The Early Years

Trevor Braham

Transcript of address delivered in Mumbai on 16 February 2008

during the 80th Anniversary celebrations of the Himalayan Club.

I would like to begin by expressing my thanks for the honour of having been invited to address this assembly today. I find it very encouraging to see a large gathering of members and guests present.

Sixty-two years ago when I was elected to membership, little did I imagine that I would be around to celebrate the Himalayan Club's 80th anniversary which is being marked on the 16th and 17th of February 2008, to commemorate the Club's inaugural meeting held at the General Headquarters of the Army in Delhi on the 17th of February 1928 under the chairmanship of Field-Marshall Sir William Birdwood, the Club's first President. There were one hundred and twenty-seven Founder Members, among whom were Sir Martin Conway, Douglas Freshfield, Thomas Longstaff, E. F. Norton, Norman Collie and many other seasoned Himalayan travellers of their generation. It is not widely known that a Himalayan Club was proposed, as early as 1866, by W. H. Johnson, of the Survey of India, and F. Drew of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, both Calcutta-based. Nothing came of it then, but in 1884 Douglas Freshfield writing in the Alpine Journal, suggested that knowledge of the Himalaya might be extended by the establishment of a club prepared to publish narratives of science and adventure. Freshfield, of course, would have had in mind the example of the Alpine Club inaugurated in 1857 in London, whose members began to record their ventures as early as 1859. On 23 September 1927, the Mountain Club of India was formed in Calcutta, among whose founder members were Dr J. B. Auden, T. H. Somervell and Lt. Col. H. W. Tobin. At the inaugural meeting of the Himalayan Club in Delhi on the 17 February, it was decided to ask the Mountain Club of India whether it would be willing to amalgate, a request that was accepted at the annual meeting of that club, in December 1928. Referring to this, Sir Geoffrey Corbett said, 'We are now one strong and united organisation'.

Harish Kapadia, the Himalayan Club's longest-serving Honorary Editor, thirty years so far, producing Volumes 46 to 64 and let us hope many more to come, suggested that I should talk about half a lifetime of adventure in the mountains when both the Club and I were several years younger. Over forty years ago, a friend whose opinions I valued, remarked that I had built a store of rich memories for my old age. It is only recently that I am beginning to appreciate what he meant. Encouraged by my wife Elisabeth, I decided to put some of those memories down on paper, picking out the bits that made the deepest impression in the enthusiasm of my youthful years. The book that has resulted is due to appear shortly and contains some personal experiences during my apprenticeship in the Himalaya, when the environment contrasted sharply with the present.[1]
Since the Club's 80th anniversary is being celebrated, I shall try to provide glimpses of it when I became a member in 1946. When I first met Charles Crawford in Calcutta, he was a member of the Club's Balloting Committee, and I diffidently asked whether three treks in Sikkim would be considered a sufficient qualification for membership. My advice today to all who love the mountains is, don't hesitate to apply for membership of the Club; your love could grow into a passion. Clubs are meeting points for diverse groups of people possessing similar ideals and interests, enabling them to widen their acquaintances, their knowledge, and their ambitions. As a member of the Himalayan Club, keeping in close touch with it is very worthwhile, and even more so by rendering whatever service one feels able to contribute. It should be borne in mind that the Club's objectives are not confined exclusively to mountain climbing, but to a much wider range of interests and activities relating to the mountain world and its environment, yielding rewards and demanding responsibilities.

In 1946 the Club's fortunes were at an ebb. World War II had just ended in Europe, but not yet in the jungles of the Far East. Many of the pre-war members had left India or were away on military service, and it had become increasingly difficult to find honorary office-bearers to run the Club. There were only thirty new candidates for membership during the six years during 1940-46, raising the total from 497 to 527. Almost all came from men in the armed services who had spent short spells of leave in Sikkim or Kashmir or had attended courses at the Aircrew Mountain Centre, set up in Sonamarg for servicemen recovering from the stresses of war, run by Wilfrid Noyce, John Jackson, and Harry Tilly. A guide-book about the Centre was authored by Noyce and published by the Himalayan Club in June 1945.[2]
Sikkim 1949. Braham in centre. To his left; Ang Tharkey. To his right Sonam and Ajeeba Sherpa. (Trevor Braham)

Sikkim 1949. Braham in centre. To his left; Ang Tharkey. To his right Sonam and Ajeeba Sherpa. (Trevor Braham)

By 1947, a historical year for India, the difficulty of maintaining Delhi as the Club's HQ resulted in its transfer to Calcutta, together with its records and properties which included a limited collection of mountain equipment and a very valuable library, the last catalogue of which was prepared by the librarian of the General Headquarters' library and published in 1944, contained a classified list of books, maps, photographs, expedition reports, and a variety of scientific papers covering several regions, some of them dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries; including official Survey of India Reports Vols. 1-18 dated from 1909-1931, plus an index of authors' names. All the material originally stored in Delhi was restored, I believe, to the same location when the seat of the Club was shifted once again from Calcutta to Mumbai, where at the time, no suitable storage facilities were available.

Not long after the move from Delhi to Calcutta, Charles Crawford took over as President. It was largely he who was responsible for projecting the Club into a new era at a time when it seemed to face an uncertain future. The Club was then just eighteen years old and it seemed that the time was opportune to design new objectives for it in order to ensure its future. Crawford realised that an enormous task lay ahead, trying to knit together almost a decade of broken strands, and to revive, reshape and redirect the Club's activities in line with current changes. Early in 1949 he persuaded me into the role of Honorary Secretary, and I remember vividly the long evenings we spent together after a day's work at our respective offices, burning the midnight oil in our efforts to trace lost members, plan measures to restore the Club's activities, and generally bring it back to life by introducing a fresh image. By 1951, the first Newsletter was published which declared unequivocally, 'the Club is not dead, it is not even dying'. Lectures began to be organised and social evenings were held at the United Services Club. At one function, an early member (who shall be nameless) turned up suitably dressed for trekking in the mountains and was surprised to find a gathering of ladies and men all wearing evening dress!

The tradition of welcoming and assisting foreign expeditions in India was resumed. In 1951, Michael Ward was invited to give members a short account of the first reconnaissance of the south side of Everest led by Eric Shipton. In June 1953, the Club was fortunate to intercept at Calcutta, a few climbers from the successful Everest team just back from Kathmandu, hosting a dinner for them at the Bengal Club when members were privileged to meet Hunt, Hillary and Tenzing, who gave what must have been their first public account of the final stages of the climb to the summit of Everest. They were followed, not long after, by Charles Evans who described his climb to the South summit with Tom Bourdillon. In 1955, a few climbers from the successful Kangchenjunga team were hosted in the homes of members of the Club living in Calcutta, before and after their successful ascent of the mountain.

Spiti 1955. Braham and Rinzing in front of Guan Nelda (now known as Chau Chau Kang Nelda). (Trevor Braham)

Spiti 1955. Braham and Rinzing in front of Guan Nelda (now known as Chau Chau Kang Nelda). (Trevor Braham)

On 23 January 1954, the Himalayan Club held a tea-party in Darjeeling for Sherpas and their families, organised by Mrs Jill Henderson, the much-respected Hon Local Secretary, when Charles Crawford, in one of his last official duties as President, presented Coronation Medals awarded by Her Majesty the Queen, specially inscribed 'Mount Everest Expedition', to 22 Sherpas recommended by Sir John Hunt. At the same function, Tiger Badges were awarded to eight Sherpas for exceptional services during the 1952 and 1953 seasons. They were: Da Namgyal, Ang Namgyal, Ang Nima, Ang Tsering, Ang Temba, Pasang Phutar, Ajeeba, and Nawang Gombu, who is present with us this evening, and is now an Honorary member of the Himalayan Club, and one of the last surviving holders of the Club's Tiger Badge.

The first post-war foreign expedition to the Himalaya in 1947 was Swiss, led by Andre Roch. I was invited to join the party of five, and it was a revelation to see the abundance and quality of their equipment and food after the austerity of the long war years. During the two months I spent with them, our first base was on the Gangotri glacier when the main summit of Kedarnath peak was climbed, after which the base was moved to Nandanban on the Chaturangi glacier for the ascent of Satopanth. We had the entire region to ourselves. The sight of Shivling impressed the two professional guides, Roch of Geneva and Graven of Zermatt, but the time for hard technical climbs in the Himalaya was still a few decades away. It was Tenzing's first encounter with Swiss climbers, and his first major appointment as Sirdar replacing Wangdi Norbu who had to be hospitalised after an accident on Kedarnath.

At this time, what the Club needed most was the reappearance of its Journal, a message to members worldwide that it was alive and well. After twelve volumes of scholarly editorship by Prof. Kenneth Mason up to 1940, Wilfrid Noyce gallantly agreed to edit Vol. XIII, which was published by the Oxford University Press in England in 1946 containing 150 pages. It was a slim volume described by Noyce as a 'coming to life'. Vol. XIV, edited by Col. H. W. Tobin, contained even fewer pages. But how wrong Tobin's dismal apprehensions were that it might be the final issue! Tobin continued to edit the next four volumes, all of which were published in England until 1957 the year of his death, each issue increasing in size and content following the resurgence, indeed the rush, of Himalayan activity. The Club with a growing membership, especially in India, was beginning to flourish and I accepted a request to take over the editorship of the Journal after Tobin's death. Volumes one to four had been published in India, and the next fifteen volumes in England, up to Vol. XlXfor 1955-6. Publication was transferred back to India in 1958 with Vol. XX, by which time there were never any doubts about shortage of material - only shortage of time. The Himalayan Golden Age was in full swing, when thirteen of the world's fourteen 8000 m peaks were climbed between 1950 and 1958, several countries vying with each other to be the first to climb an 8000 m peak. Since there had been gaps in the appearance of the previous four volumes of the Journal, I was determined to maintain its annual appearance. In an era preceding e-mails, by publishing in India delays were avoided in printing and proof-reading, apart from bringing about a reduction costs. I was assisted by George Band and John Jackson, who provided material from England for the two volumes that appeared inl957 and 1958, prior to my departure from India in 1959.

In the first issue of the Himalayan Journal, Sir Geoffrey Corbett, one of the principal actors in the founding of the Club, mentioned that the name initially proposed was The Alpine Club of India, which was dropped because it was felt that the Club should aim to encompass a wider range of objectives. The basic rules of the Club were defined in line with those of the Alpine Club, London, and the two clubs have always enjoyed close relations. Corbett concluded his Introduction (I quote from Vol. I) 'And so the Himalayan Club is founded, and we hope great things of it. ... My hope is that it may help to rear a breed of men in India, hard and self-reliant, who will know how to enjoy life on the high hills.' A wish that he would have rejoiced to see fulfilled.

On top of Monte Rosa 1951. Braham and his guide Arthur Lochmatter. (Trevor Braham)

On top of Monte Rosa 1951. Braham and his guide Arthur Lochmatter. (Trevor Braham)

After this longer-than- intended sketch of the Club's early years I do not have much time left, but I would like to add a few words more. The Himalayan Club was never meant to be, and is not, exclusively concerned with mountain climbing. Trekking to unfrequented areas in the heart of the mountains and exploring all that Nature has to offer are equally satisfying to genuine mountain lovers. For the less ambitious, as I am now, I have discovered less strenuous ways of deriving enjoyment in the mountains by becoming more acutely aware of innumerable other pleasures that mountains have the power to provide. It is generally believed that mountain climbers, like those who practice other sports, are egoistic, drivenby a craving to be first and to win public acclaim by achieving the seemingly unachievable. Although regarded as a sport, mountain climbing is not fundamentally about winning prizes, unlike other sports, which involve competition as their manifest purpose. Mountain climbers, essentially attracted by mountains, strive to master the physical and psychological skills required to deal with the challenges that the mountains demand, an activity revealing personal strengths and weaknesses and yielding rewards that are uniquely personal.

A late 19th century artist and Alpine climber was about right when he remarked that there are no dangerous mountains, only dangerous mountaineers. The American climber, Ed Vestieurs, was expressing the thoughts of a majority when he said, 'getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory'.

In recent years there have been cases of climbers who, seeing a fellow-climber in distress on a mountain, have chosen to turn a blind eye to the human need for relief, declining to provide assistance in order to satisfy personal ambitions. The Alpine Club is to introduce a scheme, international in scope, Spirit of Mountaineering Commendation, to recognise a self-sacrificing act in difficult conditions on a mountain. It will take the form of a specially crafted document signed by the President of the Club recognising and thanking the recipient, on behalf of all mountaineers everywhere, for an unselfish act. The Award would not apply to a rescue team on call-out.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who died recently at the age of 88, was unique in seeking to reward the Sherpas of Solu Khumbu for their major contribution to Himalayan mountaineering by building and maintaining the first schools and medical clinics in their region. He stated that he personally regarded that as the greatest achievement of his life. He never sought the limelight, he simply got the job done. He represented all the finest human qualities, as a mountaineer and a man. His reward was that he lived to see the success of his work resulting in his most far-reaching expectations.

Finally, I feel that I cannot conclude without a word of praise for Harish Kapadia and his several enthusiastic colleagues in Mumbai, who have turned the Himalayan Club into what it is today. Also to Meher Mehta in Kolkata. There are others in Delhi whom regrettably I have not met who must also share the credit. We owe to all of them our warm thanks for upholding the traditions and enhancing the activities of the Himalayan Club, and for their commitment to guiding its future towards continuing growth and prosperity.

There are only twenty years to go before the Himalayan Club arrives at a landmark Anniversary!


Recalling the author's long association with the Himalayan Club.

[1] Himalayan Playground, by Trevor Braham

[1] The local villagers move up the valleys only during four months of rains (chaumaas) Otherwise six foot wide forest trails {chhe footia) are always empty.

[2] A Climbers Guide to Sonamarg. In later years, a revised copy was published by the Club, which was edited by John Jackson.