On December 14th, 1961, a party from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment with two Gurkha soldiers and an Army doctor arrived in Kathmandu at the conclusion of an expedition to the Solo Khumbu. The expedition, which left Hong Kong on October 26th, had had as its objective a 20,000 feet peak in the Mingbo area, just south of Ama Dablam and some ten miles from Everest. Small, and very inexperienced, our group did not succeed in climbing its chosen peak but for us this can never detract from what was, in every other respect, a most happy and enjoyable venture.
As everyone knows, the British Army of today encourages ‘adventure training' and gives active assistance, financial and otherwise, to schemes considered worth while. To 1st Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, this was incentive, and if spur were needed, it came in the form of the posting, in 1960, of the Battalion to a Gurkha Brigade in Hong Kong. By May of the following year a plan for an expedition to the Solo Khumbu had been submitted to the appropriate authorities. Official approval was quickly granted, and Lt.-Col. J. O. M. Roberts, m.v.o., m.b.e., m.c., then British Military Attache in Kathmandu, was asked to assist in obtaining permission and in giving his advice.
Colonel Roberts advised an attempt on a peak in the Mingbo range and approached the Nepal Government to this end. The expedition would take place in the autumn and would last about six or seven weeks. Meanwhile, we in Hong Kong, awaiting permission from Nepal, began preparations in earnest. The selection of a team and reserves—from a host of volunteers—was the first task. At the end of June the party had been chosen and responsibilities allotted. Three junior ranks were selected: Cpl. D. Harrold (cook) ; L/Cpl. R. Neale (photographer); and Pte. J. Docker (medical orderly and —self-appointed—humorist). 2/Lt. I. M. Tomes would be 2 IC. The remaining two members were to divide responsibilities. Major J. D. Barrett, r.a.m.c., the expedition doctor, and the only member with Alpine experience, would assume the climbing leadership. The over-all organization and command developed upon myself.
The pattern of preparations for an expedition of this nature must be fairly constant although, obviously, dependent upon objective and time, there will be variables. In our case the task was eased by (lie assistance afforded us by various Army departments, particularly in the matter of equipment, almost all of which was available to us on loan. Newspapers were approached and the South China Morning Post, Birmingham Mail and Coventry Evening Telegraph provided some excellent financial backing. Further money was granted from Army funds. At the request of the Battalion Commander, the Colonel of the Regiment, Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery, authorized a handsome grant from Regimental sources. Free air travel to and from Calcutta, on a Gurkha leave aircraft, was permitted, and local firms were generous in giving or lending equipment and film.
At this stage, Lt.-Col. A. B. Taggart, m.c., Commanding 2nd/ 10th Gurkha Rifles, offered to attach two of his soldiers to the party. This offer was accepted gratefully and the two concerned, Ran Bahadur Rai and Chaturman Rai, soon became popular and useful members of the team. All that was lacking was permission from the Nepal Government.
On September 16th, Dennis O'Leary, the Staff Officer most concerned with the trip, telephoned. His voice jubilant, he read over the signal from Kathmandu which told us, coldly and impersonally, that permission had been granted, and that the requisite fee was to be lodged with the Nepal Government forthwith. It was a high-spirited group that entered the last phase of preparation and training. Heavy equipment had already been despatched to Calcutta, and the ‘tying up of loose ends ' became a positive joy.
I suppose that few expeditions go entirely to plan or do not suffer some tragedy. And so it was in Hong Kong. On October 18th, just eight days before we were due to leave, on a final rock climb in the New Territories, John Barrett fell 90 feet and suffered grievous injury. After a daring and skilful rescue by a helicopter pilot of the HK.A.A.F., he was evacuated to Kowloon General Hospital. With tremendous courage, his life in the balance, he survived three major operations in five days, culminating in the loss of his right leg which was amputated above the knee. It was a bitter blow to a man of John Barrett's calibre and yet this incredible man, who today uses an artificial limb and who has declared his intention of climbing once more, was able to say to us, c You can't just pack up now. You've got to go on.'
Another doctor, Hamish Macdonald, a National Serviceman due to end his tour of duty, volunteered to accompany the expedition. With the backing of the officer then commanding Hong Kong, Lt.- Gen. Sir Roderick McLeod, War Office, speedily approved an extension of service. John Barrett's number 2 on that ill-fated climb, the cheerful Docker, who had also been injured, but slightly, was replaced by the first reserve L/Cpl. J. Knight, and on October 26th we Hew to Calcutta. Eight days later we set off from Dharan Bazar, and with the sun's early rays painting massive Kanchcnjunga in the east, the approach march had begun.
It took eighteen days to reach Namche Bazar. The weather was delightful; sunny days, cool evenings. Routine was soon established and in a hospitable country (one remembers Dewali—but vaguely) the pleasure of a leisurely approach was great. There was, indeed, but one untoward occurrence. Early one morning in the Arun valley, after a good night by the murmuring river, five of our porters declined to go any further. As their total loads amounted to some 300 lb. weight, and we refused to pay higher wages (and so lay ourselves open to further demands in the future), we seemed to have reached an impasse. Despite the efforts of our Sardar, a weak man anyway, the five remained obdurate, and the remainder of the porters, twenty of them, looked on with interest.
Without hesitation, and using that forthright language sometimes associated with the British soldier, Neale and Knight suggested that the five, together with the Sardar, take their leave. We could carry the kit ourselves. In the face of this the other porters promptly offered to assist, and amidst sardonic grins from their fellows, the now discomfited five, plus Sardar, departed. With our two Gurkhas appointed joint Sardars, we had no further trouble of this sort, and the remainder of the march was casual and happy. On November 21st, fit and contented, we made that exhilarating climb from the Dudh Kosi up to Namche.
There we met our new Sardar and his son, who were to be the expedition's high-altitude Sherpas. The name Pasang Phutar is familiar to many. After his splendid performance on the 1953 Everest Expedition (he went twice to the South Col, it will be remembered), he was awarded the Coronation medal and received an excellent chit from Sir John Hunt, both of which he proudly showed us. His son, Ang Norbu, with several years' experience already, is determined to do at least as well as his father.
We spent two days in Namche and on the 23rd we moved on with a new team of porters, organized and rigidly controlled by Pasang Phutar. In leisurely fashion we walked to Thyangboche. If there is a more enjoyable few hours' stroll than that from Namche to the Monastery it must be out of this world and the view from Thyangboche was, we thought, reward enough for anyone who cares to go there. Pangboche, too, if not so delightfully set, has a charm of its own- ‘yeti scalps ' not included!
On November 24th we established a Base Camp at about 16,000 feet, just below Ama Dablam, that seemingly solitary, magnificent mountain, surely among the most lovely of all. To the east were the principal peaks of the Mingbo range. Amidst this splendour one felt small, insignificant. Enough it would have been just to sit and admire the handiwork of One who, in all that lonely grandeur, seems closer than He does elsewhere. Time, however, that unfriendly enemy, pressed upon us, and we had to make our attempt.
On November 25th, my wife's birthday as it happens, a recon naissance was carried out. Whilst the main body made comfortable our Base, Pasang Phutar, Ang Norbu and I climbed the lower slopes of ‘our' mountain. At 18,000 feet loose rock and scree gave way to snow ; the going was firm and we seemed to have chosen the right route. We tested snow conditions for some four hundred feet and then returned to Base. On our return a plan was made. By comparison with those of the big expeditions our plan was simplicity itself. November the 26th would be devoted to the preparation of stores required for a quick attempt upon the peak. On the 27th, a reduced party would climb to 19,000 feet, camp, and subsequently launch an effort on the 28th.
The Advance Camp—as we called it—was reached on the afternoon of the 27th, as planned. The climb had been simple enough, with only one smallish ice-cliff presenting any problem. This obstacle overcome, camp was made on a wide and level platform. From this site, the Mera La almost within reach, we had the most superb view. Ama Dablam loomed over us ; there stood Taweche, cold and forbidding, but majestic ; away to the west, as far as the eye could see a succession of wrinkled peaks, blue, white and grey, enchanting in the light of a dying sun.
The following morning dawned bright and clear. We reckoned that if the going held, the top could be reached in four hours. Return to the Advance Camp could be made in two. Harrold and Neale, together with the two Sherpas, were chosen for the attempt. The former has a strength which appears to increase with hard work. Neale, young and determined, is a fast climber with a delicate and finely tuned sense of balance.
Early on, they disappeared over a series of snow hillocks. The going was slow but steady, until deep snow forced the party on to an ice-cliff. This was traversed and was followed by a vertical climb and a second, shorter traverse. Again conditions became good until, just below the Mera La, further advance was halted by a very wide crevasse. How deep ? 6 All I know', said Harrold, ' is that I could not see the bottom.' On the right were the incredibly steep ice and rock slopes of the peak's north side. To the left: a jumbled and fantastic collection of crevasses. In the absence of any form of bridging kit, a return to the Advance Camp was forced upon them. Pasang Phutar's disappointment almost exceeded our own. 6 It is ', he said,6 a very small mountain, but we cannot go to the top.'
Advance camp being organized (November 27th)
The view from the advance camp
Over a hot drink we discussed alternatives. There was, in fact, only one. This involved a descent to Base, at least a day's rest and then the crossing (possible, we knew) of another saddle to the north. Then would follow a move south and an attempt from the Hongu (South Peak) area. This would take, including the return to Base, eight or ten days. Our limited special rations would not last that time. Financially, too, we could not afford the extra porters required. (It may be of interest to note that the expedition cost £900 and ended with a credit balance of £23.) Disappointed, but not altogether disheartened, we returned to Base.
Our return to Namche was very fast, and everyone felt exhilarated by the rapid descent from 17,000 feet to 12,000' feet. There we rested for a couple of days, and amongst one's memories is the party held one night in Pasang Phutar's house. We found the Sherpa singing and dancing quite fascinating, and very much more tuneful than we expected. We were assured that, by custom, we should perform one of our own ‘tribal' dances. Hamish Macdonald was outvoted on the eightsome reel (no one else knew it) and the party danced the Hokey-Cokey—which was an undoubted success!
Too soon, we were on the move, but the splendour of the Dudh Kosi was some compensation. Duck-egg blue, the river rushed headlong to the south. Woods and herbage were dressed in their autumnal best—russet, gold and green. Every so often a snow peak towered above us, usually with dramatic suddenness. And daily we met cheerful parties of Sherpas, heavily laden with oranges, or corn.
Kathmandu was reached in 13 days. Junbesi, Those, Chyaubus (that delightful ridge walk), Dolalghat with its twin rivers and bridges, Banepa, and incredible to behold, that forgotten object: a truck. Thus we proceeded to the Hotel Royal and the legendary Boris, so tolerant of those with vast appetites. And how does one describe the luxury of a glorious wallow in a steaming bath ?
The expedition was over. We had not climbed ‘our ' mountain although we knew that the experts would somehow have succeeded. It was, however, a beginning. We had had the most splendid experience of our lives and we had acquired the taste for this sort of venture. We had met the happy, laughing people of Nepal and seen their home. And in each of us is the determination that we shall, one day, enjoy again that rare and wonderful privilege.