How It All Began

Jimmy Roberts

From my copy of the Department of Tourism's Annual Statistical Report I learned that in 1975,12,587 people visited Nepal for 'trekking or mountaineering', 13% of the visitor total of 92,440. The figure may be slightly inflated and those for some earlier years are definitely wrong. However 40 trekkers in 1965, is about right, if one includes mountaineering expeditions, for that was the year that Mountain Travel began operations in Nepal; with eight clients in that year.

If you are reading these pages with thoughts of trekking in Nepal, fear not we shall try and ensure the remaining 12,586 people do not intrude on your privacy. But what of the years in between and what was happening before 1965? Some comments on the history of Himalayan mountaineering and travel may be of interest to those coming on the scene. I have grown up (I refuse absolutely to write 'grown old') with modern Himalayan mountaineering and I have watched and pioneered mountaineering and trekking in Nepal, literally, from the beginning. So I may be forgiven if personal opinions and, sometimes seemingly unessential, personal recollections tend to intrude unduly - at least they may enliven my story. For, although the history of recent Himalayan mountaineering may be interesting, it is no longer particularly amusing.

I came to India and joined the old British Indian Army at the end of 1936. I joined the Indian Army partly, because I was unqualified for any more intellectual employment, but mainly because I wanted to climb in the Himalaya - not just on one expedition, but a whole lifetime of mountaineering and exploration. It worked. And even if the highest places were denied to me, I have no regrets. Fate dealt me a number of good cards, and if I did not always play them properly, that was my fault.

At that time, the whole of the Himalaya and Karakoram lay open like a vast and fascinating book. Generally speaking, either permits were not needed, or could be obtained easily enough. The peak height record stood at 7800 m (Nanda Devi); not a single mountain over 8000 m had ever been climbed. Entry into Tibet was attended by more formality, but that was not too difficult if one could provide bona fide scientific or collecting aims. Bhutan was the same. But at that time, for a mountaineer at least, the lure of Nepal was far more potent than Tibet or Bhutan. And in the mountain book, only the chapter titled: 'Nepal' remained closed, the pages uncut.

Now, and indeed until 1948, visits to Kathmandu were by invitation only, either from the Rana rulers or the British Embassy. The rest of the Kingdom was firmly closed to foreigners; exception being made in the case of Kangchenjunga, to which access was permitted in special circumstances by way of a high pass in north Sikkim. Now it is strange to think that then, Pokhara exerted a greater fascination than Lhasa, and was certainly less known. Fourteen years were to pass before I set foot in Nepal myself, and this long wait, and the magical pictures conjured up during the waiting years, must account for the fact that I have never quite lost my sense of wonder and privilege of being allowed inside Nepal at all. I try to remember that others may have a different attitude, but even so, I feel my face beginning to flush when someone says 'Hell, why can't I go up the Kali Gandaki? I didn't come all this way to go to Dorphatan'.

Until the war began at the end of 1939, possibly three or four expeditions used to come out from Europe or America each year. For the rest, there were in India, (including, of course, the countries we now call Pakistan and Bangladesh) hundreds of army officers and civilian government officials and business people, mostly British, and of these a considerable number would take their summer holiday in the hills. In the Indian Army we were allowed two or three months local leave each year and nine months home in three years. Annual leave was a privilege and not a right and could be withheld or reduced by one's commanding officer. It depended on what one intended to do. The social life or 'poodle faking' (lying around on house boats -1 am uncertain of the origin of the term) was frowned on, but a request to keep a date with a rifle and some unfortunate wild sheep or goat on a high pass in central Asia was a certain passport to leave. So was an application to climb a mountain. This was considered a little strange, and I doubt if there were more than 100 people in the whole of India at that time, who aspired to real climbing, as compared to trekking and more general exploration.

Meanwhile, our ambitious young mountaineer was getting quickly into his stride. His mountain scheming had extended beyond the mere Indian Army and he had managed to insert himself into a Gurkha Regiment with headquarters at 1800 m on the flanks of the Pir Panjal range (Dharamsala, is in the state of what is now Himachal Pradesh). So in 1937,1 was able to climb for a total of about three weeks among the granite peaks of the Dhaula Dhar, and in 1938, joined an expedition attempting Masherbrum in the Karakoram.

There were five of us in the party, plus four Sherpas and we needed sixty porters to carry our loads. That year, there was another British attempt on Everest from the north, a German expedition led by Paul Bauer to Nanga Parbat, and an American expedition to K2. There was some friendly rivalry with the Americans, with whom we shared part of the trail in, but never actually met. And a report that the entire party had been seen (Houston and Bates were two of them) squatting in a row, cooling their blistered feet in the waters of the Indus, was received with satisfaction.

For a twenty year old, Masherbrum was a rather shattering experience. I acclimatised very lowly, was frostbitten, could not sleep (oh, those un-ending hours of waking nightmare) and it never seemed to stop snowing. Finally, two of our friends were severely frostbitten on a summit attempt and I watched their toes wither and blacken and fingers drop off - literally - as I helped the doctor with their dressings. Next year, I felt, it would have to be those sheep and goats.

However, by the time I reached Srinagar, I had perked up a little and reading a newspaper report that they had failed on Everest but might return in the autumn, I wrote to Tilman, the leader, giving him the welcome news that I would be available to join them on their second attempt. Sometime later, I received a terse reply, written from the Planters Club, Daijeeling. There was to be no autumn attempt, and in any case I would not have been wanted.

In 1939, I spent two months climbing in Kullu and Spiti with three riflemen from my Gurkha Regiment. Meanwhile, a new light had arisen on the horizon. A new expedition to climb Everest from Tibet was being organised for the fall of 1940, and following Masherbrum, I was asked to join. Mostly it was a new team to replace those who had spent the last six years trudging to and fro between Daijeeling and the Rongbuk glacier. A Captain Hunt was another of the members. It was an alluring prospect. Just the right age and first, three months home leave for getting fit in the Alps. I don't regret the war, but wish they could have put it off for a couple of years.

I don't regret the war as it gave me the experience of parachuting and command of the first operational drop of the war in Southeast Asia. Dispirited after failures in the mountains, I still return sometimes to bask in the uncertain glow of that small and not very dangerous parachute operation into north Burma in 1942. (I should add that I had done my best to avoid the operation in the first place). The boredom, the sheer utter misery of war, and the few moments of truth, which make it sometimes seem worthwhile, compare very closely with high altitude climbing. I have great admiration for the young men who voluntarily, without any clarion call from King and Country, endure similar miseries on high and steep mountain faces. Maybe it's not quite as dangerous as war, and maybe television provides the call. But, never mind, I admire them.

In case you are still with me, I'll skip three expeditions, including a daring attempt at Kangchenjunga during the war years which reached 6000 m, leaving only the upper 2400 m of the great mountain unconquered, and proceed to 1949 and the beginning of the chapter titled 'Nepal' in our book of the mountains.

That year the Himalayan Committee of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club applied to the Nepalese Government for permission to send a small expedition to the South Face of Everest. This was refused, but Tilman and Peter Lloyd were permitted to enter the Langtang valley, north of Kathmandu. Once again, I wrote to Bill Tilman. Same result as in 1938! But in 1950, the committee received permission to send an expedition to Annapurna, and at the same time the French were permitted to attempt Dhaulagiri. Now it was Tillman's turn to write to me.

There were four of us climbers, in addition to our leader, who was 20 years older and by far the strongest and fittest. It was an ill-organised and badly-led expedition, which made its base camp above the Manang valley the day the monsoon began and failed to reach even the lowly

Annapurna IV. Personally, I was relieved when superficially frostbitten feet put an end to my own climbing and I was able to take the rest of the monsoon exploring the Mannagbhot and Bhimtakothi valleys and collecting birds for the British Museum. At the end, too, came a special reward when having walked across with one Sherpa, I entered Pokhara, my own private Mecca. Poor Pokhara has taken a bit of a hammering in the past 26 years, but I have not change the opinion I formed then, there is no other mountain view in the world to equal Machapuchare and Annapurna hanging there in the sky above the green Pokhara plain. Meanwhile, Herzog and the French had failed on Dhaulagiri but climbed 'our' mountain. Waving and publicity were a curtain raiser to even greater events in 1953, and the even more vigorous waving of flags.

I went to Everest that year myself, but only as a sort of poor relative, a purveyor of oxygen loads. However, I was glad to go in any capacity, and although not particularly generous by nature, I have never questioned the fairness of the selection of the team. Success was by no means certain and I knew that in the event of failure there would be another attempt after the monsoon. It seemed reasonable to suppose that some members might be killed or frostbitten or at least become tired, and that replacements would be needed in the fall. So dumping my oxygen loads at base camp, I went off to prove myself. We made the first explorations of the Lumding, Inukhu and Hongu valleys, the first ascent of Mera peak and a south-to-north crossing of the Amphu Lapchha pass in basketball boots - two firsts in one. Alas all to no avail. Hastening back to join my regiment in Malaya, I heard the news of the first ascent one hot night in June from Indian policemen who were searching my rucksack in Jainagar on the Nepal border. And I rejoiced with the rest of the world.

The years from 1950 to 1965 were the golden age of climbing and exploration in Nepal. Permits were of course required, but there were no restrictions, as there were after 1969, on particular peaks, which might or might not be attempted. Most of the highest peaks were climbed during these years, yet there were never too many expeditions in the field at one time. Generally speaking, the expeditions were not too large and publicity and ballyhoo remained at a low level. After 1969 the flood gates opened and although the Japanese can claim, possibly to have been the most successful single nation in the game of climbing in the Nepal Himalaya, it was the very number of Japanese which devalued Nepal mountaineering for a time to the status of a football league. Now, in 1976, the doors of India and Pakistan eased open once again (mainly for economic reasons) and we had a situation (apart from Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim) not so different to that of 40 years ago, plus the bonus of Nepal. However, the permit system is now stricter and more complicated.

After 1953, I continued to return to Nepal from army service in Malaya almost annually, to the detriment of my army career. In 1954 I climbed Putha Hiunchuli (7250 m) with one Sherpa, and this remains my humble personal height record. Machupuchare followed in 1956 and 1957, with Noyce and Cox reaching a point about 50 m below the north summit in the latter year. In 1960 Annapurna II was the last 8000er to fall, Grant, Bonnington and Ang Nima being the assault trio. In 1962 and 1965, I scraped around the flanks of Dhaulagiri VI, mistaking it for Dhaulagiri IV. Like Machupuchare, 'D 4' was an old ambition but proved even more difficult to grasp than the proverbial Fish Tail itself. Meanwhile in 1958, fate dealt me one more card, an ace this time, and this gives me the opportunity to gradually switch the theme of my story from expeditionary mountaineering to trekking and the origins of Mountain Travel.

Towards the end of 1958,1 was appointed to the newly created post of military Attache to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, and I have lived in Nepal ever since. In those days the Embassy staff was very small and so, at first, it was paradoxically more difficult to get away than it had been before. However from now on, I was at the centre of the Nepalese mountain scene, and the 1960 expedition to Annapurna II was fitted into this period. The appointment was for three years and rather weakly I managed to have this extended for another two years. I say 'weakly', as I had already decided to retire from the army and to devote myself full time to the mountains. Now I was merely opting for another two years of security on good army pay. But again fate intervened and this time dealt me a joker in the shape of a Brigadier (we don't call them Generals in the British Army) who turned up in Kathmandu on leave. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I took a dislike to his face and was unwise (wise) enough to tell him so rather late one night in the Yak and Yeti bar in the old Royal Hotel. Rather unfairly, for he had no official standing in Nepal - he later reported me for 'insulting' him. No, I was not court-martialled or sacked, but the two-year Embassy extension was cancelled and I took the hint and retired voluntarily. At the same time, I also did two other things. I wrote to Norman Dyhrenfurth and volunteered my services for the American Mount Everest Expedition planned for 1963. And I went to see my friend, the Director of Tourism, and discussed some ideas with him.

I shall always be grateful to Norman for allowing me to join A.M.E.E 1963. This gave me both an immediate object to work for and afterwards, a sense of partnership in probably the most outstanding feat yet performed on Everest, barring the first ascent. I refer, of course, to the Unsoeld, Hornbein climb of the West Ridge and subsequent traverse of the mountain - although I would accord almost equal honour to the diminutive Japanese housewife who reached the summit with a single Sherpa companion in 1975.

In 1971 and again in 1972 I returned to Everest in a more exalted capacity than the 'transportation officer' of 1963. However a disability now prevented me from going beyond base camp, and that is no place for a leader or his deputy to remain. The International expedition of 1971 is probably remembered now mainly for the walk-out of the four so-called 'Latin's' in protest against concentrating all our efforts on the South West Face climb. In fact, the seeds of failure had already been sown when a spell of appalling weather followed the quite unnecessary death of a well-loved Indian member. The expedition was, if anything, strengthened by the departure of the dissidents, (three of whom were in any case, probably somewhat too elderly for very high altitude work), only to be decimated by an outbreak of apparently infectious fever. Despite all this, we did not do too badly and my main regret was the loss of a childish and innocent personal belief that mountaineers of a certain calibre and reputation must also be gentlemen (to use an out-moded expression). The mutual personal abuse and accusations which broke out among some of the members (and not only the Latins) subsequent to the failed expedition, were quite extraordinary and continued for over two years. At the same time, encouraged by the press, some normally well-respected Himalayan pundits were unable to resist the heady satisfaction of having a personal cut at the expedition's corpse. However, I return now to more pleasant and important matters.

After A.M.E.E 1963, I decided to remain in Nepal and create my own means of employment. The field of 'mountains' obviously suggested itself as, indeed, I had few other qualifications. But within that field my credentials were good - a long-standing knowledge of the country, the people and their language, and, more recently, some familiarity with the official circles in the capital. I thought back to the early days in Kashmir - providing all camp gear, staff, porters and food for an agreed daily rate. However, their methods were old-fashioned and the equipment heavy, army tents, sheets and blankets, camp cots and camp furniture, and china cups and plates. There were also the considerations that these agents catered mostly for seasoned travellers who spoke the local language and who remained in full control of their caravans.

At this stage I should mention that the terms 'trek' and 'trekking' which are now commonly used and understood, were novel to some in 1964. They are derived from an old Boer word but the terms were often used in Himalayan literature in connection with mountain camping and travel and so on that I never had any doubt that the beast forming in my mind would be called a 'Trekking Agency'. It would be based on what I had already seen in Kashmir. But stream-lined and modified by lessons learned in expeditionary mountaineering. And as clients or trekkers would not be experienced in Nepali conditions, we would have to maintain a greater degree of control, which would necessitate a high standard of trekking staff and their training.

Beginnings were modest, t remember sketching out a plan to provide for no less than eight trekkers in the field at one time. I would have eight bags, eight pads, eight this, and eight that. I wrote down eight tents, scratched out the eight and wrote four - let 'em share I said to myself. I placed a small but expensive advertisement in Holiday Magazine, which produced five replies, two obviously from curious children. One lady wrote 'Mount Everest.... here we go again, get out the enterovioform...rush me details!' With dollar signs beckoning me, I duly rushed. But alas, silence prevailed. Perhaps she could not read my writing - Mountain Travel owned no typewriter in those days. By now, towards the end of 1964, it was however registered with the Government as the first Trekking Agency in Nepal, and it was to remain the only one for the next four years.

My first clients came to do an Everest trek in the early spring of
  1. There was a story in circulation a year or two after that these were 'three American grandmothers...and Roberts was horrified at what he had taken on', or words to that effect. In fact, two were unmarried so were unlikely to be grandmothers, and a more sporting trio of enthusiastic and appreciative ladies I have never since handled.
Business prospered and I hired Dawa Norbu Sherpa as an assistant. Now I need not do the typing myself - yes, we had bought a typewriter - and a year later Mike Cheney joined us. These two names are inseparable with the story of the development of Mountain Travel. Meanwhile in 1967, we had an important breakthrough. Sometime in the spring (I think) of that year, a letter landed on my desk proposing that the writer would bring two trekking groups to Nepal in the fall. It was signed LEO in large flourishing letters. That was the beginning of a long and fruitful association. Leo leBon was, at that time, Manager of Thomas Cook in San Francisco and he brought or sent over groups under Cook's banner in both 1967 and 1968. In 1967 we trekked and talked, and Leo trekked and thought, and towards the end of 1968 founded together with Allen Steck and Barry Bishop, Mountain Travel (USA) Inc.

Another equally fruitful association, which began with a letter in

1966, was with Warwick Deacock's Australian Company ' Ausventure'. Warwick had been a mountaineering friend in our army days. Australians of course take their summer holidays at Christmas time and the very numerous Ausventure treks began happily to fill what had been a slack season. Later, Warwick brought our first New Zealanders. His first Australian trekking group arrived in early December 1967. Soon Ausventure treks spread to cover the whole trekking season and as the public recognised the dictates of the weather, both in the case of high places in winter and also the hoped for visibility that fluctuates with the time of year. So we then saw trekking from both countries with some 'cross posting' of clients and also leaders between U.S.A/Australia/ New Zealand.

Even in 1966, the days of eight sets of equipment were long past and I soon had to begin considering the problem of' how big'. In order to preserve the exclusive quality of the mountain experience, I wondered if I should not turn people away. But the demand grew and grew, and now there were other agents coming into the field. Turning people away would not reduce the numbers coming to trek, so it seemed better to expand and at least try and ensure that the good name created for trekking in Nepal did not suffer. With expansion there was the danger of losing the personal touch, which is vital in an operation of this sort. However by selection, by training, by example and influence, and the delegation of responsibility, it may be possible for a special spirit to permeate an organisation, down to the humblest Sherpa 'kitchen boy'.

Now I must say something about our Sherpas, as this is quite a special relationship. We have all heard that the Sherpas are splendid fellows. And we have heard that they have been' spoilt' (by expeditions, trekking, tourism or education - take your pick). Probably the truth lies somewhere in between. As in any community, there are 'bad' ones, and the wages and other rewards, that have now become customary for mountaineering and trekking work, are high by Sherpa standards. However the good ones - and there are many - are very good indeed and repay wages many times over with willing work, loyalty and comradeship. On an expedition or a trek, they serve superbly but without any trace of servility. Sherpas give trekking agencies in Nepal a most unfair advantage over their counterparts in other parts of the Himalaya. I cannot hide the truth -1 love them. And at times they drive me stark, staring mad.

What of the future? The growth of wilderness travel in Nepal during the past ten years has been phenomenal. The foreign exchange earnings from trekking have been considerable, and more important, converted into rupees, these earnings - in the form of Sherpas and porters pay, food purchases and so on - have reached people in remote mountain areas, not just a few pockets in Kathmandu. The facilities which have been developed in Nepal have enabled people, who never dreamt that it would be possible, to enjoy an expeditionary holiday in the Himalaya.

India and Pakistan have not been slow to realise the economic advantages of thus utilising their own Himalayan assets, and have opened hitherto restricted areas to foreigners, despite the fact that the security situation in these areas has not materially changed. On the debit side, in Nepal we hear of dirty campsites and trails littered with rubbish (the legacy of mountaineering expeditions as much as trekkers) and crowds of hikers invading the peace of the mountains. The now widespread realisation that the first problem does really exist amounts at least to partial solution. The over popularity of certain trekking goals and routes merits more comment.

The Everest region, in particular, pays the penalty for combining vistas of the highest mountain in the world, with the homeland of the Sherpas. Unfortunately, the airstrip at Luckla makes it all too easy for people to get there. But even in the Everest region, it is possible to follow trails on which you are not likely to meet many fellow trekkers. And in other parts of Nepal, given some avoidance of main trails and two or three days to get clear of them, one can practically guarantee that you will meet very few foreigners and that you may not have to share a camp site - if that is what you want.


Thoughts by Col. J. O. M. Roberts, a pioneer of 'commercial trekking' as we know it today. He was a Hon. Member of the Club and died in Pokhara in 1997. This article is from the archives of W. M. M. Deacock.