AN INITIATION TO THE SURVEY OF INDIA
MAJ GEN R. C. A. EDGE
I HAD LIVED in India as a child and always retained the fondest memories of that great country. So I counted myself very fortunate when, at the beginning of 1930, after my time at 'the Shop' and Cambridge, I was posted to the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners at Kirkee, just outside Poona (or pune as it has since become). I found there a most enjoyable life in which the horse and riding played an all important part: there was an unwritten rule that an officer was not acquire a car or a wife until he had bought a horse. Some officers found this restriction irksome; as in the case of a mechanically minded subaltern who, under great pressure, eventually got himself a broken down nag from the bazaar. All went well until the King's Birthday parade, attended by the entire Poona Brigade. Disaster struck when the final feude-joie proved too much for this animal, which collapsed and died, with the subaltern, sword in hand, still astride.
Fortunately, nothing as alarming as this happened to me and I had little to complain of, particularly as the unit to which I had been posted, 19 Field Company, was due in a few months time to move to the Frontier, the Mecca of every keen soldier.
Everything seemed to be turning out just as I wished and I had no dire presentiment when, one day, I was summoned to an interview with the Commandant. I was quite unprepared for the news which he had to give me: I was not to go with my unit to the Frontier after all but was to be transferred back to the Training Battalion to take the place of an officer going to England on long leave. I stalked angrily back to my office and started going through the papers in my 'In' tray. The first I came upon was a circular calling for volunteers to join an organisation called the Survey of India. I had heard vaguely of this and knew that Kipling's Kim had something to do with it. I put out of my mind the fact that I had done extremely badly on my Young Officer's survey course, and sent in my application without further ado. I then forgot all about it and was consequently much surprised to get a letter a few weeks later saying that I had been accepted. I started to have second thoughts and the Corps Adjutant made seductive noises; but I decided that it was evidently kismat that I should be a surveyor and 'Who can struggle against fate ?'.
So I started planning the next phase of my life. I was told that I should be posted to Dehra Dun for initial training under the Director Geodetic Branch and I thought it prudent to write to this officer who, at that time, was Colonel C. M. Thompson. An important concern was my horse and I asked about this. I received the reply:
'During my long service in the Survey of India I have used many kinds of transport: motor vehicles, elephants, mules, camels and of course my own legs; but never have I had occasion to ride a horse. I advise you to sell yours.'
I accepted this very categorical advice and, after several boozy farewell parties, took train for the long journey north through Delhi to Dehra Dun. It had been still quite warm in Kirkee and I remember vividly the bracing cold of the air as the train climbed slowly through the sal jungle that clothed the slopes of the Siwalik Hills in the early morning two days later. We arrived at Dehra Dun and in an hour or two I found myself lodged in a friendly boarding house called Mulberry Manor, next door to the club. After I had settled in, an officer of the Survey collected me and I was conducted to the offices of the Geodetic Branch, a short distance away. Here I met the Director whom I found to be a tubby little man and I realised immediately why he was not particularly keen on horses as a means of locomotion. He extended a friendly hand but seemed rather at a loss as to what to do with me. Eventually he handed me a book and said:
'This is a volume I've just written on tidal prediction.
I wonder if you would like to give me your opinion of it ?'
I had never heard of tidal prediction until that moment and was rather taken aback. I took the book and vaguely turned some of its pages. After some minutes I said something like 'very interesting' and, feeling distinctly foolish, handed it back. 'Boffin' (for this I learned later was his universal nickname) seemed to realise that our interview was not proceeding on the proper lines and said:
'I suppose you'd like to meet Mr. Wyatt, your instructor ?'
I said that this seemed a good idea and a chuprassie was despatched to summon him.
I found Mr. Wyatt to be a man constructed on similar lines to Boffin's, but with more suggestion of the open about him. He was what was then known rather disparagingly as a 'Class II Officer' but, to me, he seemed a nice enough chap. He had seen service in most parts of the Indian Empire (in addition to serving in the Great War) and there was little he didn't know about the practical business of surveying. He told me that I should first be doing a practise triangulation near Dehra Dun with the help of a fellow subaltern under training, Richard Gardiner by name. This would take about three weeks and then both Richard and I would spend a month or two learning to plane table under his guidance. This programme we shortly embarked upon.
There can be few occupations more agreeable than learning to survey in the country around Dehra Dun in the cold weather. The terrain is a most exciting and beautiful blend of Himalayan foothills (we would call them all mountains in Britain) and big game inhabited sal jungle. All the triangulation stations had been occupied and observed a hundred times by generations of officers under training and there was no danger of that complaint setting in which I may call 'Surveyor's blues', a severe form of panic which seizes the lonely novice, working in totally strange country, when he realises that he has not the faintest idea of what he ought to do next. Our days passed very pleasantly, I doing the observing and Richard, armed - unofficially - with a predecessor's results as a crib or, should one say, 'an independent check', was my recorder. After a not so exhausting day we would retire for the night to our camp or to one of the delightful forest bungalows in the area, often to spend a convivial evening with visitors from Dehra.
When we switched to our plane-tabling course under Mr. Wyatt life was still most enjoyable. We now moved camp to a pleasant spot amid the terraced fields which cover the lower slopes of the Himalayan foothills, not far from the hill station of Mussourie. Here we soon learned that plane-tabling, as practised in the Survey of India, was very different from what we had been taught as young officers at Chatham. The emphasis was on prudent selection of 'fixings'; vantage points whose positions could be readily determined by resection and from which as much detail ns possible could be sketched with the help of the sight-rule. The really skilful surveyor was the man who could get the detail right Brit time and did not have to erase it all when he checked it from another fixing. Needless to say, at first we found this very difficult but it was an absorbing occupation and we took an artist's pleasure in seeing the map grow in our hands.
We had been thus pleasantly engaged for about a week when Richard (who was always more alert to such matters than I) noticed that a fixing that he had made close to our camp had a height of 2980 ft. He had earlier made a study of our allowance regulations and he realised that, if our camp could be raised another 20 ft , we should qualify for the 'hills' rate of field allowance, which was 50 % better than the 'plains' rate. In next-to-no-time we had shifted our camp half-a-dozen fields up the terraced hill side and made our financial position much securer for the next few weeks.
Our days passed most enjoyably. We were troubled very little by inspections from more senior officers, largely because it involved the crossing of a deep ravine followed by an ascent of a thousand feet or so to reach our camp. But, one evening, a note arrived from an officer generally regarded - perhaps unfairly - as 'difficult', to say that he would inspect our efforts the next day and would we please leave a map marked with our workplace in our camp. We were both in excellent training, having spent the past month or so striding the hills, whereas we knew that our inspecting officer would have been chained to his desk in Headquarters. We chose as the place to be marked the most distant and elevated trig point in our area. Next morning we posted a khalasi as a sentry to warn us the moment the inspecting officer started his descent into the ravine, a good half hour away from our camp. When the signal came we had plenty of time for a final cup of breakfast coffee before legging it for our rendezvous, perhaps 1500 ft higher. When the officer arrived we were fully composed but he, poor chap, was so puffed he could barely speak for some twenty minutes. Nevertheless, the incident ended well. Vigorous (even if unexpected) morning exercise is very beneficial to the liver, an organ which often causes trouble to the sedentary and which, in this officer's case, had effects on the temper which were rather notorious. But, on this day, all was sweetness and light.
Eventually our delightful training course drew near its' end and our thoughts shifted to our future posting. Richard already had some Himalayan experience, was a keen supporter of the Himalayan Club and knew a number of the right people. Largely as the result of his lobbying, it was decreed that we should start the two years of practical work, which succeeded training, with the party then engaged on Himalayan Survey, No. 1 Party with H.Q. at Mussoorie. The Officer-in-charge of this was Major Gordon Osmaston, an experienced mountaineer, well known for his survey of the Nanda Devi Basin with Eric Shipton a year earlier. All our plane-tabling had hitherto been at the two-inch scale, but our coming work would be for the half-inch map of the mountainous area of Garhwal. We did a crash course at the smaller scale during the next ten days and at the end we were deemed ready to launch ourselves onto the mountains proper.
A week or two was spent collecting and packing suitable food, clothing and equipment and we were ready to start. Our equipment was, by modern Himalayan standards very meagre. Richard, an old hand, had managed to provide himself with proper climbing gear and wind proof clothing but I had to make do with an Alpine ice axe and bazaar copies of the other items.
On 29 March 1937, after a day spent in feverish packing and re-packing, we were ready. At 9.21 that evening we boarded the night train for Bareilly complete with a small mountain of rations and other gear. At Bareilly we changed in the small hours and boarded the Rohilkand & Kumaon Railways metre gauge train for Kathgodam which we reached at 10.30 next morning. Here we engaged a taxi for ourselves and a lorry for our gear, all for the princely sum of Rs. 45/- (roughly £1.75), and set off on the 45 mile journey to the hill station of Ranikhet, which we reached in time for a late lunch at the dak bungalow (Posting House). Here we were met by the four, square, grinning Sherpa porters who had been engaged to accompany us. Richard's were named 'Pansy' - he sported a magnificent pigtail and had another name nobody knew - and Ajiber; mine were Gyalgen and Injung.* All these men were experienced mountaineers who had been on Everest or with other Himalayan expeditions and they had the traditional tough physique and cheerful disposition that are associated with Sherpas. Actually my pair (as they hastened to inform me) were not Sherpas from Nepal but Bhotias, that is Tibetans, whose homes were many marches inside that country. Injung had previously been a monk in a monastery near Lhasa but he told me that he didn't like the life, in particular the endless sermons which always sent him to sleep. So he ran away and became a porter with a French expedition.
In Ranikhet we met Mrs. Brown, the doyen of all expeditions passing through, who knew many famous mountaineers from Dr Longstaff onwards. She and her husband (who was Secretary of the Club) gave us a very good dinner, the last civilised meal we were to have for over three months. We spent a few days doing odd jobs and getting medically examined and then, on 3 April 1937, we set out on the next stage of our trip, the journey to our base at Joshimath. We had engaged additional coolies for this, Dotials, who are renowned for their load carrying abilities. These men, plus our Sherpas, plus our gear, plus ourselves made a very full load for the bus, which duly arrived shortly after six a.m. to take us to Garur. From there onwards it was all walking; but walking through some of the most magnificent scenery that can be imagined. We looked forward to it with the greatest relish.
Our first stop was the Forest Rest House at Gwaldam, which was reached after a tiring march of ten miles, including a climb of some 2000 ft. The rest house (like most forest rest houses) was superbly situated and I noted in my diary: 'A good place for honeymoon’. But, beautiful though it was, the rest house was devoid of food, fuel or other home comforts, and its charms had begun to fade for us by the time, some two hours later, that the rest of the party caught up with us. It was then eight o'clock and, having had no food since dawn, we gave a very genuine welcome to the two bottles of beer and tins of soup which Pansy unearthed for us from the pile of baggage.
The more conventional spellings would be Ajeeba, Gylze and Angchuk.-Ed.
We awoke next day in pouring rain but, turning a deaf ear to' the protests of the Dotials, we set forth. For the next week our days followed a pattern which became familiar: arising at dawn, we marched fifteen to twenty miles before halting for the night, either at a dak bungalow or else at a campsite beside the roaring river. We had contemplated taking a shorter route over the Kuari Pass, but I developed a bad tummy, which, with our doubts as to whether the pass would be open, decided us in favour of the lower, easier route beside the Alaknanda river, which the pilgrims to Badrinath used. The annual pilgrimage had started and so we didn't lack company on the march. There were rich families whose fat bodies weighed down the skinny ponies on which they mounted or bulged out of the dandis in which their sweating coolies carried them along the steep pilgrim way. There were the much more numerous old men and women who were spending their life savings on a journey to the source of the Holy Ganga in the hope that, as a result, they might have a more affluent existence next time round. Some of these were so old and frail that they had to be carried in a small chair on a coolie's back. One hoped that the men who carried these poor people would not (as it was rumoured sometimes happened) succumb to the temptation to pitch their burdens down the thousand foot drop to the river below, having first relieved them of their life savings.
Eventually we reached Joshimath and met some other members of our party and also the local doctor, who took advantage of our presence to air his rather imperfect English. He told us 'You get every bloody disease in Joshimath; there is every kind of adultery in the water'. He also informed us that the officer in charge of operations in the previous year had unfortunately died because 'someone came over him'. We stayed in Joshimath for six days, plotting our planetables, sorting our stores into coolie loads and generally making preparations for the final stages of our journey and the moment when we actually started to map. We paid off the Dotials who departed with broad smiles and many expressions of gratitude, and in their place engaged our high altitude men, local Garhwalis whose slight build belied their tough physique and staunchness, as we were to discover in due course. Their names were all something Singh and, curiously, they were all Brahmins, but not in the least fussy about caste. With these men, Richard's and my full squads numbered eleven men each: 3 Garhwali khalasis of the Survey of India, 2 Sherpas and 6 Garhwali coolies.
On 16 April we set out once more with our altered squads. One member that I have not so far mentioned was my pup, Shankar. I had acquired this small pi-dog just before I left Kirkee, in the local bazaar where it had been abandoned. I had had doubts about how this tropical-born animal would stand up to the rigours of the Himalaya and we provided it with a warm coat and a blanket to use at night. So far all had been well and 'Pop' (as my men all called him) was thoroughly enjoying the trip. Our destination this time was Niti, a village on the Tibetan border, where we were to join Fazal Ellahi, a very experienced Himalayan surveyor, who was to demonstrate mountain surveying to us before we went off on our own. Our route lay along the valley of the Dhauli river which joins the Alaknanda at Joshimath and is, in fact, the major stream. The path was similar to that we had previously traversed, but steeper and more precipitous. Our way lay between giant walls of rock which towered above us, and every few miles the path had fallen away or was obliterated by landslides. Now and then the valley would open out sufficiently to allow snow-covered peaks to be seen, among them such giants as Dunagiri, Nanda Devi and Trisul and we realised that we were at last among the mighty mountains. No pilgrims now for they had all taken the Alaknanda route; in fact hardly anybody at all because such villages as there are in this area are evacuated during the winter and their inhabitants had not yet returned. Our route climbed steadily and, as we progressed, we noticed an increasing tendency to headaches; also the air got much colder so that one's morning wash in the icy river was very uncomfortable. Occasionally there was heavy rain but, mostly, the weather was sunny and delightful.
After six days marching, we reached Niti and eventually found Fazal Ellahi on his way to work nearby. We joined him and had our first taste of planetabling in this mountainous territory. We had to climb to a 'h.s.' (hill triangulation station) with a height of nearly 14,000 ft from the track at about 12,000 ft. It looked an easy enough climb; but it was not long before the steepness of the slope, with its covering of snow frozen hard, brought us to halt. We despatched Pansy to fetch a rope and eventually reached the h.s. without mishap. We watched with admiration as Fazal Ellahi continued his work until he was stopped by falling snow at about two o'clock. We then started for home; the snow had by now become very soft and we sank in it up to the waist at every step. Eventually we arrived at our camp at Niti at about five o’clock quite exhausted, to be welcomed rapturously by my pup. We stayed in the area of Niti for a week during which a great deal of snow fell. We remained with Fazal Ellahi and did our best to learn from him. Shankar, at first, was a considerable nuisance owing to his determination to accompany us, no matter how difficult the going. Twice we tried shutting him up in a tent as we moved off; and twice we heard a heart-rending wail and espied a small black dot amid the waste of snow and ice which turned out to be Shankar pursuing us at top speed. Then we gave up. One night there was a blizzard which filled the tent with snow; all my goods and chattels were inches deep and there was only a slight bump to indicate the presence of a dog. I feared he must be dead, because I did not see how a pi-dog from the Deccan could survive a night of being buried under inches of snow at a temperature well below freezing. However, when I called, there was a slight movement and the snow parted slightly to reveal a bright canine eye and then a complete dog who, after a good shake, clearly had nothing wrong with him. But the tent was no longer habitable, so we decided to move into an empty house in Niti, of which there were a number to be had because none of the inhabitants had yet returned. Standards of honesty were evidently high in this area: hardly any of the houses were locked up and we were able to take our pick. Not that this meant great luxury: the houses in Niti were all primitive by western standards and lacked any provision for the escape of smoke. The atmosphere indoors soon became thick and our eyes smarted fiercely as the fumes found their way between the blackened wood tiles of the roof. But at least we were warm and sheltered from the snow. Work being impossible, we amused ourselves by making giant snowballs and rolling them down into the river. We were snowballing happily, when I realised that Shankar was in the direct path of one monster. I flung myself at it and tried to arrest its progress, but all that happened was that I became part of the snowball myself. I completed one revolution and then it shattered into pieces. The pup was safe but my dignity was shattered also and my watch smashed. As Richard’s was the only other-timepiece, this meant that, from then on, I had to estimate the hour from the shadow of my pencil, held vertically on my plane-table.
These events protracted our stay in Niti unduly with little to show. We decided that it would be better to move to Richard's area in the next-door valley of the Banke glacier where Fazal Ellahi would be able to demonstrate to us the surveying of those features which are peculiar to high, glaciated areas: crevasses, icefalls, bergschrunds and the rest. We left Niti on 27 April and reached Richard's area next day. Fazal Ellahi started work and it was comforting, yet daunting, to see that even he had great trouble in making a fixing. We spent a day working with him and then another toiling up the glacier to get a better view of the high altitude features. Three days later, still feeling I knew precious little about planetabling, I left, with my squad, for the village of Malari, the base for my area, which stands near the confluence of the Dhauli and Girthi rivers.
I started work at a h.s. called Sathdunga and, for the next few days, made little progress, experiencing for the first time the full effects of 'surveyors blues'. Nothing seemed to be where it ought to be and the scale of the country was so vast that definable detail seemed to be almost totally absent. The trig points were few and far between and, being derived from reconnaissance triangulation of the 1850's, not entirely reliable. Moreover my squad also was new to the job and, except for the Sherpas, unversed in mountaineering. So progress was frustratingly slow and, although I much enjoyed myself (and incidentally learnt a number of useful things such as that wild rhubarb was abundant and delicious and that nettles and other plentiful plants made excellent veg) I had little actual mapping to show for my week's work when my OC, Gordon Osmaston, arrived to inspect me. Seeing my difficulties, he robustly told me that my troubles were due to my not getting high enough and arranged for Rinsing, one of his Sherpas (the other was Tensing, later of Everest fame) to pitch a light camp above 16,000 ft on the Chubag glacier, which fed into the Girthi on the north side; that is on the side opposite to Siruanch Gal, the main glacier in my area. We worked our way up to this camp with some difficulty owing to persistent snow. During the night, strange sounds coming from Gordon's tent indicated that all was not well and, next morning, it was obvious that he was suffering from some stomach complaint and we decided that he should go back to base, with Tensing to accompany him. Alone once more I struggled to continue work on the Chubag glacier for a few days before deciding, with Gordon's agreement when I passed through his camp, to switch my efforts to the main glacier until the weather was more favourable. This meant crossing the Girthi. A rather precipitous descent took us to the bottom of its gorge, where we made camp and next morning crossed by an enormous snow bridge. After a hard climb we emerged by some ruined huts on a pleasant grassy alp near a large herd of bharal. We spent a few days in these agreeable surroundings and suddenly planetabling didn't seem so bad after all. Apart from the sunshine and spring flowers, the valley was much wider and one could at last see what one was doing. After this pleasant interlude, I continued working along the western side of the valley of the main glacier for a few days. The going was precipitous and resulted in a tragedy. The Pup slipped on some ice-covered rock and disappeared over a precipice. We never found him again.
The loss of my small companion made me very sad, but there was nothing to be done about it; and I had to admit that the Pup had complicated life. I continued to work my way up the glacier, in the process learning something of the ways of man and of Nature in this strange environment. It was all too much for some of my squad, of whom three presently announced that they would go no further. I said that, in that case they had better leave, which they forthwith proceeded to do. Luckily I had an excellent man at my dump, an ex-soldier of The Royal Garhwal Rifles by name Gopal Singh, who appealed successfully to their better nature so that the deserters returned, all smiles, next day. For good measure they gave me a Hindu blessing, imprinting a tika on my forehead. This may have had the desired effect: for, next day, a gigantic ice-avalanche roared down to the glacier, obliterating the tracks which our party had just made along the lateral moraine. Some of the lumps of ice that came down were about the size of a house and it was awesome to watch these colossal pieces being tossed like a child's bricks right across the main glacier. Another interesting (though less alarming) experience was to see the chukor, or Himalayan black partridge, unable to take off from the ground owing to the rare atmosphere. They could land but, to get airborne again, they would first have to leg it downhill until they found air which was dense enough. A better known phenomenon of the mountains is the difficulty of cooking owing to the lowered boiling point of water. In the absence of pressure cookers (our equipment was very basic) it often took several hours to cook our dal (lentils) and rice causing much frustration. This nearly led to a serious accident when Ingung, one of my Sherpas, devised his own pressure cooker for heating my midday Oxo, using a golden syrup tin with the lid rammed well home. One day, of course, the contraption exploded with an alarming report and showered poor Ingung with its scalding contents. Luckily he-suffered no permanent damage.
Since the start of our trip, I had cherished the rather childish ambition of standing on the top of at least one peak of more than 20,000 ft. As my work progressed, I noted one such that appeared to be climbable and I determined to tackle it. We established our base camp on a tributary glacier at just above 17,000 ft and, at dawn next morning, set out on our climb. The party consisted of myself, the two Sherpas and three local men. At first the climbing was over broken rock and quite simple; but presently this changed to interminable step cutting up a dome of ice which we thought led to the summit. But, alas, when we surmounted this we found we were separated from our goal by a very dangerous-looking corniced ridge with sides of a sickening steepness. Left to myself, I should probably have called it a day; but my Sherpas laughed at the idea. Roped together we stepped boldly out on to the vertiginous snow slope below the cornice. To my surprise, I felt quite safe: the compacted snow provided a firm foothold and progress was simple provided one didn't look down! Some fifty yards of this and we had reached the rocky summit: my first 20,000 ft peak! I set up my planetable and quickly worked out our height: 19,668 ft!
The disappointment of us all was exacerbated by pangs of mountain sickness which, to an increasing degree, was affecting most of the party, including myself. With aching head, I finished my planetabling, becoming dimly conscious the while of an anxious murmur emanating from the direction of my squad. When I eventually stopped work and announced that it was time to decend, the reason for this anxiety became apparent. While I had been working, the burning sun had got to the snow and ice of our ascent route, turning its easy surface into a impassable mixture of slush and treacherous ice with the threat of an avalanche at any moment. A new way had to be found down the precipitous flank of the mountain, using a route that had remained in the shade. We had not enough rope to allow us all to be securely roped up us we traversed difficult stretches and we had to proceed by using two men as anchors while the others gripped the rope between thorn as a handrail. My heart was in my mouth several times; notably when one mountain-sick man allowed the rope to slip from his grasp and started to slither sideways down the rock face. Luckily, as he fell, the rope caught in his armpit and we were able to haul him to safety. After about two hours of this frightening ducat, we reached easier ground and made our camp without further difficulty. We were all thankful to be alive and I atleast, felt I had learnt a little about mountains!
Next day we counted the casualties: one Sherpa, Gyalgen, was j mow-blind and one man had frost-bitten feet. To add to our troubles, next night there was a howling blizzard which almost blew our tents away; and on the day following I fell into a crevasse, fortunately with no worse result than a considerable shock - and a salutary lesson on the folly of walking unroped on glaciers, however innocent-looking; a lesson which was reinforced next day hen we learnt that a surveyor had fallen down a crevasse on the Kosi glacier and been killed.
In a few days we reached the upper end of the main glacier and climbed to the col at its head. We now stood on the main watershed of the Himalaya, the roof of the World. The height was just under 19,000ft and the view stupendous: gigantic peaks rose on every side and in the distance were discernible, to the north, the brown Tibetan plateau and to the south, the plains of India. It was an awe-inspiring place, with an enormous wind-blown cornice overhanging the cliff below us. We were quite alone except for the choughs playing in the strong up-draught at top of the cliff. We watched with rapt admiration the amazing aerobatics of these birds, whose zest for enjoying themselves, it seems, it seems, is never diminished, no matter how high the mountain or how cold and thin the air.
I still had that rather unworthy ambition to climb a 20,000 ft peak and had my eye on a handsome specimen (named, as I found out later, Uja Tirche or 'High Mountain'), whose height of 20,350 ft had been fixed by triangulation and could not be in serious doubt. I determined to attempt it and a few days later, established a light! camp at its base. Next morning we set off before sunrise; it was a bitterly cold but, mercifully, windless day and we made good progress over steep but easy rock. Then came an ice-ridge up which we had to cut steps, a wearisome business taking us over two hours; and finally the summit, which proved to be so narrow that we could only just squeeze our party of five, all still roped up, on to it. There was no room to set up a planetable and, moreover, we were enveloped in thick cloud. Work was out of the question and so we descended cautiously until the ice-ridge gave place to a rocky shoulder bathed in warm sunshine. In this delectable spot I set up my planetable and worked for an hour or so while my squad lay down and had a well-deserved sleep. We all felt satisfaction in having broken the 20,000 ft barrier.
With these excitements, my work in the valley of the main glacier was nearly finished. We spent a few days filling up gaps and gathering names from a local man before leaving for our base camp at Malari. The final day was strenuous: from our camp at about 12,000 ft, we climbed to a fixing at 16,039 ft, slid down to a valley at 13,500 ft, climbed to a pass at about 16,000 ft and finally had what my diary describes as 'a very tiring toil down to Malari at 10,000 ft.' The coolies and with them my food boxes, had failed to arrive; and so it is not surprising that my diary records that I lost my temper. Luckily the resourceful Gopal Singh was able to scrounge 'a meal of fried alu (potato) & rice pudding & tea'; so the day finished happily.
At Malari I made arrangements to evacuate my base and then started work again on the Chubag valley which I had to abandon earlier in the season. It was much easier now; the weather was warmer, the snow was less deep, we had no problems of sickness and, most of all, we had all learnt a lot. We had to get to the other side of the Girthi river but could not use our earlier route because, by now, the snow-bridge would have melted. We therefore crossed by the bridge at Kurkuti and headed for our camp below Mucham on the right bank of the Chubag river. We worked on up the valley until we reached the head of the Chubag glacier. Although warmer than it had been in April, it was still very cold, especially in the wind which was often of gale force. On the occasion my ‘Height Card', an important piece of equipment, blew away to lodge in crevice in the cliff a few hundred feet below me: it was only retrieved with some difficulty - and danger. The 1er-rain was much more eroded and complex than that of the main glacier and this made it more difficult for planetabling. Nevertheless, we made good progress with the upper end of the valley and planned to cross a pass over a ridge called Lala Baisani to get to the Barramattia (Barmatia) area; which was all that remained to be surveyed. But, alas, we found the pass impracticable and decided to descend about 4000 ft and follow a goat track running along the 13,000 ft contour. This seemed a most promising route until we suddenly found ourselves standing on the top of a cliff and gazing out upon an astonishing complex of steep ravines that stretched ahead for a mile or more. There was nothing for it but to descend to the Girthi, whether we camped in an enormous water-worn cave in the cliff beside the river. The floor of this was covered with the droppings of bats, goats and sheep which must have accumulated for thousands of years. The smell of this, together with the heat which, at this low altitude of about 10,000 ft, was considerable in mid-June, and the incessant roaring of the swollen river, made sleep very difficult. Our route successfully bypassed the complex of ravines; but at a cost of several thousands of feet of height lost. We set out to regain these next morning, climbing about six and a half thousand feet to a fixing at about 16,500 ft. The coolies performed nobly, obeying my injunction to pitch camp above the snow-line and achieving a 5000 ft carry in the process. It had been a hot and exhausting day, during which I had slaked my thirst very effectively by chewing wild rhubarb, of which there was plenty about.
The next morning I finished off my area by surveying the boulder strewn slope of Barramattia. I noticed that my final fixing, when plotted, was close to an intersected point of the 19th century triangulation called 'Barramattia Hill Pole' which I had never managed to identify. I laid my sight rule on the plotted position and, sure enough, a few hundred yards along the line, I came upon a collapsed cairn with a weather-beaten pole lying beside it. This was a satisfactory note upon which to complete my work, providing a very independent check upon it and confirming that the surveyors of eighty years before, men like Godwin-Austen, really did know their stuff.
We raced down the scree to our camp a few thousand feet lower. This is always great fun; though it becomes a bit hair-raising as the small scree becomes large boulders near the bottom. We made preparations to leave next day and, at dawn, set out to join Richard Gardiner who had yet to finish his area. We had earlier agreed by letter that, together, we would attempt to leave by crossing the pass at the head of the Banke glacier, dubbed by Richard the Zaskar Pass but later officially named Gupt Khal. The existence of this pass, which linked the Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys, had been suspected by Dr Longstaff in 1907 but Smythe, on his 1931 expedition to climb Kamet, had found no sign of it. Our survey offered a fine opportunity to settle this question.
We set off on 21 June and reached Gamsali that afternoon. The populace was much more in evidence than it had been when we last passed through; and our passage excited a lot of interest. A venerable Tibetan stopped us to talk and we gave him some medicine, type unspecified. This attracted a fine looking old shepherd who introduced us to his family, apparently consisting of 3 wives and about 40 children, all of whom had to be given medicine. Finally our Camp Officer, Mr. Kohli, and his squad turned up. This was the signal for a celebration which took the shape of sports for our combined squads and the entire village school. We gave cigarettes as prizes and finished up with a photograph of all present.
Next morning we set forth to look for Richard. We walked up the right bank of the Amrit Ganga, the river that rose at the snout of the Banke glacier. We eventually spotted him striding down the opposite bank and retreated to a place where we could cross by a rock bridge. We spent that night in Richard's camp on the left bank: our numbers had been increased by two sheep which my men had acquired at Gamsali to supplement the rations. Next day we all marched up to Richard's base camp at Thur Udiar, a march which entailed the fording of a fast-flowing, quite deep and very cold stream. We got our coolies over somehow with the aid of a rope and also dragged our unfortunate sheep across through the freezing water. That evening we rewarded them for their pains by eating them. But the sheep got the last word, as their meat was tough and evil-tasting: it gave such tummy trouble to the men next day that our progress was threatened.
For the next few days Richard continued his work while I and my squad explored. We moved camp up to about 19,000 ft and I went on to reconnoitre a 21,500 ft peak which Richard and I had agreed to climb a day or two later. I saw that it was very easy - nothing more than a steep walk over snow - but I resisted the temptation to climb it and rejoined Richard in camp. There was a violent snow storm that night which put paid to all possibilities of mountain climbing and, moreover, I was again suffering altitude sickness; so we decided to descend to a camp at 16,000 ft and make our preparations for crossing the pass. We pitched our final camp at 17,700 ft on the last day of June and, next day, set forth along the main glacier. We had to abandon some of our stores but, even so, some of the coolies found the going, in soft snow at 18,000 ft, too much for them. Richard had had to go ahead to reconnoitre the route; and I soon realised that I would have to form a stragglers rear party if casualties - fatalities possibly - were to be avoided. Accordingly my Sherpas, Gyalgen and Ingung and I held back and took the loads of those who were close to collapse. It was slow and weary work staggering along under an increasingly heavy load, doing what one could to encourage coolies whose morale was collapsing with every step. Gajay Singh, who had nearly killed himself once before by slipping on the way down our 19,668 ft peak, was in a bad way: with each painful step he uttered the Hindu imprecation Hey Ram, the mournful repetition of which I found depressing. At one point I saw a coolie disappear up to his armpits through the snow: he was about to fall into a deep crevasse which the lead party (which had all the rope) had failed to mark. We managed to rescue him and eventually got all the stragglers to the foot of the final ascent to the pass. Gyalgen came galloping back to relieve me of my enormous load and I quickly climbed the last 500 ft to the fool. We all seemed to be in reasonably good shape; but I felt some concern for Gajay Singh and gave him a swig of brandy to pull him round. The effect was remarkable: he changed from an inert lump of total exhaustion into a hyper-active stage drunk, swearing eternal devotion to myself, no matter where I went or how high I climbed. He floated down the pass on the far side, arms and legs out of control (we dared not give him a load to carry), with carols of happiness issuing from his lips.
The descent was straightforward until we found our way barred by a precipice. We decided to camp and tackle this next day. We spent an uncomfortable night: we had had to jettison all our fire-Wood and kerosene and, still above the snow-line, could not gather any wood; so we had no effective way of keeping warm or of cooking. Eventually we dossed down in such tents as had not been Jettisoned and did our best to sleep. The noises coming from the coolies' tent indicated that exhaustion and, I suspect, the after effects of tough mutton were taking their toll. There was a snowstorm that night; but by morning everything was much better. We continued down the glacier, after lowering the loads down the precipice by rope. We selected a beautiful grassy site for our camp and Richard and I went on to reconnoitre while the tents were pitched. We had to cross the Saraswati river to gain the track to Badrinath and we saw that this could be done by a rock bridge or by a snow bridge which had survived the spring. Next morning we set out fur the rock bridge but decided that this involved climbing which was too difficult; so we crossed by the snow-bridge which, happily, did not collapse. It was then plain sailing to Badrinath. We spent some time admiring the astonishing gorge below Mana, cut by the Saraswati in the smooth face of an ancient waterfall. One can hear, but not see, the river which enters the canyon a hundred yards or more upstream: the cleft, caused, it seems, by an earth-quake in ancient times, is nowhere more than a yard or so in width and here and there, great boulders have become lodged between its sides. One peers down into blackness relieved only by the occasional shaft of light which catches the birds as they flit about in the cavern and illuminates in a magical way the great stands of maidenhair and other ferns which decorate the rockface. All the while the roar of the river far below drowns other sound and its spray envelops everything in soft mist.
We stayed a night in the dak bungalow at Badrinath but did not think much of the charms of this holy village, especially at the height of the pilgrim season. Next day we got to Joshimath once more, completing our circuit of the Dhauli and Alaknanda - Saraswati systems: the first people (as far as I know) to do so. Once again we were thwarted in our intention to cross the Kuari Pass on our return to Gwaldam because the mule contractor would not consent to his animals being used on this route. So our trip was a rerun in reverse, of our outward journey, with the difference that it was now the height of the pilgrim season and, moreover, the monsoon was starting. Neither of these factors made for comfort; but we did experience some impressive thunderstorms and J saw an amazing collection of insects attracted by the light of my Petromax. Luckily, it was a fine day when we reached Gwaldam and we were able to stroll in the garden of the forest bungalow. Richard inspected the sundial, comparing it with his watch (which he swore was infallible) and noted with a snort or disapproval, that the former was three quarters of an hour fast; he seized the stone on which the dial was inscribed and yanked it round until the shadow was where his watch said it should be. We got to Ranikhet next day where an invitation to dinner from the Browns awaited us. We had time to shave off our beards and tidy up before getting a tonga and driving round. We found that our hosts had finished dinner and were going to bed. We had been invited for 8.45 but their clock showed nearly 10. Alas! Richard's infallible watch had let us down!
The Browns were forgiving and gave us a good dinner; our first for three months. They were most interested in our adventures; and conversation continued late. Next morning we started home the way we had come; by bus and train. We parted sadly with our Sherpas at Kathgodam and got to Dehra Dun after a night in the train. After that it was work as usual. Both Richard and I felt sure that there could be no better job than the Survey of India and that our manner of introduction to it could not have been improved Upon.
Mesuring K2 at Concordia. Gasherbrum IV in background. (Ardito Desio)