SHORTLY after my return from the AAC meet in Glen Nevis at Easter 1974, my wife showed me an advertisement in the British Medical Journal : "Wanted—doctor for Himalayan Expedi-tion." To cut a long story short, I eventually joined the British Kalanka Expedition in spite of a cartilage torn on Pillar Rock on another weekend meet and only ten days after returning from the AAC Venediger and Grossglockner tour !
After a frantic rush to assemble all my medical equipment on time, we finally left England on 1st August by Hovercraft from Ramsgate. We travelled in a long-wheel base Landrover 15 years old but almost rebuilt by Keith, our mechanic and chief driver; our gear was piled high in an enormous trailer weighing 3i tons fully laden, a factor which caused us to crawl in low gear over many a pass en route and to break an unbelievable number of trailer springs.
The expedition was led by Jon Prosser, an instructor at Brathay Hall, Ambleside, who had been in the Himalaya two years previously. The deputy leader was Keith Boydon from Wolverhampton who was with Jon on his last expedition. The three other members were Jon's wife Pat, Tom Swallow, a technical representative, and Roger Mear, a former Outward Bound instructor. All were experienced climbers, Jon and Roger having climbed the North Face of the Matterhorn and many other routes of a high standard.
Before we left we had had telegrammed permission to climb "anywhere in the Nanda Devi region" and had chosen to go for Kalanka, an unclimbed peak of 22,740 feet lying on the same ridge as Changabang which Bonington's team had climbed earlier in the year.
Our overland route took us through Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, taking exactly a month. Jon had flown from Kabul to continue negotiations in Delhi, where we spent a few days awaiting final permission and the appointment of a Liaison Officer to accompany us.
On 5 September we set off for our roadhead at Joshimath some 300 miles away in the foothills where we arrived three days later after a rough ride on roads which had an alarming tendency to disappear into landslides. Here we spent a few days packing 25-kilo loads for the porters and sorting out our personal equip¬ment. It really is surprising how much one can jettison when one's pack weighs 60 lb. or more ! We were staying in a rest-house intended mainly for the many pilgrims passing through to the temples of Badrinath, some of whose religious sensibilities were upset by the smell of our dehydrated beef cooking.
On 11 September Jon, whom we had left behind in Delhi, arrived by bus with our Liaison Officer and on the inauspicious date of Friday 13 September we took our gear to the roadside below the hill village of Lata from which we were to obtain our porters. After breakfast, the "mate" or chief porter arrived to discuss terms. It transpired that he was able to supply only 14 porters instead of the 31 we needed, but offered the services of a large flock of goats to carry the rest of the loads. We had no option but to accept and spent the rest of the day repacking our gear to fit into the goat-bags, a kind of cloth saddle-bag. We agreed to pay the porters 8i rupees a day (about 50p), food and 10 cigarettes a day for 10 days. One porter was engaged as a cook and made us an excellent supper to prove his worth.
On Sunday 15 September we were awakened at 4.30 a.m. by the sound of the departing goats. After breakfast the porters' loads were distributed and the walk-in began in earnest.
After puffing and blowing up the steep path past the village of Lata we continued up steep, rocky and dusty paths, often through overhanging trees, with the smell of fragrant herbs under our feet. From Lata at 7,000 feet we rose 5,000 feet to Lata Kharak, an elevated meadow on a grassy knoll at 12,000 feet, where we were glad to pitch our first camp after a hard first day.
We slept in the open and awoke with frost on our sleeping bags to begin an even tougher day in which we compressed two days' walking into one, taking in two cols at 13,900 feet with a steep descent of grass, scree and forest to our next camp at Dibrugheta. During the day we had our first sight of "real mountains" with views of Bethartoli, Mrigthuni, Hanuman and the triple summits of Devistan. We were glad we put a tent this time since we had our first rain in India during the night.
In the morning a steep and muddy ascent was rewarded with a view down into the Rishi Gorge with Nanda Devi (25,000 feet) at its head, followed by a long traverse of the slopes above the gorge amongst juniper, rhododendron, rose bushes and many species of flowers. At the end of the day it began to rain steadily as we dropped down rapidly to our tree-encircled camp-site at Deodi where, besides two tents, we erected a large shelter by suspending an enormous sheet of polythene between two trees. Here we bought one of the carrier goats which was ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice to the success of the expedition and provided food for the next couple of days for the whole party.
This halt was the occasion for our first major change of plans. It had been our intention to go further up the gorge and make our ascent from the Changabang glacier. The local people, how- ever, used this name for the Ramani glacier where Bonington had his base camp and had assumed that this was our destination. The goats could not reach the true Changabang glacier and we had to settle for the nearer Ramani glacier which meant crossing the steep and difficult Shipton's col to reach Kalanka.
The next day was a lazy one for us whilst the porters carried the goat loads and ours up a steep cliff, the beginning of the following day's route: it was still hard work without a sack. The rising traverse then took us across streams and stony gullies with a rock section tackled with a fixed rope, eventually leading to our next camp-site impressively situated overlooking bouldery glacial debris. Here we chose two of the best porters, including our cook, to stay with us on the mountain.
Friday 20 September began with a plod up vegetated glacial debris with an indistinct route bringing us to the site for Base Camp in falling sleet. Amongst unmistakable evidence of the previous Changabang expedition, we pitched our tents and paid the porters, arranging for them to return in four weeks' time. Now we were really on our own on the mountain !
On Saturday we made plans to establish Advance Base on the glacier. Whilst the rest of us carried loads between the two camps, Jon and Roger would fix ropes up to Shipton's col, using Bonington's fixed ropes where possible. The rest of us would follow them over the col and I would station myself with the medical equipment at Camp 1 on the other side.
On Sunday we made the first carry of tents and climbing gear over difficult terrain to Advance Base where Jon and Roger would stay. On reaching the moraine we had our first glimpse of our objective, apparently dwarfed by the incredible rocky spire of its slightly smaller neighbour, Changabang. Then followed several days of soul-destroying load-carrying along the arduous route from Base at about 15,000 feet to Advance Base at about 16,000 feet. Because of the difficulty of crossing Shipton's col and carrying loads over it, it was decided that only Jon and Roger, with Keith and Tom as support climbers, would be involved in the summit attempt; Pat, the liaison officer, myself and the two porters would stay at Advance Base.
By Friday 27 September the whole party was finally assembled at Advance Base ropes had been fixed up to the col and much of the equipment had been carried to a dump near the foot of the col route. Up to now the weather had been fairly predictable, deteriorating during the afternoons with snow beginning to fall during the descents to Base Camp. This pattern continued until Sunday when a calm, sunny day began a settled spell.
The ascent proper began next day with Jon and Roger crossing the 18,000 foot col, a rock and ice route beginning at the bergschrund and gradually steepening to rock of about hard VS standard towards the top. Keith and Tom took up loads but by 6 p. m. they were long overdue and I set off up the glacier darkness to look for them. Snow began to fall and it was with great relief that I met them almost two hours later, un¬harmed but having had difficulty on the fixed ropes. More loads were taken up the ropes to the point from which they could be hauled to the col. Roger returned on a flying visit to arrange supplies and to let us know that the proposed route now lay up the face of Kalanka instead of to the col between it and Changa- bang as used by Bonington.
The weather was still good on Thursday 3 October as Keith, Tom and Roger crossed the col for the last time before their final retreat from the mountain. We were now out of contact with the advance party and left to fill in time with the occasional trip to Base Camp or up to the dump with loads. I spent some time looking at possible routes up the Bagini Peak (20,000 feet) which was to be my "consolation prize" after the main attempt. An unexpected visit from Keith and Tom on 8 October brought us news that all was going well and that, from Camp 2 already established high on the face, the final summit attempt would begin at 1 a.m. on the 11th. They expected to be back at Advance Base two or three days later which would leave no time for any further summits before the porters came back on the 18th.
On the 9th I went down to Base Camp and was caught in fairly heavy snow on the way back. Would this be affecting plans on the other side of the col ? The weather worsened and Advance Base was blanketed in snow. At 2 a.m. on Sunday 13 October we were awakened by Tom's shouts of, "Hello Base Camp", and by 3 a.m. all four climbers were safely in our tent attempting to warm up after a desperate time retreating over the col, which had taken 15 hours instead of the usual 4. We awoke to another day of snow and the story of the last few days unfolded.
Kalanka was still unconquered. Camp 1 had been established below the col at about 16,000 feet, after whic'h the route led through seracs to a tongue of ice and up the face to the bergschrund. Ropes were fixed to this point and Camp 2 estab¬lished at 21,000 feet. The snow started the day before the summit attempt was due. Jon and Roger spent the next day at Camp 2 and then retreated to Camp 1 hoping to sit out the bad weather. All four spent 48 wet and uncomfortable hours in the two-man tent at Camp 1 before deciding that the new snow, avalanche danger and rapidly diminishing food and fuel supplies made further attempts on the summit impossible. The wisdom of this decision was underlined by the difficult retreat over the col with new snow, verglased rock and iced-up ropes.
Our evening meal was to have been a celebration ; a casual observer would have been forgiven for mistaking it for victory celebration as we demolished piles of hamburgers followed by a bottle of brandy ! With a fine touch of irony the weather was warm and sunny as we prepared to evacuate Advance Base on Sunday 14 October, but our arrival at Base Camp was accomplished in falling snow. The next few days were spent relaxing in the sun and packing. The remaining equipment was recovered from Advance Base and ice samples were taken from the glacier for our research project on atmospheric pollution.
On Thursday 17 October the porters arrived and we began the walk-out the following day. After the snow, ice and boulders of the glacier, it was bliss to encounter grass, flowers, trees and breath-taking views of the Rishi Gorge, Nanda Devi and count¬less other peaks in perfect weather. Curbing the porters* enthusism for a quick return, we arrived in Lata after four days. Here we were royally entertained by the mate and our two high- altitude porters, consuming vast amounts of curry and chapatis washed down by liberal quantities of chang before leaving for Joshimath to be reunited with the Landrover.