Twin peaks of Nanda Devi from advance base camp

Twin peaks of Nanda Devi from advance base camp

The call of the hills is irresistible. Even in the midst of the craze for space travel and reaching the moon, the mountains have retained their power to goad men on and to inspire them to reach their summits. That the call of the sublime heights is not confined to ' land-lubbers ' only but is also heard by ' sea-dogs ' is proved by our successful expedition to Nanda Kot.

Mount Nanda Kot (22,510 feet), one of the better known peaks of the Kumaon Himalayas, is a satellite of Nanda Devi (25,649 feet) which rises about ten miles away from it to the north-west. Of the four prior expeditions only the Japanese team led by Y. Hotta in 1936 reached the summit. The first known climbers to attempt this peak, which is also called Kulhari from its shape, were members of a British Expedition led by Dr. Longstaff in 1905. Dr. Somervell, who examined its northern aspect in 1926 from the top of Oualganga, wrote: 4 It seemed to us that the whole mountain was in danger of slipping down in snowy crashes.'

Our team consisted of three officers, Surg. Lt. Y. C. Sharma, S.C.I.O. A. S. Pabreja and myself, and two sailors, K. P. Sharma, Yeoman of Signals, and B. B. Ambastha, S.B.A. Except for the doctor, all of us had done the basic mountaineering course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. I had also done an advanced mountaineering course and was a member of the 1956 Saser Kangri (25,170 feet) Expedition to the Eastern Karakorams in Ladakh led by the late Major Jayal. We selected Sherpa Sardar Ang Tsering and Sherpa Da Temba as our high altitude porters.

Our biggest problem was the collection of mountaineering equipment which we had to borrow or acquire from every possible source. The major portion came from Army Ordnance factories. Other sources included the Bengal Engineering Centre, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Air Force Trekking Society, and the Himalayan Club. Lt. P. P. Mehta who climbed Trishul in 1958 helped us in procuring equipment and some private firms contributed tinned food, biscuits, cigarettes and a radio set.

After two months of hard work during which we received much help and encouragement from Capt. C. E. McGready and Commander J. S. M. Atkinson, our party assembled in Delhi on April 21st, 1959, when we were introduced to Admiral Katari and the Defence Minister. We were presented with a large number of woollen garments knitted by the Naval Officers' Wives Association at Delhi. We had received a supply of woollen jerseys earlier from the Naval Officers' Association, Bombay, and so in this respect at any rate we were well equipped. The next six days were spent in feverishly sorting out stores and packing them into suitable loads.

Nanda Kot

Nanda Kot

We left Delhi on April 27th, and passing through Bareilly and Tanakpur arrived at Askote three days later. The journey from Tanakpur to Askote was made by bus over a winding narrow dusty road. Sharma and the Sherpas had left two days ahead of the main party, and at Askote had arranged for six mules and 23 porters including six Bhotias to carry the expedition's equipment and food supplies which weighed nearly one ton.

Next morning we set out from Askote along the Gori Ganga and halting at Baram, Seraghat, Mansyari and Bugdyar on the way, reached Martoli on May 5th. At Mansyari we recruited 15 more porters, because mules cannot negotiate the ascent after Martoli. During this period of the year, this area is practically uninhabited. The people whose main occupation was trade with Tibet move up to Martoli and Milam in the months of June and July and return to Mansyari and the lower plains in September. Milam, nine miles beyond Martoli, lies near the Indo-Tibet border and is the last village on the famous Yatra route to Kailash Parvat and Manasarovar Lake.

At Martoli we offered prayers for the success of our expedition and took some pramd to be buried on the summit, which is considered by the local people to be the abode of the Goddess. From Martoli we turned west along the Lwanl Gadh with 38 porters and established our Base Camp near Narspan Pati on May 7th at a height of 13,500 feet.

Next day we selected eight of the porters to remain with us for the rest of our stay on the mountain and sent the remainder back. It had been snowing since the previous night and we spent most of the day in our tents. May 9th was a fine day and Sardar Ang Tser- ing, Sharma, Ambastha and I left for a short reconnaissance. There were two possible routes to the ascent. We first reconnoitred the route followed by previous expeditions and reached a height of 15,000 feet after nearly five hours but found no suitable site for an Advance Base Camp. The weather was deteriorating and the going difficult. Leaving a tent and some ropes there, we decided to return to our Base Camp. On the way back Ang Tsering and I made a short reconnaissance of the other route and reckoned that it would go better.

May 10th, too, was a fine day. Pabreja and Ambastha accompanied by the Sherpas left in two separate parties on the routes we had reconnoitred, while the rest of us spent the day making up loads for higher camps. They returned in the afternoon with the news that they had established the Advance Base Camp at a height of about 15,500 feet and that the second route through the junction of the Lwanl and Kuchela glaciers was the better. From now on we followed a somewhat regular camp routine. The doctor and Ambastha attended to patients, of whom fortunately there were not many, Pabreja made weather observations, and Sharma and I saw to the general running of the camp and dealt with any problems the porters raised. On completion of the day's tasks, we assembled in the doctor's tent, our ' recreation room', to listen to the radio and to play cards. We had brought a hula-hoop, but the doctor frowned on its use and we soon lost interest in it.

On May 11th, Sharma, Ambastha, Da Temba and I left with eight porters for Advance Base Camp, which we reached after six hours of strenuous climbing. The route was somewhat dangerous as stones came hurtling down every now and then from the rock-face on the right.

On the following day, Sharma, Ambastha, Da Temba and I, accompanied by Pan Singh, our efficient cook, left Advance Base Camp to find a route to Camp I. We ascended a wide ice-field full of crevasses, at times having to pass close below snow slopes from which there was some danger of avalanches. After seven hours of strenuous climbing, Ambastha and Pan Singh were completely exhausted and could go no further. Sharma, Da Temba and I went on a bit, but finding no suitable site for a camp decided to leave our loads there and return. As this route was dangerous Da Temba and I tried to find a safer way back, but without success. It was dark when we reached camp.

May 13th was again a very fine day. Sharma, Da Temba and Pan Singh left early to establish Camp I. I stayed back to sort out supplies for the higher camps and Ambastha who was not feeling well also remained behind. The doctor and Pabreja arrived in the afternoon from the Base Camp. Pan Singh returned at about 4 p.m. with the news that they had established Camp I at a place some distance beyond the spot where we left our loads the previous day and that Sharma and Da Temba were staying there. May 14th was a fruitless day as the porters arrived too late to move stores from the Base Camp to Camp I. Next day, Ambastha, Ang Tsering, Pan Singh and I left at about 10 o'clock with loads for Camp I. The weather deteriorated by noon and we were caught in a heavy snowstorm and were completely exhausted by the time we reached Camp I at 5 p.m. The camp-site did not seem a very safe one, but we could not shift it in the blizzard. Sharma and Da Temba told us that they had a narrow escape from an avalanche the previous evening. All night we were alarmed by avalanches roaring down from the northern slopes of Nanda Kot and got no sleep.

The following morning it was still snowing when we left our tents to find a safer site for the camp. There seemed to be a suitable site some distance beyond at the side of a black rock, but there was no easy route to it. Roped to Sharma and Ang Tsering, I cut steps and made a way up to the new site, crossing a number of crevasses and at times passing through knee-deep soft snow. It was an ideal camp-site at a height of 17,600 feet. We then returned to shift our camp. The porters had arrived in the meantime, somewhat exhausted by the heavy snow-fall, and it was with difficulty that we persuaded them to move further up to our new camp. It was after 5-40 p.m. when we reached camp, just too late to hear the special weather bulletin broadcast by All-India Radio, Delhi, for our benefit. In the evening we opened a tin of egg-powder and treated ourselves to omelettes made by Da Temba.

Next day the weather was extremely bad with a gale of more than 60 kilometres an hour blowing. No porters could come up and we remained in our tents all day. The temperature fell to 15° C. below zero. In the evening the special bulletin indicated bad weather for the next two days. The following morning it was still snowing but the wind had dropped considerably. Ang Tsering and I left to find a route to Camp II, while Sharma and Temba went down to bring up the remainder of the loads at the old camp-site. They descended with great difficulty, making a new route to the old camp as the old route was deep under fresh snow.

Ang Tsering and I also made slow progress in the soft knee- deep snow. In the afternoon when the wind strengthened we were compelled to retreat from a height of about 18,000 feet. The weather bulletin predicted squally weather and occasional snow-showers for the next two days. It was still snowing on May 19th though the wind had dropped. Our limited rations were nearly exhausted, and we anxiously awaited the coolies who had not come for the past two days. The route below our camp was once again buried under fresh snow. I sent the Sherpas down to make a new route for the porters, but they returned at about 1 o'clock without sighting them and we were worried. An hour later we heard shouts and saw four black dots near our old camp. Sharma and I went down and met Ambastha, Pan Singh and two porters. They had left Base Camp at 7-30 a.m. and had done seven hours of treacherous climbing in a heavy snow-fall. They gave us the disheartening news that the other porters had refused to come, and that Pabreja had fallen sick and had not taken anything for two days. In the circumstances I decided to go down to Base Camp. The weather forecast the previous evening indicated a weakening of the western disturbance and fair weather the next day. If we were to achieve our main object we had now to take full advantage of the spell of good weather which could be expected to last for about a week. We had therefore to adopt ‘rush tactics' as opposed to the 4 siege tactics' which we had adopted so far. The successful Japanese team, which had taken 33 days from Base Camp to the summit, had worked on the ‘siege system'; the British team had rushed through on account of lack of time. After instructing Sharma, Ambastha and the Sherpas to establish Camp II if the weather permitted and to reconnoitre beyond, I left for Base Camp. When I arrived there in the evening the weather was clearing and by night the sky was cloudless. Pabreja was now feeling better. It remained to persuade the porters who had gone down to the lower Base Camp to return with us. On May 20th we awoke to a bright and cloudless sky. After two hours of coaxing, four porters agreed to go up with rations and tents. The others refused. We knew we had no chance of reaching the summit without the co-operation of all eight porters. The Japanese and the British teams had employed twice that number and we could not afford to lose a single man. The willing porters returned in the evening with the news that Camp II had been established at a height of 18,700 feet. Failing to reach any settlement with the reluctant porters, I retired to my tent gloomy and disheartened.

May 21st was another brilliant day. The porters who had been reluctant the previous day were in a better frame of mind. I agreed to increase their daily wages and rations. We reorganized the loads and left camp at about 1 p.m. The doctor and Pabreja stayed back, intending to move up later with the remainder of the baggage. A.I.R.'s forecast promised fair weather for the next 48 hours. The western disturbance was now moving N.E. of Afghanistan and Pabreja, our meteorological adviser, did not think it would affect us.

The next day we needed two porters to go up with us to the higher camps, and fortunately two of them volunteered: Padam Singh and Jai Singh. They were the best porters we had and never gave any trouble. Early in the morning, Temba and I left for Camp II accompanied by Padam Singh and Jai Singh. Ambastha and Pan Singh who were not feeling up to the mark stayed back. Being two short we could not carry all the provisions needed for Camp III. When we reached Camp III at 12.50 p.m. we found no one there. Sharma and Ang Tsering were away exploring the route to Camp III. Padam Singh who had an altitude-headache took to the tent while the three of us went on carrying food and ropes. Within an hour we overtook Sharma and Ang Tsering who had made very slow progress in the past two days. They had barely ascended 500 feet, fixing about 300 feet of rope along a 40 feet wall and a very steep and precipitous ridge. Da Temba and Jai Singh returned. We now found ourselves below a large crevasse. We tried to traverse it from the left and then from the right and finally decided that it had to be attacked directly. Held on the rope by Sharma and Ang Tsering, I cut steps down an almost vertical face of hard ice about 100 feet in height and decided to attempt the gully. After two hours of strenuous and hazardous work, I succeeded in making a route through to the north-east ridge of which Nanda Kot forms the summit. We fixed another 300 feet of rope here and marked the route with red flags. About 5 p.m. we were all tired out and after resting a while, the altimeter showing 19,500, we decided to return.

May 23rd was the fourth successive day of good weather. We were now making satisfactory progress, but we had to await the supplies which were required for Camp III. Sharma and Ang Tsering left early to complete the rest of the route while I stayed behind to make sure that the necessary stores reached Camp III. Ambastha, Da Temba, Padam Singh and Jai Singh arrived about 11 a.m. and we all left, joining Sharma and Ang Tsering two hours later. About 4 o'clock we halted on the steep snow ridge at about 20,000 feet and after an hour's hard work we levelled a platform and erected a tent. Sharma, Ang Tsering and I, who were to make the attempt, stayed on while the others returned to Camp I since Camp II was without a stove.

Sharma and I went on a little further to get some idea of the next day's climb, but it started to snow and we returned to camp. Supper consisted of chicken soup and an omelette and for the first time we added a sleeping pill to our daily dose of multi-vitamin and B complex tablets. One sleeping pill did not seem to make much difference, however, as we hardly got a couple of hours' sleep, but we had been warned by the doctor against taking more.

The following morning broke calm and clear. We awoke at about 5 a.m. and Ang Tsering prepared soup and cocoa. Melting the snow was a long and tedious process. Our boots, which we had kept under our sleeping-bags, were still hard and we had to hold them round the stove to warm and soften them. After breakfasting on cocoa and soup and filling our pockets with dried fruit, we left camp at about 7.30 a.m.

Two hours later it started blowing, and a blizzard checked all progress. I wanted to go on for a while, but about 11.30 Ang Tsering who was exhausted could go no further. Sharma, too, was very tired and so with no sign of the storm abating, we decided to retreat. Two hours later we were back again in the tent, cold, wet and dissipated, with nothing to do but face another sleepless night in Camp III. After an early supper at 5.30 p.m. and a sleeping pill and vitamin tablets, we buried ourselves in our sleeping-bags, hoping that the storm would blow itself out by next morning.

The sleeping pill again had no effect and I hardly got two hours' sleep. All through the night I prayed fervently for fair weather. At about 1 a.m. I looked out through the small ventilator of the tent and was overjoyed to see a starry sky. The storm had blown itself out. I thought the only way to succeed was to make an early start. So I woke Sardar Ang Tsering telling him it was 2 o'clock, but he sleepily mumbled: Bar a Sahib, tin baje uthe ga. Promptly at 2 a.m. I shook him again.

The three of us breakfasted on soup and some dried fruit and filled our flasks with cocoa. After offering prayers to Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib and the Goddess Nanda Devi, we left Camp confidently at 5 a.m.

I led and after an hour we decided to gain the main ridge. To do this we had to climb a very steep slope about 150 feet high, mostly composed of soft snow. Held on the rope by Sharma and Ang Tsering, I cut steps and in less than an hour we were on top of the wall. From here we had a glimpse of the peak which still seemed a long way off. Half an hour later we were at the foot of a big dome which led to the summit.

The dome was covered with hard ice. We put on crampons and started up it in a light breeze. Traversing many crevasses we reached the top of the dome about 10.30 a.m. We were now about 800 feet below the summit. The dome was connected to the summit by a steep ridge which fell away sheer on one side to the Nanda Kot Glacier, 5,000 feet below. The ice-slope was so steep that it looked almost vertical.

We had now to cross over a knife-edge ridge to get on the steep ice-slope leading to the summit. From here we could see both Camp 1 and Camp 11. Wc shouted Nanda Devi ki Jai! and our shouts were acknowledged from below. We soon saw seven dots moving up from Camp L Then Ang Tsering who had been moving with difficulty complained of trouble with his feet and said he could go no further. I asked him to unrope. Sharma, too, was very exhausted but he was determined to push on, and we both continued along the hair-raising slope. We seemed to move by inches. Our safety now depended on firm belaying of each other and we did this very carefully. Sharma was getting slower and slower, and I began to doubt whether he would make the summit. I suggested that he should rest while I went on alone, but he said that he could not let me go on alone and that if we went slow we would make it. I admired his courage. He had worked hard with the expedition and deserved to get to the top.

At 2.20 p.m., after three hours of exhausting climbing, I lifted myself on my elbows and muttering Nanda Devi ki Jai literally crawled on to the summit of Nanda Kot. I could hardly believe myself and looked around to make sure I was on top. A long-cherished ambition had been fulfilled. Tears came to my eyes. Sharma crawled on to the summit close behind me. The sight of the summit had given him a spurt of energy. Involuntarily we embraced each other.

The air was calm and clear. We could see the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul, Pancholi, the Badri Nath massif and the Tibetan plateau. We hoisted the National Flag and the Naval Ensign and buried another National Flag together with a pair of gloves presented to us by the Naval Officers' Wives Association and some prasad. The summit, which we had thought would be a platform about 500 feet long, was only about 25 feet and hardly 15 feet wide. It had not been described by the Japanese Expedition of 1936.

We treated ourselves to a tin of peaches and took a large number of movie and still shots. After an hour's stay at the top, we began the return. Cumulus clouds were appearing on the horizon and the weather was again deteriorating. Still, with our crampons on and roped together we moved fast. Ang Tsering who was waiting on top of the dome, congratulated us. We reached Camp III at about 5.30 p.m. Da Temba, Pan Singh and Jai Singh were overjoyed to find all three of us together; seeing only two making the final assault they wondered what had happened. After a welcome cup of cocoa we made for Camp II. Dr. Sharma, Pabreja, Ambastha and Padam Singh, who were waiting about 800 feet below Camp III, gave us a very warm reception.

Shuffling, stumbling and sliding we reached Camp I about 8 p.m. and spent a third sleepless night, due this time to thirst. We started the return journey next day and using 4 rush tactics ' reached Delhi ten days later.

In retrospect I think we were very lucky in our venture. The weather deteriorated soon after our assault and the sky did not clear again for ten days. We were all lovers of mountains and developed an excellent team spirit which was mainly responsible for our success. The new route to the Advance Base Camp had saved us an additional camp—all previous expeditions had six camps while we had only five.

⇑ Top