IN 1953, Charles Evans surveyed a large area of country south and south-west of Mt. Everest. In the following year Evans, McFarlane and I, as part of the New Zealand Alpine Club's Himalayan Expedition, recorded a south-easterly portion in the Barun, Iswa and Chhoyang valleys. Between these two areas are the Hongu and Innukhu Khola, immediately west of Mt. Chamlang, 24,012 ft. Major J. 0. M. Roberts had made the only extensive visits to these valleys when he climbed Mera peak for the first time and located the head of the Innukhu.1 In the autumn of 1955, I wished to survey all the ground covered by Roberts—and more if possible. The Mount Everest Foundation gave some greatly appreciated assistance for survey purposes and these became our primary objectives. High in second priority was my desire to live in a Sherpa community over a longer period than is available to an ordinary climbing expedition.
From the time the Kangchenjunga Expedition 1955 left its Base Camp, I was to be a free agent. I therefore planned to travel westward from the Yalung glacier with a Sherpa trio, keeping as far north as possible in Nepal, in order to carry out an examination of the approaches to the country to be surveyed in October, and to visit some of the lesser known Arun and Yangma villages.
On the 6th of June, at Tseram, I sat on a hill and watched the Kangchenjunga party disappear southward into the monsodn mist. I was soon persuaded to move onward by the three Sherpas, Urkien, Gyalgen and Aila Tensing, who were anxious to reach the bright lights of Ghunza (the men of the village were escorting Evans' party to Darjeeling). Heavily laden with the larger expedition's loot, we climbed the pleasant flower-decked passes that separated us from that village, and there in two days, we tasted the luxuries of fresh food and enjoyed the fragrance of the pine forests.
In two further days we arrived in Walungchang, so accurately described by Sir Joseph Hooker over 100 years ago. He commented that the village was overcrowded, and pigs roamed the filthy tracks between the houses. From there we moved north, until just short of the Topti La where a west-hound yak track was followed leading over a series of passes in the Lumba Sumba Himal. Various Bhotia groups graze their yak in the high basins in this range, and their hospitality was appreciated by our party, especially as we carried no European food apart from coffee.
Soon we passed through Thudam, the village which thrives on a wood-pulping industry, by breaking down junipers and pines, then exporting the pulp balls or the paper to Tibet. Another pass and another rain-storm and we were following the Pila Khola to its junction with the Arun below Ritak. The west bank of the humid Arun was followed downstream for five hungry days. At this time of the year the new crops were hot quite ripe, and last season's surplus had been consumed by the coolies of the French Makalu party, who were about three weeks ahead of our group. After many precarious river crossings the Sangkhua Khola eventually appeared, and here we diverted upstream. On most maps this river is shown wrongly—rising at the summit of Chamlang. The Iswa and Hongu drain the complete Chamlang south face, and the true head of the Sangkhua was a problem which I hoped to settle. I recorded'much of the lower stretches of that river, but in monsoon conditions it was impossible to see the headwaters. I would approach them from the north later in the year.
Travelling westward again we climbed to a Sherpa village below the Kemba La, and here our stomachs were tested to the utmost with copious quantities of potatoes, wild vegetables, yak products and chang. On top of the pass, one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Nepal, I found Gyalgen eating the leaf of a flower. £ I found a new kind of plant. Is it poisonous ?'
The heavily populated lower Hongu had little food, and the inhabitants, with tightened belts spent much of their 1)ime keeping the langur apes away from their advancing crops. Next the Innu- khu bridge had to be rebuilt before we could cross it, and then no difficulties were encountered right through to Namche Bazar and Khumjung where our arrival fortunately coincided with the last day of Dumji. The crossing from Tseram had taken twenty-six most enjoyable days. After enjoying the festivities for a time, we suddenly became aware that the news of the one casualty on Kangchenjunga had not reached the village, although some of us from the expedition had been in correspondence with the Namche Bazar check-post.2 The news cast a tragic shadow over the district for a week until the remaining Kangchenjunga groups came home.
I based myself in Khumjung for the next two months. Between the various summer festivals I made excursions up the Bhote Kosi, Chola Khola and Dudh Kosi, as well as eastwards to the Innukhu. For a time I lived with a yak-herd, tending his animals from day to day, and moving on with the family when it was time to transfer to another area of pastures.
At the beginning of September, with Urkien only, I went out to Raxaul, where I was joined by my wife and A. J. Macdonald of New Zealand. We returned to Sola Khumbu, having to take the high route above Junbesi owing to the not unusual absence of bridges over the Dudh Kosi. The arrival of the reinforcements was meant to coincide with the end of the monsoon, but the latter dribbled on into mid-October.
While Enid took up residence in Khumjung, Macdonald and I descended to Lukla, and with the assistance of our three permanent Sherpas and three temporary men we loaded ourselves with ten days' supplies to be taken into the Innukhu. On the way out of Lukla I passed one of our new recruits sitting on the track. I hurried him on. Two hours later he pointed to a rock, explaining that it was the lasf possible camping place before the pass. I refused to believe him, and kept going up. The man called out, 4 We must stop. I have no food.5
'Come on, you can share ours.'
‘I have no boots. I can't cross the snow pass.'
I asked, 'Have you no yak hide boots?
'My mother is making them. If we stop here for the night she will bring up my boots and food.'
I groaned, and refused to stop for two more hours. Three hours after dark the man's mother came into camp carrying all that was required, and their cooking went on far into the night. Next day I noted that the boots were removed on the snow pass. On another occasion one of my coolies was observed to be stitching a three- inch split in his heel with a darning needle and a length of string. It was there that I parted with my gym. shoes.
We made a temporary base at Tangnuk (Lungsuma), a summer village for Lukla yak-herds. The deserted houses, Mani walls and a decaying Gompa indicated more than a temporary summer residence in the past. Apparently there was once a permanent settlement of Sherpas in Tangnuk, but after two successive winters resulting in severe yak losses, the village reverted to one for summer occupation only.
After many frustrating days of poor visibility, Macdonald and I were able to make observations of most of the features of our valley, and then it was time for me to ferry in more supplies. A local man and I, by taking the high route over a Col too precipitous for yak, managed to reach Lukla in seven hours—a very different story from the two long days required when travelling under load along the yak tracks. As previously arranged, my wife descended from Khumjung to Lukla on the day after my crossing. She returned up the Dudh Kosi as soon as I had taken on the supplies which the survey group would need for a week in the Hongu.
We enlarged on the preliminary work recorded by Roberts, but the complicated topography was difficult to unravel The winding and steep-walled valley permitted few observations of fixed positions from which to extend the survey. The existing map shows a large tributary of the Dudh Kosi draining the northern slopes of Mera peak, having its outlet close to Mingbo further north. In fact this area, some 20 sq. miles, is drained from the south, flowing into the deep gorge of the Innukhu.
Eventually the remote corners were visited and it was time to cross to the Hongu. Macdonald and I, with five Sherpas, carried all our supplies to the summit of Mera La in one lift. Through the thick mist on the pass we saw 80 yak being driven out of the Hongu. Their owners reported that winter was settling in already, and they were retreating two weeks ahead of their usual date. Many of the calves were so small that it was obvious that the Sherpas had not been completely successful in their breeding controls, which aim to promote births in June, the first month of the monsoon. From the pass our quintet descended to the Hongu, while Macdonald and I carried a camp about 1,000 ft. up the spur of Mera peak. We hoped to repeat the climb done by Roberts, and we had the theodolite with us, intending to use the summit as a survey station. The weather next morning prevented any movement above our camp. A foot of snow fell in three hours, and we had no alternative but to hurry down to the Hongu and join our Sherpas who were unable to proceed with the packing of stores over the river owing to a dense fog.
For three mornings the weather was fine, with a snow plume blowing southwards from the summit of Everest. Macdonald and Urkien carried a camp up the Hongu tributary south of Chamlang, and then climbed a peak commanding a fine view of the Hongu and upper Iswa basins. They also ascended the Col to the Iswa. This point had been reached for the first time in 1954, when the Todd and Evans parties from the New Zealand Himalayan Expedition climbed to it from the east. The delicate fiutings on Chamlang are a fearsome sight from this angle.
Meanwhile Aila and I descended the Hongu until we were below the Col giving access from that river to the Sangkhua to the southeast. We practically sprinted to the icy Col to beat an advancing cloud bank by a few minutes. From the top I had a glimpse of the spurs which lead down into another unrecorded corner, and I was able to see most of what I had missed from the lower part of the valley in June. The Sangkhua has a deep and hostile gorge, but above the bushline we saw a delightful grassy river flat dotted with sturdily built shelters. The usual access to the Sangkhua is from the spur separating it from the Chhoyang, and the animals which graze there are owned by Bhotias who live on the west slopes of the Arun.
From the Sangkhua Col I climbed a snow summit to the south, seeking a view which was not forthcoming. After this, a day was spent in going down the Hongu, well into the heavy forest and the main gorge. A track exists high on the west side of the gorge, and this is sometimes used by Sherpas living in the vicinity of the Shutki La.
After the lower Hongu had revealed its secrets, Macdonald and four men left to return over our inward route, and again attempt Mera peak. Gyalgen and I, loaded with equipment and the theodolite, advanced to the head of the Hongu to join our surveys with those of Evans in 1953. This northward journey was on the only perfectly clear day until we were within a week of Katmandu. Chamlang, impressive from all angles, has a minor weakness in its line of defence when viewed from the west. What a pleasant expedition it would be for a small competent party to come up the Hongu, climb Sangkhua and Iswa peaks as aperitifs and aceli- matizers, and then press Chamlang from the Hongu.
Fresh snow plastered the Ambu Lapcha, the pass at the head of the Hongu, and temperatures were low. Icebergs, breaking away from the parent glaciers, and moved by the wind across the inhospitable lakes, gave an impression of 78° latitude instead of 28°. Gyalgen had an off day, and I found myself bowed under a 70-lb. load. The climb up to the pass was moderately easy. We followed a single line of tracks, having footprints about nine inches long, and they were so well placed for an ascending mountaineer that I assumed Schneider, the surveyor of the Lhotse party, had been into the Hongu as he said he would do at the end of the monsoon. The north side of the pass was thickly plastered with snow, and it bore no sign of the well-defined ledges and scree tracks of the previous year—nor were there prints of the person I imagined to be a week or so ahead of me. With the utmost care we stamped a downward track and heaved a sigh of relief when we were again on firm ground.
MOUNT CHAMLANG, 24,012 FT., AND THE UPPER HONGU LAKES FROM THE AMBU LAPCHA. (Photo: N. D. Hardie)
THE MERA MASSIF FROM THE INNUKHU. (Photo: A. J. Macdonald)
The familiar Imja was descended through deserted Chukhung to Dingboche, where I had the good fortune to see Schneider. I was astonished to learn that he had been nowhere near the Ambu Lapcha. I made further enquiries and the last known crossing was at the end of May when Sherpas left the French Makalu Expedition to go home the direct way. I am unable to guess at the origin of the prints I saw, nor were the impressions clear enough to give a more detailed description.
My wife was the next caller at Dingboche. Together we ascended the Chola Khola in search of the Lhotse Expedition. After camping at Lobuje we went to the Khumbu glacier and walked up it to the foot of the icefall. However, we saw no one. The whole party was in the Western Cwm at the time. Down the valley we stopped a day in Thyangboche where we were entertained by a monk who showered all kinds of delicacies on us, but at the end of the day he had to explain that in no circumstances could my wife stay under his roof for the night. He offered me a fine bed, which I declined on the grounds that I must keep the leopards away from my wife, outside under the stars. We slept in the monastery courtyard, to be disturbed from time to time by two yak, also there to seek protection from leopards.
Unfortunately October was drawing to a close and it was time for our party to reassemble in Khumjung and prepare "for the outward journey. Macdonald had encountered the same bad snow on Mera peak as I had struck on the Ambu Lapcha, and he had wisely retreated, attempting no more peaks until he reached the Dudh Kosi-Innukhu Divide where Aila and he climbed two fine ice peaks of about 19,000 ft.—again for survey purposes.
We went out to Katmandu via Jubing as the bridge there had been repaired. On the last few days the weather was perfect, and the peaks to the north always glistened under a brilliant sun. Katmandu was reached on the eleventh day from Khumjung. Here there was bad news for me. While I had been living in Khumjung my Leica, without its lens hood, had at some stage been pointed at the sun. A pin hole was burned through the focal-plane shutter, and it produced a neat white disc in the middle of all my colour photographs. However, there was much satisfaction with the ground covered in the survey, the whole idea of moving about with a light mobile party, the amount of material gained about the Bhotias and Sherpas, and the joy of spending most of a year in the high hills.