Himalayan Journal vol.25
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Dr K. Biswas
  2. MOUNT EVEREST, 1963
  3. ANNAPURNA III, 1961
    (Lt.-Cdr. M, S. KOHLI, I.N.)
    (J. G. WILSON)
    (K. BISWAS)
  12. NANDA DEVI, 1964
    (LT.-COMDR. M. S. KOHLI, I.N.)


Lt.-Cdr. M, S. KOHLI, I.N.

IT was on a sweltering June afternoon of 1960 that Shri H. C. Sarin, a member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, inquired if I had any plans for 1961. I had just returned to Delhi after four memorable months with the Indian Everest Expedition and had no fresh venture in mind. But for all their harsh, cold winds, avalanches and stinging blizzards, the Himalayas are ever- inviting and the call is irresistible.

In 1959, while climbing Nanda Kot with the first Naval expedition, I had seen the beautiful twin summits of Nanda Devi and had since then nursed a secret desire to return to this area. I discovered, however, that Nanda Devi had already been ‘booked', and therefore expressed a desire to attempt Annapurna III, a suggestion which found favour with the Sponsoring Committee.

Rising majestically to a height of 24,858 feet, Annapurna III is the third highest peak of the Annapurna Himal. Its three other peaks have already been climbed. Annapurna I (26,493 feet), the highest in the range, was climbed in 1950 by a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog. This was the first mountaineering success on a peak above 8,000 metres and was widely acclaimed. Herzog, who was badly frost-bitten during this gallant venture, had to spend three long years in hospital where he dictated his book, Annapurna. Annapurna II (26,041 feet) was climbed in 1960 by a joint British-Indian-Nepalese Services expedition led by Colonel J. O. M. Roberts, while Annapurna IV (24,688 feet) has been climbed twice, once by a German expedition and a second time by a British team.

Of Annapurna III, hitherto unexplored, the well-known British mountaineer, H. W. Tilman, wrote in 1949: ‘Only from the broad back of the main ridge west of Annapurna II or of Annapurna IV could either of those peaks be reached, while Annapurna III bristling with gendarmes and cornices could not be reached at all.'

I busied myself with obtaining all possible information about Annapurna III. As no attempt to climb this peak had ever been made before, not much information was available. I turned to Tilman, who replied: 1 am inclined to think that the likeliest way up would be from the Manangbhot side but it did not look sufficiently inviting for us to have a go at it in 1949; or perhaps we were too keen on Annapurna II.' Col. J. O. M. Roberts, who led the Annapurna II Expedition and had skirted the Annapurna range, was the only other person who could provide some useful information. I wrote to him and he replied: 'We looked at Annapurna III in the spring of 1960; there were some nasty ice- falls low down and we saw no obvious route. You will have to look for it.' We were in a blind alley. But what Roberts had said fired our imagination.

The preliminary planning was done near the beautiful Marve beach, 25 miles from Bombay, where I was posted on I.N.S. Hamla. Invitations were sent out and, with the approval of the Sponsoring Committee, a team of six was finally selected. It included Sonam Gyatso, who climbed Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world, in 1958 and attained 28,300 feet on Everest in 1960. Also selected was Captain A. B. Jungalwala, of the Gurkha Rifles, an intrepid climber who spent three unforgettable nights on the inhospitable South Col of Everest. The others included FL-Lt. P. C. Chaturvedi, who had climbed Chaukhamba (23,420 feet) with an Air Force Expedition in 1959 ; Lt. V. S. Shekhawat, of the Indian Navy, who had successfully completed the basic course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, and Chief Yeoman of Signals K. P. Sharma, of the Indian Navy, who had climbed Nanda Kot with me in 1959. It was difficult to find a doctor for the expedition. Luckily, just a week prior to our assembly in Delhi, we found a volunteer in Dr. A. N. D. Nanavati, a pathologist at the Haffkine Institute, Bombay, who was fortunately able to obtain special leave to join the expedition. He had no experience of high-altitude climbing, but had done some trekking and was very keen to join our team.

The team eventually assembled in Delhi on March 8. The next ten days were fully occupied with packing and other preparations. A thousand and one items had to be checked, rechecked and carefully packed. In the light of the experience gained on the Everest Expedition, rations were separately packed for use at low altitudes and high altitudes and for the use of the Sherpas.

Our baggage, escorted by Sonam Gyatso and Jungalwala, left by truck on the morning of March 18 for Nautanwa, near Gorakh- pur. We entered Nepal and proceeded to Bhairavah airfield, and on March 22 we flew to Pokhra, a flight of about 40 minutes. An aerial glimpse of the mighty Annapurna range was foiled by cloud. At Pokhra we met Sonam, Jungalwala and our team of Nepali Sherpas, who had walked for nearly 20 days from their homes in the Solo-Khumbu district and were a gallant band. Seven 3 of them had been with the Indian Everest Expedition and I had come to know them well. Five of them had ferried loads to the South Col and the remaining two had gone up to 27,600 feet. They greeted us warmly. We also met the Nepalese liaison officer, Mr. Bal Bahadur Lama. There was some difficulty with regard to porters. The agent who had come to help us made long speeches and dramatic gestures but it took him three days to arrange anything.

March 25 dawned bright and clear. We swallowed a hurried breakfast and dashed to the airfield where the baggage lay surrounded by our prospective porters. Our transport officer, Jungal- wala, and Sonam Girmi distributed the loads and got the porters started on the long march to Annapurna III. A few loads remained, necessitating a frantic last-minute search for more porters. However, by 1.30 p.m. the last load was lifted and our caravan of 135 porters was finally on the move.

On the afternoon of April 4 we reached Manangbhot and established our Base Camp about a mile from the village at the foot of the Annapurna III Ice-fall. We commenced our acclimatization programme the very next day and, having no information of possible routes to the summit, decided to combine this with reconnaissance.

We divided the acclimatization programme into two phases of a week each. The members and high-altitude Sherpas went up the surrounding peaks of 15,000 to 16,000 feet every day in small groups and returned to sleep at the camp.

Unfavourable weather during the first two days prevented the exploration of alternative routes to the summit. The ice-fall above the Base Camp, which we named the Great North Ice-fall, extended some 8,000 feet above the camp and was beset by avalanches which we could see and hear almost every hour. Annapurna III itself was not visible, being hidden behind another peak to the east of the ice-fall. We christened this the Base Camp Peak. On the third day, Sonam and I climbed a 15,000-foot peak to the north-west of Annapurna III. We noticed an ice-dome between Annapurna III and Annapurna IV at an altitude of about 20,000 feet. Between this dome and the Base Camp Peak was a col at a height of about 18,500 feet from where there seemed to be a possible route to the summit. Could we reach this East Col ? The answer lay with Shekhawat and Sharma who were on another 15,000-foot peak north-east of Annapurna III and could perhaps see the other side which was hidden from us. Shekhawat reported over the walkie-talkie set the existence of another ice-fall descending some 2,000 feet from the ice-dome. He thought this ice-fall was negotiable but did not study the route to the East Col.

Reproduced by kind permission of Indian Mountaineering Foundation Base camp with Annapurna III in the background

Reproduced by kind permission of Indian Mountaineering Foundation Base camp with Annapurna III in the background

Reproduced by kind permission of Indian Mountaineering Foundation Beyond camp II

Reproduced by kind permission of Indian Mountaineering Foundation Beyond camp II

Next day, Jungalwala, Sharma and I, together with some Sherpas, went to have a look at the East Col. It seemed about 1,000 feet above the East Ice-fall and offered a possible opening. Encouraged, we went up towards it to a point opposite a village named Braga where we selected a site for a new Base Camp. The decision to move the Base Camp was welcomed by the Man- angbhot people who believed that our presence near the ice-fall desecrated the sanctuary of the sacred White Lion which guards a spring from which the holy lamas drink during their occasional visits for prayer and meditation.

On April 10, we completed the first phase of our acclimatization. As part of the second phase, Sonam, Jungalwala, Sharma and Nanavati moved the Base Camp to the new site. They also planned to examine the East Ice-fall in greater detail.

Chaturvedi, Shekhawat and I accompanied by four Sherpas and four porters set out separately on a five-day acclimatization trip. During this period we attempted an unnamed peak, and after a laborious climb on loose scree we reached a ridge at a height of 18,500 feet. The summit was still distant, however, and we decided to call it a day.

Lazing in the pleasant sunshine, we surveyed the Annapurna range which lay spread out before us as on a cinema screen, nearly 35 miles from east to west with our own mountain dominating the middle like a colossus. Manaslu and Himalchuli stood brooding under dense clouds to the east.

On our return to Base Camp we found that hail and sleet had prevented the other party from going up the mountain as planned. As a result we enjoyed a reunion of all the members.

Sonam, Jungalwala and Sharma had carried out a complete reconnaissance of the East Ice-fall and were quite optimistic about gaining the East Col. There were only two routes up Annapurna III, of which the one along the Great North Ice-fall appeared too hazardous and insurmountable. We therefore decided to plan our ascent through the East Ice-fall to the East Col, beyond which we had noticed a series of ice terraces that seemed negotiable and offered access to an upper shelf-the North Shelf-situated at a height of about 21,000 feet. The North Shelf is a very prominent feature of Annapurna III and provides the last point of take-off for the summit.

On the afternoon of April 15, Sonam, Jungalwala and Sharma left Base Camp and established Camp I at 15,400 feet. Accompanied by three Sherpas, they moved along the East Ice-fall the next day and, skilfully avoiding confused masses of ice and snow, made a route to Camp II at 17,400 feet. They tried to advance further; but progress was stopped soon afterwards by adverse weather. They dumped their loads at Camp II and made a quick descent to Camp I and returned to the Base Camp the following day.

It was the first day of a new Sherpa month and our cook, Thondup, along with the other Sherpas hoisted Buddhist prayer flags around the Base Camp and offered prayers for the success of the expedition. Shekhawat, Chaturvedi and I set off in the afternoon and covered the distance to Camp I in about three hours. The route was fairly steep and lay through pine and juniper which later gave way to thorny scrub. We were all carrying 40 to 50 pounds in our rucksacks and moved slowly.

The next day dawned bright and clear. After breakfast along with Chhotare, Nima Tenzing (a Sherpa, not to be confused with the daughter of Tenzing Norgay who bears the same name), Jawang Tenzing and Ang Tshering, we left for Camp II. The route continued to be fairly steep but despite soft, knee-deep snow, looked safe. We had barely left the camp when we heard the thunder of an avalanche. In a matter of moments we were engulfed in dense clouds and could see nothing for nearly a minute. Instinctively we placed our heads against our rucksacks and waited for the ordeal which, to our great relief, did not come. Although we could not see the actual path of the avalanche, it set up a cloud which sprinkled snow and ice over a wide area.

We reached Camp II after struggling for four hours and pitched our tents. The camp was situated on a small shelf at the foot of a precipitous slope leading up to the East Col. The adjacent wall of the col was a huge rock-face from which occasional showers of stone came hurtling down. We looked around for a better site but there was none.

April 19 was calm and clear. The altitude was telling on Shekhawat and so it was decided that he should remain behind for another day in order to acclimatize. Chaturvedi and I with Chhotare and Nima Tenzing set out to make the route to Camp III which was to be our Advance Base Camp and which we reckoned would be crucial for the success of the expedition. We left Camp II at 8 a.m. and proceeded up a steep ice-slope. The snow was soft and knee- to waist-deep. Progress was slow and laborious. It took four hours to climb the 900 feet to the East Col. This was the point we had studied minutely during our reconnaissance and beyond which we felt there would be no technical difficulty. From here we could see our old Base Camp and the Great North Ice-fall.

In order to place our Advance Base Camp as high as possible we decided to move further up after a little rest. We negotiated a series of ice terraces by cutting steps and using fixed rope at places. It took another three hours to climb a further 500 feet; but it was worth the trouble, for we found an excellent site for our Advance Base Camp at 18,800 feet. The wind had by now increased. We hurriedly pitched a tent and returned to Camp II. We had climbed for nearly seven hours and were very tired. However, on getting back we were cheered to find the mail had arrived. This brought a message of good wishes from the Council of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which had met in Darjeeling under the chairmanship of Mr. Nehru.

Sharma informed us over the walkie-talkie of trouble from the inhabitants of Manangbhot which he thought had been amicably settled by Sonam. Instructions were, however, issued to remove as much of the equipment and stores as possible to Camp I, to avoid its being pillaged.

On April 20 we rested at Camp II while I prepared a tentative plan for gaining the summit. This, however, had to be altered later, in view of the trouble at Manangbhot which came to a head the next day. Shekhawat being still unwell, Chaturvedi and I, with Chhotare and Nima Tenzing moved up to Camp III on April 21. At 5 p.m. when I switched on the walkie-talkie, I heard Jungalwala's voice from Base Camp instead of Camp I where he should have been. He was greatly agitated. At the same time our liaison officer was heard talking from Manang village. Sharma, who had moved to Camp II that day, was also on the line. There was excitement and confusion for a few minutes but the story soon unfolded. On April 19 some villagers had come to the Base Camp and demanded money. Sonam went to discuss the matter with the village headman and they had agreed to leave us in peace if we gave them Rs.100 and some cigarettes. When the liaison officer went to pay this amount the next day, the villagers demanded a sum of Rs.2,000 instead and insisted on our moving the Base Camp out of their 4 territory'! They also threatened to loot our camps.

Sharma, Sonam, Jungalwala and Nanavati meanwhile had moved up to Camp I and only learnt of developments at Manang that evening over the walkie-talkie. The expedition was, however, at a crucial stage and so they continued up to Camp II the next morning according to plan. Only Sharma stayed behind. The other three returned to Camp I in the evening with Danu who had been injured by a falling stone that morning and had fractured his forearm. On arrival, they found a large group of villagers preparing to loot the camp. The Base Camp had already been looted by about 300 Bhotias and most of our equipment and stores carried away. The liaison officer, who protested, had been beaten up and taken into custody. Sonam and Jungal- wala prevented Camp I from being looted but both of them were also held by the villagers and made to proceed to Manang for further negotiations. Under the circumstances they had no option but to agree to the terms enforced but they were able to secure the release of the liaison officer. The next day our equipment and stores were returned and Sonam and Jungalwala returned to the Base Camp and, on the following day, moved up to Camp I.

Meanwhile, uncertain of their movements, we decided that the four climbers already in the higher camps should continue up the mountain. Accordingly, on April 22, Chaturvedi, two Sherpas and I left Camp III to advance further. There were still a few ice terraces to cross before getting on to the North Shelf. After gaining the first terrace, to which we had made a route the day before, we came across another which looked rather more formidable. There was an ice-wall, about 200 feet high, heading up to the second terrace. The ice was hard and necessitated cutting steps. While the Sherpas turned west in search of an easier route, Chaturvedi and I decided to try and surmount the obstacle. I cut steps for nearly an hour but made very little progress. During our reconnaissance I had visualized this ice-wall as the only possible route and therefore decided to persist. Another hour, and we were on top. Another few minutes and we were on the North Shelf, an immense snow-field nearly three miles long and two miles wide.

We headed south towards the northern slopes of Annapurna III, only to receive another shock. There was a huge glacial trough nearly half-a-mile wide between the shelf and the mountain. The only access lay about two miles to the east. It was a long and laborious walk which, at that height and in a sub-zero temperature, seemed never-ending. We finally reached the end of the trough nearly seven hours after leaving Camp III and located a suitable site for Camp IV at 20,800 feet. We pitched a tent and retraced our steps to Camp III where we met Shekhawat, Sharma and two Sherpas. They told us that a settlement had been reached with the Manang villagers and Sonam and Jungalwala were to come up to Camp III the next day.

We were now ready for the final bid. It was decided to form the first summit party from out of the available climbers. Sharma, Shekhawat and Chaturvedi were asked to leave to attempt the summit the following day. They all reported fit and were keen to start.

I decided to follow a day later with a second summit party, including Sonam and Jungalwala. These two were, however, tired after running up and down to Manangbhot and, therefore, came up a day later than expected. We moved up to Camp IV on April 25 to find that Chaturvedi and Sharma had also lost a day and had left for Camp V the same morning. Shekhawat was again feeling unwell and returned to the Base Camp, while we decided to reinforce the first team and proceeded directly to Camp V which we made by evening.

Sharma, Chaturvedi and Sonam Girmi had already pitched an Arctic tent and we put up a Meade tent which we had brought with us. All six of us planned to make an early start for the summit next morning and decided to sleep with our boots on in order to avoid delay due to freezing. With three climbers sleeping in the confined space of a two-man tent the night was far from comfortable. There was much excitement in the small hours of the morning but owing to the cold we were not able to start before 5.45 a.m. by which time the sun shone bright over the camp.

Sonam, Jungalwala and I were on the first rope while Chaturvedi, Sharma and Sonam Girmi followed. Within half-an-hour progress was impeded by a huge crevasse which took about two hours to circumvent. We also met with near disaster at this point. Sonam Girmi was cutting steps when Chaturvedi slipped and went down before Sharma could hold him. We turned at their call and found both miraculously unhurt, having been splendidly belayed by Sonam Girmi. They were up in a moment despite a fall of over 150 feet.

From here on, the route was steep and once again lay through knee-deep snow. Advance was slow. At 10.30 a.m. we were still 2,000 feet short of the summit. Sharma, who was moving with great difficulty, now stopped and expressed his inability to go further. He, however, offered to wait there until our return. We continued plodding through the soft snow, which became deeper and deeper, and barely covered another thousand feet in the course of the next four hours. It was now 2.30 p.m. and Sharma was still waiting alone for our return. We sent Sonam Girmi back to join him and return to camp while Chaturvedi joined our rope. We sought to move faster and in the next hour-and-a-half gained about 400 feet. Our objective was still 600 feet away. The cold wind tore into us and we felt tired and numb. It would have been foolhardy to continue and so we turned back. We got into Camp V in failing light after a tiresome detour, as a result of mistaken direction.

We were too exhausted to cook supper. The most tedious aspect of preparing a meal at high altitudes is to melt ice and snow. This seemed beyond us. The frost from our breath steadily coated the tent, the sleeping-bags and everything else inside. All we could do was to lie down and endure the night.

The next morning found us considerably weaker and in need of rest and recuperation. We accordingly descended to the Base Camp. The journey down was uneventful except when the lip of a crevasse gave way under Sharma between Camps I and II. He took a snow platform down with him and hung freely for nearly five minutes before being hauled up by Sonam Girmi and me.

There was heavy snow-fall during the four days we spent at the Base Camp. Although most of our looted stores had been returned, the inhabitants of Manangbhot were still demanding Rs.2,000 from us. We had requested the Government for protection and on May 2, two days before the payment was due, a platoon of Nepalese soldiers came to our rescue. A military camp soon sprang up around us. Perhaps for the first time in the history of mountaineering an expedition was guarded by troops. We experienced a sudden sense of relief and were once again free to concentrate on our objective.

The weather forecast on May 2 was promising and it was therefore decided to go ahead with our summit plan. Sonam Gyatso, Sonam Girmi and I were to form the first summit party. Sonam Gyatso and I left for Camp I in the afternoon, Sonam Girmi having left a day earlier with two Sherpas. The second summit party consisting of Sharma, Shekhawat and Chaturvedi was to leave the following day. Jungalwala, who had suffered a minor frost-bite during our first summit attempt, had to remain behind at the Base Camp.

In the light of past experience when members had been unable to eat tinned food, we decided to carry sufficient pre-cooked food for the next five days. Our high-altitude rations were a considerable improvement over those carried by the 1960 Everest Expedition. The predominance of tinned food, however, was a great handicap and after a day or two members complained of nausea and preferred to go without rather than eat these rations. Hence we carried a number of eggs, parathas, poories, koftas and a quantity of chutney to provide adequate variety in taste.

Our route was now covered with freshly-fallen snow and the advance party of Sonam Girmi and two Sherpas was asked to remake the track. During our previous attempt we had found the distance from Camp V to the summit rather too much for a day's climb and therefore they were also asked to move Camp V as high as possible. We overtook this party on May 5, a little beyond the old site of Camp V. They were making very slow progress through soft, waist-deep snow and looked exhausted. It was snowing and we could hardly gain about 500 feet. We found a suitable site at 22,300 feet and decided to camp there.

In view of the difficult snow conditions we planned to start as early as 3 a.m. the next morning. After a frugal supper we changed our stockings and dressed for the morning before going to sleep. We slept with our boots on, only the crampons remaining to be fitted the next morning.

We spent a restless night, consulting our watches almost every hour and only dozing fitfully. At last the watch showed 3 o'clock. On unfastening the zip of the tent, however, we were disappointed to discover it snowing outside. We waited anxiously for a break in the weather. At 6 a.m. it stopped snowing and soon afterwards we set out for the summit.

We might have exhausted ourselves kicking steps in the soft snow and so sent two Sherpas ahead to make the route for some time. Ang Tshering and Kancha alternatively led the way. After about two hours, they were exhausted and we sent them back. Sonam Gyatso, Sonam Girmi and I continued and headed for the east saddle which connects with the summit ridge. We made very slow progress, reaching the saddle after nearly seven hours' labour. We were still about 800 feet below the summit and the valleys all around us were obscured by low-lying clouds. We rested awhile and then resumed the final ascent.

The soft snow gave way to hard ice and the slope became steeper. Belaying each other firmly, we went on steadily at an inclination of nearly 70 degrees. The weather turned against us and to add to our difficulties it again started snowing. We looked at each other and read in each face the same determination to continue. It was now or never.

We moved up foot by foot, stopping repeatedly to suck air into our lungs. We skirted a gendarme and dragged ourselves up the last few feet to the 4 top' only to discover to our bitter disappointment that this was a false summit. The actual summit was a small hump some 300 feet distant at the end of a mildly sloping ridge. We struggled on. Minutes later we topped the final rise and stood on the summit of Annapurna III. The time was 4.15 p.m.

The weather was fast deteriorating and it was still snowing. There was little view; we obtained a glimpse of Annapurna II and Annapurna IV and for a few seconds could see Macha- puchare whose summit was on the continuation of the ridge on which we stood. Pokhra was hidden by cloud. We were exhausted yet elated that the toil and labour of the expedition had been crowned with success. We hoisted the Indian and Nepalese flags, the Annapurna III pennant and the Indian Naval ensign which we had taken with us, Sonam Girmi strung up some Buddhist prayer flags. In spite of the bad weather we took a few pictures.

The lateness of the hour and the increasingly heavy snow-fall did not permit us to remain any longer. The descent to Camp V was made in extremely trying conditions. Our tracks had all but disappeared and visibility was poor. A thunderstorm and crashing avalanches did not relieve our anxiety. There were moments when we could not see our way and felt lost. We shuffled and stumbled along and finally reached Camp V a little after 7 p.m. weary but happy.

During the descent we experienced an irritating humming noise, a phenomenon I could not understand. I heard it every time I pushed up my glacier goggles and the sound disappeared as soon as I pulled them back into place. Sonam Gyatso, who had taken off his glasses altogether, ascribed the sound to the presence of insects! This was perhaps due to the electrical disturbances- the effect of lightning on the metal parts of our goggles.

We descended 10,000 feet to the Base Camp the next day. The second summit party had seen us making for the summit and, in view of the worsening weather, had returned to the Base Camp the previous day. We were reunited once more.