Himalayan Journal vol.44
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
  4. ZHANGZI - AUTUMN, 1987
  5. BRITISH XIXABANGMA Expedition, 1987
    (LT COL M. W. H. DAY)
  6. MENLUNGTSE, 1987
    (S. K. BERRY)
  8. RATHONG, 1987
  10. MAKALU
  11. CHO OYU, 1987
    (W. J. POWELL)
  16. A RETURN TO LINGTI, 1987
    (J. K. PAUL and S. N. DHAR)
    (A. V. SAUNDERS)
    (N. D. JAYAL)



'IN A HUNDRED AGES of the gods I could not tell thee of the glories of HimachaP.

What better beginning for my article of memories than this praise from an Indian poet, which was quoted by Frank Smythe in his book The Valley of Flowers.
Wordsworth wrote about memories 'flashing upon the inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.’

I myself expressed my feelings like this as my ship pulled out of Bombay taking me away from India:

'I felt I had left part of my soul, my very existence behind me in India - wonderful land of mystery and mystics, and those fascinating awe-inspiring Himalayan mountains calling me all the time.'

I was fortunate to be posted to New Delhi as a cypher officer with the British High Commission from 1947 (I arrived on 12 August) until the end of November 1949. Two years and a half packed with memories of climbs and treks. Being employed with a job of work to do I had to put my treks and climbs into second place. However, by volunteering to spend the hot weather in Delhi, J could take leave when the mountains were not covered with mists and clouds with rain beating down. Taking advice I chose for my first Himalayan adventure the Kulu valley and the passes beyond. I had already had my first view of the whole Himalayan range from an aircraft when like billowing waves of an immense white ocean I had seen them - peak after peak of rose-tipped snow caps floating in the sky having no apparent connection with the earth below. It was a fairyland, a vision of unreality, a fantastic dream, with Everest soaring on one side and Nanga Parbat on the other, such was our birds'-eye view. Kulu was of course on a much smaller scale. I had a friend with me and we stayed at Sunshine Orchards with Major H. M. Banon. The time October 1948, The motorable road ended at Manali in those days. We had to trek up the Rohthang pass, well actually we trekked down it for we did a circuit going up the Hamta, down the Chattaru valley turning our backs on the road to Tibet and Spiti to walk down the valley to climb up and over Rohthang pass and so down it to Manali again. It took us five days and was sheer bliss. Already winter had put the tip of its finger upon the whole area and I believe our party was the last one over the Hamta. Our route lay along one of the moraines which led onto a smaller glacier which in its turn took us right into the heart of the mountains. Towering on either side of us now were snow peaks, their glaciers glistening in the sun. I felt the vision of unreality I had seen from the aircraft had come true. As we climbed nearer to the Hamta pass itself, so snow peaked mountains crowded around us. But before we reached the pass snow had begun to fall. Yet through the thin misty veil we could see the nearby peaks radiant in that ethereal pink-glow which the sun gifts to all snow mountains the world over. We crossed the pass almost in the dark and put up the tents under the shelter of a large rock overhang. Our Ladakhi cook kept the primus pump up and all our Ladakhi porters were great.

In the morning the snow and clouds had gone and we were enthralled by the beauty of the views all around us - snow-capped peaks soaring into a lilac sky, the mountains of Ladakh, Spiti and over Tibet. The Chattaru river was flowing fast, its icy green waters making the crossing very cold indeed. We camped by the Chandra that night and walked down this 11,000 ft valley most of the day, after having another night in a cave. Though it seemed our Ladakhis were at first determined we were going to have a 'go’ at Deo Tibba we managed to keep well below it and suddenly found ourselves on the Rohthang which was busy with traffic caravans of goats and sheep with packs tied upon their backs. The views north were tremendous, the highest peak of the Lahul range Mulkila (21,380 ft) meaning 'Silver God’ standing out from the rest. Our party was the only 'foreign' one, the rest of the people were traders and others trekking home either northwards .or coming with us to the warmth of the Kulu valley. We made our way down the stairway of a thousand steps which I believe has given way now to the motorable road and made the dak bungalow at Rahla for the night; going on to Kothi the next morning we walked through that splendid scenery between the end of the Rohthang pass and Manali - missed now by most people who go by bus and no longer by foot.

We had been so delighted with our trek that Major Banon suggested we trek from Kulu to Simla instead of going by bus. This was marvellous, though the route lay across more cultivated areas than the wild north had been. However, we had one more delight - the crossing of the Jalori pass, the trees aflame in autumn golds, bronze and red. The dak bungalow at So jar just below the pass must have been sited by an artist, its setting was so superb.

We could hardly bear to climb up to Narkanda from where we would go by bus to Simla and then down by the mountain railway to the plains and Delhi, but on that last trek we did pass a golden domed monastery and could understand why monks left the world to contemplate God in such surroundings.

My second trek was in Kashmir and here I was completely alone just with my Kashmiri cook and six hill-men acting as my porters to be joined by a Pathan shepherd going into the snow-filled mountains to see if the thaw had come to release grazing for his sheep. Travel in Kashmir was difficult in May 1949 with the cease-fire between India and Pakistan signed only in March of that year. Where I was lucky was that the Officer the Captain G.3 who gave me my permit was from Madras and knew nothing about conditions in the mountains, He had been told that the Amarnath yearly pilgrimage was to re-start that year so had no qualms giving me the permit. The pilgrimage usually starts in July: in May the area is frozen with snow and ice, just what I wanted. Armed with my permit and my hill-men I brushed aside all objections by the local officials at Pahelgam. Whilst waiting for my Kashmiri cook to recruit the local hill-men to be my porters, I took a pony ride to Aru along the West Lidder river: superb country in the early spring with snows still lingering on the peaks, Even the motor trip from Srinagar to Pahelgam had been beautiful enough with the whole valley decked out in the pale blue of wild iris with the occasional purple ones, and all those tiny wild roses. In Aru there were deep blue gentians and white star-shaped edelweiss, and the road leading to the Kolahoi glacier forbidden to me at that moment by the General himself on security grounds, However, no one minded my going to Amarnath. So I left the chinars of the Lidder and the pines of Aru and set back 'home' to my tent in Pahelgam. The next day the big trek began, taking the route by the East Lidder river.

It was when my party hit the snow and the frozen rivers that the dramas began. Fortunately we met a Pathan shepherd coming down from the mountains who agreed to lead us up to Sheshnag along a frozen river bed. This was a long arduous journey with avalanches in the near mountains which ended up as snow-balls at our feet. Our destination in sight we had to walk across the frozen waters of the Nag or lake itself and climb up the steep sides to a collection of forlorn looking huts half buried in the snow. This was a pilgrim site, now completely deserted with snow right up to the roofs of the huts. We did find one room where we could all sleep and sufficient wood to keep a fire burning. My camp bed was produced for me whilst all the rest lay on the floor arDund the fire. The views were spectacular indeed in this white wonder; we were surrounded by snow mountains with avalanches cascading down their sides. The night was bitterly cold even in my snug sleeping bag wearing every piece of clothing I could find. In the morning the best way to view the beautiful and fascinating white land was sitting on the roof of our hut.

The porters had decided I wanted to visit the Amarnath cave for spiritual reasons and so agreed to take me after a day's rest but only four of them would do the journey whilst the main party stayed at {Sheshnag. I went with the shepherd as a guide, the head porter, the pony-man who had taken me to Aru (now without his pony) and one other to help. We left at 4 a.m. and had to cut steps in the ice-wall that soared up behind the huts. The porters and the shepherd were wearing felt leggings which proved much better than my climbing boots in fact. At dawn we found ourselves in a great white amphitheatre surrounded by fantastic peaks all of which had been smoothed by high winds and avalanches. Sunrise in this strange silent white world had no pale colours - the sky was streaked with deep mauve, purple turning to violet, a vivid green and a dark red with the sun coming up a bright orange.

At 9.30 a.m. we came to Panchtarni the last of the pilgrims' halts; again the huts were buried in the snow, clustered on the shores of yet another frozen lake. We only stopped to make tea. From Panchtarni the shepherd took us up the side of a mountain not aiming for the rocky peak but its broad white shoulder. The difficult and almost perpendicular route had its reward at the top with a stupendous view of peak upon peak of silver summits falling away in wild yet majestic profusion, I really felt here was the heart of the great Himalayan range in all its beauty. Ahead was the beautiful peak Amarnath, at whose base lay the Hindu's holy cave. The silence was profound, the scenery magnificent. Now began the descent into the valley and up to the cave, where we arrived at 1.30 p.m.

The return journey to Sheshnag turned into a nightmare. First of all my feet began to hurt. The shepherd took off my boots and we both could see frostbite was setting in. After rubbing them in snow he covered my feet and legs with soft felt and I found walking in this way much easier. As we plodded up the icy valley of the morning we noticed the snow was slushy. The long awaited thaw was setting in. As we had no ropes we held hands and the head-man who was over six feet suddenly disappeared into a hole but his hands were held and we pulled him out. We hurried on until at last we came to the firm snow of the final ascent but now exhaustion had overtaken me. The shepherd gave me black pepper to revive me but In the end he had to carry me thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It was with considerable relief we found ourselves on the top of the ridge with Sheshnag below us, We held hands and rushed down in the mushy snow seeing our first wild life in the form of a black bear who came to investigate us, took fright and rushed away.

We had to do our own rushing away the next day to beat the thaw. Still wearing the shepherd's felt leggings I made good progress by the aid of a big stick. Everywhere the snow and the ice were opening up showing green swirling water. The pony-man had rushed ahead and when it was time to say my farewell to the shepherd who had undoubtedly saved my life I was able to give him back his felt leggings with my deep thanks. I rode over the last bit of snow on horse back, and the next day we were back in Pahelgam after quite an adventure.

My last experience was climbing in the central Himalayan group in an effort to get to the top of Trisul (23,406 ft) having to climb the cliffs of the Rishi ganga gorge to get to base camp. I will quote from an article written by Hugh Ruttledge, the 1933 Everest leader, in a letter to The Times dated 22 August 1932:

'The Rishi ganga river rising at the foot of Nanda Devi, and draining an area of some 250 square miles of snow and ice has carved for itself what must be one of the most terrific gorges in the world. Two internal ridges, converging from north and south respectively upon this river form, as it were, the curtains of an inner sanctuary, within which the great mountain of Nandi Devi soars up to 25,600 ft. So tremendous is the aspect of the Rishi ganga gorge that Hindu mythology describes it as the last earthly home of the seven Rishis. Here, if anywhere, their meditations might be undisturbed.'

Trisul had much in common with the higher mountain Nanda Devi both in Hindu mythology and in mountaineering history so here I must bracket; them together.

Nandi Devi standing at 25,669 ft 'has been the inaccessible goal of explorers who, attracted by the impregnability of its surroundings had failed in repeated attempts to reach even its foot.' {Eric Shipton in Nanda Devi)
So inaccessible is the mountain that a legend has been woven around Nanda Devi. The goddess Devi was frightened by her enemies and in order to hide from them she fled into the inner sanctuary where she knew no one could follow her. The name means seat or home of devi. Dne of the mountains just outside the 'wall' enclosing the sanctuary is Trisul - 'Trident of the Goddess', her first defence protectng her from her foes. So strong was the belief in the presence of the goddess in her jealously guarded home that when the first Commissioner of Garhwal, G. W. Traill, in whose province the great mountain stood, crossed a pass near the Nanda Devi group h 1830 and developed a severe attack of snow-blindness, the local people swore their goddess had struck him down for daring to approach so closely to her sanctuary. In the following years maiy attempts to overcome the goddess's objection were made by climbers and explorers.

After having studed and read all I could on this area I came to the conclusion ttat even if we were never to reach Trisul we would, at least, be amongst the few who had explored to quote Ruttledge again 'the most terrific gorges in the world.'

I did not go alone as in my Kashmir adventure, but took along a companion. We went by rail from Delhi to Kathgodam, the rail head for the Garhwal district. A bus took us up the winding road through the green jungle of the Kumaon hills, the scene of Jim Corbett's many heroic hunts for man-eaters. We passed Nainital on our left catching a glimpse of the lake, and then on through undulating forest-clad hills we came to the cool pine scented air of Ranikhet. In 'Essex House', Mrs Ferguson made us most welcome and whilst walking in her garden after tea I was struck by the great mass of cumulus clouds on the horizon. Even whilst I looked these clouds began to part and there in all their glory, catching that last golden-rose sunset glow were Trisul and the mountains of the 'wall'. Perhaps the best view we obtained the next morning was from the verandah of the Ranikhet Club where the whole sweep of the central Himalaya was displayed before us. We were anxious to get going among them. We hired Dotials as porters and picked a headman to our own liking who proved a competent and trustworthy person. Another volunteered to act as our cook. We gave them an advance and told them we would meet them the next afternoon at Baijnath where we go by bus thus saving a 50 mile trek. Now-a-days you can bus all the way to Tapovan but we would not have missed the marvellous views and experience of trekking there. From Baijnath we walked to the dak bungalow at Gwaldam from where we got the most magnificent view right up the Pindar valley over forested ridges to the now familiar line of Trisul and the mountains of the 'wall'. When we reached Wan, below the Jatropani ridge we found that the local inhabitants did not regard Trisul, which dominated their horizon, as the Trident of the Goddess but actually the seat cf Siva and his consort Parvati and called it 'Trisul Kailash', the name of a mountain in Tibet long associated with Shiva and Parvati. At Wan we found a good supply of flour so bought sufficient for our porters who didn't mind humping the extra weight. As we journeyed north from Wan we found ourselves looking at a splendid view of Nanda Ghunti (20,700 ft) which lies west of Trisul. From the Nandakini river through a curtain of forest trees we suddenly came upon a view of the south face of Trisul not more than 10 miles away. But this face had not then been climbed so after taking a photo or two we carried on for we were to attempt the northern side of Trisul.

The greatest thrill of taking this off the beaten track route was the crossing of the Kuari pass, from where Frank Smythe declared, 'could be seen the finest view in the world'. The way to the pass was through a glen as Eric Shipton described it, which was fed by many streams, making gorges of their own all of which we had to cross. They were all beautiful but exhausting in that we had to climb up then down again. At last we reached the head of the glen and found ourselves on a grassy alp above the tree line which sloped gradually upwards. Autumn colours were already turning the whole area into gold and russet red; the porters found us wild strawberries, and other fruit. The pass itself is a thousand foot high rock face into which had been cut a well defined bridle path. These zig-zags were for the shepherds enabling them to bring their sheep up and down easily. Without warning I suddenly came to the end of the cliff face and it seemed I'd come to the end of the world with a view of the bastions of heaven on the other side. The whole range of the central Himalaya seemed to lie before me in all its dazzling silver glory - a wonderland of snow summits and deeply cleft valleys. I felt tempted to quote lines from the poet Kabir the mystic poet of Northern India:

'Dance my heart; O dance to-day with joy!

Mad with joy. . . .

The hills . . . and the earth dance. . . .'

In front of me was Kamet (25,447 ft) which Frank Smythe climbed in 1931; then there was Mana (23,860 ft) which he climbed solo in 1937. There was Nilgiri Parbat (21,264 ft) and several others still unnamed in those days. Further over I could see the peaks of Kedarnath and Badrinath and the Satopanth peaks with Nilkantha (21,640 ft) on its own which Frank Smythe called one of the most beautiful of the Himalayan mountains. To the east was Dunagiri (23,184 ft) the twin of Trisul, on the northern arm encircling the Rishi ganga, together with the peaks of the 'wall' but Trisul was not visible. The whole panorama was magnificent. On our descent we came across shepherds with their flocks camped for the night in stone shelters waiting to cross the pass the next day. We ourselves camped further down in ah emerald green glade with Dunagiri peering down upon us through the forest trees.

The next day saw us in Tapovan with its small Hindu shrines looking like miniature temples, and its hot spring baths. Here we replenished our stocks of flour. We spent that night in the rest house at Tapovan starting off for Lata early the next morning. From here we saw our first view of the Rishi ganga; where it flows into the Dhauli river it has cut for itself a deep gorge of sheer cliff walls forming a box canyon. No one has been able to penetrate this gorge. At the junction of the Rishi with the Dltauli there had been a landslide and we were forced to cross arrci then recross the river by a rope suspension bridge - rather nerve wrecking, specially when a herd of goats came on at the same time. At Lata we were given an enclosure in which to pitch our camp. The men here spin the wool as they talk, walk, or herd their flocks. The women weave this yarn into cloth.

Up to Lata Kharak (meaning summer grazing) early next day led by a young shepherd. The going was gruelling as we went from one thousand feet to thirteen thousand. Sheep and shepherds had already gone and our young guide soon followed leaving us on the bare freezing cold knoll. This was the gateway to the Rishi. All our water froze overnight! But a brilliant sun soon put warmth into us and the frozen water. Bethartoli Himal (20,840 ft) stared at us across the narrow Rishi. This is a domelike mountain covered in snow. We were all alone high up in the Himalayan range and it was all very beautiful. I felt so much part of the mountains, the snow, even the deep Rishi gorge. I felt one with nature, one with God. But there was little time for such deeply felt emotions - on we had to go climbing up and over the Dharanshi pass just over 14,000 ft where the porters built a small cairn of stones, From here onwards the shepherds' path petered out and our route lay across the actual cliff faces with a sheer drop of 8000 ft to the river below. These cliffs ended as abruptly as they had begun and we found ourselves going down hill into a stone gully, and without taking a rest we began to climb up to the 17,000 ft ridge above us. We were heading straight for Dunagiri, with immediately below us the Dharanshi alp, a hanging valley enclosed by grassy hills on three sides, and the fourth a precipice falling straight down to the river.

From the top of the ridge Dunagiri looked spectacular and very close, but our objective was the Dharanshi alp hoping we could camp there but those who had gone ahead came back with the news that all the streams had dried up so we had to double march onto Dibrugheta. We crossed Dharanshi alp without a stop and began to climb to what Dr Longstaff termed the 'curtain ridge’ due to the formation of the rocks running at right angles to the river screening off the upper valley in a sort of stone curtain. We paused at the top of this ridge which is in the region of 18,000 ft to see for the first time the elusive Nanda Devi peeping at us over the rock shoulder of a nearby peak. We were enthralled.

But we had to hurry to find water and a camp site for the night. As we scrambled downwards we heard the sound of rushing water; we found the small stream and got over it by stepping stones. Above us was the pine forested ridge which held the pastoral gem of Dibrugheta whose beauty has been praised by all who had come across this gem of a place amongst the wild Rishi gorge. Dr Long-staff had aptly called it ‘a horizontal oasis in a vertical desert.’ We couldn't make it that night but next morning we explored thoroughly this little pastoral gem surrounded by pine trees and took away a wonderful memory. We had to press on to the banks of the Rishi however and construct a bridge to cross it. By following Shipton and Tilman's trail we did save ourselves a lot of trouble but even so the route lay over more rocks and cliffs tipping at an acute angle. We saw our only wild life here in the form of a herd of Thar (mountain goat) which were high up on the rocky ridges above us. After watching them, we found ourselves in a tangle of thorn and rose bushes and these led us to the Bishi. We were at Duti (11,000 ft). Although at its lowest ebb it was still a formidable flowing green and white river and we had to cross it. But here was the Rishi, we had arrived, we had looked, we had drunk in the beauty of the wild silent places, we had stretched out our souls to God and grown a little in spirit. We had 'magic in our eyes' as the poet says.

It took us two days to make a successful bridge to cross the green turbulent waters of the Hishi, but at last we were over and heading up the Trisul nala where we spent the night. Two things happened here. Firstly the porters ran out of flour and we realised that we had run out of time. We had to turn back before setting foot on our mountain. Though we had failed in our objective we had gained from all the beauty we had seen and the wild joy of living in high places.

We returned - still walking (now you go by bus) - on the pilgrim route out of Tapovan to Joshimath (near Frank {Smythe's 'Valley of Flowers') to Hardwar in the plains. The whole of Badrinath-Kedarnath and the Gangotri area is a holy place associated with Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. From this great watershed rise the rivers which form the sacred Ganges. Over the snout of the Gangotri glacier is the famous 'Cow's Mouth' (Gau-mukh) from which issues a small stream considered to be the sacred source of the Ganges. By doing double marches on this pilgrim's way we were soon back at Baijnath and on the bus to Ranikhet. And so ended my farewell to the Himalaya and

indeed to India where something of my heart and spirit still lies.