himalayan climbing.