AN expedition of 8 Frenchmen and 5 Indians was led by Yves Pollet Villard (I was his Deputy) in May-June 1975. For fol¬lowers we had Christian Brincourt, Jean Claude and Jean Gregoire of the French Television. The team climbed Nanda Devi (7,817 m.) and Nanda Devi East (7,434 m.) but failed to do the traverse of the two peaks.
After a two-day bus ride from Delhi the team reached Tapoban and spread itself between a golf course and a hot water sulphur spring. Changabang Sirdar, Jai Singh, gathered a ruffianly lot of 80 porters and an uncomplaining lot of 200 goats. We loaded these with tents and food for the 12-day walk to Sarson Patal, left 2i tons of mountain food and climbing gear to the enthusiasm of Paratrooper Captain Kanwaljeet Singh—spending his leave in Joshimath—and Dorje Lhatoo, to get up to Sarson Patal in a helicopter.
With relief we left the hassle of grumbling porters behind. Our relief ended shortly and we were stuck in a bigger hassle of rid¬ding ourselves of dancing, inebriated, masculine attentions of the old and the young of Lata village. Smelling variously of 'chang' and milk of human kindness we tramped into Builta by evening. Builta happens to be a tangy, tight clearing in a sleepy hollow at 2,000 m. and has the last water until Lata Kharak is reached. During the walk the doctor, Capt. Devinderjee Singh (DJ) found and tended a sick Austrian woman climber (we had passed her and Iher Himalayan Bliss, lying under an old pine tree earlier in the day). It had needed the Paratrooper Doctor's expert eye to notice that all was not well with her. After administering life-saving injections/medicines she went on to Joshimath from where the Indian Mountaineering Foundation had her flown out to a military hospital. She recovered. This turned out to be a doctor's day : in the evening two members of the Deutsch Alpine Club (attempting to ski down from Trisul) came into the camp. Dr. Walter Hufnagel escorted a very sick Walter Burrow and both looked run-down. They were made welcome for the night and left for Joshimath next morning—still mystified at our happy and motley bunch of Indians and Frenchmen.
Without losing a day but losing some porters and some loads we reached Sarson Fatal on 18 May. Last of the helicopter loads had arrived and we co-opted Capt. K. J. Singh as an honorary Sherpa for carrying loads to the Base Camp. After a two day reconnaissance we tucked our Base Camp at the foot of Long- staff Col, on Dakhni Nanda Devi glacier. Porters being scarce- goats had stopped at Ramani—the three HAPs and Capt. Alok Chandola, K. J. and D. J. had to be getting loads up from Ramani, Budjgara and Sarson Fatal for another 10 days. The team now split into Nanda Devi East (East Group) and Nanda Devi (West Group). Our plan was to scale the two summits; establish two bivouac camps on the traverse and do a simultaneous traverse from West to East and East to West. The expedition account is given by groups.
Yve leads Lhatoo, Prem Chand, Jean Coudray, Raymond Renaud, Yvon Masino and Walter Cechinel. To support them are high altitude porters Rattan Singh, Karma and Gani. In 3 days the route to Nanda Devi Khal (Longstaff Col) is open. Last 400 meters to the Col is roped and requires jumaring up steep and hard ice. Last three rope lengths are particularly vile, a pulley —a gimmick—which is tried is given up. To the Col and back is a hard day for porters ; a quarter of them make it from the Base to the Col and back. The more competent among the HAPs and local Garhwali porters, and the West Group climbers down for a rest, are all requisitioned for stocking the Col camp—two tents and an ice cave. I meet Yvon cooking in his ice cave when I do my pilgrimage ferry of a load and a half load of a porter who has difficulty getting up the ropes with his full load. I potter around looking for signs of our 1964 camp. (Capt. J. C. Joshi, Harish Rawat and I spent a week here in June 1964 attempting Nanda Devi East Peak from Lawan Gad during the Trisuli-Nanda Devi East expedition led by Mohan Kohli). I am disappointed peering through and at a sightless cocoon of cloud instead of the remembered vast views. Yvon and I sip hot soup and share long silences. I wonder how many climbers have walked to the Col—from the sanctuary and from Lawan Gad. This is the last I see of Yvon during the expedition. I do not know it, though.
Five days of hard climbing—opening of route, fixing of rope, ferrying of loads—and Camp 2 is occupied. Prem, Jean and Raymond now move to West route where Gicquel, Cretton and Charles Duboise are variously, 'hors de combat'. Later, Louis Dubost and Paul Grendre (of the 1951 French expedition) join the East Group. On the East route, Lhatoo interprets my English to Yve and his English and gestures to me and co-ordinates ferries. Evening broadcasts give progress, and requirement of ferries and who needs a rest and must go down to Base. Hum¬drum : until Yvon Masino's pulmonary oedema. TV team dis¬engage from the lotus living at Base Camp and rush to cover the event. Who said 'sauve qui pent"? Jean Gregoire (TV recordist) joins Yvon and gets pulmonary oedema. D. J. tells himself, 'never mind, two is company', medicates and evacuates the ailing Frenchmen to Sarson Patal and to Military Hospital, Bareilly —all with sang—froid and competence.
Above Camp 2 the route opening is less tough : altitude and logistics slow the pace. Most of porter effort is still concentrated here. On the West, we watch the East route get level with us and roundly curse them in between back-packing our own route. With excitement I hear Pollet Villard give out his plan for the summit attempt on 16 June. Prem and I would make our own bid on the 16th for the Main Peak. A simultaneous ascent of the two giants ? I am excited.
Lhatoo, 'Chick' and Yve leave Camp 4 at 6 a.m. and reach the summit of Nanda Devi East by 4 p.m. and are safely back in camp to admire whorls of monsoon clouds tumbling far to the East. The clouds will soon be here. Lhatoo is due for a rest and moves to Base while Chick, Yve and HAP Rattan Singh progress about 100 metres along the traverse in 3 days. All India Radio announces (in a special broadcast for the expedition) arrival of monsoon a week earlier than anticipated. That means an end of a dream—the traverse from the East. The group pack, anchor kitbags containing tents and sleeping bags to the 'hand¬rail' rope and career down to Base. First porters get up after 7 days and find most kitbags have been lost in the snow storm that arrived on 19 June. By then the French members are wing¬ing it homeward. Last of the Indian members leave the Base Camp on 10 July.
MAIN PEAK (WEST GROUP)
An easy plod avoiding stones from Coxcomb ridge and avalanches from the East Peak leads to Camp 1, tucked under a shelving rock. Giant icicles glisten off the rock wall in the mornings and break and drop on the Camp in the afternoons. In two 'carries' this camp is stocked. The route now contours along base of the rock ridge and has a nasty rock/ice step above Camp 1. Another steep snow plod and the first rope is pegged to the mountain. From now until Camp 4 movement is along the nylon snakeline. Three ropes up in Camp 2-tucked into a sheltered rock niche. Two tents in tandem and a rock shelf for Raymond's culinary miracles. Maurice Gicquel and Dubois return to Base Camp before Camp 2 is reached; Raymond Renaud and Jean Coudray replace them. After Camp 2 Raymond and Jean shoot down to Base for a rest. Prem joins me and Cretton at Camp 2 and Alok moves to Camp 1. In two days Camp 2 has rope and pegs and we now open a critical part of the route—getting to Coxcomb ridge where the ice and the rock meet. Cretton has a touch of high altitude and Prem and I set off in the late morning. I lead the rope up and across an avalanche-prone couloir. Soft wet snow and poor stances. Once across I drive a good piton and get Prem up. A good bit of perpendicular work, and exciting.
Watching the climb, Cretton forgets his nausea, pulls on his har¬ness, clips to the loose, wet end of the rope and plugs up. The next pitch is up loose snow and rock. We rest on the shoulder of the mountain and figure the route: Prem leads with ease and balance. This could be a ballet. He reaches a secure stance stakes a peg and another 20 metres of the mountain is won. Cretton now leads Climbing is from one secure stance to another—10 metres or 30 metres apart. In between is wet snow, perilously lazy. Cretton hammers in the last of the pegs. Above us we see frayed and partially buried ropes of previous expeditions. We are perhaps a rope length below the crest. A tough part of the route is through. I wait for Prem and Cretton to abseil and then follow. On the way I twang the pegs, discover sounder cracks, knock out some pegs and drive them a fresh, reslip some cara- biners and knots—as a sculptor would smoothen a figurine. It is done and it is late.
From our high perch, views into the bowl of the Nanda Devi and across are staggering. Prem cooks the evening gruel and we are in our digs and lie deflated we go down for a rest next day. Cretton's nausea returns he groans and shuffles all the night. In the morning we are ready to descend to Base when I spy a lone porter. A ferry to the end of fixed rope would save Raymond and Jean a day. I feel fine and watch Prem and Cretton plug down. I brew and browse a Lawrence Durrell and wait for the porter. He thinks there is only God above him and stops often. He shuffles out of his reverie when I shout, abseil to him, take his load and leave him a note for next day's ferry. Hump the load to the tents separate pegs and two rolls of rope and plug up to yesterday's high point. 21/2 hours to yesterday's 61/2.
A breather and I scramble to the yellow and white ropes of the Indian 1964 expedition and find we have to traverse a 50 metres of rock to get to the ice ridge. Looking around I spy a route contour along a fissure in the rocks: it joins the ice ridge about 60 metres to the North. Putting myself on a self-belay I explore the fissure. It is a safer route. I descend to where I left the ropes and fix another half a rope length. Climbing high and solo I move from piton to hold ; dry rock is warm and welcome. The intense blue canopy above me imperceptibly turns colourless at its Western hem. I feel fine and fit and work fast until the cold freezes the coil of rope into a mess. An abseil of 300 metres and I am back to the two quiely flapping tents. Blue of the tents merges with the white night like a daydream. Out of wet windproofs; I make myself a gruel and eat in the gloaming.
Darkness fills the valleys and, quietly, the peaks submerge- higher ones keeping their shine die last unlike the brave in life. Back to my tent and introspection. It has been a great day a bit of rock in my muscle and some liquid gold in my blood.
This feeling lingers and lasts into my bag. In my rucksack are two letters from my girl-read and not-read. In the silence of the night, uncertain torch-light reveals meanings the words hid earlier or is it the thin air I heave in and out through my 3 week old stubble that gives meaning to what the words leave- out—fears, apprehensions, prayers and the brave front ? Yes my beloved, I thank you for being with me. Amidst my reveries I catnap sleep, like happiness, comes in snatches.
My tent is under the shadow of the East Peak and I leave it after sun-up. It is a stark, bright day : the snow crystals, cross-lit by a low easterly sun, blink like a billion jewels. Last evening the sun and the wind—two architects of high mountains —left the snowfield covered with thin snow scales ; and now, low-angled sun beams slip under these and light their azure recesses. The mountain face becomes a many petalled slope. My Teverie snaps when I see Raymond and Jean jack-knifing up the mountain. Leaving the mountain to them, I plug down to Camp 1. Alok, much like Robinson Crusoe, fidgets about tents and stoves and we go over porters and ferries for higher camps. I miss having a little computer for a head.
Base as always is a proper gravitational hazard. Maurice Gicquel acts as the manager and with D. J. to help interpret for him, sends daily loads up. In between he gives interviews to the TV crew. The TV crew sleep and wake to a life of sloth and langour: 'hot' magazines from Paris, unfiltered sunshine, music and French food and mountain gossip. It could be Paris—the picture of a moveable feast but for the ominous cracking and gurgling of the glacier our tents sit on.
Echoes of last of Pollet Villards' 'Atwa' (for 'over') on the walkie-talkie fade late into the night. I sleep early and am in Camp 2 by evening next day. The following day, Jean, Raymond, Prem and I carry to Camp 3. Camp is exposed and erecting the two tents in the rough winds is a job. For the next 3 days we ferry during day and snore out the nights. Despite Alok's efforts, little food and rope reach us. HAPs are sick or scared : no love or money or glory makes them get up beyond Camp 2. Camp 3 has vast views to the West and South ; wind swept, it is a very pleasant, very high place. We leave Raymond to chip a "cook out" in the ice and the rest of us fix rope next day, across an angled ice field and then scramble up the steep and fissured south face of the mountain. Remains of '36 Tilman Camp and Indian '64 Camp lie frozen and preserved where the South (Coxcomb) and the West ridges join. We dump our loads and sit in the sun drawing hard for a share of God's air. This would be a fine site for Camp 4 and it appeals to our sense of history. It is far for a summit bid and we require another camp above this. Or more recce. We leave our loads. Unladen, we become shimmering chamois and abseil the vertical shelf in'easy smooth strides to a big meal. To the West we watch a distant host of cloud, firelit in the alpenglow. Above us some high wind whips a cloud to shreds ; had it floated too high ? I wait for Icarus to hurtle past me—all my own wandering quenched.
Backpacking the next few days, Camp 4 is pushed another 200 metres, up and across some dangerous slabs. Leaving Alok and me to slave on the mountain, others have a quick oxygenation trip to Base. They return on the third day. A mild intestinal infection keeps Prem in his bag while Raymond and Jean occupy Camp 4 on 13 June. Next day, Raymond and Jean leave Camp at 8 a.m. and reach summit of Nanda Devi at 4 p.m. It has been a fantastic clear day. We radio our 'Shabash' to them.
Ferries from Base have dried and Alok moves to Camp 3 on the 13th. Prem recovers his zest and both of us get to Camp 4 on the 15th. At Camp 4, the two tents are separated and high enough to appear providential. Jean and Raymond lie in their bags like sausages after yesterday's magnificent effort. They stir in the evening and we gather around the Radio : between Pollet Villard's 'Atwa's', I gather that East party will attempt the summit next day. A simultaneous ascent of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East—splendid.
Prem and I share a tent: despite the pill it is an uneasy sleep. Up at 4 a.m. and into our boots and ready to leave by 6 a.m. Prem peeks out of the tent and instantly retracts his neck: I remove my gloves and pat his cheeks back to warmth. The cold is here—sharp and chilling. It is 8 a.m. when we leave the tent. Under a clear cold sky the unquiet mountain still sleeps. We scramble across some dicey slabs and bear East. Rock is covered with verglas, and we climb with care and private profanities. Granite slabs lie, like fallen soldiers, at odd angles and it is impossible to tell where is the bloody summit. Through the binoculars I had picked a possible line up and through the slabs to the East, short of where the ridge from the East Peak meets the main Peak and then to a reclining rock face. If we miss this we would have to do a 50 metres vertical step before getting to the summit dome.
Out in the sun: easy angled rock and sunwarmed. It is 11 a.m. and we spy three dots below the summit ridge on the East Peak. For some time I have had no feeling in my feet and I remove my boots and socks and massage my feet. The warm rock is a great comfort; lying on it I watch the three dots about a mile away. Three black berries stuck on a huge cone of ice cream. Beyond and below them is the fractured rim of the sanctuary and haze—filled milky distances to the hot plains of India ; and strangely, I wonder, "What on earth are these berries doing here in a forest of white fangs and black depths ?" "Sir, should we move?," "Yes." We bloody well should—behind our ambitious and ahead of our fears and frailties.
At the base of the summit dome we plod North—west across a sleepy snowfield, unwarmed by the sun. With my nose against the rock and the peak visible only in my mind. I am tempted to look back towards a forest of great, big, white mountains.
15. Talung (left) and Kangchenjunga (right) from Camp 2. Article page 35.
16. Zemu Gap from Tonshyong Glacier. Article page 39.
17. Northern Nanda Devi Basin and the eastern Watershed to Milam Glacier. Left to right : Deo Damla, Bamchu, Sakram, Unnamed. Article page 53.
18. Saf Minal (left) and Rishi Pahar (right) looking from the Uttari Rish Glacier. Article page 53.
Photo : K. Shimizu
Photo : K. Shimizu
19. Changabang 6864m. (left) and Kalanka 6951 m. (right). From 4900m. on Changabang Glacier. Article page 53.
20. Nanda Devi twin peaks (North face) and Camp 2 (5750 m.). Article page 53.
Photo : K. Shimizu
21. Rishi Pahar 6992 m. from the summit of Saf Minal. Article page 53.
Photo : J. Imai
22. View from 6600 m. on Saf Minal. Article page 53.
Photo : J. Imai
23. Near the summit of Nanda Devi. Article page 59.
Photo : B. S. Sandhu
Photo : B. S. Sandhu
24. Traverse from main Nanda Devi. Article page 59.
Photo : B. S. Sandhu
25. Major Premchand on summit of Nanda Devi. Article page 59.
26. Changbang from the summit of Nanda Devi. Article page 59.
Photo : B. S. Sandhu
27. On the way back from the rocky summit of Leo Pargial, and moving towards the south snowy summit. Article page 75.
28. Gang Ghua 6288 m. as seen from advance Base Camp. Article page 75.
29. Telephoto of Brammah II from ridge to east of Base Camp. East side of Bhazun valley. Article page 88.
Southern rim of the sanctuary looks a feast for godlings. 'While my feet must push up the grey ugly granite; the fingers must find niches and pull up; the mind wanders to a blue mountain land where silver mountains are—and is nourished. Prem is on an exciting pitch and I unrope for a photograph. A suitable stance is about 10, unreachable, feet away. A few drops of wet down my spine and I get my picture. A summit has been reached. Yes; one of many summits : every time numb fingers find a niche in the rock and the body arches up it; frozen boots are pulled on or a stinging gust of powder snow blinked out of the eyes. The body must strive and suffer. Become timeless, absorb some of the rock. Become ageless. Or perhaps, I should become a chough—glistening, my raven wings cleaving the vast blackness of the skies? I hear my crampons scrape against th'e mountain face: an ugly face. Wrinkled and ash grey; white veined—where the water has frozen in the fissures. And it is masculine, unfeeling. Where is all the gold, all the silver, all the mystery? Where is Nanda Devi, Nanda, the Goddess of Garhwal?
It is past mid-day and I pull up a bulging rock. Beyond is a gently rising snowfield. And beyond the curving snowfield is a vast blue. Is it the sky ? Yes. The summit of the mountain is open, unguarded, innocent; comforting like some inner shrine. And across this summit is a slight, wind-beaten, welt of snow. Its crest is sun-lit and luminous and its base is the colour of sky.
We are in Camp by nightfall : four brothers, who have stood on the summit, common few square inches of God's earth. We select a site for the traverse camp but have nothing to site there. We have no rope, no tents, no food. My 10th day above 6,000 metres is my last on the mountain. A night on oxygen revives me and I rattle off the mountain happy, untiring and immortal. Above Camp 1, I see a spoor turn off in the snow but keep going straight until stopped by a drop-200 feet or 2(y ? The route has collapsed; I give it a try. Half way my arms tire and I do a controlled slide. I come up sharp against a rock and my left ankle gets a sharp tap. Another controlled slide and a more severe tap—same leg, same place. I have busted my ankle and now will myself down to Camp 1. Ac¬companied by a porter I hobble for 5 hours towards Base Camp and collapse at midnight. By 4 a.m. I and what was once a leg now grown elephantine are carried into Base Camp. I sleep for 48 hours'and then I am carried down on porter back to a tent near where the helicopter will come—a long barbaric journey of 10 hours.
It now rains and the sound on canvass is soothing, carressing. And it is with me for 4 days before a helicopter arrives to spirit me away to a hospital.
Lt.-Col. Balwant Sandhu (Deputy Leader), Prem Chand
Alok Chandola, Dorje Lhatoo and Captain Devinder Jeet Singh (Doctor).
Yve Follet Villard (leader), Maurice Gicquel, Jean Coudray, Raymond Renaud, Welter Cichinel, Maurice Cretton, Yvon Masino, Charles Duboise.