GORDON OSMASTON, a founder member of the Himalayan Club and formerly a director of the Survey of India, died after a brief illness on 31 October 1990 aged 92. Only one year after Tilman and Shipton had discovered the route into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, Gordon returned with Shipton to survey it, taking a young and unknown Sherpa, Tenzing. Subsequently they went on many expeditions together and Gordon had a great influence on Tenzing during those formative years which were later to take him to the summit of Everest.
Gordon was born at Chakrata, India, on 26 September 1898, the third son of B. B. Osmaston, later Chief Conservator of Forests in the Central Provinces and President of the Forest Research Institute, a well known shikari and ornithologist, who shot a notorious maneating tiger within a few weeks of his arrival in India.1,2. Gordon went to St. George's School, Harpenden, a coeducational prep school (a novel idea then but perhaps Influential in developing the ease with which he got on with all sorts of people), and then to Cheltenham College. At 18 he was commissioned Into the Royal Engineers, winning the M.C. on active service in France before he was 20, for laying and maintaining signal wires under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire with a complete disregard for his personal safety3 (an attitude which also coloured many of his later adventures).
Posted to India in 1919 he was involved for two years with the 3rd Sappers and Miners in fighting in Waziristan on the NW Frontier, but then transferred to the Survey of India which was staffed by the Sappers. After plane-table training in India he was sent back to Cambridge and Woolwich for advanced survey courses, and while at the former joined the University Mountaineering Club and accomplished the classic route up Ihe outside wall of King's College Chapel. This illegal climb had to be done under cover of darkness as it was said that the College porter was In the habit of taking pot-shots at climbers.
The Survey of India team that mapped the Almora region (Garhwal) in 1936-1937 under Gordon Osmaston (left kneeling). Surveyor Fazal Bahi is second from right (sitting).
Heaton Cooper, the mountaineer-artist (who Is still alive), introduced Gordon and his future wife, June Archer, to rock-climbing in the Lake District. June came from a wellknown local family and all three had been accustomed from childhood to scrambling up rocks, but none had done any formal climbing. Heaton wrote:4
I had heard of Gimmer Crag in Langdale from Jonathan Stables, a pioneer of routes there. I borrowed forty feet of cart-rope from a farmer and eventually we found the crag. An easy line, Ash Tree Ledge, ran diagonally half-way up, so we took it as far as it went, some 150 ft above the base, then started climbing from there. I was leading but came to an overhang which I failed to negotiate so I returned to the 'pulpit' where my friends were waiting. Gordon then had a try with the same result but he couldn't get down. June sat on my legs while I hung out over space and fielded Gordon on to the pulpit as he jumped. Years later we learned that this route was not climbed till 1948, named Kipling Groove and rated as Very Severe. We did actually achieve a climb on Gimmer, Chimney Buttress, first climbed in the same year and rated as Severe. Needless to say this was just about the worst way to start rock climbing.
Back in India Gordon's first assignment was a geophysical traverse under Glennie, across the Himalaya from the Vale of Kashmir to the Deosai Plains. Next he was posted to Burma (then still part of the Indian Empire) to complete a Principal Triangulation Line across the Pegu Yomas Hills north of Rangoon, using an antique 12-inch theodolite which required six coolies to carry it. The hills were covered with dense jungle, so transport was mainly by elephant along Karen paths or river-beds. Observations often had to be made from a 60 ft high scaffolding tower and once from the top of a 100 ft pagoda where Gordon remained for two days to complete his observations, thus avoiding argument with the disapproving monks below.
A return to the barren mountains of Waziristan provided a sharp contrast. Nominally the district was now at peace but much of it was unadministered and Gordon, who could not always be bothered to await an armed escort, had several encounters with threatening groups of armed tribesmen, from which he managed to extricate his party by a mixture of tact and aplomb. Back in forest country again in Assam, he found the Khasis delightful people, willing workers and expert bowmen. One night in camp he was woken by the sound of heavy, thudding footfalls, and only just had time to crawl out of the back of his tent as it was whisked into the air by a huge wild tusker. It charged straight on and over the cooks' tent, but luckily the only injury to the four occupants was one broken collarbone, Gordon's two tame elephants went off with the tusker but were recovered next day and fifteen months later one gave birth to a calf.
Eric Shipton with Ang Tharkay and another Sherpa at the snout of north Nanda Devi glacier.
His next job was to run a line of Principal Triangulation from Assam right through the Naga Hills into Burma. He wrote:5
As much of the country through which the Series would run was unadministered and inhabited by warlike Naga tribes, an armed escort was catisidered necessary. No local supplies could be relied on and coolies were the only possible form of transport in the steep forest-covered hills. Although the Nagas were known to be very warlike among themselves, on the whole they proved friendly and anxious to please, though intervillage warfare was only too evident and head hunting the common practice. Most of the villages were heavily stockaded and men travelled about in fully armed parties. In one area an armistice was specially arranged between two villages while our party was in the vicinity so as 'not to risk inconvenience'. Specially protected camps were built for us while in these parts, with a hedge of bamboo spikes all round. Each of our two main detachments had an escort of twentyfive riflemen besides six at each hill station.
On Christman Day we were approaching the highest station at 9,120 ft, camped near a stream in thick jungle. My small squad of Nagas were all Christians, and after dark I had them into my tent where we sang and played simple games including 'Snap dragon' with prunes in burning rum. We finished with a short prayer. We climbed up to the high station next day. The good weather had broken and snow lay on the ground; the bad weather persisted for ten days and the hilltop was enveloped with clouds almost without a break. Snow and wind completed a bleak situation, the temperature seldom rising above freezing point. My Nagas, living in bamboo shelters with very little clothing and only one blanket each, came through this trying time without a single complaint. Good weather enabled us to catch up on our programme and we arrived at the Chindwin River almost on schedule.
Later he worked in very different conditions with plane-tabling parties in the Sind Desert, the Rann of Kutch and Shillong, but the climax of his career as a working mountaineer was in the three years 1936-38 when he explored and mapped the Himalaya in Garhwal and Almora districts of the UP. Besides his as yet unpublished account of this period,5 Gordon has described some episodes of it,6-7 and Kenneth Mason has summarized it in Abode of Snow.8
However this was not his experience of high Himalayan survey as in 1932 he had taken a busman's holiday from his work in the plains to lead an expedition to 'Lhonak in Sikkim.9,10 He was accompanied by his cousin Camplyon (or Fitz) Osmaston (a forester and novice climber) and two friends J. Latimer and A. B. Stobart from Calcutta. Leaving Gangtok on 3 October, they walked up the Tista and Lachen valleys to the Lungnak la, about 17,000 ft., which they crossed in a few inches of snow, seeing the tracks of two snow leopards. From Tebru they forded the Zemu Chu and followed the Lambu valley westwards to a camp immediately north of Fluted Peak and with splendid views all round (11 October). After a day for rest and reconnaissance they moved to a good base camp, sheltered from the north and by the side of a lake a couple of miles to the southeast, at 16,500 ft From here they established an advanced camp at the head of the large glacier flowing northwards from the steep north face of the peak. They climbed a steep gully to the long steep-sided east ridge and then traversed along the crest of this over fairly easy rock with occasional snow patches, in an attempt to reach the summit (19,960 ft.). Unfortunately about 200 ft below the top they decided that it was too dangerous to cross a knife-edge of soft snow and so retreated. Gordon's observations showed later that the summit was less than 20,000 ft., not more as had previously been supposed.
Stobart, whose leave was up, and Latimer who was suffering from tender, black, bleeding gums returned to Calcutta. Gordon walked up steep scree to the Chorten Nyima la, whence he had a view into Tibet and fixed accurately the position of Sentinel Peak (first climbed by Kellas in 1910), confirming that it is in India and not in Tibet as had been shown on German maps. The two cousins with the remaining porters then crossed the Poden la (Kellas' 'Lhonak Pass', 19,500 ft.), with magnificent views of Kangchenjunga and Tent Peak (Kirat Chuli), to Green Lake. The ascent was over an easy glacier slope but in the latter part of the descent the glacier became so crevassed as it poured through the Zemu Gap that they were forced to go down a very steep and loose rocky gully to the side.
After passing the old German Kangchenjunga base camp they reached Yaktang, whence Camplyon, plagued with knee and tummy trouble, returned by their previous route, while Gordon himself, indefatigable, took a circuitous route by the Kishong la and Talung monastery. He had a difficult journey and the monastery, where he arrived after dark, he was suspected of being a dacoit so had a block of wood thrown on to his head. They arrived at Gangtok together after a pleasant though scarcely relaxing month's holiday and a memorable introduction to mountaineering for Camplyon.
Gordon's first duty assignment was the fixing of trig.points for the surveyors to work from in the area east of Gangotri, where in 150 sq.miles there was only one rather doubtful fixed point.
Harsil at 8,000 ft is delightfully situated in pinewoods by the river. As we sat in the orchard having breakfast under the blossoming fruit tree! it was hard to imagine more idyllic surroundings. Our initial task was to find two old survey stations from which to start the new work. Khargu station at 14,500 ft was two or three miles up the valley on a conspicuous snow shoulder and we decided to try this first. From a light camp on the snowline at 10,000 ft we climbed to where we supposed the old station to be, but had to dig through seven feet of snow before reaching rock and it was clear that we could not find the mark till a lot more snow had melted. The delights of glissading had been impressed on me by experts in the plains but details of how to do it were left largely to our imagination. I cannot easily forget my attempts at glissading during this descent. Blake and I competed as to who could fall down the snow slopes the quicker, never by any chance for more than a few yards on our feet. We had no idea on how to use our ice-axes.
However they were able to find two other stations and then to extend the triangulation eastwards to a barrier of high peaks stretching north and south of the main valley near Gangotri. Here they established a station on a peak at 19,100 ft but were unable to see beyond the barrier, so Gordon turned northwards and moved up to Gaumukh, 'the cow's mouth', where the river, already quite unfordable, gushes out of an ice-cave in the snout of the Gangotri glacier. After surveying points either side of the lower Gangotri glacier, he set up a base camp at Nandanban, a splendid site at its junction with the Chaturangi glacier, looking across many acres of grassland at the stupendous peak of Shivling. Continuing up the Gangotri glacier towards the Chaukhamba peaks at its head he camped in a hitherto unexplored area at 16,000 ft on the mainly snow-covered moraine and decided to try to establish a station on a 21,000 ft peak to the north. Six local coolies each carrying 20 1b took a high camp up steep rocks to 18,000 ft where Gordon and two khalasis built a small platform for their tent. Pressing on next morning, three promising routes ended in unclimbable cliffs, but finally they followed a steep and difficult gully to its top, a narrow ledge on the main arrete at 19,100 ft with a vertical step at each end and a thousand foot precipice on the far side. It was 5.30 p.m. and there was no hope of going further. They spent the night with little food in a precarious bivouac in falling snow, having only a soon-sodden sleeping bag for Gordon and its waterproof cover for the other two. Luckily the sun came out next morning and they were able to thaw out, make their observations, cut a mark on the rock and build a small cairn. Their descent was slow and difficult, and at one stage they were reduced to using a puttee as aid across a steep slab. Back at base camp, their computations showed that the Gangotri glacier had been marked four miles out of position on the existing map.
It was now the turn of the Chaturangi glacier ('four coloured' from its moraines of different rocks) and Gordon was able to establish higher and more satisfactory stations there, the highest at 20,980 ft involving a delicate traverse along a corniced ridge. Although this glacier had previously been traversed as a convenient route for crossing the main watershed, it too had been wrongly mapped. By now it was early June and surveying stopped for the monsoon.
In the previous year Shipton and Tilman had made their exciting discovery of a route along the precipitous sides of the Rishi gorge into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and its circle of peaks over 20,000 ft high, so Gordon persuaded Shipton to take him there to survey it in the autumn of 1936. One of the Sherpas in the party was a young man, Tenzing Bhutia (better known later as Tenzing Norgay), who accompanied Gordon on all his subsequent journeys. On the third day after leaving their base camp at Joshinath, they met the Anglo-American expedition who had been attempting Nanda Devi and learned that Odell and Tilman had reached the top. On the sixth day they reached the Ramani stream, beyond which the north side of the Rishi consists of impassable cliffs; here Longstaff had turned back in 1903.
Our way lay straight down to the Rishi river. At one point we had to climb down the trunk of a small tree which leant against a steep rock face; then across a huge rock which formed a natural bridge over the river. We camped under overhanging cliffs close to the water. A climb of 1500 ft. up steep slopes brought us to a rocky cliff about 50 ft high. This was climbed by a series of cracks and ledges rather like a moderate climb in the Lake District, but the loads [including a live sheep] had to be pulled up on ropes. The rest of the way lay along the steep slopes high on the south side of the valley.
Tenzing had been suffering from recurrent fever for several days and Gordon had to bring up the rear, helping him along and carrying his rucsac, but eventually they crossed the last ridge and found themselves really inside the sanctuary.
Next morning I went over to Tenzing's tent and took his temperature — it registered 108°F, and I told Shipton 'I am afraid Tenzing is dying!' Shipton examined the thermometer and the mercury ran right down to the end. There was a hole in it. We went back to Tenzing and found that he was feeling much better. What a relief!
Gordon established various stations around the basin at altitudes up In 19,000 ft and from one of them followed the climbers route with one Sherpa to well over 20,000 ft For filling in the detail he was using a phototheodolite, but unfortunately on his return most of the eighty or so photos proved to be slightly fogged at each end due to a crack in the camera, so that a proper overlap could not be established. However in the end a satisfactory map was produced, showing all the main features quite well.
In the spring of 1937 Gordon was again working in northern Garwhal based in joshimath, this time assisted by two young R.E. officers, Lieuts. Edge and Gardiner, and accompanied by Sherpas Tenzing and Rinzing. For two weeks he and Edge inspected the work of survey parties either side of the Dhauliganga river; the weather was bad with snow almost every day. At their highest camp at 15,700 ft Gordon himself had a very bad attack of fever and this time it was Tenzing who had to help him down. After a brief period of partial recuperation he was off again to inspect Gardiner's area, a glacier system quite wrongly shown on existing maps. They skirted up the side of a 2000 ft icefall to an upper snowfield where they camped at 16,800 ft, fixed stations at 17,850 ft and 20,082 ft, and to their surprise received a welcome batch of mail; a record altitude for the dak wallah ?
Leaving Gardiner, he went over the Bhyundar pass, making it 16,688 ft, only twelve feet different from Longstaff's original figure, and dropped by a difficult route into Smythe's Valley of Flowers, whence they descended to the Alaknanda Valley and Joshinath. Here he was met by the sad news that Mian Mohammed, one of his most experienced mountain surveyors, had fallen down a crevasse and his men had failed to recover him. This had occurred three days previously and it was three days journey to his area, so now there was no chance of recovering him.
Gordon's final field season in the Himalaya was the autumn of 1938, this time in Almora district, east of Nanda Devi and right up to the border with Tibet. Again Tenzing and Rinzing were with him. From Almora they marched to the Ramganga river, which they had to ford in groups of two or three holding hands, jumping up together and pushing forward every time they touched bottom. They crossed another pass to Mansiari and then followed the Gori ganga river, entering a spectacular gorge at Lingtam where a wonderful path had been cut along the cliffs, even through tunnels in places. Many flocks of sheep were coming down the path, each carrying two bags of salt slung over their backs. After a camp by the river where a dozen shepherds had their flocks and tents, they continued up the cliff path to Rilkot at 10,000 ft Eventually, a fortnight after leaving Almora, they reached Milam where his assistant Ross and his wife were camped in a hollow of the old moraine. Next day, his fortieth birthday, he visited the snout of the Milam glacier and found two of the marks put there thirty three years ago by geologists. The glacier had retreated 560 yards since that time. Next day he and Ross moved up the northern branch of the Gori ganga with his two Sherpas, six Dotial coolies and sheep carrying most of their rations. Leaving Ross to supervise his survey parties, Gordon continued over the Unta Dhura pass at 17,600 ft where he had a view of the stark red mountains to the north with amazingly distorted strata, then dropped down to Topidunga where surveyor Fazal Elahi was camped. He spent several days there instructing a young novice surveyor,* Dhawan, but anxious about Tenzing who had diarrhoea and fever.
Tenzing seemed slightly better so we started back for Milam. Tenzing was quite unable to carry anything, so I took his rucsac and stayed with him till we were over the Unta Dhura (sic) pass. How he got there I can't think. As soon as we reached camp he went to bed with fever. He had eaten hardly anything for the last three days. Next day I started by inspecting another surveyor while the camp moved on. Coming on alone I caught up Tenzing, very done up, only managing fifty yards and then a halt. I shepherded him along until finally he couldn't move any more. We were still about five miles from Milam so I packed him up in his sleeping bag and made him as comfortable as possible on a rocky shelf. I then lit a fire and heated some water as a hot drink. By lucky chance a lone stranger came past, by whom I sent an SOS to my camp at Milam. After a long wait, when it was getting dark, one of my survey khalasis appeared with a pony and its driver. Tenzing was rather unwilling to move but in the end, with some difficulty, we got him on to the pony and set off along the narrow path with a big drop on one side. In one place the pony stumbled, Tenzing fell off and I only just managed to prevent him falling over the edge. Obviously he was unsafe on the pony so we had to carry him. I started first with him on my back, but could do only about two hundred yards. However the pony man was very willing and carried him for about a mile till the path became safe for us to put Tenzing on the pony again. We reached camp at 10 p.m. We stayed at Milam next day and Tenzing seemed to be recovering. I have sometimes wondered who the lone stranger was, and how it was that he appeared to help us at this critical moment.
During the next few days Gordon visited survey parties working up the Milam glacier and its tributaries, sometimes having to find a way through huge icefalls. He then planned to cross the main watershed to the east of here into another river basin where other surveyors were working. After descending to Ralam to meet coolies with further food supplies, they headed up a valley leading eastwards and after crossing a first difficult col and a glacier they camped by a small frozen lake at 16,000 ft.
On the old map the pass we were aiming for was a doubtful one with question marks shown along the route, and we could not be at all sure of the way. It started to snow as soon as we had got the tents up. Minimum temperature 10°F. Next morning [19 Oct.] we started up what looked like a promising route, but eventually we were held up by a steep ice-fall. One local man was hit on the foot by a falling stone but just managed to hobble back to camp with us.
In the evening I asked the sherpas what they thought we should do. Rinzing made the stock answer, "Ap ke kushi Sahib" meaning "Whatever you think best, Sir". Tenzing produced a complete plan. First the local coolies would take the wounded man back home and bring back the extra rations we needed because of our delay. Meanwhile the four of us would remain and, in two separate parties, try to find the pass. Surely shades of Tenzing becoming a famous leader later. We carried out this plan and Tenzing and I found the pass. In the evening we went out in the dark and escorted in the ration carriers. At this time I had not had many proper meals for several days, except for breakfast cooked at 4 am on my petrol stove. In fact this stove had been cooking for all of us.
The route to the pass was too long for a single march and it started to snow about noon so that we finished our march up the glacier in a blizzard. On one side of our tents was a crevasse and on the other a steep wall of ice. The blizzard lasted till the evening, when I managed to brew some tea on my stove. The height of this camp was 17,800 ft and the temperature fell to -10°F, the coldest I had ever experienced.
The next morning the sun reached us at 9.15 and we got away soon after. It started snowing at 11.30 but we reached the pass by noon and started down the north side by easy slopes for a mile or two, but then got stuck at the top of a huge ice-fall. There seemed to be no way round it on either side. Rinzing and I went down a snow couloir for about three hundred feet but gave it up when we started small avalanches. It had been snowing hard all this time; the men had icicles hanging all over them and all were very cold, so we retreated to the top of the icefall and camped in eighteen inches of new snow. Anything put on the ground disappeared at once. The five local men were in the larger tent and the two sherpas with me in the other. Quite a squash as we had to lie across the tent and could not stretch out straight; also a space had to be left for cooking. I made tea for all on my stove and dished out some of my food.
The men were wonderfully cheerful considering the situation and meagre rations. There was only enough petrol left for breakfast but enough cold food for a day or two. Not a very bright outlook, but 1 thought a clear day would give us a chance of getting down. I didn't sleep much, packed next to Tenzing and cold from the snow. I prayed for good weather and guidance for next day. It stopped snowing during the night but it was still cloudy in the morning and no sun.
I made tea for all and then sent Rinzing and Tenzing out to find a way on, while the rest of us packed up the camp. After half-an-hour they came back saying they could find no way round the ice-fall.
So at 9.45 we settled to go straight down the ice-fall on two ropes: Tenzing and Rinzing in,front with one coolie; the other four coolies with me on a second rope coming along behind. As the two sherpas started across the flat snow at the top, a crack suddenly appeared in the snow slope fifty feet above and an avalanche of snow came down on them. Rinzing got out quickly but Tenzing was completely buried and we had to pull him out as quickly as we could.
This incident was not at all reassuring but we pushed on and by twisting in and out of many crevasses and using an ice-swept corridor, we eventually reached the bottom. Needless to say we were all very relieved, especially as during the whole descent we were overshadowed by towering ice seracs near the top, which might easily have broken away and fallen on us. The fact that there was no sun kept everything frozen tight; a real answer to prayer.
We were all pretty empty and the march down the glacier was hard going on the new snow which covered the boulders. Eventually we camped just beyond the snout of the glacier at 11,500 ft., so we had come down 5,500 ft during the day. The sherpas produced a good meal of dal and rice, my first proper supper for five days, and what a joy it was to be off the snow. The coolies had done splendidly, but two of them were suffering from snow-blindness; very painful for twenty-four hours, then well again.
For the next three weeks Gordon inspected survey parties in this valley but by 15 November they were closing down for the winter and he wanted to try to return by Trail's pass. However the weather was bad with daily snow and after reaching about 15,500 ft they were faced with a steep avalanche-prone gully full of fresh snow so they decided to retreat. Snow continued to fall as they returned down the main valley and all the villages were deserted for the winter. Gordon developed diarrhoea, could eat only arrowroot and had to hire a pony to carry him on one 16 mile march. By 30 November they were back in Ranikhet and next day he said good bye to his well-beloved Sherpas who had served him so well. Twenty years later, after Tenzing had climbed Everest, they met again in John Hunt's garden in England.
Gordon's accounts of these adventures throw an interesting light on both himself and Tenzing. Clearly they came to rely closely on each other's strengths and abilities. They both learned mountaineering the hard wny. on the job, gaining experience from their own mistakes and successes as Ihey went along; tackling routes that may not have led to many summits hill which involved long, difficult and often dangerous journeys across unknown mountains and glaciers. Dependent entirely on their own resources and on the confidence and trust which they inspired in their men, they had no helicopter to be called up by radio to extract them from awkward predicaments; no special high altitude rations, no special clothing or boots, no anti-blotics and no effective anti-malarial drugs.
After serving in Iraq during the 1939-45 war, and in Delhi before and after Partition, Gordon retired in 1948 to the Lake District in England and started a fresh career as a schoolmaster, teaching maths and geography at Huyton Hill School by Lake Windermere, till his second retirement at the still active age of 72. This termtime job and a family to rear as well were not enough for him and June, so for thirteen years they also turned their house into a holiday home for children whose parents were working abroad, sometimes having as many as fourteen at once. I have often seen a photo of their house with children leaning out of every window and sitting all over the roof. With them they shared not only the skills, pleasures and disciplines of rock-climbing, fell-walking, sailing and other outdoor activities but also the ideals of Christian life. They themselves had been brought up in a staunchly Christian tradition, but in 1934 they were deeply influenced by their contact with the Oxford Group movement (later Moral Rearmament) which fundamentally renewed their faith. Partly as a consequence of this, Gordon tempered his high degree of professional competence and military efficiency with an exceptional generosity, unselfishness and modesty, which .endeared him to all he met. Indeed the Grasmere rector in his funeral oration described him as soldier, surveyor, schoolmaster and saint. Gordon was one of my godfathers and I could not have had a better one. He was for many years churchwarden at Grasmere, where (as an engineer) he had the weekly task of winding up the massive weights of the church clock in the tower. One day he was doing this when the wire broke and the weight crashed through the floor beside him.
In the family newsletter Koi Hai which he started and edited for many years, Gordon, by then 88, wrote. 'In July we toured England, visiting many relatives and friends, mostly ex-Survey of India. It was amazing to find how ancient they had become!' The really amazing thing was that Gordon himself never became 'ancient'. Till the last he stood straight as a ramrod and remained mentally alert, always unperturbed, always interested in people, always amused by mathematical puzzles. He had led a very full and active life and leaves behind him a generation in his debt, from the many children whom he introduced to the hills to the many mountaineers' who have used his maps. June survives him together with three sons and numerous grandchildren.
A tribute to Gordon Osmaston who passed away in 1990.