Himalayan Journal vol.22
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.22

Publication year:
1960

Editor:
Dr K. Biswas
Index
  1. EDITORIAL
  2. INDIANS ON MOUNT EVEREST, 1960
    (BRIGADIER GYAN SINGH)
  3. AMA DABLAM, 1959
    (J. H. EMLYN JONES)
  4. ANNAPURNA II, 1960
    (Lt.-Col. J. O. M. ROBERTS)
  5. DHAUL AGIRI, 1959
    ( DHAUL AGIRI, 1959)
  6. DHAULAGIRI, THE 'WHITE MOUNTAIN': A CHRONICLE OF THE 1960 EXPEDITION
    (KURT DIEMBERGER)
  7. THE ASCENT OF MASHERBRIJM
    (THOMAS F. HORNBEIN, M.D.)
  8. YUGOSLAV EXPEDITION TO TRISUL GROUP, 1960
    (A. KUNAVER)
  9. SIKKIM, 1960
    (H. V. R. IENGAR)
  10. ACROSS THE INNER LINE
    (ANNE DAVIES)
  11. SURVEY OF KASHMIR AND JAMMU, 1855 TO 1865
    (COLONEL R. H. PHILLIMORE, C.I.E., D.S.O.)
  12. WANDERING IN THE HIMALAYAS
    (FUKATA KYUYA)
  13. A SMALL EXPEDITION TO GANESH HIMAL
    (P. J. WALLACE)
  14. NORTH-EAST OF POKHARA
    (GORDON JONES)
  15. DISTEGHIL S AR, 1960
    (GUNTHER STARKER)
  16. THE ASCENT OF TRIVOR
    (WILFRID NOYCE)
  17. HIMALAYAN SCIENTIFIC AND MOUNTAINEERŽING EXPEDITION, 1960-61
    (NORMAN HARDIE)
  18. A HIGH WALK IN THE CENTRAL HIMALAYA
    (A. D. MODDIE)
  19. ASCENT OF NOSHAQ
    (DR. YAJIRO SAKATO)
  20. OBITUARY
  21. REVIEWS
  22. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1959-60

INDIANS ON MOUNT EVEREST, 1960

BRIGADIER GYAN SINGH

In the summer of 1959 the Himalayan Institute decided to organize an all-Indian expedition to Mount Everest. Although Indians had already previously scaled Cho Oyu and other great Himalayan summits, this was the first time that so ambitious a project had been contemplated by Indian climbers. The sport, however, has already grown out of its infancy among the people of the subcontinent: qualified leaders could certainly be found as well as a good number of experienced climbers to form a powerful team. Moreover, the objective was an appropriate one. Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world and the culminating point of the earth's greatest continent. Although its summit lies in Nepal on the Tibetan frontier, it has long been considered, together with its glistening and towering satellites, as the natural apex of Indian topography, and the flanks of the great Himalayas have for centuries been a region of pilgrimage and worship for many hundreds of millions of devout Hindus.

The mountaineering history of Everest is well known and need not be recapitulated. European alpinists, drawn towards the mountain as by a magnet, made noble but futile attempts to reach its summit from the north side in the peaceful years between two world wars. At last in 1953, attacking from a new southern route through Nepal which had been pioneered first by the British explorer Eric Shipton and subsequently by two Swiss teams, Sir John Hunt's expedition succeeded where others had failed. On May 29, the New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary accompanied by an Indian national, Tenzing Norkay, stood on the roof of the world. Three years later, a powerful but little-publicized Swiss expedition, excellently organized and quick to capitalize on favourable weather conditions, sent four additional men to the mountain's top. Still, the passage of time and repeated success have only modestly reduced the logistical and physical problems confronting the determined but rare groups of men who set out to attain so formidable an objective.

It was a great honour and, indeed, a pleasant surprise, when the Himalayan Institute entrusted me with the leadership of the projected 1960 expedition. It was an even greater challenge.

Once the decision had been taken, two immediate problems confronted the organizers: first, the selection of a team, and second the procurement of equipment. In regard to the former, we held an advance Pre-Everest Course in the Kabru region during October and November, 1959, for tentative candidates under Tenzing's supervision. On the basis of his recommendation and mine; the Sponsoring Committee selected the final team. As things turned out there were more qualified candidates than places on the expedition, so that several worthy persons unfortunately had to be turned down.

In the end we selected thirteen men for the climbing group, all persons with considerable Himalayan climbing experience. First, there were the three Sherpa instructors from the Mountaineering Institute, Da Namgyal, Ang Temba and Gombu; then Captain Narinder Kumar of Kumaon Rifles, Sonam Gyatso (who scaled Cho Oyu in 1958), Keki Bunshah, Flight-Lieutenant Chaudhury, Rajendra Yikram Singh, B. D. Misra, C. P. Yohra, Captain Jungalwalla of Gorkha Rifles, U. M. S. Kohli, Indian Navy, K. F. Bunshah and I completed the team. There were, in addition, two physicians, Flight-Lieutenant N. S. Bhagwanani and Captain S. K. Das, a cameraman C. Y. Gopal, a transport officer Flight-Lieutenant A. J. S. Grewal, a signal officer Lieutenant -S. C. Nanda, a meteorologist K. U. Shankar Rao, and a secretary Sohan Singh.

The second problem was initially more serious than the first. Fortunately, K. F. Bunshah's efforts here proved invaluable. Difficulty in obtaining foreign exchange made it necessary for us to buy or manufacture most of our equipment in India-only special articles could be imported. In the past most climbing expeditions in the Himalayas, including Indian ones, have relied on European equipment. In this case we could not do so. Of course, the highly specialized oxygen equipment-similar to that used by the Swiss on Everest in 1956-had to be imported, but for the rest we relied mainly on the skills and ingenuity of our own countrymen. In most eases, the results were highly satisfactory: virtually all our equipment proved serviceable. This fact in itself is perhaps one of the expedition's major accomplishments, for it may now become possible for a Himalayan expedition to obtain reliable equipment and supplies in India, thereby reducing transportation costs and eliminating much red tape at ports of arrival.

To a large extent the ascent of a major Himalayan peak is a logistical problem whose solution must begin the day the project begins. If success is to be assured on Everest, a team of from ten to twelve climbers and about 40 Sherpas must first be transported with adequate supplies to the base of the mountain. To do this, many of the resources of modern technology must be mobilized. In our case, Indian firms such as Bata Shoe Company and the Bengal Waterproof Company as well as our Ordnance Factories co-operated magnificently. Sherpa and Nepali women worked long hours knitting excellent woollen wear. In far-away Switzerland the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research enthusiastically supported us by taking care of our oxygen supply. For three long months the members of the team, assisted by many of our sponsors, worked like beavers collecting the 18 tons of materials and supplies which eventually poured into New Delhi's Central Vista Mess in mid- February, 1960. Five frantic days of sorting and re-packing followed during which it often seemed as though our quarters had been visited by a tornado. At last, on the morning of February 27, the final nails were driven and 500 inventoried porter loads were laid out neatly on the lawn, ready for shipment by truck to Lucknow on the first lap of our journey.

On March 4 the entire team-except one member who remained behind to take care of the oxygen equipment which was still to arrive in Bombay-arrived in Jayanagar, at the Nepali border, where most of the Sherpas were already waiting. The scene resembled an Indian fair, with nearly 700 porters and Sherpas and perhaps twice as many curious spectators. The help of Tenzing, who had accompanied the expedition this far, proved invaluable. He took over the task of registering porters, paying advances, allocating loads and distributing kits. So efficiently did he work that by sunset the task was completed.

We proceeded into Nepal in two parties of about 300 porters each, marching one day apart. For two weeks we wound our way through paddy fields, Terai jungles and over alpine meadows, where apricot and cherry blossoms and blooming rhododendron and magnolia gave proof that spring had now arrived. As we proceeded, local villagers brought eggs, milk and fruits, which they presented to us as a friendly gesture, expecting nothing in return. We crossed the Sun Kosi river on primitive ferry craft, although some members of the team swam across the obstacle.

On March 21 the long caravan arrived in Namche Bazar, a village of some one hundred houses, situated not far from Everest in the heart of Sherpa territory. This remote and sleepy settlement is an important staging area for all expeditions entering eastern Nepal. That night a heavy fall of snow-the first we had so far seen-- blanketed the surrounding country.

Three days later we passed Thvangboche Monastery where the Incarnation Lama received us. A simple but solemn ceremony was held and we were served Tibetan tea. Prayers were offered for the success and safety of the expedition.

The acclimatization training camp at Pangboche, 13,200 ft., was reached the same afternoon. From here it would be possible to become better acclimatized by scaling a few neighbouring peaks of from 17,000 to 19,000 ft, elevation. We could also now obtain excellent views of Everest, Nuptse, Ama Dablam and many other lofty summits.

For the next three weeks the expedition engaged in what was to be the acclimatization programme. This had been divided into two phases, the first of one week, during which all men were to climb to elevations of between 16,000 and 18,000 ft., gradually increasing their rucksack loads to 50 lb. and over, and familiarizing themselves with the oxygen equipment, with first-aid and with a number of special subjects which might present problems at a later date. During this period we were all under the careful watch of the expedition's physiologist, Captain Das. But at this time no one required much medical attention: we seemed to be in excellent health and were enormously enjoying the fine food with which the expedition had been provided.

During the second phase of the acclimatization programme, the climbing team was divided into three parties of four members, with ten high altitude Sherpas. Each party drew up its own plans, which were ready on March 30.

The first party, after climbing here and there up to elevations of 18,000 ft. slowly moved up in the direction of Base Camp at somewhat over this elevation. Its task was to pitch the first Base Camp tents and explore the route in the Khumbu icefall.

The second party with Da Namgyal, Kumar, Misra and Yohra went over to the Ama Dablam area and engaged in interesting rock scrambles. The men visited the site of the ill-fated 1959 British expedition to Ama Dablam. Some members even spotted fixed ropes high on the face of that great mountain. The party also climbed a relatively difficult summit, the ‘Yellow Needleon which the Swiss had practised in 1956.

The third group consisting of Gombu, Sonam Gyatso, Chaudhury, Rajendra Vikram Singh and the photographer camped on the southern slopes of Tawche. The party did useful training work on rock and ice faces for three days, then moved to the Chukhung Glacier, and then closed in on Base Camp around mid- April.

Meanwhile the oxygen equipment, which had finally arrived in India, was well on its way up the trail through the tangled jungle of southern Nepal. Thus all forces could now rapidly converge on Base Camp. Our big job was about to begin. We had our equipment, we were in the best of health and morale, and we were ready to start towards our ultimate objective.

We had selected the route followed by earlier parties because it is the only feasible one under present-day conditions on the Nepalese side of the mountain. This route has been adequately described elsewhere. It presents three chief obstacles: first, the Khumbu icefall, an awe-inspiring mass of ice which cascades two thousand feet down a steep gradient and which is broken in its upper section by enormous crevasses. Because of the complicated structure of this labyrinth and the danger of ice avalanches, the Khumbu icefall is in many respects the most difficult section of the ascent. Yet in forthcoming weeks we were to find it necessary to transport nearly two tons of equipment through this maze. The second obstacle is the Lhotse face, a lengthy slope of steep ice and rock rising to 26,000 ft. from the Western Cwm at about 22,200, and up whose flanks steps must be cut and ropes fixed. Finally, there is the summit pyramid, where the effects of high altitude and weather are most pronounced.

When the various climbing teams converged on Base- Camp on April 13, the advance party, consisting of Ang Temba, Keki Bunshah, Kohli, Jungalwalla and Bhagwanani, was already hard at work in the icefall. Two days of inclement weather had at first hampered their operations. But on April 10 Kohli and five Sherpas established Camp I in a single day and spent the night there while others in their group consolidated the route. The next morning the same men reconnoitred the route towards Camp II, but had to return somewhat short of their goal.

Following a prearranged plan, this group now came down to Base Camp and below for a well-earned rest. The second team, consisting of Da Namgyal, Kumar, Yohra, Misra and me, took over from the advance party.

We spent the night of the 13th at Camp I, which had been pitched in an excellent location by Ang Temba and Kohli. Early next morning, after a hasty breakfast, we set out along the route reconnoitred by our predecessors. Their road-building ability commanded respect. The trail was well marked: over 200 multicoloured silk flags showed the way. Rope and wire ladders led over vertical obstacles to higher ground; half a dozen wide crevasses we found bridged by heavy wooden logs while four still wider ones were spanned by aluminium ladders. On sixteen steep gradients fixed ropes assisted the climber.

Three hours after we started we reached the high point of the earlier party, an area where the Khumbu Glacier is compressed into a narrow gorge by the massive walls of Everest and Nuptse. Ahead of us, beyond several enormous crevasses, lay the Western Cwm and the Lhotse face.

At this point some of us stopped on an ice ridge while the others went ahead. I rested and contemplated the chaotic scene for some time. The hours passed. Around 3 o'clock Da Namgyal and the four Sherpas who had gone ahead returned to inform us modestly that Camp II had been established and that, with a little more work, we could start ferrying supplies through the icefall to an altitude of 20,000 ft. Thus the first obstacle had been overcome: we had found our way through the Khumbu icefall.

Progress continued, despite a few incidents. For instance, our Liaison Officer from the Government of Nepal, Dhanbir Rai, fell seriously ill. His life was probably saved by prompt administration of oxygen and medication by our physician Captain Das. Yet on we went, ever upward. One team supervised the movement of supplies to Camp II and used explosives to demolish two tottering seracs which endangered the route. Meanwhile,- far ahead, Kumar and Da Namgyal worked their way in serpentine fashion through the crevasses of the Western Cwm. On April 16 they pitched a provisional Camp III (which was to become the advance base) at 21,200 ft., and pressed on to the foot of the Lhotse face, where Camp IV was to be established and whose site they reached the same afternoon. Then, wearied by their continuous labours, they handed over the reconnaissance task to the third team. Thus Gombu, Sonam, Chaudhury and Rajendra Vikram Singh took the vanguard while their predecessors came down to 14,000 ft. to recuperate.

We were now approaching the high-altitude zone where relentless high winds and the shortage of oxygen render progress agonizingly slow and where man's efficiency dwindles as his capacity to think and act rationally is reduced to a blur. On April 20, after establishing Camp IV, Sonam, Gombu and Chaudhury began the high altitude attack on the formidable Lhotse face.

Past expeditions had explored various routes from the Western Cwm to the South Col, but the most practical one for loaded Sherpas is the steep Lhotse Glacier with its series of terraces and almost vertical walls followed by a high traverse at 26,000 ft. northward to the South Col. The earlier parties under Sir John Hunt and Albert Eggler had found long stretches of hard snow where steps could be kicked. Unfortunately for us, a mild winter with little snowfall had left the face almost denuded of snow, with nothing but granite-hard ice in which steps had to be chopped almost all the way.

Our earlier rapid advance had also posed logistical problems, since our supply lines now stretched from Base Camp at 18,000 ft. through the intricate Khumbu icefall to Camp IV at 22,000 ft. and the intermediate camps still were not adequately stocked. Thus, while the advance party hacked its way up the steep slopes of the Lhotse Glacier, the rest of us down below busily and steadily ferried two tons of supplies to Camp III and managed somehow to send a small trickle of essential items to the forward team.

Lhotse face was a tough proposition. On April 20 Sonam and Gombu made good progress, nearly reaching the site of Camp V. In the process, however, they expended all their manila rope setting up fixed lines and much of their energy. Ang Temba, taking over from them, a day or two later made little headway in the icy cold winds of the Western Disturbances which had now set in, and suffered frostbite on his fingers. On the 28th, however, the indomitable Da Namgyal succeeded in pitching Camp V at about 24,000 ft. despite strong winds and a temperature of minus 22 degrees Centigrade. But the effort took its toll: both he and Kumar had to descend to Base Camp to recover from their ordeal.

A succession of climbers now took over the lead. Gombu managed to cross the Yellow Band and traverse to the Geneva Spur, thence upwards to about 25,000 ft. before returning exhausted. Yohra and Chaudhury pushed on behind as high as 25,500 ft. on May 6. Finally, on May 9, after spending a night each at Camps IV and V, Ang Temba and Jungalwalla with six Sherpas reached the inhospitable South Col after crossing the 26,000 ft. level. Here they left a tent, oxygen bottles and some stores. At the same time they recovered a diary belonging to Dr. Hans Grimm of the 1956 Swiss expedition. They returned to Camp V that evening and then descended to Base Camp the next day.

Despite some cases of illness and a few minor casualties such as frostbite, all hands now began to move up to the attack. Rajendra Vikram Singh was in Camp III checking the oxygen equipment for the final assault. Lieutenant Nanda was busily at work setting up telephonic communication by cable as far as the Western Cwm, perhaps the highest telephone link ever established.

As might have been expected, we all wanted to begin the final and crucial phase of our task immediately, but again weather conditions frustrated our hopes. Cold and high winds on the Lhotse face prevented us from pushing more than two small ferries of four strong and determined Sherpas to the South Col even as late as May 13. On the 14th the weather deteriorated and it began to snow intermittently. We were forced to withdraw to the lower camps, where we grudgingly spent our time consolidating our position. It was at this juncture that I unfortunately fell ill with a high temperature in Camp III and had to descend to Base Camp in a weakened condition. I managed, however, to hold a final conference with my companions before departing and to select two summit teams.

In so doing I was reluctantly obliged to omit two of our best men. Da Namgyal's participation was precluded by illness and another candidate, Captain Jungalwalla, now had to take over my duties owing to my incapacitation. As a result, I decided that the first summit team would consist of Nawang Gombu, Sonam Gyatso and Captain Narinder Kumar. The second party was to include Ang Temba, Lieutenant M. S. Kohli of the Indian Navy and C. P. Vohra of the Geological Survey of India. These climbers had all done well on the mountain and possessed the experience, endurance and determination to tackle the great final job.

The weather finally cleared on May 20. We wondered: Had the pre-monsoon lull arrived? The radio already had stated that the monsoon was still far south, slowly moving northward over the Andaman Islands. Barring some mischance, it was not likely to hit the Everest region until June 2 or thereafter.

Still, we had no time to lose. Unfortunately, avalanche danger on the Lhotse face made it unwise to send men up on the 20th or 21st. On May 22 the first team set out from Camp III and, in order to save time, pushed directly to Camp V, where its members spent the night. By evening of the 23rd these men, accompanied by Captain Jungalwalla were firmly entrenched at the South Col.

May 24 was a day of perfect calm. Gombu, Gyatso and Captain Kumar with seven Sherpas started out for Camp VII in high spirits, carrying tent, gas, fuel, food, sleeping bags, air mattresses and the indispensable yellow oxygen bottles. The party, using oxygen, made good progress and set up the final Camp VII at 27,600 ft. Here, while the Sherpas trudged slowly back to the South Col, the climbers settled down for the night.

Despite the altitude, the three ate with good appetite that evening and then crawled, fully clothed, into their sleeping bags in the somewhat cramped quarters of a tent which was normally intended for only two persons. Excitement and the high altitude prevented sound sleep. At 4 o'clock the three awoke, slowly crawled out of their bags and prepared to start.

Luck, unfortunately, was no longer with them. The calm air of the previous afternoon had given way to a strong and steady wind which whipped the little tent: The men waited, hoping the wind might abate. When by 7 o'clock there was still no decrease in its speed, they decided to start anyway.

Though the wind was not unbearable, blowing snow from the outset restricted vision. The men moved slowly, haltingly, up the south-east ridge, keeping slightly below the crest. Soon, frost blocked the valves of Kumar's oxygen mask. He rapidly switched to a spare mask and bladder, but the incident was an ominous portent of what might happen later when the climbers would be obliged to expose themselves on the ridge to the full fury of the gale.

That moment soon arrived, and all at once conditions became almost unbearable. Blowing snow whipped the men's faces with such force that they had to turn sideways to advance at all. Twice the party halted while Sonam rectified the frozen valves of his face mask. As they advanced, the wind increased, whipping powdered snow on to faces and goggles and reducing visibility to almost nothing.

At about 28,300 ft. the three halted. They were within 700 ft. of the South Summit. Under only slightly better conditions they might have pressed on. The temptation to continue was strong, but the possibility of doing so remote. Besides, Kumar, Gyatso and Gombu were alpinists who realized that, unlike a military operation, lives cannot be risked unduly on a sporting adventure no matter how worthy the goal. After a brief consultation they decided unanimously to retrace their steps.

This was the high point of the expedition. Twenty-four hours later the monsoon broke in the Everest region, a week earlier than anticipated. The second team, which had meanwhile moved to the South Col, waited vainly through part of May 26 for the weather to clear, while the first team descended to the advance base.

Under existing conditions further efforts would be useless. Despite dogged determination, the supreme effort had failed through no fault of our own. By May 29 everyone was back in Base Camp. God had willed that we should not climb Everest that year.

If we were disappointed, we had also reason to be proud. Mountaineering is, for Indians, a relatively new sport. Yet we had been fit, and I think properly so, to challenge the world's loftiest summit. We had organized and conducted a major expedition, solved seemingly impossible logistical problems, reached a point, only a few hundred feet below the crest of Mount Everest, and, most important, had all returned safely. India had shown herself capable of manufacturing and supplying intricate and serviceable items of equipment comparable in quality with those available in parts of the world which have a far older mountaineering tradition.

Not the least of our achievements was the stimulus to mountain climbing in India provided by the publicity which accompanied our efforts. More and more the Indian young men and women will now go out and seek vigour, health and happiness which only a sojourn to the high snowy mountain regions can provide. Everest is always there, waiting for our successors. These will come and, standing on our shoulders, will some day succeed where we so narrowly failed.