(Extract from a paper read during the International Mountaineers Meet at Darjeeling)


I AM not really competent to talk about the scientific work done by the Defence Institute on High Altitude physiology. Besides, I would not like to steal Surgeon Captain Malhotra's thunder by talking about it. As you know Surgeon Capt. Malhot- ra will address us on high altitude physiology tomorrow. I cannot however, resist the temptation of observing that, for some un- scrutable reason this laboratory for high altitude research was located at sea level and what is more as far from the Himalaya as they could make it. This Institute which was established to solve the problem of the Jawans in high mountains functioned, of all place, from Madras for six years or so. Only government can do such a thing and get away with it. Anyway better late than never, it was later realised that it would perhaps be wiser to get nearer the high mountains. This Institute of Physiology has since moved north and is now located at Delhi.

Our defence scientists have indeed done very commendable work and, thanks to them, India can now boast of practical knowledge of medical problems at high altitude as any other country in the world. Our experts have also developed the use of a pill called Lasix which helps newly inducted troops in getting used to heights and in preventing the dreaded acclimatisation failures.

I have to thank my friend Tenzing for arousing my interest in what we found around us in the mountains. Those of us who have been with him would agree with me that Tenzing is not only a captivating companion in the mountains but is very sensitive to simple things of nature around him.

During the nine day approach march to the base camp of the first course which I accompanied, Tenzing introduced the beautiful mountains of Sikkim to us. He pointed out various interesting landmarks. At the same time he never missed showing the sites of destruction by man. He would point at a massive landslide and say, “A few years ago that hillslide was covered by beautiful trees. Then the trees were cut down. No new plantation was made and fast erosion resulted in the landslide". Higher up we saw that the tree-line had come down in a few years. According to Tenzing, the fauna of the region had also disappeared. Wild life which roamed the entire area of the approach march, had no animals left. One saw very few birds. They had been shot out or trapped. Tenzing lamented the intrusion of civilisation in the mountains. He said roads were built and machines were being brought for faster digging and felling more trees. He would observe that there were so many people destroying things in nature. No one did anything constructive. Why, even we mountaineers burnt enormous quantities of Juniper and Rhododendren bushes as fire wood. The vegetation line in most popular climbing areas has thus came down very low. At this rate our beautiful mountains would one day become high altitude deserts.

We decided to collaborate with the scientists to stem the rot in our beautiful mountains. We succeeded in persuading the Geological, Botanical and Zoological Surveys of India, three separate organisations, to send their young scientists on our courses. We made special provision for vacancies for these clever people. Their presence made our stay in the mountains very interesting indeed. It did not in the least detract from our primary aim, that of learning to climb. For example, in the short breaks during our climbing exercises, it was fascinating to hear the geologist tell us about how the Himalaya came up, about the rock formations, about the movement and behaviour of glaciers and so on.

Everester C. P. Vohra who is an experienced geologist showed us during his Basic course how we could observe the movement of the Rathong glacier. With his help we built three cairns on the surface of the glacier and two on the lateral moraines all in a straight line. After that we made our observations on the movement of the glacier during the subsequent courses. Vohra has, not long ago, carried out a detailed study of the Gangotri glacier. According to him the discharge from the reservoir of the Gangotri glacier is much higher than fresh precipitation each winter. A stage would inevitably come one day, when the glacier would shrink and its meltage would be reduced to a dangerously low level. The consequences of such a phenomenon, whenever it comes, are indeed horrifying.

Our Geological survey of India has done very creditable work but one wonders whether enough glacialogical studies have been made in the vast Himalayan range. It would appear obvious even to a layman that before starting on major hydroelectric projects in the Himalaya, detailed and prolonged studies should be made on the behaviour of the glaciers of the region. For example, I do not know if Vohra's observations have been given due consideration in the appreciation for planning the Tehri Dam which would be fed by the Gangotri glacier.

In 1961 we had the pleasure of having with us here at the HMI the world renowned ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali. He taught us bird watching and gave a quite few interesting talks. During one of his talks he had observed that indiscriminate shooting of bird life could dangerously upset the delicate balance of nature. He went on to explain that, with the disappearance of a particular species of birds, the pests and insects which it feeds on and thus keeps them below the danger limit, would multiply unchecked and play havoc with the flora of the region. In due course the vegetation in the area would die away causing erosion and landslides which would result in abnormal silting of the rivers and man made reservoirs. Equally, absence of trees and plant life would adversely influence climate in the region. It is not difficult to see that through his foolish actions man is placing his own existence in jeopardy.

These observations about birds are equally true for other wild life. Unless ways and means are explored to restore correct ecological conditions, vast majority of our wild life would be extinct.

A few days ago I read a report in a mountaineering monthly called Himavanta about a fortnight long botanical survey of North Sikkim done by the Forest Department of Sikkim. The earlier survey of this region was carried out as far back as 1911 by two British botanists, Cave and Smith who had collected over a thousand specimens for the Botanical Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh. I am sure other regions of the Himalaya are equally badly neglected.

Another big menace to the mountain flora are some of the big pharmaceutical firms. Instead of plucking the leaves, flowers or buds of the medicinal herbs and bushes, the uneducated local contractors employ cheap labour who pull out the plants from the very roots denuding vast area of the flora.

The need for botanical survey and research as well as propagation of flora is obvious. One does not have to be a scientist, to appreciate the consequences of wanton of destruction of plant life in the mountains.

In this brief paper it has been possible for me to touch only on the fringes of the vast problem of scientific exploration of the Himalaya. There are many other fields of science which I have not mentioned. For example, the great Himalayan Range influences climate of this subcontinent. The vagaries of weather have become a standard excuse for all shortfalls in agricultural production or, for that matter, destructive forces like floods which ravage our land from time to time. But have we done enough research for accurate forecasts? Or have we provided the bare essential infrastructure to enable our meteorologist to get the data they need? Even the comparatively smaller Alps have many times more weather stations than the entire Himalayan range has. There is thus a crying need to provide the wherewithal to our weather men in the shape of a network of meteorological observation posts with effective communcations. Having said all that I would not like you to go away with the impression that our weather experts are not doing their stuff. As a mountaineer I can say and I have had my views endorsed by many foreign expeditions that our met department have done a difficult job well by broadcasting reasonably accurate weather forecasts for mountaineering expeditions. But they need our cooperation. That is, the expeditions should, as far as possible, feed back the local weather data regularly.

Scientifically speaking the Himalaya is only beginning to open out. Not only the exploration and research has to be prolonged and progressive but it has to be coordinated by some central organization of Himalayan studies.

In 1966 the executive council of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi had accepted a proposal on similar lines put up by the Principal of the Institute. Under this scheme the Institute was to assist scientists with their projects in the mountains. A fair amount of spade work was done. But I am sorry to say that official indifference has since nipped the projcet in the bud.

A scientist these days has to complete such an intensive programme of studies that he does not have much time left for extra curricular activities like mountaineering. It is not surprising, therefore, that an average expert is diffident to venture high on his own even if he is highly motivated to conduct his research and exploration in the mountains. The only solution might be in the mountaineer allowing the scientist to lean on him.

In India more than ninety percent of mountaineering is wholly or partially financed by the Government. It may therefore not be unfair to stipulate a condition that such mountaineering expeditions should have a built-in plan for administrative cover for a scientific programme. The scope of the project and technical personnel could be detailed by the Institute of Himalayan Studies. This Institute could not only coordinate the programme but also collate and circulate all scientific data obtained from field scientists.

This suggestion may not find favour with the young enthusiasts who are understandably achievement oriented in their approach. But the mountaineer must remember that it was science which nursed mountaineering, when the sport was in its infancy. The early pioneers used to tag themselves along with scientists who carried barometers, thermometers and cumbersome paraphernalia for their experiments like measuring the boiling point of water at different heights. The sport was considered a senseless venture and it had to face both official and public censure. When Edward Wliymper lost four of his companions in an accident on the Matterhorn there was a lot of commotion in Europe as well as in England. Queen Victoria was so angry that she wanted to know why the Parliament could not pass a bill to ban this "awful dangerous sport" as she called it. You would I am sure acknowledge that mountaineering has thus grown under the umbrella of science. The least the mountaineer can do in reciprocation is to pay back the debt by taking the scientist under his wing.


⇑ Top