'A wonderful mountain, but of course quite impossible.’ It was 1950 and Jimmy Roberts was showing me a photograph of Machhapuchhare which he had taken from the north during Tilman's expedition to Annapurna IV earlier that year. There was no doubt about the truth of the first part of his remark, but I wondered about the second. Certainly, it looked right out of the normal standard of Himalayan climbing, but I could not help feeling that if one actually rubbed noses with Machhapuchhare, it might not be quite as hard as it looked; and even if the attempt proved abortive, one would clearly have an exciting climb on a superlative mountain.
These thoughts, and the picture of Machhapuchhare, remained with me as the years passed, but no opportunity came to put them to the test. In 1956, however, the wind seemed to be blowing more favourably. Roberts was posted to the Gurkha Depot at Lehra from where on a fine day he could actually see Machhapuchhare; and I, on a staff tour in the U.K., was due to return to Malaya in 1957. If I could return via India and take my leave there, we could attempt Machhapuchhare together. But first it was essential to make sure that an attempt was in fact justified. I put the idea to Roberts and asked if he would do a reconnaissance in 1956.
To this he readily agreed, and his leave was spent in penetrating the upper gorge of the Modi Khola to the basin it drains. Although the basin is used by local shepherds to graze their flocks during the monsoon, Roberts' exploration was, so far as we know, the first by an outsider. He found there a magnificent mountain sanctuary, completely ringed by great peaks except where the narrow cut of the Modi sliced through the rim. To the north was the large bulk of Annapurna and its range, the main Himalayan chain, and to the east, south and west fine peaks and ridges of upwards of 19,000 feet. But the mountain which dominated the basin from every viewpoint was Machhapuchhare, towering in the S.E. corner like a sentinel over the Modi gorge entrance. From various points of vantage in the sanctuary Roberts could see one route—-and only one—which offered a chance of success. It involved climbing 7,000 ft. from the Modi to the North Col at the foot of the North ridge of Machhapnehhare. This ridge would then have to be climbed for some way—a mile or more—until one could drop down on the far side (i.e. east or Seti Khola side) to gain the snowfield visible in Roberts' photo from Annapurna. This would give access to the actual peak which would have to be climbed up its north-east face direct. It was a steep, long and difficult route and it was clear that we would need the strongest party we could muster.
Such was the attraction of Machhapuchhare that the task of enlisting the best climbers was easily accomplished and Wilfrid Noyce, David Cox, and Roger Chorley all managed to persuade their employers to let them come. Roberts and I could not have asked for three more capable climbers or more pleasant companions.
Our preparations throughout the winter months were made easy by the detailed knowledge about such matters as the availability of local supplies, coolies, wood for Base Camp, etc., gleaned by Roberts during his reconnaissance. It was also a great help having Roberts, the leader of the party, in India. Roberts was well placed to deal with the Nepalese and Indian Governments over permits, regulations, customs, and to engage Sherpas and buy supplies and stores which could be obtained more cheaply in India or Nepal than in the U.K. At our end we collected the food and equipment unobtainable in the East, solicited financial support and dealt with the Foreign Office. By the end of January all our kit was aboard the s.s.Chinkoa, due in Calcutta on March 20th.
Meanwhile the mountain was already beginning to receive our attentions. Ang Nyima, who had carried to Camp IX on Everest in 1953 and now, off season, acted as Roberts' servant, went up the Modi after the monsoon and built a bridge at the foot of our proposed route. He also bought potatoes and rice—then cheap and plentiful—and stored them in the highest village on our approach route.
At the beginning of April 1957, Roberts flew to Katmandu to report our final plans to the Nepalese Government, pay them the newly instituted royalty—(in our case Rs. 1,000)—and collect our Nepalese liaison officer, Dikshyamansing Newar. The rest of us assembled at the Gurkha Depot at Lehra and then flew to Pokhara to join Roberts and Dikshyaman on their return from Katmandu.
Now, for the first time, we were all together, including our Sherpas. Besides Ang Nyima we had Tashi, a veteran Tiger who had carried to the highest camp on Kangchenjunga, his son-in-law, young Ang Tsering, whose first major expedition this was, and Da Temba.
All we lacked was our kit. The s.s. Ghinkoa was delayed, and had not yet reached Calcutta. We kept getting hopeful forecasts of her arrival—in two days, or three, or before the end of the week. Time passed, and to ease our frustration we spent four days sightseeing in Katmandu. Finally, Ghinkoa arrived 19 days late in Calcutta; but from there on, thanks to the efforts of many well-briefed helpers along the route, our stores' progress was much swifter. One hurdle remained; in spite of the customs exemption granted by the Nepalese Government, and in spite of assurances from the customs official at Bhairawa, our kit was held there and Roberts and our liaison officer had to fly out to get it cleared. At last the Dakota, heavily laden with our crates, landed at Pokhara, and within a few hours our train of 50 coolies was heading towards Machhapuchhare, just 9 days behind our original schedule.
But it had been a late winter, and we had allowed plenty of time for the climb, so we were not unduly worried by our late start. The march to Base Camp was unhurried and pleasant, at first through Gurung country and then up the steep-sided, jungle- covered upper gorge of the Modi. On April 24th, we emerged from the gorge to find our Base Camp site—at not much more than 13,000 ft.—still deep in winter snow. The year before Roberts had by this date enjoyed flowers and green grass for some time.
But, although the winter was a late one, we could not count on the monsoon being late as well. We therefore got to grips with Machhapuchhare straight away. During the week we allowed for acclimatization, our strongest party—Noyce, Cox and Chorley— reconnoitred the first part of our proposed route. Descending some 800 ft. from Base Camp, which was on the west bank of the Modi, they crossed that river by Ang Nyima's bridge. From here the route lay up the only breach in the steep lower cliffs of the mountain, a deep and narrow couloir which drained the whole of the west face of Machhapuchhare and which we named 'Gardyloo Gully'. The gully was filled with snow, and they climbed without difficulty up its floor until a break in its southern wall gave access to snow slopes above. Quite a lot of boulders obviously fell into the gully from its steep retaining walls, but one would have been very unlucky indeed to have been at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. And there were no signs of big avalanches sweeping right down the gully. So the gully was passed as a safe part of our L of C, though it was certainly no place in which to tarry.
Above the gully, the party traversed diagonally to the left over easy slopes and pitched Camp I on top of a small promontory at about 16,000 ft. From here they climbed directly up steeper slopes, but still without much difficulty, to site Camp II at about 18,000 ft. at the foot of the steep slopes of the North ridge. A small cliff gave protection from avalanches.
During the climb to Camp II, Roger Chorley who had been going badly since the day before began to feel worse and decided to return to Base. It was not till the rest of us joined him there some 5 days later that we realized it was not just a case of bad acclimatization. By that time his legs were completely paralysed and his right arm partially so. He had in fact got polio, and we made arrangements for his evacuation with all speed. Da Temba was despatched to send carriers up from Chomrong, the nearest village, and to inform the Pokhara Mission Hospital. Led by a stalwart pensioner of the 1st Gurkhas (Roberts' and my old regiment) a bunch of hardy Gurung youths who had carried for us on the march-in came up once more barefoot through the snow and carried Chorley down in a doko (bamboo basket). Roberts went with him and was not to return for a fortnight. Meanwhile the good Miss Steele, Principal of the Mission Hospital, came up from Pokhara at a speed which belied her years and put to shame all but record-breaking male performances. She met the party on the steep slabs of the Modi gorge, well above Chomrong. From then on Chorley was in safe hands. After 3 hot weeks of quarantine in the Pokhara Hospital he was flown home to England. The report in the Indian Press that he was completely cured was unfortunately far from correct. He is, however, now mobile on crutches, and there is a good chance of ultimate recovery.
His departure was a severe blow to the expedition. His skill and enthusiasm would have stood us in good stead later on. No one was keener than he to climb the mountain, and it must have been specially galling for him to be rendered powerless just when we were starting the climb. No less serious was the absence of our leader Roberts during the main period of the expedition.
Meanwhile Noyce and Cox continued their reconnaissance and acclimatization. From Camp II, after a long climb, they reached the North Col and examined the North ridge which we would have to follow for at least'a mile before being able to drop down to the snowfield on the far (Seti Khola) side of the ridge. The Col itself, they found, overhung on the far side and the ridge looked most unpromising although they could not see far as a large gendarme hid all but the first part of it. They returned the next day and climbed the gendarme. The ridge beyond was quite out of the question—particularly for laden Sherpas. It was very narrow, heavily corniced and blocked by a series of gendarmes. We would have to reach the snowfield by crossing the ridge much higher up. This meant making a direct ascent to the ridge from Camp II.
After a few days' rest at Base, Noyce, Cox and I with Tashi, Ang Nyima and Ang Tsering returned to the assault. While based at Camp II our tents were all but buried by an astonishing flow of hail which poured like a torrent down the mountain, and curled round the sides of our protecting cliff on to the camp. Only nonstop shovelling and the timely end of the hailstorm saved the camp from being engulfed. Next morning we moved it to the north, just below a large crevasse which protected it alike from hail and from ice-seracs on the wall above.
It was to this wall that we now turned our attention. While the Sherpas ferried loads up from Base, we reconnoitred the route onwards. The slopes were steep but not too steep, and composed of snow flutings separated by couloirs. Fortunately there was a gap between the ice-bulges and seracs on the wall to the left, and the rock precipices to the right. The couloirs in this gap were therefore safe from falls from above. During hailstorms, which seemed to occur most days at this time, hailstones used to flow down at an astonishing rate, even obliterating the leader's steps before the second could put his foot in them. But these rivers of hail were a nuisance rather than a danger.
We climbed 1,500 ft. without much difficulty up a steepening couloir and fixed 200 ft. of rope at the top of it. We then traversed to the left and climbed some rather steeper ribs for about 300 ft. fixing ropes again, until we could traverse on to the ice-bulges to the left. A short passage through these led to a good site for Camp III on the top of one of them at about 20,000 ft. We were lucky to have this site, the only possible one between Camp II and Camp IV, some four hours beyond.
From Camp III a couloir similar to that above Camp II, but steeper, led in about 700 ft. to the North ridge. It was an exciting moment when Noyce chipped the final steps on to the ridge. Was the snowfield below on the other side ? If so, could we reach it ? There was indeed a snowfield, below and to the right, smooth and invitingly flat after the steep slopes we had climbed. But to reach it we must descend a fearsomely sheer gully for some 300 ft. and then traverse about 400 yards to the right across steep snow. Without more ado, Noyce started to descend the gully. The snow —east-facing and therefore exposed to the sun during the morning when it was nearly always fine—was quite rotten; not just soft, but sometimes secure and sometimes without cohesion and sometimes hiding a large cavity under the surface. Quite undismayed, Noyce descended 300 ft., fixing ropes as he went, and cheerfully called to Cox and me to follow. When we had joined Noyce, I had developed a dislike for that gully which grew stronger on each of the subsequent five occasions I ascended or descended it. The traverse to the snowfield was hardly less unpleasant; the snow was variable, both on different parts of the traverse itself and on each different day we used it. We had, however, opened the way to Camp IV and to the snowfield which, we believed, would lead us to the foot of the summit tower itself.
We returned, fixing ropes in the couloir between Camp III and the 4Nick' as we came to know the spot where we crossed the ridge. Having collected the three Sherpas we later re-crossed the Nick and set up Camp IV at about 20,500 ft. in the middle of the snowfield during the usual daily snowstorm. When the weather cleared I emerged from my tent and looked out. I had not yet seen the summit of Machhapuchhare from this side. It was, I think, the most dramatic mountain view I have ever seen.2 A sheer solid soaring ice-fluted wedge, breath-takingly beautiful. We all gazed at it for some moments, spellbound. Then we came to earth and tried to trace a route to the top. The North ridge, to the right, we had known all along was out of the question. It was blocked low down by a vast rock overhang. The ridge falling from the summit to the left consisted of a jagged series of enormous ice-seracs. And the heavily-fluted face in between these ridges seemed to be all but vertical. The serious possibility of a practical route hardly crossed my mind. So far as I was concerned this was the end of our attempt. We would record this wonderful sight on film, then return to Base and try another mountain. Cox said, I suppose we ought to try and look round the far side of the left-hand ridge first'. But Noyce said simply that he thought the face would go. And so, of course, it proved.
MACHHAPUCHHARE SEEN FROM ANNAPURNA IV IN JUNE 1950. ROCK BUTTRESS EMERGES FROM CLOUD ON RIGHT. CAMP III BELOW THIS; CAMP IV ON SNOWFIELD HIGHER LEFT. NORTH SUMMIT ON RIGHT.
A few yards from Camp IV a low ridge crossed the snowfield hiding the route beyond. To see what the upper snowfield held in store for us we climbed the 25 ft. to the crest of this ridge, which because of its narrowness we called 'The Knife-Edge'. We were horrified to find that the far side of the Knife-Edge fell cleanly away, down couloirs and precipices, to the Seti Khola some 7,000 ft. below. We were in fact completely cut off from the upper snowfield. The only hope was to traverse across the slopes of the North ridge. Noyce and Cox tried this, but found the snow even more rotten than below the Nick and too dangerous to use. While attempting this traverse, however, they saw that a long narrow tongue of the upper snowfield stretched down almost as far as the Knife-Edge and some 300 ft. below it. If this descent was in fact possible, we would require in addition to fixed ropes all the way, a 300-ft. climbing rope with which the leader could be secured from above both during the descent and subsequent ascent on the return journey. We had with us neither enough rope to cope with this, nor enough food to set up a fifth camp which, it was now clear, was required. Dumping what we could at Camp IV, we therefore returned to Base to refurbish and rest.
We had been away from Base a fortnight, and our arrival there coincided with Roberts' return from Pokhara. He brought reassuring news of Chorley, five weeks' accumulation of mail, and large hunks of fresh meat of a luckless thar, which had been chased by the irrepressible Chomrong Gurungs who lacked a weapon, up a cliff from which it could find no escape. It leapt for safety, broke its leg in the fall and was dispatched with Roberts' ice-axe. We later measured its horns and found them to equal the record.
Now ably reinforced by Roberts and Da Temba, we returned to the assault laden with rope and rations. The route to our re-sited Camp II lay over the snow slopes below the main wall of the North ridge; we knew that snow-slides debouched from above on to these slopes, particularly on hot days after snowfalls. These snow- slides, however, were small and always stopped on the snow slopes below. We knew therefore that we would come to no harm by putting our route across them. It was nevertheless quite an experience to be involved in one such slide. Noyce, Cox and I were resting and actually talking of avalanches, when Cox looked up and said 'Here's one coming now'. We had about two seconds before it hit us. I plunged my ice-axe in up to the head but the next moment it was plucked out and the waist-high mass of silent-flowing snow tumbled me over and over inside itself. I struggled, but the snow had taken charge of my limbs, and there wasn't very much to be done about it. Soon, however, the slide slowed down and stopped. I had been -carried down about 50 ft.; the others, nearer the edge of the slide, not so far and none of us was any the worse.
Roberts and Da Temba, less acclimatized than the rest after their trip to Pokhara, returned after carrying to Camp III, thereby leaving fewer mouths to feed high up. Ang Nyima and Ang Tsering also returned after carrying to Camp IV. They re-crossed the Nick unescorted: a good effort. Noyce, Cox, Tashi and I were established at Camp IV.
The first day was spent roping the route to the upper glacier. We fixed a rope-ladder (made by Tashi at Base Camp)) up to Knife- Edge, and then began to fix a handline down the descent on the other side. A minor tragedy occurred here when a 300-ft. climbing rope slipped from Noyce's hands and slid swiftly off down to the Seti. By joining other ropes, however, we were able to improvise the length of climbing rope we required, although neither it nor the fixed rope stretched quite as far as the shelf below. Needless to say, it was Noyce who did all this work, and even he was un- enthusiastic about the state of the snow. This was undoubtedly the crux of the climb.
Next morning we rose at 4 a.m. and Noyce and Cox were on the descent from the Knife-Edge before the sun had got to work on it. Nevertheless, the snow was still far from safe. Tashi and I looked after the rope from above until we heard a faint shout from below announcing their arrival on the snow-tongue. By descending diagonally they had just reached this snow-shelf, but with no rope to spare. Later, they saw from higher up that this shelf was in fact overhanging and would sooner or later fall away, leaving virtually no way of reaching the upper snowfield. They prayed that the shelf would remain intact at least till after their return.
On the upper snowfield at last, Noyce and Cox were now faced with a weary plod with very heavy loads in soft snow with the sun increasing hourly in strength. There were two large crevasses, requiring big detours, one to the left and the other to the right, but both fortunately bridged, albeit somewhat precariously. Glacier lassitude sapped their strength and they eventually had to camp just below the Col on the North ridge at the foot of the main peak at about 21,000 ft. This left them 2,000 ft. to climb next day.
Meanwhile Tashi had a brain wave. 'Why don't we tunnel through the Knife-Edge ridge, Sahib ?' The advantages were obvious; not only would one be saved the 25-ft. ascent to the crest of the ridge and a similar descent the other side, but the rope-ladder could then be fixed from the far mouth of the tunnel and so safeguard a further 25 ft. of the ascent Noyce and Cox must make on the return. Small distances, perhaps, but every foot saved of that fearsome 300 ft. was worth while. I was rather dubious that we would be able to make much headway through the hard ice of the core of the ridge but there was no harm in trying. But I need not have had any qualms for Tashi went at it like a veteran coal- miner, and I was hard put to it to keep up with shovelling the chips away from the entrance. In two days we had a fine tunnel some twenty feet long and the rope-ladder hanging from its far entrance.
On June 2nd Noyce and Cox got up at 2 a.m. and were away by 4-15. At this time one can reasonably expect hard snow, but Machhapuchhare was fighting back to the last and they sank up to their knees. Nevertheless they made steady, though slow, progress. I watched with admiration and growing excitement from below. By 9 o'clock they were across the bergschrund at the foot of the 800-ft. high face of the actual peak. Now they saw that the face was, as they had feared, composed of ice. But here and there were streaks of snow and by chipping steps up first one and then another of these, they made height fairly fast. The angle of the slope, which had appeared all but vertical from Camp IY, was, according to Noyce, 'steep but reasonable'. I wonder how many other climbers would have described it in these words; Noyce has special standards of his own.
At about 9-30 a few mackerel clouds appeared in the blue sky and in an astonishingly short time it began to snow. Noyce and Cox continued till about 11 o'clock, when they had reached a point about 150 ft. below the jagged summit crest. Here the snow gave place to hard blue ice. Noyce cut two steps; each took two minutes. They now took stock of their position. There were no further difficulties between them and the summit, but to get there would take a good two hours' tiring step-cutting, and they had already been on the move for nearly seven hours. The snowstorm showed no signs of abating and their upward tracks had already been obliterated. They therefore decided that with the mountain virtually climbed it was prudent to return. They dug a hole in the snow and in it buried the Nepalese flag and Union Jack. Noyce hammered in an ice-piton and to it fixed 500 ft. of nylon line specially brought to safeguard their descent. Steps had to be re-made all the way; even after reaching the snowfield below the bergschrund, they could see no trace of their knee-deep upward tracks. Fortunately, on the way up they had taken a compass bearing and planted a marker-flag. Otherwise they might well have failed to find their tent which had been half buried by the snowfall. They reached it at 2-30 p.m., 10J hours after they had left it.
Next day the sun rose with an ominous halo round it. Fearing really bad weather, they lost no time in descending. Tashi and I were waiting for them at the entrance to our tunnel, but unfortunately we could give Noyce no protection until he was three- quarters of the way up the slope, as the ropes were frozen into the snow. Cox came up with a full load. Two days later we were reunited with the rest of the party at Base. Roberts was back having finished his survey of the sanctuary.
After a few days' rest Noyce and Cox went off to the north in search of further conquests. They climbed a fine unnamed peak of about 22,000 ft. on the ridge which projects into the sanctuary from the main Annapurna range. It gave them a long, difficult but very rewarding climb. The summit block proved all but impregnable, but a way was found—a fitting climax to a first-class climb. This was mountaineering at its best. From the top they saw Machha- puchhare from a new angle. As from all other angles, it soared majestically, aloof and alone.
Roberts and I went ahead on the return journey, Roberts to report to the Nepalese Government on our activities and I to spend a few days up the Seti Khola. There was no time to penetrate the gorge, which appears from its entrance to be very similar to the Modi gorge, but I was able to climb a high ridge to the east, above the highest village, Bharabhari—surprisingly enough, a Pun village—and see Machhapuchhare from the east. From here it is a solid pyramid, rather than a Fish's Tail, but no less magnificent.
We joined up again as a party at Pokhara where the ever- hospitable ladies of the Mission gave us a wonderful welcome. Roger Chorley, we learnt, had been flown home earlier in the month, escorted by a member of the Yorkshire Rambler's party. They were full of praise for his courage and cheerfulness during the pre-monsoon heat in bed, and spoke hopefully of his chances of ultimate recovery.
The Modi Basin offers several good new climbs other than The Fish's Tail and we hope that our exploration may encourage and help other parties to enjoy this fine and easily accessible district. Two points should, however, be stressed: Firstly, the party should be a thoroughly experienced one; there seemed to be no easy routes at all. Secondly, they should pay particular heed to the religious beliefs of the Gurungs through whose country they will pass. These happy and hospitable people are not yet used to expeditions as are, for instance, the Sherpas of Khumbu. They are still not convinced that climbing parties will not bring disaster to the crops on which they rely so completely for their meagre existence. We hope our party may have helped to allay their superstitions; fortunately, no natural misfortune could be laid at our door, in fact our passage through their villages seemed to bring them rain or sun as required at the right time. But another party cannot expect to be so lucky, and as we consulted the local mukhiyas3 and observed most scrupulously the conditions on which they let us into the sanctuary, they will expect others to do the same.
We chose Machhapuchhare because it had everything to offer— a virgin peak, a challenge in which the scales would certainly not be tilted in favour of the climbers whatever their skill, numbers or resources, a mountaineering problem of the highest order without the attendant requirements of the highest peaks-no large trains of stores and porters, no oxygen, no inordinate cost.
In the event, the issue was so finely drawn that I like to feel that both man and mountain were happy in the result. Certainly we were happy to leave the summit untrodden, not believing the last 150 ft. to be of great consequence and feeling that the Goddess of Machhapuchhare should remain inviolate in return for the rewarding resistance she gave us. We hope she is equally satisfied in her continuing seclusion. We feel that this is how it should remain.