Interest in mountain-climbing has been steadily growing in India since Tensing's success on Everest and the country has now produced some first-class mountaineers. The Indian Mountaineering Federation has so far sponsored six major expeditions and is preparing for another assault on Everest, while the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, runs courses in rock-climbing, ice and snow-craft and the preparation of expeditions. It still comes as a surprise, however, to find that Indian women have suddenly leapt into the picture and, forsaking the sari for climbing breeches, have organized and carried through a successful Himalayan expedition.

I first heard of Mrigthuni in June, 1964, when I was invited to lead the first Indian women's Himalayan expedition in an assault on this peak. The Bharat Scouts and Guides Association was ready to sponsor the expedition—indeed for some years had been encouraging young people to train as climbers. A rock-climbing camp had been established and those showing promise had been given further training at the Institute. The next step was obviously to climb a major peak and a team of six Guide Leaders and Rangers had already planned an expedition. There was enthusiasm in plenty but experience was lacking, so I, a British Girl Guide Commissioner and a climber with some experience of Himalayan conditions, was asked to lead the party. The idea at once made a strong appeal to me and, after careful enquiry into the preparations, I willingly agreed.

Mrigthuni had been well-chosen as the objective. It lies wholly within India in the district of Garhwal, between the western frontier of Nepal and the southern boundary of Tibet. It is sufficiently high (22,490 feet) to present a real challenge, yet is not too difficult technically for a party of women making their first ascent. It has been climbed only once before and that by a party of Indians in 19581 and the approach march is facilitated as it follows the usual one to Nanda Devi as far as the Rishiganga gorge.


  1. See H.J., Vol. XXI, 1958, p. 86.


Taking the first possible plane, I arrived in Delhi on September 13 and found the team, already assembled, making last- minute purchases and organizing the packing. Khurshid Umrigar, a 25-year-old Parsee from Bombay, slight of build with an eager, nervous manner, introduced me to the others, for she was acting as secretary to the expedition. Rani Bhagwandas, an 18-year-old student from Hyderabad, was the beauty of the party ; her pale blue sari set off her dark brown skin and two merry black eyes danced and sparkled at the very mention of climbing. Durga Gurung, the youngest, a history student from Assam, was to prove the best climber and a useful interpreter, for she knew the Sherpa language. Usha Sarpeshkar (23), a science graduate from Bangalore University, slim and graceful, was the tallest (5 feet 1½ inches) of the four and like the others looked no more than 16 years old. Sharda Kedar, a married woman of 32, and Sudha Nerurkar (31) were great friends, working side by side as clerks in the Central Railway, Bombay; by contrast, they were quite mature.

Seven Sherpas had already arrived from Darjeeling with equipment loaned by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and were busy sorting loads and counting cases. Their sirdar, Tashi, had been on many expeditions, including Everest, and the versatile Gelbu had been on Nanda Devi with a Japanese expedition that very spring. Ang Phutar, Sona, Sombu and Lobsang had less experience but all were to prove good companions and excellent mountaineers. Tchung Gee, the Sherpa cook and a strong climber, completed the number. By a miracle, the party was ready on time and on September 20, garlanded with orange marigolds and waved off by friends and representatives of the Press, we mounted the bus for the three-days' journey to Joshimath.

Our special permits got us through to this area where we received considerable help from local. Army personnel. We had no doctor with us, for we had tried in vain from Delhi to find an Indian woman doctor who was prepared to undertake the strenuous journey to the foot of the mountain. At Joshimath, the Brigadier released a medical officer, Captain A. K. Bhatnagar, who was interested in research into the effects of altitude, to go with us. He brought an assistant and two radio men who kept him in touch with his unit. We had expected to find local men ready and anxious to act as porters but there was work for all on road construction at a good wage, so they were naturally chary of carrying heavy loads uphill for the pittance we were able to offer. Eventually, however, 29 were recruited and these set off on September 24 from the village of Lata, with half the party, to climb the steep track leading to Lata Kharak, the highest summer grazing ground in the area, 5,000 feet above. Unfortunately we met torrential rain and by 7 p.m. only four sodden members of the team, three Sherpas and ten porters had arrived at the camp-site. The rest of the porters, finding shelter beneath an overhanging rock, had lit a fire and settled down for the night. We made do with the tent, the fire-shelter and the one kit-bag which had reached us and slept as best we could. The next day the second party came up but had no better luck. The rain still poured down and over the next two days the party straggled in until all members and Sherpas and 50 porters were assembled. On the fourth day the sun shone in a deep blue sky and the expedition finally got undet way. Two Sherpas, however, had to stay behind to guard the qaggage which had to be left for lack of carriers until we could send back porters.

It took six days from Lata Kharak to reach our objective but each day was different, both in scenery and terrain. The first day we followed a track skirting the flanks of adjacent mountains maintaining roughly the same contour, finally climbing a steep stone- filled gully to the Dharansi Pass (13,500 feet) and down to a green patch by a gurgling stream where camp was pitched. The next day we dropped a further 2,000 feet to the tree-line fairly quickly and easily and walked through a beautiful mixed forest down to the river, a tributary of the Dhauli, which we crossed, balancing on the trunk of a giant pine slung 20 feet above the river-bed. Here was the Dibrugheta camp-site where several other expeditions have rested and enjoyed its quiet beauty, but a place of evil repute with the porters, for here two men died. On the return journey, one of the porters was taken ill at this camp-site and the Sherpas lived in hourly expectation of his death. We next had a very strenuous day climbing high above the Rishiganga gorge, in and out of ravines and round rock-walls to descend at the end of the day to the river at Deodi where there was a wooden bridge left by a previous expedition. Here we diverged from the Nanda Devi track and the next day forced a path through rhododendron and juniper scrub, so exhausting for porters that towards dusk we had to make a way down to the river-bed to find an emergency camp-site. Yet another night's camp on the sand at the edge of the shrunken stream was necessary before we could make the moraine of the Trisul Glacier but on October 3 we were able to set up our Base Camp at about 16,000 feet.

Here all but four porters were paid off, for they were of poor physique and hated the cold and snow which we found in this desolate spot. They said they would come back to carry for us when sent for, and as we were in radio communication with Joshi- math, this seemed the best thing to do. The four who remained were kept fully occupied, ferrying loads of firewood from Bethar- toli up to this new camp, a full day's chore. It would be better for future expeditions to carry enough kerosene to serve this camp, as well as the higher ones.

The weather was fair, so we wasted no time before starting on the assault. Sharda and Sudha were left in charge of Base Camp, and the doctor, his assistant and two radio men remained there throughout. The party was divided into three teams with interchangeable personnel and we planned a careful day-by-day programme of climbs, rests and periods of acclimatization at Base. In the event, no one showed any signs of altitude sickness and we were able to press forward from camp to camp without returning to base.

We erected a fairly large tent on the glacier itself, about two miles from base, though very little higher, to act as a supply depot and an overnight halting place for the team or Sherpas. This assembly place proved very useful and Tchung Gee kept it stocked with chappattis cooked at the Base Camp and carried up daily, thus delighting the hearts of all the Indians.

From this camp the first assault party (Khurshid, Rani and I), accompanied by four Sherpas, laden with tents, bedding, kitchen equipment, kerosene and food for two days, set off to establish Camp 1. Carrying our personal equipment in light rucksacks, we went forward steadily but were still on the long snow-slope when the sun reached us at 9 a.m. From then on, the way lay up 1,500 feet of heavily crevassed ice-fall, through a jumble of towering seracs. This was very tiring for novices, as maximum care and concentration were necessary at every step along narrow ledges, over precarious snow-bridges, at times hugging smooth ice-walls. Another 500 feet of tricky ice overlaid with powder snow brought us io a reasonably level place for Camp 1 and we thankfully sank down on our air-mattresses, while the Sherpas put up two tents before returning to base to bring up another load the next day.

Tashi remained with us and the next day we reconnoitred a route to a possible Camp 2 and were back just in time to greet Usha and Durga who arrived escorted by two Sherpas carrying more equipment and food. We had intended returning to Base Camp for a rest but acclimatization seemed unnecessary, so the first party pushed on up the steep snow-field and slept the night at Camp 2 at about 19,500 feet. Gelbu descended to Camp 1 to bring up more food the next day. The remaining four of us slept cosily in a three-man tent, the only difficulty being to find room to boil the kettle the next morning. We used the minimum of equipment at this stage, for we were short of carriers, the two Sherpas left behind at Lata Kharak not having yet caught up.

Durga, Usha and sombu on the Ice fall

Durga, Usha and sombu on the Ice fall



Mrigthuni from advance base camp

Mrigthuni from advance base camp

In spite of all our efforts, it was nearly 7 o'clock before the summit assault party left the following morning. The weather was set fair and the summit appeared to be just above our heads, a mere two or three hours' steady climb with crampons, but how deceptive are distances and heights in the mountains ! Gelbu came up early to act as support party with me and by 11 a.m. we were already casting anxious glances up to the ridge on which I had last seen three figures moving slowly. At noon I sent him up to try and make contact and, left by myself, my anxiety increased as the hours went by and I began mentally to compose telegrams to anxious parents. It was not till 4 p.m. that I saw tiny specks on the skyline which slowly resolved themselves into the long-awaited figures. An hour later they were sitting by my side, sipping hot tea and explaining that it was just a very, very long way, one apparent summit merging into another and yet another. Khurshid had to give up on the final slope but Rani, urged on by Tashi, had planted the Indian national flag and World Guide Association flag on the summit before retreating from the inexorable wind they found at that height.

Two days later it was the turn of Durga and Usha to make the attempt. We set off in two parties, Gelbu leading one rope with Durga and I the second with Usha and Sombu. Above 21,000 feet, however, I could only go very slowly, pausing at every ten steps to ease my pounding heart, thus jeopardizing the chances of the party reaching the summit in the daylight available. I decided to turn back, leaving both Sherpas with the girls, feeling that thus supported and in perfect weather they could come to no harm. The party of four achieved its objective, descending to Camp 2 just before dark. Durga told me how at the summit the Sherpas had put their prayer scarves on the snow by the flags and said their prayers. She herself had taken out the coconut she had brought all the way from Assam for this very moment, cracked it and given each a piece to eat before wrapping up the remainder to carry back to her family in Shillong.

The remaining two members, Sharda and Sudha, were, in my opinion, not such good climbers as the others and it had been my intention to restrict their climbing to the slopes below the cre- vassed area but, on reaching Camp 1 again, I was astonished to find them there with the Sherpas, Lobsang, Sona and Ang Phutar. Having accomplished the most technically difficult part of the climb, it seemed a pity that they should not go higher, so the next day they went up to sleep at Camp 2. An attempt to go higher, however, proved beyond their capacity and they came down again.

On October 15 all were reunited at Base Camp but now we could not move, for no porters had arrived, although a message had been sent by radio on the 10th. Another urgent message was sent to Joshimath and, after two more days with no response, something had to be done, for food was running short. A general council of members and Sherpas was held and, as there was no means of telling how many more days we might sit and wait for porters, it was decided to move camp down to Bethartoli at once. All the Sherpas and the four porters carried as much as possible down the next day and on October 19 the whole party set off, everyone carrying as much as he could possibly manage. In this way we moved the whole camp. Then we had a message saying that 20 porters had set off from Lata, so we waited again at Bethartoli. They eventually arrived on October 22 and we were back in Lata on the 27th and Delhi at the end of the month.

Thus the first Indian women's expedition to the Himalayas had been successful-the summit of Mrigthuni had been reached. There had been no accident or illness and I found considerable satisfaction in the fact that at 62 I was still physically strong enough to climb at high altitude. It is to the credit of these young women that they remained a happy united party, not only during the arduous days of the approach march but also during the time spent at heights beyond anything they had ever before attempted. This achievement should make future Himalayan expeditions possible for Indian women and make easier the path for future generations in their struggle for a new way of life.

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