Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Harish Kapadia
    (A. D. MODDIE)
    (Lt. Col. A. ABBEY)



BEHIND ME I HEARD THE LOUD NOISE of a large falling object, and as it hit the walls of the gorge the sounds were of something soft - but no screams, no shouts - was it a porter, was it one of my friends or was it something else? I spun round to see a man gesticulating. We were in a side ravine and on the other side I could see a short section of fixed rope protecting an awkward traverse across a near vertical rock cliff. Far below a stream in the back of the ravine shot out and down as a free falling waterfall hundreds of feet into space. Shouted exchanges -

"What happened Deva?"

"Porter dropped load Sahib"

"He OK?"

"No problem Sahib. He thought he fall, so dumped load"

"OK, what load have we lost?"

"Big black bag Sahib".

I crossed over. The traverse was at the limits of balance and I had to rely on the fixed rope at one point to stop me falling backwards. Our young guide, Deva, and I clambered down to a rock ledge to see if the bag was visible - it was not.

"I go down looking sir"

"OK Deva but just looking, no dangerous, no far. Any problem you coming up, understand?"

"No problem, I get load Sahib"

Deva went back to the other side and I watched, becoming more and more anxious as he started his descent. Seeing him now it seemed obvious that it was way too dangerous. He must turn around; no load is worth risking a man's life for. I started to shout but with the noise of the waterfall I knew he would be deaf to me. I sat powerless. I had authorised the action assuming I would be able to stop it if need be and now I had to watch. If he died I would have to be able to say what had happened, and his death would be on my conscience.

Photos 13 and 16

He slithered, slipped, jumped down to a ledge, crept along and clinging to a bush leant over a drop to see if he could get down. From where I was I could see that below him was a hidden cliff - once committed he would be done for. I shouted and waved. He didn't see me but thank God he turned round, but continued down in another place and disappeared out of sight. Time dragged by. Had he fallen to be smashed on the rocks below? Should I set off down after him? Suddenly like a fly on the wall there he was inching upwards carrying the black bag. I watched sickly as the drop grew beneath his feet. My binoculars shook; he came to a small rock wall. He stopped. He tried first one way then another, then he moved up onto the cliff. He was fighting, struggling and then the handle of the bag, slung over his shoulder, broke and it went tumbling through the air, bounced twice, small objects flew out of it, and then it was gone into the murky depths below. I could see Deva looking down, banging his hand angrily on the rock and then finally glancing across at me. Violently I waved him upwards; I wanted him out of there - bugger the blasted bag.

What was in the missing load anyway? Other people started to arrive.

"Hey guys, anyone know who has got a black bag?"

"Dunno Steve, maybe it was Hugh's. I think his bag was black. He'll be along in a minute." Hugh turned the corner, "Hey, hi Hugh. Look, good news and bad news - first off we had a porter who luckily did not fall down the gorge, but the bad news though, Hugh, is that he jettisoned his kit bag and we think it was yours".

Most people would have had a fit, but not Hugh. Later he revealed that his bag had contained all the slide film he had shot so far. Film that was to illustrate a book that he had been commissioned to write about our journey into the Inner Sanctuary of Nanda Devi.

Life produces moments like this rarely, where your true nature is put to the test. You're not expecting the test - it is just sprung upon you and you pass or fail. Your internal workings are revealed for other people to see - you are judged. Sometimes rightly or wrongly by others, more importantly inside you know whether you have taken the right action, said the right thing or not.

Here we were, a bunch of adventurous people, thrown together, some old friends, but most were strangers to one another. We had travelled swiftly across the northern plains of India, up into the foothills, with the object of retracing the famous route that Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman had pioneered in 1934 along the precipitous sides of the Rishi Ganga gorge, to the very base of the highest peak of the old British empire. We held permit that had taken two years to obtain, and we would be the first foreign group allowed to enter Nanda Devi's Inner Sanctuary for eighteen years.

The electric excitement of such a special undertaking had kept us all talking non stop since first we met at Heathrow. Superficial chat, pleasant enquiring conversation - finding out one another's backgrounds, the chains of events that had brought us together, our various interests. Certainly we had developed a rapport from the start, but with a tough, dangerous adventure eventually there is no hiding one's inner self. Events will occur that will put you individually to the test. The unknown, the uncertainty, the stepping out from behind the desk and abandoning a daily routine, something is going to happen on a big trip and you never know what 'test' will come your way, or how you will handle it when it comes.

Actually it turned out not to be Hugh's kit bag at all but an old, expensive Gucci bag containing all Loretto's make-up and medicines. Loretto was Ian McNaught - Davis's lovely and vivacious Chilean wife who had accompanied us. 'Mack', had been quite a famous rock climbing star of the Joe Brown era, and was now the ebulieuent President of the world mountaineering body, the UIAA. He had been highly instrumental in helping Col N. Kumar persuade the Indian authorities to grant us the highly sought after permit.

The lost Gucci bag summed up the difference between Shipton and Tilmans' effort and our own. Their porter had dropped a load into the gorge, but their loss had been an essential bag of food, not cosmetics. They had agonised whether to take one shirt or two, and had existed on a diet of Tsampa for weeks on end, and had a few battered tents. We had a mess tent, toilet tent, modern sleeping tents and a kitchen tent. We had an infinitely varied menu and a trained cook. We had Gortex, and a 20 kg personal baggage allowance. They had fought their way up this gorge, where no human had ever set foot, for weeks on end in miserable weather conditions. We enjoyed perfect sunshine. They had waded through raging ice cold rivers. We had crossed easily by means of log bridges. But for all that we had climbed and traversed the same steps on the beetling walls of the Rishi Ganga gorge and we had seen the things they had. We too had been terrified, though of course Shipton and Tilmans' terror had been hidden in British understatement in all their writings.

As we had traversed up the gorge in the preceding days the route had slowly but surely become more difficult, more serious. We were each of us inwardly trying to assess the difficulties that lay ahead. Were we up to it? Was the risk justifiable? What about our families back home in the

U.K.? Would we hold others back? What if the weather broke? For some of us these questions and their answers lay in barely balanced scales. Hard truths and disappointment lay ahead. David's knees just were not going to last, and his friend and travelling companion, also called David, unselfishly backed off. Leena had suffered with altitude sickness early on and had decided that going higher was not possible. Col. Kumar's old injury of frost-bitten toes meant that though the spirit was more than willing he just was not fast enough, or athletic enough, for the final day into the Inner Sanctuary.

Two days after the Gucci bag incident we came to a cross-roads. The place was the camp at Ramani. John and Deva had actually gone on ahead of the main party to make a reconnaissance and had made it all the way into the Nanda Devi basin. Now we met them at Ramani and John described the final day's climb as the best thing he had ever done in the mountains. Launching into a vivid description of how utterly exposed some of the sections were, he described ledges you had to belly crawl along, fifteen or twenty sections with fixed ropes in place, chimneys you had to climb, and grass slopes so steep that if you slipped there would be little chance of stopping.

I think any great project is fed by the luck you make and the lucky coincidences that come out of nowhere. None of us would have even been standing at Ramani had it not been for a coming together of a group of people that the authorities would have been hard pressed to refuse. We had Eric Shipton's son John as our co-leader, George Band first ascentionist of Kangchenjunga and member of the 1953 Everest team, we had Mack who wanted to see India join the world mountaineering body's Council and who offered to write an unbiased report on 'the way forward' for the Sanctuary.

So a magic line up in the magic year of 2000. Added to this, and unknown to us, was the fact that during the last year the local people had mounted a campaign to open the Sanctuary. Since its closure they had been forbidden to take their livestock to traditional grazing grounds a few days up the Rishi Ganga gorge and many farmers had been forced to sell their flocks. Unemployment had become a big local issue and some villagers had turned to growing cannabis as a means of income. We saw children peddling drugs and outsiders coming to the villages to collect supplies for dealers in distant cities. The village headman at Lata showed us a bulky file he had compiled of newsclippings and reports about their actions, including an illegal mass demonstration inside the Sanctuary by local people in 1998.

There were many reasons for the closure of the Sanctuary, some valid others not so. One of the most bizarre was that an Indo American expedition had supposedly, secretly tried to place a nuclear powered transmitter high on the mountain to spy on Chinese activities in Tibet. It was said to have been swept away by an avalanche and lost. The fear had been that radiation was polluting India's most holy river, the Ganges, as one of the main tributaries of the Ganges emanates from Nanda Devi.

Fears were also that rare plants and wildlife would disappear, and that poaching might threaten the wildlife. Where were the massive flocks of Blue Sheep Shipton and Tilman had seen? Was the poaching still going on? Probably it was. Certainly we saw evidence that the porters were digging up roots for medicines. Wherever man can make money from something someone will be in there with a gun, or a spade or a butterfly net. The Sanctuary needs proper policing. The manpower to do this needs funding. My view is curb the numbers going in by issuing a set number of permits, and charge enough to fund the policing.

Anyway the climbing expeditions in the seventies had fouled their own nest leaving tons of rubbish and no big surprise then that the 'political correctness' pendulum had swung back in the opposite direction. No wonder the Indian authorities had closed the Sanctuary.

No quite closed though! In 1993 an Indian expedition had been allowed a special permit ostensibly to check out the 'recovery' of the Sanctuary, but at the same time the team succeeded in summiting as well. One other expedition had been granted entry. That expedition turned out to be in the Sanctuary ahead of us! They were the Tibetan Border Police and had left Ramani on their way out the very day before we got there ourselves. This actually was lucky for us as Col Kumar persuaded them to leave their fixed ropes in place and to leave the bridges intact. They had not been so lucky - one of their climbers had been killed by stonefall, and as they passed us on their way out the tragic loss of one of their friends clearly was on their mind more than their ascent of Nanda Devi.

Ramani is a dark, cramped shelf above the noisy river. Squashed in by lowering cliffs it receives little sunlight, but its resident Pine Martens squeaked in protest at our invasion. That night porters crowded into the blackened caves to keep dry and cook mounds of rice. We were now down to the hard core of the best men, most of whom had been into the Sanctuary before. They knew what to expect - we did not! The atmosphere in our mess tent was tense and at the same time, sad. Five of our party were turning back for all the right reasons, but still we were sorry to lose their company. That night sleep was fitful. I loved knowing that the river had been making its constant roaring noise, uninterrupted, for the past several million years. The porters chattered late into the night, and excitement and imagination produced an unreality I wanted to savour. This was wild, this was where I wanted to be.

Next morning I blundered around waiting for the coffee to kick in, figured the harness out, helped someone else with theirs, made sure I had spare film, shouldered my sack and we were off. Straight out of camp and we were pulling on a fixed rope, then up a steep grassy slope for a thousand feet to gain a traverse along ledges for hour after hour. Sometimes easy, other times narrow, always with the knowledge that death was a step taken wrongly, a slip, a stumble, just one mistake away. You had to concentrate so hard on your feet you forgot just about everything else; I even forgot to take pictures for the first few hours. Route finding wasn't difficult, the thin ribbon of a path had not overgrown, and old pitons had been crudely tied with fixed line.

No longer is there now a continuous flow of memory; I remember just the best bits. Crawling on my hands and knees under an overhang, pulling hand over hand up a knotted line that hung down a long steep gully, rock climbing round a rocky corner and then up and across very steep slabs, thankfully clipped into fixed line, joking with the porters, feeling the hot sun, hearing the thunder of the river far below. The wall of the gorge opposite us made you giddy just to look at it; such fantastic cliffs - no wonder Shipton and Tilman had pronounced that way impossible. As the afternoon wore on I was with Geoff and Barry and we watched as the best Indian guide, an old wiry man, moved further and further ahead of us. We saw him climb up a chimney, stand silhouetted for a minute then disappear. It looked like that might mark the end of the main difficulties but when we exited the chimney half an hour later we were confronted by a wall of rock a thousand feet high. Standing there I felt like a horse before an impossible fence. My first emotion was to rebel against going up there - it was too frightening, too difficult altogether, but on closer inspection we could see how it must be done. As we gazed awe-struck at the narrow terrace halfway up the cliff we involuntarily started singing bars from a Jimmy Hendrix song - 'There's got to be some way out of here'. There was! Firstly a few hundred feet had to be gained up a mountainside steep enough to necessitate pulling on clumps of grass to make progress. Then we edged across to the ledge itself which actually was quite wide and after 150 m there was another rocky chimney. We found out later that the locals call this 'the Stairway to Heaven'. Even then our nerves had to be stretched a little further. Another steep slope and another chimney this time really did take us over the top of the final cliff and into the Inner Sanctuary itself. Bang! There was Nanda Devi herself so close, so white, so gigantic. We were safe. The sense of relief

was a great wave, the feeling that we could rest and savour a patch of earth that was reasonably level was today's reward. That evening the sun crashed slowly through the horizon and we sat in the 'gods' applauding the last act as Nanda Devi blushed subtle colours.

An ambition fulfilled! So long in the dreaming and so long in the making, and we were exactly on schedule. In theory we now had four possibly five days to explore. The first was used in moving to Sasorpatal, in the 'meadows' of the southern part of the Inner Sanctuary. In the evening a small herd of Blue Sheep came quite close to the camp to see who these strange creatures were. The 'meadows' are in reality gently sloping mountainsides set like a grandstand right opposite the base of Nanda Devi. How many thousand feet are the cliffs of the pedestal that forms the base? It is difficult to gauge. Eagles soared at the top, a stream flowed at its base. It was overwhelmingly impressive.

Unfortunately for me I picked up a heavy cold that had been doing the rounds in our party and the next day felt lousy. While everyone else went off towards the true base camp, or simply exploring the southern reaches of the Sanctuary, I crashed out in a tent feeling utterly feeble. Towards the end of the day bands of people returned in high spirits. John Shipton, Barry and Geoff had made it all the way to base camp and had seen Longstaff's Col and the east face. George Band at 71 years had reached nearly as far. Geoff had fallen and cut himself badly in a few places but was thankfully still walking fit. All the others returned with stories of peaks seen, glaciers looked down upon and excited at the prospect of more exploration.

None of us could escape the feeling that some special magic had been working for us from the outset. I've noticed this many times, that once you commit yourself to a large, bold plan then fate moves unseen levers and things happen out of the blue. The meeting of Kumar, Mack, George and myself in Delhi in November 1999 was sheer chance, and ironically they had only just returned from Shipton and Tilman's approach trek to Nanda Devi. Ironical too that George was a surviving member of the 1953 Everest expedition. After all it has often been said that Eric Shipton should have led the '53 expedition, not John Hunt. Eric had in fact missed being part of the first ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936 because he was at the time recceing Everest. What luck also that the President of the world mountaineering body should want to come with us, and held all the independent credentials for producing an authoritative, unbiased report for the Indian Government. What incredible luck that the Indo Tibetan Border Police were coming out of the Sanctuary on the very day before we were to go in ourselves. A day later and they would have stripped the fixed ropes and destroyed the two bridges. Any earlier and there would have been a jam in the bottleneck of the gorge. Just as lucky was the fact that the weather had until now been spot on perfect.

However everything is impermanent, especially constant blue skies, and we already knew of one group who had got stuck in the Sanctuary by snowfall and who had had to be helicoptered out, before the closure. Now as I lay in my tent, with a nose like a tap, I watched tell-tale mackerel clouds scudding overhead. Mountaineers know them as a harbinger of bad weather, and the local porters quite independently felt the same. Now followed intense disappointment, and at first there were those among us who argued for staying just a couple more days. It seemed hardly believable that the settled weather could change. Weren't the locals just playing safe? Why not leave it till tomorrow and if the weather still looked OK we could stay? Light snow fell in the night, and in the morning the peaks wore helmets of cloud - the weather was breaking up. We decided to go down.

We knew that to reach all the way to Ramani might not be possible in one day so our plan was to reach Bhujgara, a ledge capable of taking half a dozen tents, two thirds of the way down. The skies gradually clouded over as we cautiously re-traced our steps, and reaching Bhujgara by 2.00 p.m. we decided to press on. By the time we got to the last fixed rope traverse it had started to snow, and we only just managed to see everyone through safely when the sleet turned to pouring rain. In fact I discovered later that Albert Chapman had actually slipped crossing one of the earlier traverses and his fall had been arrested by the fixed rope. The architects of fate had been generous again, and back at Ramani, bedraggled and exhausted, we cowered under the eaves of the gloomy caves listening hard for the purr of the cooker above the thunder of the river.

In the days that followed we looked back at the walls of the gorge, now plastered in snow, and congratulated ourselves on a decision well taken. Another day in the Sanctuary and retreat would have been a truly serious undertaking. As it was we found that wherever we had to cross north facing gullies snow lay there un-melted, and on two occasions I remember wondering whether I would ever see my family again. Comfort and luck we had in plenty but the Rishi Ganga gorge is no less steep than when the 'Terrible Twins' battled their way through. Those early explorers though; another era, another race of men!


A trek to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary by a British group in the summer of 2000.