Mrigthuni means ‘the deer's chin', and though the mountain bears no resemblance to the chin or any other anatomical feature of a deer, it is a most attractive name and calls for some attention. The pujari4 of the temple at Tapoban disagreed with this interpretation of the name. ‘It does not mean a deer's chin at all’, he assured us, ‘it means navel or middle, and the mountain is so named because it is neither the highest nor the lowest in the region '. The pujari is a man learned in the myths and folklore of the region and may well be right. But whether it is a chin or a navel—and I vote wholeheartedly for the chin—it is a fascinating name.
I first heard of this mountain several years ago when Gurdial Singh wrote suggesting that it was an ideal mountain for a small party and that we should attempt it some time. I heartily agreed but this, like most of life's dreams, was to remain unfulfilled for many years.
There have been two previous attempts on Mrigthuni. The first was in 1951 by Roy Greenwood and two Sherpas, Dawa Thondup and Lhakpa Tscring. Greenwood, who had just climbed Trisul with Gurdial, got to within 500 ft. of the summit, but had to turn back because Lhakpa Tsering was complaining of cold feet and they were afraid of frostbite. The second attempt was the tragic one of 1956. Gurdial organized an expedition consisting of Fit. Lt. Nalni Dhar Jayal, Mahinder Lall and his younger brother Roopinder Lall, N. Chukerbutty, and John Albiston. I had hoped to join this, but was unfortunately not able to get leave at the right time. At Dibrugheta, Chukerbutty fell ill with pneumonia and, despite the efforts of his companions, died a few days later. The expedition broke up and returned, except for John Albiston who had come out from England for a climbing holiday. He went on with some of the porters and joined Keki Bunshah who had just climbed Trisul. They made an attempt on Mrigthuni, establishing three camps, but bad snow conditions forced them to abandon the attempt some two thousand feet from the summit.
It was Gurdial again who organized the 1958 expedition. There were four of us, an ideal number for a small expedition: Mahinder Lall who had been with the 1956 party; Rajendra Vikram Singh, and myself. Gurdial's rooms in the Doon School, Dehra Dun, have become quite accustomed to serving as an assembly point for expeditions, and were therefore not at all upset by the confusion and turmoil as we gathered there on June 1 to put the final touches to the packing and sorting of loads. We left in the small hours of the following morning in the back of a truck kindly provided by Rajendra's brother, and caught the first bus of the day from Rishi- kesh. The next morning, we were met at Belakuchi by some of the porters with ponies. The transfer of the luggage from the bus to the ten ponies took place relatively smoothly—there were more ponies than we needed really. After lunch we braved the afternoon heat, opened up our umbrellas—that essential item of equipment for all Himalayan expeditions—and ambled along to Gulabkoti, only a few miles away.
There is now a jeep-road to Joshimath, and presumably by next year a bus service will extend to it. One can't help regretting the inroads that mechanization is making into the mountains, and there is no getting away from the fact that pilgrims on foot look far more genuine than pilgrims in a bus. Soon, perhaps, the pilgrim chattis5 at Badrinath will be replaced by coffee bars with juke-boxes and stocks of coca cola. I hope that the juke-boxes will carry the record ‘You can't get to heaven in an old Ford car'. Where the jeep- road coincided with the footpath, it was not much fun walking on it and being bathed in dust every now and again. So we were glad to leave the pilgrim-route at Joshimath and take the path up the Dhauliganga to Tapoban. There is now a small P.W.D. Inspection House at Tapoban; but by far the greatest attraction there are the hot-springs, and the lovely open-air pool in the temple courtyard with flowing hot and cold water. The bath was delightful and well-needed, though not nearly so well-needed as the bath which we had there on our return. That was the first full-scale wash in over three weeks and a greatly looked-forward-to luxury.
From Tapoban it is a short day to Lata village, the last village on our route. We arrived before lunch and paid off the ponies— twenty rupees each for the trip from Belakuchi. Our porters from various villages in the neighbourhood were waiting for us and we spent the afternoon making up their 60-lb. loads. We had a merry time calculating how many porters we would need. Our own gear and food made up eighteen porter-loads. Food for these 18 men at 2 lb. per head per day for four weeks came to about thirteen porter- loads. Then food for these thirteen porters had to be calculated, and food for those who would carry their food. And so forth, ad infinitum. After many fascinating hours over this problem, we adopted hit-or-miss tactics, took a goodly supply of flour and rice and engaged thirty porters.
A word about the porters. We had taken no Sherpas with us partly because they are somewhat expensive for a small unsubsi- dized expedition like ours, and partly because Gurdial was convinced that some of the Garhwali men who had been with him on several expeditions to Kamet and Tibet before would serve us as well as Sherpas. In the event, this judgement was fully justified. Not only did the selected few serve us excellently on the mountain itself, but the whole lot of them proved willing and cheerful companions on the approach-march, with no bickerings and arguments, hagglings and threatenings, such as commonly afflict expeditions. This was largely due to the fact that many of them had been with Gurdial before, and their trust in and devotion to him were apparent. The only time they straggled was on our return, the day we passed through Lata. It was the first human settlement in over three weeks, and chang must have flowed generously. As a result, while we were fretting and fuming at Tapoban waiting for them to arrive, they were scattered at various points along the road, wisely sleeping it off.
Two men deserve special mention : Kalyan Singh who acted as sirdar, and Dewan Singh, who may be termed co-sirdar. Kalyan Singh belongs to Bampa village and is a trader with Tibet, lie was a responsible and hard-working leader, and looked after the establishing of camps, and the allocation of loads. I le had been to Camp V on Kamet a couple of times and had climbed Abi Gamin in 1955 with Gurdial. He is a competent and intelligent climber. Dewan Singh, of Reni Jogju village, was by no means as responsible ; in fact it would not be far wrong to say that he was quite irresponsible. But besides being as tough as a mule, he had a charming smile which seldom deserted him, and he hardly ever spoke without a chuckle in his throat. He is also a veteran of Kamet's Camp V, and of Abi Gamin. He had been with Albiston and Bunshah on Mrigthuni in 1956, and when he met us this time he did his best to dissuade us from attempting the mountain. ‘Oh ho hohe said rolling his eyes and stamping his feet, 6 it's a very kharab mountain, sa'ab. Let us go to Trisul instead.' As a climber he is powerful and almost tireless, but much less intelligent than Kalyan Singh. Both these men came to the summit with us. We paid the porters Rs.4 per day plus food—Rs.4-8-0 per day for Kalyan Singh—with appropriate supplements for those who came to Camp I and those who came to the summit.
The route to our Base Camp, the same as for Trisul, has often been described. From Lata you climb up to Lata Kharak, a shepherd's camp-site at just over 12,000 ft. Having climbed these five thousand feet, we felt 'kharaked', an expressive word coined by the 1951 Trisul Expedition, and in a mood to do justice to the chicken that we had brought from Lata, a gift from Dewan Singh. Nobody was feeling particularly chirpy that evening, except Rajendra who remained quite unaffected by altitude throughout the trip. Altitude-sickness is my particular bugbear, and I was sick that night, a rather ominous omen at this relatively low altitude. Crossing over the Dharansi Pass the following day, we traversed some of the most desolate and savage country I have ever seen. I arrived at the camp-site that evening very sick and very weak, and the next day was in no condition to go on. After a hasty council of war it was decided that in order to save porterage costs Rajendra should go ahead with twelve porters to Bethartoli, dismiss all but two or three men, and wait for us.
We spent three very gloomy days in this camp. On the second day, June 9, I had recovered and was ready to go on but Kalam Singh, the Garhwali cook we had brought from Dehra Dun, was sick. He was running a temperature and coughing, and making ominous noises in his chest. We were convinced that this was pneumonia, and we could not help wondering whether we were going to have a repetition of the 1956 tragedy. Also very fresh in our thoughts was the news of Nandu Jayal's death, reportedly from pneumonia, on Cho Oyu a few weeks ago. He had been a close friend of ours and the news of his untimely death lay heavily on us. It was impossible not to think of Chukerbutty and of Nandu when ever we thought of Kalam Singh. Mahinder Lall was the expedition's 'doctor' and an excellent job he did. He gave Kalam Singh injections of penicillin and streptomyecin and most of his day was spent looking after the patient.
On June 9, the Services' expedition to Trisul arrived at our camp on their way back. Two of their party, Sub/Lt. Mehta and the Sherpa Nyima had reached the summit, but unfortunately both had been frostbitten; Nyima’s toes and Mehta's fingers having been affected. How these two managed the route back from Base Camp in that state, I do not know. Particularly impressive was Mehta’s cheerfulness in the circumstances. That evening the Dharansi camp-site presented a sad appearance, with Capt. Kumar giving pencillin injections to his patients, and Mahinder Lall doing the same to his. Our morale was pretty low and we were wondering whether our expedition would end there and then, before it had even begun.
On June 10, we saw the other expedition off. Capt. Kumar went ahead, intending to reach Joshimath that evening to cable or telephone for medical assistance. It was with great relief that we learnt later that neither Nyima nor Mehta lost any of their extremities, though they had to spend two or three months in the hospital at Dehra Dun. Kalam Singh continued to run a temperature throughout that day, but by the evening it had gone. He had no fever the next morning, so we sent him back in charge of Kedar Singh, a reliable porter. Though Kalam Singh was feverish again that night, he got down to civilization safely, and when we saw him in Dehra Dun later, had quite recovered. After having watched Kalam Singh and Kedar Singh making their very slow and painful way up towards the Dharansi Pass, we broke camp, glad enough we were to do it, and set off for Dibrugheta.
It was at Dibrugheta that Chukerbutty had died, and we put up a small copper plaque in his memory on a silver birch tree. Dibrugheta was perhaps the most attractive camp-site on our route. It is a large alp some five hundred feet above two converging rivers. As some previous visitor to this region has written, it is a bit of horizontal arcady lying amidst vertical chaos. On the way back, we spent a rest-day at this lovely place and passed a most memorable evening too. We had asked four of the porters whom we had dismissed at Bethartoli to come back to Base Camp on the 27th, for the return. As it happened, we left Base Camp on the 22nd, and so met these four men at Dibrugheta. Not only had they brought a chicken, some fresh vegetables and apricots for us, but also a generous-size bottle of chang. To this we did full justice that evening, and it was the only evening on the whole trip that it was warm enough to sit outside round the fire after dinner. Whether this warmth came from the temperature outside or from the chang inside, I do not know, but it was a nice mellow warmth. We started singing, and the porters sitting round their fire, began singing in their turn. And so it went on, turn and turn about. Their repertoire proved to be much bigger than ours, and after an hour or two we were reduced to joining in their songs. They knew a wide variety of songs—film, devotional, patriotic and folk-songs. There was one particular folk-song, strangely enough Kumaoni not Garhwali, which was most attractive and it became the theme song of the expedition after that. I wish I could reproduce the tune and the words. It must be a very popular song in the region because we heard it a couple of times in the lower valleys too, played on the flute or sung. It is called Kaphal Pako, and sung in unison by the band of porters, it was quite irresistible. After this singing match had gone on for a good part of the night and we had been reduced to singing the national anthem a couple of times because we had run out of songs, the porters began to dance round their fire. So we went and joined them and the next couple of hours were spent in some very strenuous and warmth-giving dancing. Luckily every song was danced to the same steps—two steps forward and one back—so it didn't need much terpsichorean skill to take part in the festivities. This orgy went on late into the night and many of the men recalled that last year on Nandu Jayal's Nanda Devi expedition, he had spent the best part of the night at Dibrugheta dancing with the porters too. Nandu's death was very fresh in the memories of all the people in this region. They had known him well from his expeditions to Kamet and Nanda Devi and the news of his death had spread rapidly, to the genuine sorrow and distress of the people.
Dibrugheta is the highest summer grazing ground, and beyond it the track peters out; though with the passage of so many climbing expeditions the route is more or less marked out. At Deodi one has to cross the Rishiganga. We were lucky to find a solid snow- bridge which made the crossing easy. On the way back the snow- bridge had gone but we were still lucky. In 1956 two German brothers, Fritz and Adolf Hieber, had gone to Trisul and Devistan, and with true German thoroughness, had built a solid cantilever bridge across the Rishi, four saplings in width. This was still in good shape, and the ropes holding it together had been reinforced by the Services' expedition; a thoughtful act on their part because when they returned the snow-bridge was intact and they did not need to use the log-bridge. From Deodi to Bethartoli in the Trisul valley one's main recollections are those of wading through almost impenetrable rhododendron bushes. It was bad enough going through these with light rucksacks: how poor Kalyan Singh, who was the unlucky one carrying the pair of skis, managed it I do not Know.
Rajendra was waiting for us at the Bethartoli camp-site. He had been there for three days, wondering what on earth had happened to us and keeping himself amused by stalking burhal or musk-deer. He had brought a gun along, but this turned out to be somewhat pacifist by temperament, and whenever a quarry was in sight and aimed at it misfired and nothing much happened. Rajendra claims that once a musk-deer passed within a few yards of him and he fired at it about five times with no result. He was glad to see us and in honour of the occasion brought out the last of the fruit that we had brought with us from Dehra Dun, which had been carefully preserved for an auspicious occasion. It was quite a pleasant surprise to find how long fresh fruit lasted. We had our last mangoes at Dharansi on June 10, more than a week after leaving Dehra Dun. A word or two more about food. Fresh limes lasted till Camp I, and it was a particular luxury to have fresh lime-juice and suck limes up there. We had also taken a stock of dehydrated vegetables, and these proved their worth too. The idea was Rajendra's and the dehydration had been carried out by him and Gurdial in Dehra Dun. Rajendra was very knowledgeable about food and cooking and was in charge of this department until we got to Dibrugheta on the return trip. At this point he was igno- miniously dismissed from office because of his refusal to let us eat any of the dates that we had brought in generous quantities. He insisted that dates were only fit for consumption by camels and sheikhs. Before his dismissal, however, on several occasions he turned out some wonderful meals, particularly memorable was the first dinner at Base Camp where he excelled himself.
The next morning, we dismissed all but ten porters and set off up the moraine of the Trisul glacier. By about 3 in the afternoon we came to a grassy terrace lying between the moraine and the mountainside, an ideal place for Base Camp. A shelter made of flat stones to serve as a kitchen and some old tins proved that this was the site used by the Services' expedition too. Our two porter- cooks, Dabbal Singh and Govind Singh, remained with us, while the others went down to Bethartoli to fetch the remaining loads.
Mrigthuni overlooked the camp and it was possible to see the whole of its North and West faces, except the very lowest portions which were hidden by the moraine. The West face was a series of rock and ice cliffs; the North face presented a series of broad snow slopes, heavily crevassed, but nowhere steeper than 35° or perhaps 40°. Down the middle of this face, stretching for some 1,500 ft., was aline of seracs perhaps 200 ft. high. These avalanched on the right (west) side, and needed to be given a wide berth. There were two huge crevasses which seemed to stretch right across the face, and we wondered if they would constitute a problem. A safe and easy route would be to keep to the left of the seracs, but this would lengthen the route considerably, and probably necessitate an extra camp.
One other problem was the point at which the mountain should be tackled from the Trisul glacier. For about three-quarters of a mile, the mountain presented rock and ice cliffs which appeared dillicult for laden porters. To the south of these, there was an upper icefall that provided a possible route; and to the north of it there was a line of rock and snow which definitely provided a route, fhe southern route was more direct and much shorter though more difficult. The portion of the icefall that could be seen appeared possible enough, but the upper portion was hidden by a buttress and it was difficult to guess what it would be like. We chose the longer but easier and surer route, and were probably wise to do so.
Photo : R. V. Singh
BETHARTOLI HIMAL 20,840 FT. (LEFT), AND TRISUL 23,360 FT., SEEN FROM lata kharak.
Photo: R. V. Singh
North face of Mrigthuni, 22,490 ft., and the royte to the summit from camp I, 17,500 ft.
June 15 was spent arranging loads and equipment for the morrow. Getting the climbing gear ready was in itself an incentive to be up and doing on the mountain. It is quite remarkable what the feel of a climbing rope in one's hands can do. Most of the afternoon was spent trying out the two primus stoves, and what a temperamental object a primus is ! It would either refuse to light at all or else burst into flames and attempt to commit suttee. Rajendra and Mahinder Lall finally tamed them, but I was thankful that I had brought a small gas stove from Geneva, with ten hours of gas. We used this at Camp II and it behaved excellently, except that ten hours seemed to pass very quickly.
On the 16th, four of us set off with four porters, Kalyan Singh, Dewan Singh, Khushal Singh and Jodh Singh, to establish Camp I. This was Mahinder LalPs birthday, but it proved a rather sad one for him. We went up the moraine for about a mile or so, then descended to the Trisul glacier and crossed it. On the other side we took a scrambly route up the line of rocks, and got on to the mountain proper at about 16,000 ft. It was here, just as we roped up, that Mahinder Lall, who had been feeling unwell since the morning, decided he could not go on any further. He settled himself on some rocks to await our return.
The first hour or so after that was awful. The snow was rotten and we sank in up to the thighs at every step. Progress was miserably slow, and it was obvious that unless the snow improved we were not going to get very far, for all our puffing and panting. Luckily, after an hour's struggle with this rotten snow we hit a much better patch, and progress was reasonably fast. We traversed the flank of the mountain, only occasionally floundering in deep snow now. At one point, Dewan Singh suddenly went through a crevasse up to his hips. It was a place where no self respecting crevasse had any business to be. Anyway it gave Dewan Singh an excuse for a good deal of clowning and shouting. At about 2 p.m. we reached a band of loose rocks, lying free of snow. We decided to set up Camp I here, and were glad to dump loads and sit down to some lunch. The height must have been about 17,500 ft.
We had brought two tents, and in putting them up we discovered that two sections of poles were missing for one of them. All the tents had been thoroughly checked in Dehra Dun before we started; this particular tent had not been opened at all on the way. How had those two sections disappeared? And what is even more inexplicable is that when we got back to Dehra Dun and checked the tents again, not only were all their poles in order, but there were two extra sections to spare! Life is indeed a mysterious affair. Having prepared platforms for the tents and put up the one that had its full complement of poles, we went down again, picked up Mahinder Lall, and got back to Base Camp in good spirits. However, when we looked back at the mountain and saw where Camp I had been established our spirits were a bit dampened, because it looked awfully low. Camp II would have to be carried a good two thousand feet or more higher, if we were to avoid having to establish a third camp.
The next morning Mahinder Lall was still unwell and obviously unfit to go up. Jodh Singh complained of pains in his knees and Dabbal Singh shyly volunteered to take his place. Dabbal Singh's main charm lay in his unfailing capacity to answer every question with a far-away wistful smile and a kuchh pata na/iin, babuji.6 We made good time and got to Camp I just after I p.m. After some food, Gurdial, Kalyan Singh and Dcwan Singh set oil to make tracks for the morrow. They went up for about two hours and it was encouraging to see them making reasonably fast progress. Rajendra spent most of the afternoon taming the primus stove once again, demonstrating exemplary patience and perseverance.
It snowed that night and there was about 2" of fresh snow in the morning. We left camp at 8 a.m. and for the first stretch made good time using the tracks already prepared. As we drew up to the ice cliffs the slope steepened and the weather worsened. The two large crevasses that we had seen from below did not present any problem, but the snow and mist had reduced visibility considerably. At about 4 p.m. we decided to establish camp, and prepared platforms for the two tents. We had brought a light aluminium spade having included it in the loads with much hesitation, but it proved invaluable now. We estimated the height at about 20,300 ft. Dabbal Singh and Khushal Singh descended to Camp I and fortunately the weather cleared slightly, making their descent a bit easier. We had two tents: Gurdial, Rajendra and I shared one, and Kalyan Singh and Dewan Singh the other.
Photo : R. V. Singh
A Panoramic View of the Garhwal peaks from camp II, 20,300 ft., on Mrigthuni.
Although we started getting ready the next morning, June 19, at about five it was not until eight that we had managed to have some tea and were ready to leave. This was a mistake; the sun reached this face of Mrigthuni by 6.30 a.m. and we should have left much earlier. I had my second bout of mountain-sickness and this began to worsen. We were all climbing on one rope. The snow was soft and the going heavy. Most of the track-making was done by Dewan Singh and Kalyan Singh. Until about 1 p.m. the weather was beautifully clear, but after that the usual afternoon snow arrived and visibility was reduced drastically. For the first time that day doubts about the summit began to assail us as hour after hour passed and the summit continued to be lost in the clouds above. My altitude-sickness had got worse and I was becoming more and more of a drag on the others. At about 4 p.m. I decided to unrope, asking the others to go on. As it happened, however, the summit was only a couple of hundred feet above, the last hundred feet below the summit cornice being firm snow and ice, quite a change after the continuous soft snow. We were on the summit by 4.30 p.m. Unfortunately, the mist and the snow made it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction, and we had no view at all.
Mrigthuni has a very long almost level summit ridge and visibility being what it was, it was difficult to be certain that we were on the highest point of the ridge. While I remained where I was, too sick to care much either way, the others went along the ridge for another half-hour to make sure that the real summit had been reached. When we started down at about five, it was still snowing and fairly dark. We had some uncomfortable thoughts about the tracks being covered with snow, about bivouacs and frostbite and so on. But fortunately the weather cleared about half-an-hour later, and to make up for the loss of any view from the top, we were treated to a glorious sunset. We were back at Camp II just after seven, and went straight into our sleeping bags. Rajendra kept muttering about something to eat, we had eaten nothing but some chocolate all day, but no one paid any attention to him.
The descent the following day was relatively quick and easy. We picked up Khushal Singh and Dabbal Singh at Camp I at about 11 a.m. and were back at Base Camp by about 4 p.m. to be greeted by an enthusiastic Mahinder Lall and lots of hot tea. That evening the monsoon arrived in full force and it rained throughout the following day. We had been lucky with the weather: if we had been two days later, our difficulties would have increased immensely.
Our original intention had been to spend another week or so in the region, climbing Trisul and perhaps the unnamed 21,000-ft. peak to the north of Trisul. But the arrival of bad weather and the general state of exhaustion led to some lengthy councils, as a result of which we decided to abandon intentions of further climbs and start back the next day. This decision was particularly tough on Mahinder Lall who had now recovered and was anxious to go up. We broke camp on June 22, and began the return journey. We thought that we might spend a few days in the region of the Kuari Pass, but it was raining so heavily when we were in Tapoban that we abandoned that notion as well.
Since our return, several people have asked me whether going on such an expedition isn't frightfully expensive. An expedition organized to attempt a major peak is of course an expensive business; but a small group like ours, with modest ambitions and modest needs, can have a wonderful time at relatively little cost. It might be of interest to record that, excluding the cost of personal equipment, the whole expedition from and to Dehra Dun, covering a period of almost five weeks, cost us exactly 914 rupees each.