Neelakantha has long been known as one of the more difficult peaks of the Himalayas. Standing only 21,640 feet high, it has withstood the challenge of several expeditions. Frank Smythe attempted it in 1937 and gave it the name ‘Queen of GarhwalOther attempts were the British in May-June 1947, the Swiss in August 1947, New Zealand in 1951 and British again in 1952. Our expedition was thus the sixth known organized attempt to scale Neelakantha. One of the major objectives of the expedition was to reconnoitre its approaches for a summit attempt.

Pran Nikore and myself had made a short recce in the Rishi and Khir Ganga gorges during September 1958. Ever since, the name of Neelakantha had been ringing hopefully in our ears. A few members got together and gradually our team was formed. The climbing party included Chaturvedi, Chowdhury and Rawat of the Indian Air Force, Vijay Raina, a scientist of the Geological Survey Department, Nikore from C.W. and PC. and myself. The Sherpas headed by Sirdar Pasang Dawa Lama of Cho-Oyu fame were Ajeeba of Annapoorna I, Sherpa Pasang, Sherpa Phurba Lobsong, Lhakpa Gyalbo and the youngest Sherpa Norbu. Flt.-Lt. Bhagwanani was the team doctor. The scientists' party included Dr. Rao and Messrs. Vohra and Chhabra. Raju and Dodpuri did the base administration work.

Nikore and I got down to planning early in 1959. It was an arduous task. I admired his consistent and frank advice on many matters. Details were checked about the Inner Line regulations, medical facilities in the Badrinath region and about the availability of altitude Mana porters, the Marchhas. Many lists of equipment and food were drafted to arrive at the most economical. Our final equipment ran to almost 6,000 lb. of all kinds of items. The problem of Sherpas was finalized by arrangements with the able Sirdar Pasang Dawa Lama. The Meteorological Department of Delhi gave a weather forecast for October which was most accurate and helpful. A.I.R. kindly arranged to transmit a daily forecast during the period the expedition was on the mountains. Instructions were issued to the members of the party about physical training, medical check up and personal equipment. A briefing conference was held in Delhi in August: the team was in excellent form ready for the departure at the end of September 1959. The usual route was followed via Hardwar, Rishikesh, Rudraprayag, Pipalkoti, Joshimath, Badrinath to Mana village. The team went in three parties by bus up to Pipalkoti. The road beyond was blocked by landslides as is usual in this region during the rainy periods. The six Sherpas had come from Darjeeling direct and joined the main party at Rishikesh. From Pipalkoti the parties trekked up to Mana via Joshimath, Pandukeshwar and Badrinath, where suitable accommodation for night halts was available. This route is commonly known to pilgrim visitors from the length and breadth of the country. There are a good number of chatties and tea shops every three to five miles, but they start closing down above Pandukeshwar at the end of September when the pilgrim traffic thins out. In fact, for the casual visitor this is the best time of the year ; the air has a post-monsoon freshness and the Alakhananda provides water music to delight the soul. At Badrinath there is a hot spring tank which came in for much popular use: there would not be another occasion for a wash worth talking about for almost a month to come.

We finally assembled at Mana village on October 4th, as scheduled. By courtesy of the local school headmaster we were able to dump the baggage in his building as the boys were on holiday. We spent that whole day in recounting the baggage and separating packs meant for the climbers and the valley echelons. Mana, the northernmost sizeable habitation in this region, is about 20 miles south of the pass of the same name. The Alakhananda turns westwards from here, its continuation north being called the Saras- wati. The village stands beautifully perched above the banks of the confluence and has a summer population of about 2,000 honest, god-fearing Marchhas whose main occupation is sheep rearing. Their equally hardy womenfolk engage in agriculture and carpet or blanket weaving. The fact that the carpet industry of Mana is already turning out attractive rugs augurs well for the future of this pretty little village.

Owing to lack of information about the state of the Alakhananda river and the possible location of the Base Camp at the confluence of Bhagirathi Kharak and Satopanth Glacier, excursions went out along both banks of the river. It was found that the northern route along the Vasudhara falls was quite unsuitable: it was longer and what was more important the porters would not agree to cross (he sacred river. There were technical difficulties also in crossing such a fast stream.

The party consisting of six climbers, six Sherpas and about 30 porters finally reached Lakshmi Ban, a distance of about five miles, on the southern bank of the river. The peaks of Narain Parbat (19,570 feet) and Neelakantha were not visible, but the entire snowcapped range of Alkapuri, the proverbial home of the weather gods, stretched delightfully to the north. The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle. Base Camp established, we got down to sorting out rations and equipment, and to making a firm plan which had to depend on the conditions of the mountain and the weather. The next morning our joy knew no bounds as the weather had cleared completely, true to meteorological forecasts. On October 7th, some of the members who had seen the wide vista of snow and rocks a couple of miles beyond early that morning, came with their own ideas which we discussed at lunch. The bare eastern face of Chowkhamba (23,420 feet) held good possibilities. It is a high peak—one of the highest in Garhwal—and had been climbed in 1952 by a French Expedition.1 The magnificent unclimbed Neelakantha dome held out its own promises and predicaments. We had to decide on one peak or the other. The ultimate decision was that one party was to proceed on October 8th for Chowkhamba, the other on October 9th for Neelakantha. Nikore had managed to procure an account of the French Expedition. Though sketchy and in French, it helped. No detailed account of the approach to Neelakantha from this side was available, and it looked like our having to pioneer for it. A couple of porters, Netra Singh and Bhagwan Singh, had been on Chowkhamba and Neelakantha with previous expeditions and they were all out to assist both parties. Finally it was decided that the Sirdar and Sherpas Phurba and Lhakpa were to accompany Chaturvedi, Chowdhury and Rawat for Chowkhamba and that Raina, Nikore and myself were to take Ajeeba and Sherpas Pasang and Norbu for Neelakantha.


  1. Referred to in Himalayan Journal, Vol. XVIII, p. 108.



A forward Base Camp was established by October 10th and after two days' rest it was decided to establish Camp I on a glacier just over 15,000 feet. The condition of the mountain appeared to be entirely different from what the French account stated. There were innumerable wide and deep crevasses to cross and the avalanches that raged almost the whole time gave rise to many misgivings. Sirdar Pasang Dawa Lama with all his mountaineering experience wondered whether an attempt to find a satisfactory route would prove fruitful. Although they were fairly well equipped for a medium kind of expedition, this climb seemed to demand much greater experience, technique and equipment. The following account comes from Rawat who suffered much through frost-bite of both feet. He lost all the toes of his stricken foot but still craves for the mountains.

On the evening of October 12th, we held a consultation with Sirdar Pasang and decided to start the assault of Chowkhamba early on the 13th. For two days we had waited for rations, particularly for sugar and kerosene. Our sugar was completely finished and we were using honey and toffee to sweeten our tea and coffee. It was a relief when Doc came up from the Base Camp with our rations. Though we had with us all the necessary mountaineering equipment, ropes, etc., we were forced to be particular about what we took with us because of weight. We left binoculars, etc., behind and did not even take the larger first aid kit with us.

On the 13th the weather was very clear, visibility excellent and the massive Chowkhamba with its dome-shaped peak looked very challenging. By 0830 hours we were on the way to the first camp with Sirdar Pasang leading. There were the three of us, Chow- dhury, Chaturvedi and myself, with Sherpas Lhakpa and Phurba and five porters following. Time was passing and the sunshine was losing its warmth. We thought of establishing Camp I either on the ice-fall or at the foot of the peak below the ice-fall.

After crossing the Bhagirath Kharak moraine we reached the glacier. We walked a distance of about 1 1/2 miles on snow and reached the foot of the massif just below the great ice-fall. Here it was decided to send a party to explore the route forward and to find a camp-site. After about three hours the party joined us and we decided to site our camp on the glacier itself just above 15,000 feet.

On October 14th the weather was excellent. We packed our things and started out, Sirdar and myself in front on one rope, and reached the point where a rope had been fixed by the recce party the previous day. First we had to cross the ice-fall which was full of crevasses. We found ourselves on the top of the ice-fall and waited for the rest of the party to come lip. Phurba, Chaturvedi, Chow- dhury and Lhakpa were on one rope. Soon the whole party met and we thoroughly enjoyed the fried meat and biscuits served by Phurba. After crossing the glacier we reached the foot of a very steep portion of the massif. Though only about 50 feet high it was more or less vertical. Sirdar and myself had a go at it, the former cutting the steps. I was keeping a careful watch on him and belaying him. He climbed half-way up and by that time the rope was finished. Now it was my turn to climb and his turn to belay. The other party joined us later having found the climb equally troublesome and tiring. This climb alone took us nearly three hours. Time was getting on and we had yet to select a camp-site. We could find no suitable place and had to climb further till we reached the side of a crevasse as the light was failing. It was at about 17,500 feet. We managed to clear space enough to pitch two tents. Hardly a foot away from the tent on one side was a deep crevasse. I was about to remove my gaiters when I discovered that they were frozen and that the buttons had become rigidly fixed. Lhakpa came to my help with a knife and a match-box. His attempts to loosen the buttons failed, and I had to cut most of them open. By then it was dark and we retired into our tents in whatever state we were.

On the 15th we got up early, about 0600 hours, had tea and biscuits, folded up the tents and started for the day's climb. The weather was excellent, though a strong breeze was blowing. Sirdar and myself roped up and started by crossing a narrow deep crevasse. About 1100 hours we reached a large crevasse and halted there for the others to join us. We held consultations about the route forward as it appeared difficult to cross the crevasse immediately ahead, and there seemed no other way up. Presently the Sirdar jumped on to the ice-wall and climbed a ridge of ice nearly six feet high by fixing an ice-piton and climbing off it. Beyond, however, was another large crevasse. He came back to us. ‘Beeg deeficulty', he admitted in his usual humorous jargon.

The Sirdar and Phurba now left the rucksacks with us at one side of the crevasse. After fixing up the ropes the Sirdar came on the ridge and asked us to pass on the rucksacks. We handed across all the rucksacks and ice-axes. Then came our turn to cross. First I jumped and caught the piton at the same time catching the rope which was to be pulled by the Sirdar. The others followed. A few yards further on we came on the crevasse over which already the ropes had been fixed by the agile Sirdar. By mid-afternoon we were on the col at just over 19,000 feet altitude, where we selected a campsite.

We had a long discussion with the Sirdar who, on the basis of his previous experiences, suggested that a straight climb to the dome could be done within a day provided we did not carry very much with us. We all agreed. On 16th morning, just before dawn, we left camp and started for the summit. There was a strong breeze but the weather was excellent. We were climbing in knee-deep snow and the going was very hard. We soon found ourselves on the eastern face of tlu- peak from where we could see the Parbati range and the Salopanch lake. We could even see the tiny camp of the Neela- kantha expedition just a few miles across the gap that separated us. Pasang began cutting steps and we were following-two ropes with three on each.

We must have reached about 23,000 feet when daylight started failing. A strong wind was blowing and it was getting very chilly. We began to have anxious doubts since we had no tent and no food with us. Fortunately we found a crevasse which was deep and protected on three sides. We cut a large step to sit on and having roped ourselves firmly the six of us huddled together. No words can describe the agony we suffered trying to keep warm and awake for the long hours of the night. It was a terrible feeling to be both thirsty and hungry at the same time. Outside the moon was shining brightly. When I got tired of feeling terribly cold despite the forcible beating of the body initiated by the Sirdar and continuous stamping of feet, I came out of the crevasse to admire the panorama. It was a grand sight and helped to keep our minds off the fear of disaster. Occasional avalanches rolled down at fairly close quarters and they also in a way helped to distract our attention. We continued to swing our hands and to beat our bodies in an effort to keep warm and awake. Both were essential if we were to avoid frost-bite. I must, however, have fallen asleep for a while.

The dawn gave us new life. I felt my feet extremely cold, but enthusiasm for the forthcoming assault was too great to let me think of anything else. Almost immediately we were out of the crevasse, heading upwards in two parties. It was a straightforward climb and in a couple of hours we found ourselves on the summit. Though exhausted, we felt supremely elated as we held out our fluttering flags and donned them to the axe which we stuck hard into the ice. We felt utterly lost in thought during the 20 minutes we stayed there, admiring the scene. We could see the Mukut Parbat, Neela- kantha and a vista of peaks, as they seemed in their different colours to greet our victory.

There was no time to lose as we had to get down to Camp III. Almost everyone was sliding down completely exhausted. We had no strength to retrieve the ropes which had to be left behind. We found ourselves in camp just before dusk, gloating over tea, biscuits and whatever eatables we could lay our hands on. We almost poured ourselves into our sleeping-bags. My feet were feeling cold, and in the middle of the night I pushed them inside Chaturvedi's spare bag, which gave me some comfort. In the morning I felt a strong feeling as of swelling in my numb toes. Chaturvedi, Phurba and Lhakpa had similar feelings. After a quick meal we started down, as early medical assistance was obviously necessary.



Our party was making almost identical progress, starting from Base Camp. We skirted the northern edge of the Neelakantha range and established a forward camp at Majna Chakratirtha. Although it appears on the survey map as a location, there were no signs of habitation. The going was fairly straightforward except for the tedium of calculated steps on the thin edge of Satopanth Glacier. The Marchhas appeared to move with comparative ease. We were at the base of the mountain of our choice. A 60 degrees steep moraine separated us from the tongue-like glaciers that hung about the dome face. The summit approach which we were about to probe had never been described by any expedition. The southeastern approaches had time and again been ruled out for obvious reasons. This was the only route left to us and we had to make the best of it.

After the tough climb, Nikore and I recced the top of the steep moraine while Raina went out to collect some geological data. On the 11th, we established Camp I among the glaciers and seracs around the 15,500 feet level. The grand mound of Neelakantha towered above like a colossal tiara of gems. We seemed to be in for much rock work. We lazed and spent hours scanning the rock-faces and an ice-wall that swept right across the dome, with the help of binoculars. To the amusement of others I sketched the mountain, marking the likely routes.

There was a col right ahead of our camp and Raina seemed to like an approach to the top from there. He went with Pasang Sherpa to try the direct route, but terrain is often illusionary at altitudes, for we discovered what appeared barely a quarter mile of trouble-free snow took almost four hours to cover. On Raina's return after much deliberation we decided to give up the col and to try an approach by the left side. The next day Nikore and I went out to confirm our hopes, skirting the glacier face at 16,000 to 17,000 feet altitude. The ice appeared uncertain but the rock, luckily for us, gave good holds. We got to a tiny camp-site on the rocks about 17,000 feet soon after midday of the 13th. We could hardly sleep at Camp II. Avalanches raged on either side of us by day and night. We felt it would be something of an anti-climax if an ice ridge dropped on our two tents in the middle of the night. Thus consoled we rested for a day and listened to scintillating songs by Raina.

Prospects for the future were bleak. Every slope appeared too sleep and risky for the kind of mountaineering we had in mind. We continued making sporadic recces, moving across steep glaciers and some of the largest boulders I have stepped on. We found a site even smaller for a tent and a half a few hundred feet further up. The site was rocky and we slept literally on a bed of points. Altitude was beginning to affect some of us and there were complaints of headaches and sleeplessness. Doc's pills were there to serve as a last resort. There were crevasses round about and many avalanches, and we thought it a rather uninviting place altogether. We called it an intermediate camp. For the first time the magnitude of this face came into view. The ice-wall was not only steep, but it encircled the entire northern face. It must have been over 500 feet high in places. A much wider glacier swept steeply down on the left. Boulders dropping off the ice-wall came down on the glacier face almost every quarter hour. In these frightful circumstances, the first portion of the route over the left or eastern summit ridge, which I had banked on, had to be given up. We decided on the other way across the rock hill that lay on our right.

Raina and Ajeeba carried out a reconnaissance of the rock hill. It fell to Nikore's lot to go up next day with Sherpa Pasang to fix ropes. It took them almost the whole morning to do this and to go up a few hundred feet of another glacier of frightening steepness at the bottom of which lay Satopanth, a straight slide of almost 6,000 feet. A tiny camp-site was found on a bit of rock tucked in between two forks of a glacier.

It was October 17th and we were about 19,000 feet high ; higher than any camp altitude reached before on this peak as we understood from available accounts. The sun was hidden most of the day. The minimum temperature was below 10 degrees of frost.

The permanent ice-wall, the great barrier, appeared to overhanp immediately above, shedding its surplus bulk everywhere. Raina went out to find a camp-site nearer the ridge. It was hard going. Ropes were fixed. The job was partly done when dusk fell and the party returned by the help of starlight on the snows.

The same day I received news from Doc IJhagwanani of Chowkhamba I having been climbed by the other party ; we could clearly sec the large massif but the party's movements were hidden behind the north-eastern ridge. Nor could we contact them over the walkie- talkie as the distance was over seven miles. But we were more than satisfied ; one of the highest peaks of Garhwal in the bag and the unclimbed Neelakantha face scaled to a considerable height along a possible route to the summit.

Raina and Nikore had gone further up the glacier and established Camp IV at about 20,000 feet, almost at the threshold of the notorious ice-wall. But their final effort to climb it was thwarted by a blinding snow-storm that swept over the entire range. Raina and Pasang Sherpa had managed to go well above 20,000 feet before turning back, leaving a couple of ropes on the ice-face. Whether the party would have been able to complete the climb to the summit from Camp V on the ice-ledge had it not been for the blizzard no one can tell. It was clear that the party must now return to Base Camp. The winds that raged above 14,000 feet almost to the point of uprooting our tents clearly brought our expedition to a close.

No words can describe adequately the faithful service rendered by the Mana porters. Six of them who risked their lives in attempting snow work up to 19,000 feet and beyond were duly rewarded. Their aged leaders, Netra Singh and Bhagwan Singh, deserve special mention. The tough forty-five-year-old Sirdar Pasang Dawa Lama and his colleague Ajeeba need no special commendation, for their valuable guidance and service to the expedition remain a fond memory to all who were associated with them.

We felt grateful to the Meteorological Department and All- India Radio for regular and accurate weather forecasts, to the Badri- nath Temple Committee, the local police and other State authorities for their friendly co-operation in meeting our day-to-day demands.

Neelakantha, 21,640 ft

Neelakantha, 21,640 ft

Chowkhamba base camp, 12,000/13,000ft

Chowkhamba base camp, 12,000/13,000ft

Neelakantha, Chowkhamba ranges & glaciers

Neelakantha, Chowkhamba ranges & glaciers

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