Captain S. N. DUBEY

The Indian Army mounted three major expeditions in 1962. One successfully climbed Kokthang (20,170 feet) in April. One attempted Riwo Pharguyal (also called Leo Pargial) in June but the attempt was abandoned owing to the death of the leader, Capt. P. S. Bakshi, and two Sherpas. And one led by Capt. Jagjit Singh sponsored by the Bengal Engineers and the Artillery planned to climb Nilgiri Parbat (21,240 feet) arid Mana Peak (23,860 feet) in June.

Our party consisted of four sappers, three gunners and a doctor. We decided to follow the route taken by Frank Smythe in 1937 through the Valley of Flowers, over the Khulia Ghata pass (16,500 feet) on to the Khulia Gervia Glacier for the attempt at Nilgiri Parbat. We intended then to retrace our steps to the Valley of Flowers, cross the Bhiyundhar Khal (16,700 feet), follow the Ban- kund Glacier to Gupta Khal (18,990 feet) and from there attempt Mana Peak (23,860 feet). This again was the route followed by Smythe in August, 1937. Later, however, we had to alter our plans owing to the extremely bad snow conditions and the changes that had occurred in the past 25 years.

Attempts at Nilgiri Parbat

We made two attempts at Nilgiri Parbat with an interval of ten days between but without success. On May 30, after four days' acclimatization and some good climbing, we crossed the Khulia Ghata pass and descended on to Khulia Gervia Glacier to establish our Base Camp for the first attempt at 15,700 feet at the foot of the glacier coming down from Nilgiri. Smythe described the Khulia Gervia Glacier and terrain as largely denuded of snow, and with some vegetation in the vicinity which led him to estimate the height at round about 15,000 feet. This description did not fit with the picture we saw when we arrived at the glacier. All we saw was a mass of unending whiteness around, in a continuous heavy snow-fall, the visibility being hardly ten yards. The only sounds reaching the ears were the soft patter of snow on our tents, interspersed with heavy thunder of ice avalanching in the adjoining valleys.

During short breaks in the weather we had a good look at the Nilgiri standing majestically, built up on terrific precipices looking over to the north-west and the west face guarded by a muddle of ice-falls, crevasses and seracs which formed a semicircle at the head of the valley. The defences looked more or less impregnable. We hoped to attempt the mountain within three to four days of our arrival at the Base Camp (15/700 feet). The mountain being 21,240 feet, only one Advance Camp needed to be established for the assault party. Smythe climbed the mountain in a day of 13 hours straight from Base Camp taking a route from the extreme left of the hanging glacier from Nilgiri, his Base Camp being very near ours. We carried out a reconnaissance and found that the route followed by him was impossible under existing conditions of snow and ice. We selected a comparatively safer route from the right up to Camp I and we then proposed to climb from there to the north-west ridge and follow Smythe's route to the summit.

This decided, we waited for a break in the weather, but during the next four days it showed no sign of improvement. A decision had then to be made as we were running out of supplies. All the members and the porters except myself, the leader and three Sherpas were sent back to Mana village. We stayed on so as to push forward if there was a break in the weather. Unfortunately, we had only two days' supplies with us.

June 4 was a bright calm day and this we thought was a chance which would not come again, so we started off for Camp I with whatever we could lift. Due to the heavy fresh snow and the bright sun, the going was tough, and with the loads on our backs we had to heave ourselves out at every step, sinking knee-deep at the next. We succeeded by 4 o'clock in establishing Camp I at 18,700 feet after ferrying up various loads.

The evening, though the temperature was - 15 °C, was enchanting and the weather was really co-operating, for we had excellent views of the Garhwal Himalayas. The majestic Nilkantha and Badrinath, towering Kamet with Mana our next goal, next to it, Deoban, Mandir Parbat and several other unidentified peaks held us spellbound.

The frequent avalanches, one about 50 yards away, and the thought of the next day's prospects kept us awake most of the night, At 4 o'clock next morning we were all up, melting snow to brew some tea. At 5.30 a.m. we were on our way on two ropes, Jagit with Ang Dorje on one and myself with Dawa and Kalden on the other. Progress was painfully slow, inching forward through ice-falls, crevasses and seracs. Sinking deep up to thigh was the order of the day. It was extremely difficult to decide whether we were walking over a crevasse or simply sinking in the snow.

Breathless and almost exhausted we stood at the foot of a 300-foot high ice-fall, the only barrier between us and the ridge leading to the summit slopes. In two hours we had gained only 600 feet and now we faced our greatest obstacle at 19,300 feet. There were two huge ice blocks perched at precarious angles on top of the ice-fall. The sun had started to work on them and the crackling sound of breaking ice was ringing in from all sides. We had not the resources to overcome this obstacle safely. Below we saw the masses of snow and ice rolling down towards our camp. We tried to find a route which would circumvent this obstacle but in vain. We thought of a possibility of getting to the buttress which connected the ridge to the unidentified peak, but between us and the buttress stood a series of huge ice-walls and seracs. Even if we had got there, there was no chance of our getting to the peak the same day, for from the buttress a tough climb of more than 2,500 feet would still remain. The burden of taking the decision fell on the leader and wisely he decided that we must retreat. Retracing our steps was even more difficult, for the Snow had started sliding.

We reached Camp I and then started down. To our horror we realized that the route to Base Camp existed no more! We had to search for an entirely different route and ultimately, after dodging two avalanches, we got there. Looking up we saw Nilgiri smiling down triumphantly on us, the intruders on its ground. We left to join the main body at Mana village, hoping to come back later after we had paid a visit to Mana Peak.

On our way back from Mana Peak we camped at the junction of Uttari and Dakshini Nakthoni Glacier. There is a shorter way to Nilgiri up the Dakshini Glacier and on to the head of the Khulia Gervia Glacier and the local porters knew it well. But due to some misunderstanding with them we had to abandon the route and return to Chhupchhupa, the tail of the Khulia Gervia Glacier. From there myself, Sabberwal, Ang Dorje, Koldew and Thopkay started once more for the Base Camp carrying a bare minimum of supplies for six days.

We established the Base Camp in two days. Now the country was entirely different and Smythe's description fitted it well. In July or August it would have appeared more or less the same as Smythe described. On the second day we had two hours of daylight left, so Sabberwal and m!yself decided to go up to the plateau to have a look at the route. What we saw was hardly encouraging and this time our previous route looked impossible. There was a semicircle of ice-falls above the plateau and any attempt to take the route on the right would have been suicidal. There was only one hope. A snow-slope came down along the rocky ridge separating the plateau from the Bankund Glacier. There was plenty of evidence to show that this was being washed off every day by avalanches coming down the rocky ridge. The plateau itself was full of wide crevasses but it seemed possible to circumvent them. If we could get on to the snow-slope, we could gain access to the buttress connecting the ridge and the northern slopes of Nilgiri. From then on we guessed the going would be simpler as the northern slope, though looking quite steep, had only one ice-fall to be negotiated. We decided to try the route next day and to take the camp up to the foot of the buttress.

We were off next day at 6.30 a.m. though the weather was not very promising and after winding our way through the plateau to avoid crevasses we reached the foot of the snow-slope. We started up the slope in a north-west direction, keeping a good distance between us and the rocky ridge. The slope, which consisted of ice covered with a skin of well-frozen snow, became deeper and deeper. By 3.30 in the afternoon we were all at the foot of the buttress. We camped there for the night and decided to attempt the peak next day. It had started snowing and the prospects of good weather were not very encouraging.

Next morning it was still snowing and visibility was reduced to a maximum of 50 yards but we started off in the hope that the weather might improve. We climbed the buttress and got on to what seemed like another plateau. As visibility had reduced considerably we halted for the mist to clear. Off and on it would part for a moment and then again engulf us. After an hour we decided that we were suffering from glacier lassitude more than anything else, and so we took a grip on ourselves again. After half an hour we found ourselves facing a bergschrund. It took us nearly an hour to negotiate it as a good amount of cutting was involved. Completely spent, we had a drink and then I put Sabberwal and Thopkay in the lead. Immediately after the bergschrund there was a steep slope of 45° to 50° about 300 feet high which splayed out from the ridge. To our horror we found that the sun had worked on it and at every step we went in thigh-deep! To crown all, once we sank we landed on a hard-polished surface of ice on which our feet had a tendency to slip. We were in danger of starting off an avalanche at a place where we had no chance at all. We went up about 50 feet but could proceed no further because with every step we slid down, bringing the snow along with us. So we decided to return to camp and look for an alternative route or bring the camp up a little and try the same route next day, probably under better weather conditions.

As luck would have it on our way back, when we had crossed the plateau and were descending the buttress, I slipped. Dorje who was belaying could not hold me as his ice-axe failed to dig into the hard surface. I, in my fall, jerked him off and Kalden, the last man, followed suit. All three of us went hurtling down to the base of the buttress.

In a half-conscious state I saw the tiny figures of Sabberwal and Thopkay, trying hard to cut steps down to us. It was then that I realized what had happened. I moved and knew that I had broken no bones. Kalden was also coming round. Dorje had hurt his neck a little and was badly shaken. By 6 o'clock in the evening we crawled up to Camp I. Next day Dorje and Kalden were still not in a fit state and we had to accept the fact that we were beaten once again !

Attempt at Mana Peak

After the first attempt at Nilgiri Parbat we concentrated in Mana village to replenish our supplies and arrange for porters. We had decided to abandon Smythe's route along the Bankund Glacier because of the unfavourable snow conditions and lack of camping space for porters. We took the route via Nakthoni Glacier along which Smythe came back. On our way up we had trouble with the porters and a number of them deserted. Members had to ferry loads including firewood collected from far-off places from one camp to the other. On June 10 we left Mana village and by June 12 we had camped at the junction of the Uttari Nakthoni Glacier and the glacier coming down from Gupta Khal. It will not be out of place to mention that the locals of Mana had never been to that side and nobody was able to advise us as to the exact location of this khal. As the name implies, it is really a Gupta or secret pass which you cannot locate until you are exactly opposite it.

From Base Camp a party led by Capt. Jagjit Singh left for the route up to Gupta Khal. The weather all this time was extremely bad and about a foot of snow fell during the day. The recce party found that there was a big ice-fall facing our camp and immediately above this another ice-fall. At the outset it seemed as if we could not circumvent these ice-falls and, if we had to negotiate them directly, it would have involved the extensive use of fixed ropes for which we were not prepared. Luckily, however, they spotted a gully to the extreme left of the ice-falls. Our hope lay in climbing the gully and then following the ridge leading on to the top of the second ice-fall.

Next day though the weather was still poor I along with five other members and Sherpas lifted our loads and set out to explore the route via the gully and if possible locate Gupta Khal, dump the loads at an Advance Base Camp and return. The leader and the doctor stayed back at Base. We were successful and dumped our loads safely at the top of the second ice-fall and returned. Next day we all carried more loads and then settled in at the Advance Base Camp. All this had been possible because by now we were acclimatized and were able to carry up to 55-lb. loads each to Advance Base Camp at a height of 18,200 feet.

The weather that night was bad and again nearly a foot of snow fell. The mercury dropped to 15 degrees below zero, but the morning was bright and we knew the break was coming. We had decided to set up another Advance Camp at the pass where Smythe had made his Base. We all picked up loads and started for the Gupta Khal (or Zaskar pass as Smythe calls it). The route lay across a huge snow-field interspersed with many crevasses which fortunately for us were wide enough to show up and it was possible to circumvent them. We reached the pass at 11 o'clock and what we saw there was not at all encouraging. Gupta Khal lies about 400 to 500 feet high at the head of the Bankund Glacier which looks to be a level plateau of snow and ice. As you face the glacier, you see Mana standing 23,850 feet high on the left guarded by an ice-capped rocky peak, 21,500 feet high, which is connected to the pass by a sharp and steep ice-covered ridge. On the right a knife-edged ridge leads to a 20,000-foot high rocky pinnacle which is the most beautiful and impressive summit in this area.

Smythe's route is along the ridge leading from the pass on to the 21,500-foot peak ; it then descends on to the snow-field at the foot of the Mana Peak, circles towards the west peak and ultimately climbs from the south ridge on to the peak. Smythe did not use any fixed ropes and he made no mention of the weather conditions. The more we looked and examined the route, the more amazed we felt that Mana had ever been climbed before.

To get to the foot of peak 21,500 is possible but from then on progress in a normal way seemed impossible. The ridge changes to a nearly vertical wall of rock topped by ice-walls and crevasses which we thought could not be negotiated without fixed ropes and very expert rock-climbing techniques. The conditions of the snow plateau could not be assessed as it was not fully visible from the pass, but the route to the west peak and then on to the south ridge looked equally impossible. A much safer route appeared to be along the north-east ridge connecting Kamet to the peak.

With heavy hearts we dumped our loads at the pass and returned to camp. Next day we went up again, not to climb Mana but the 20,000-foot rocky pinnacle. This summit involved a 30 feet difficult but enjoyable rock climb. There was place for only two on the peak and we all made it one after the other. From there once again we had wonderful views of Nilkantha, Chaukhamba, Kamet and the famous enchanting Tibetan plateau with its innumerable rocky tops.

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