Travels in the Lesser Himalaya

William Mackay (Bill) Aitken

Transcript of an address delivered in Delhi on 15 March 2008 during the 80th Anniversary celebrations of the Himalayan Club

80th anniversary platforms require one speaker to appear suitably geriatric without being entirely senile. I have the honour to fit the bill.

Gatherings like this in America, I am told, do not end until the fat lady sings. In Delhi, mountaineering meets do not end until Chris Bonington speaks. For a whole generation now, he has been an exemplary honorary member of the Club commuting to the Himalaya annually and is always ready to share his findings with members on his return. Such loyalty constitutes the Club's real assets and his generous instincts account in large measure why we are able to be here celebrating the Club's 80th anniversary.

Sir Chris is popularly identified with expeditions to the Great Himalaya, though in recent times he has relocated his affections and writes with pleasure about the Lesser range, a terrain less trodden but endowed with a character of its own.

The highest peak, Churdhar, a shade under twelve thousand feet, corresponds to the lowest point on the crest of the Great Himalaya and ironically Churdhar was the highest peak climbed by Sir George Everest. Not only is the view from the top stunning, but it is free from the demands of peak fees, permits and father's name (- if any!).

In view of our date with the ladies Nanda Devi and Chomolungma this evening, it is fitting that our president Suman Dubey is well acquainted with the moods and persona of both. The Club is fortunate in installing problem solvers at the helm and our outgoing president Dr Gill retires with bouquets of blessings for succeeding in the impossible mission of providing members a Club centre in Mumbai.

With climatic changes and the planned diversion of rivers on the Roof of the World, traditional assumptions on the role of the Himalaya urgently require reconsideration and the Club is well placed to engender meaningful debate. We are indebted to our other distinguished speaker

Harish Kapadia for stimulating such discussion in the club journal. Harish's success as an editor has been to unscramble conflicting data.

In the Himalayan arena no one has sacrificed more than Harish and Geeta. All who cherish life's noblest instincts honour the memory of their son Lieutenant Nawang Kapadia of the 4th Battalion 3rd Gorkhas and a Club member who laid down his life in protecting the ordinary citizen's freedom to enjoy the Himalaya.

Many imagine the aim of the Himalayan Club is to climb mountains but primarily the Club's brief is to encourage travel in, and extend knowledge of, the range. The spectrum of subjects included in the latest 63rd issue of the Himalayan Journal proves that the Club welcomes hikers as much as climbers, the scientifically endowed as well as the muscularly disposed and bird, plant and wild life lovers as much as peak baggers.

The very first club meeting I attended just down the road, in 1981, was a Kafkaesque experience. Confined in a narrow room choked by an enormous bureaucratic table, my view of Jack Gibson's slides was obscured by a Yul Brynner hair style. Its owner turned out to be Romesh Bhattachaiji, who has proved to be my most enduring mountaineering preceptor. Bhatto's enthusiasm is unquenchable and he comes up with the most creative itineraries. At the Narkanda dak bungalow, Bhatto, his twins and I discovered the recipe for making a skiing weekend lodge forever in the memory - four pairs of legs and one set of skis.

At the very time Shipton and Tilman were winning their way in to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, I was born in a village overlooking Dum- y-at, a bonnie wee peak in the Ochil Hills that according to Sir Walter Scott, offers the best view in Scotland. Atop Dum-y-at the music of the spheres gives aural evidence that you do not have to wait until you are dead to experience the kingdom of heaven. And for those in ardent visual search of the Spirit, Dum-y-at yields an overview of the greatest store of bonded whisky on our planet.

Twenty five years later I hitchhiked overland from Britain, ostensibly to check out those living religions of the world I had just studied. On reaching Kolkata, I ran out of road and took a teaching job to earn the boat fare to Penang. While browsing through the shelves of the Asiatic Society library in Park Street, fate placed in my hands

Eric Shipton's book on Nanda Devi. It was love at first sight and my global tour was halted in its tracks. But for the agency of the Club, that recruited Ang Tharkay, Pasang and Kusang, who made the Sanctuary discoveries possible, I would have continued round the world none the wiser and missed the most meaningful darshan of my life.

My first view of the Himalaya was in May 1960 when I went with a Kolkata teacher colleague to Rishikesh. We hoped to reach Badrinath, but without an inner line permit were turned back at the suspension bridge in Rudraprayag where Jim Corbett had tried to shoot the man- eating leopard.

Instead I repaired to Mussoorie to learn Hindi and trekked around the Aglar valley along which Heinrich Harrer had escaped to Tibet. Mussoorie's magic decided me to leave my Kolkata teaching job and come and live in the Himalaya.

I chose Kausani because of its ringside view of Nanda Devi and after four years moved southwest along the same ridge to my guru's ashram near Jageshwar. I find this watershed walk from Kausani to Jageshwar, an idyllic two day outing with a halt at Binsar overnight, remains my favourite trek.

Every season holds its own magic and in those days the forest khattas for seasonal grazing were empty outside chaumaas. Binsar was completely unoccupied and you could walk the junglat chhe footia the whole day without meeting a soul, save for surprising the occasional kakar or ghooral.1
Though I have since trekked in Ladakh, Himachal, Nepal and Arunachal, I find Uttarakhand possesses the kind of scenery I respond to. I was lucky in 1962 to be able to trek across middle Uttarakhand, from Almora to Pauri, by the old British bridle path before the border war with China launched a flurry of road- making.

My twelve years in Kumaun, though spent with Nanda Devi as a background presence, were devoted to attempts onMons Philosophorum and Mount Analogue. If Rene Daumal had lived to complete his masterpiece, he might have developed the theme that we climb to dispel the false notions about our identity that society lumbers us with in order to discover who we really are.

Queen Victoria was not entirely wrong in thinking Alpine climbing a subversive pastime. Mountaineering can be a fatal enemy to the established order by stirring a passion for those things that soar beyond the temporal. It forges trans-national bonds and like music shares a universal language.

When I moved to my present Mussoorie base in 1972 it coincided with a slackening of inner line restrictions and, approaching middle age I needed to make up for lost time. By the grace of Nanda Devi I was able to enter the Sanctuary three times in the early eighties and was one of the voices raised in favour of seeking for its unique beauty, world heritage status.

I hoped that the authorities would follow the closure of access to peaks from inside the Sanctuary by opening alternative approaches from outside. It didn't happen and I apologise for my misplaced trust.

As a student of the Devi's lore, I could continue my treks outside her sacred enclosure. From Dunagiri and the Bagini glacier I skirted the Devi's massif via Kuari, Rupkund and Pindari all the way round to Munsiyari and Milam.

Above all I rejoiced in the rampantly pagan mood of Garhwal's buggiyals, those archetypal Elysian Fields where whinnying horses thunder by with flying manes to match the ecstatic abandon felt within the heart. Bedni Bugiyal and the meadows around Martoli, I find every bit as appetising as those in the Sanctuary, especially in the rainy season when the carpet of flowers put on an exorbitant exhibition of colour and scent in an unabashed flaunting of Nature's sexuality.

If asked what is the most important thing to take on any outing to the Himalaya, I would say by all means pack a Swiss knife, sun block cream and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But make sure you carry a sense of wonder.

Once, exhausted after crossing Dharansi in light snow, I collapsed on to some slabs and was treated to a whiplash performance by a pair of curious Himalayan weasels. By turn they darted in and out of their hole to glare indignantly at their uninvited guest. I marvelled at how nature fashions such beauty of form in what till then seemed lifeless surroundings. Astounded by the fluidity of their reflexes I laughed out loud and found my exhaustion vanish from the therapy of their companionship.

As I moved out of my fifties, the prospect of making acquaintance with the full extent of the Himalaya seemed beyond my wit. But Bhatto's versatility again came to the rescue. In those days, motor biking was viewed as disruptive technology but Bhatto's write-ups of motorbike marathons appealed enormously to my physiographically inclined tastes.

Having been delivered from the stationary state, I invested in a twenty year old Jawa motorbike I called Mary Poppins. Within minutes of learning to ride her in Mussoorie, I collided with a party of six dotials outside the Savoy hotel. By paying them six hundred rupees compensation I insured myself against further calamities and in fact rode from Daijeeling to the Khardung la without as much as a puncture.

Though I never found a tiger in my tank, I very nearly had a leopard in my lap. Some years back, at twilight cruising down to Solan with the engine switched off, coming out of a bend I was forced to brake hard to avoid a large animal ambling across the road. When I peered closer to identify the interloper, I froze to find a full grown leopard, only ten yards away. He tried jumping up a steep earth embankment but to the embarrassment of us both, fell off. Then, grunting in disgust, (as if to say, 'Bloody motorcyclists'), he loped back the way he had come.

According to Maulana Rumi, 'If Allah breaks your leg, He gives you a wing.' In my case, suffering from an arthritic knee, the Almighty provided a faster bike. Bored by my inactivity in Delhi a few months back I climbed aboard the Pulsar and did a marvellously invigorating circuit of dev bhoomi.

Instead of returning by the short familiar riverine road between Chamoli and Rudraprayag, I committed the bike to an alternative interior route of 150 kilometres that climbs to Pokhri for a fabulously scenic view of Garhwal's four quarters. The narrow road admitting only a motorbike in places, rises to dense stands of conifer, oak and rhododendron, with pheasants skittering before your front wheel.

Revelling in fast open stretches that skirt yawning chasms, the bike finally plunged down snaking bends into the pine layer to meet the confluence of the Alaknanda and Mandakini. In one day I covered a selection of sylvan species that would have delighted the heart of a Hobbit.

Another outcome of my unscheduled circuit of dev bhoomi was to unexpectedly meet Joydeep Sircar, chronicler extraordinary of Himalayan expeditions, in Joshimath's cold and echoing tourist bungalow. I hope I convinced Joydeep to pen his proposed anthology of anecdotes of India's unsung Himalayan characters, those ordinary people who, by their loyalty, industry and early morning cups of tea make the successes happen.

Those of us blessed with surplus cash and energy tend to ignore the grim truth that life for villagers in the Himalaya is full of heartbreaks. To offset the illusion spread by the range's romantic associations, realistic appraisal, wider understanding and above all the caring attitude of Sir Edmund Hillary - reflected in Michael Dillon's entrancing film[1] - is required of visitors.

Organised porter welfare is a growing need and it is good to see that recently the Club issued an appeal to support the family of a young porter who died of altitude sickness in the Karakoram far from his home in Kumaun. This follows members' generous support for the ailing Tiger, Topgay Sherpa, in his retirement years.

The next day I bumped into a famous character in the Joshimath bazaar, the local guide actually hired by Sir Edmund Hillary for his Ocean to Sky expedition but now reduced by drink to penury. More depressing was to continue to Lata and find my own porter struck down by a nervous disorder. Following my return from the first Sanctuary adventure, I only survived a near death experience on a river crossing thanks to this heroic Lata thakur who had humped me over on his back. Now destiny had reversed our roles, leaving me helpless at not being able to repay a karmic debt.

Had he slipped that morning crossing the Dibrugheta torrent, I would have been dead in the water. Ironically only minutes later, home and dry, I experienced the most illuminating moment of my life. It happened as dawn lit up the ineffable galaxy of peaks viewed from the Malathuni curtain; and remained unbidden for the three hour passage across Dharansi to Lata Kharak.

It was a state of something like super-consciousness, the only time the full meaning of life and the infiniteness of its glory lias been made manifest. It confirmed my instinct that homo sapiens for most of the time is homo soporiferus who behaves like a sleepwalker in relation to his potential for fully awakened consciousness.

Note that these discoveries befell one who had climbed no summit but only fulfilled a deep desire to be at one with the freedom and intoxication mountain air at any altitude gives.

What I call home now in Mussoorie at 6000 ft (1830 m) is as much a level of heart's ease, as a location. I can pinpoint its arrival by the coordinates of a species of broad leaved tree fluttering in the first upsurge of cool mountain breeze. As anyone who has been in love knows, the state of flutter is a preliminary to a more lasting mood of calm well being.

Let me end this personal vote of thanks to the range that begat the Himalayan Club by quoting from the experience of another fey Scot, whose reverie was occasioned by contemplation of a close neighbour of Nanda Devi.

Mesmerised by the soaring lines of the Shining Mountain viewed from Dunagiri base camp. Bill Murray just sat and gazed and gazed at the sheer loveliness of Changabang. Finding no words adequate to convey his feelings, he inwardly 'gave thanks that such tilings should be'.

Many of us would find the essence of our mountain philosophy echoed in that silent benediction.


The author reminiscences on his travels in the Himalaya.

[1] Beyond Everest (2000) - the On Going Climb.