Old Letters

A. D. Moddie

When anecdotage is exhausted, one finds old letters of earlier days of mountain friends. I leave it to the discretion of the editor of the Himalayan Journal (HJ) to decide whether they are worth sharing with other Himalayan Club (HC) members. If so, it may stir others to find their old letters of 30 or 50 years ago; of times and people forgotten. Heralding a new genre of writing for the I IP. This small collection of letters includes one from L. R. Fawcus ICS, Peter Aufsneiter in Lhasa (30.11.1949), my letter to PM Nehru (30.11.1947) and responses from the Govt, of India to explore the then unknown southern route to Everest, from and to Tobin, an early editor of the HJ (15.5.1953 and 8.9.1953), from my old cherished mountain companion, the well- known Gurdial Singh (25.11.1954), from Christian Bonnington sitting at the foot of the Eiger (7.8.1961) and, most amusing, to and from Hari Dang on Everest (1962). What do mountain affairs and mountaineers look like at this distance of time of about half a century?

After my return from my first Himalayan climb on Lama Angden in Sikkim in 1946,1 sent a copy of the account to L. R. Fawcus ICS, then president of the HC. He very kindly replied from the US Club Calcutta on 18.3.1947 to say, 'I have read with greatest interest and considerable admiration for what may fairly be called a pioneering effort'. Pioneering and amateur it certainly was in 1946. No basic and advanced courses at mountaineering schools then no equipment either and, of course, no climbing experience. The lady who was later to become my wife, stitched that first kuccha sleeping bag from American army World War II disposals, bought on the streets of Calcutta. Two excellent solid rubber bags too, which have served me on many Himalayan trips. They gave a good laugh to my German companions in Ladakli as late as 1986.

As my Lama Angden account contained daily met. data of temperature and weather, Fawcus asked me to include in future, 'something of animal life, and of rocks which you came across', which I also did in collecting ammonite fossils, with Gurdial Singh, in the fossil belt near Bara Hoti, north of Nanda Devi, in 1959. When I sent them to the Geological Survey of India for classification and dating, some simple bureaucrat sent me a form to fill in and convey 'date and time of discovery' after 60 million years! Later interest in rocks was aesthetic not scientific. When it comes to stones of shape, colour and character, 1 am in empathy with Jejuri folk in Aran Kolatkar's famous work, Jejuri.

What is god

And what is stone

The dividing line

If it exists

Is very thin

At Jejuri

And every other stone

Is god or his cousin.

What may interest others was that this first President of the Himalayan Club I knew also said: 'I always feel that mountaineering has it highest justification and ultimate value, not in the number of peaks attained, but in the sum total of human knowledge contributed by men like yourself.' A reflection of the broad objectives of the HC, since diluted by peak-bagging, he urged me to be a member later. Though my small contributions to Himalayan knowledge have been more indirect than direct, through organisations I have helped to set up, like the Central Himalayan Eco-Development Association of scientists and professionals in Nainital (1980), and ICIMOD, Kathmandu (1983) for the whole Hindu Kush-Himalaya.

Next, I found a letter from the unrecognised and forgotten Peter Aufsneiter when I used to correspond with him in Lhasa in 1949. Less well known than his companion, Heinrich Harrer of Seven Years in Tibet fame, the world knows very little of the meticulous research that Aufsneiter did in Tibet, after they escaped there as prisoners of war in World War II from Dehra Dun. He begins by telling me my letters took two months to reach him in Lhasa from India. He related how Swami Pranavananda's map in his. I Pilgrims Guide to Holy Mansarovar and Kailash helped them in preparing their own maps for the escape across the passes of Garhwal. It was 'innocent enough to escape the censor in the internment camp in Dehra Dun'. Local people and even Indian officials helped them in their escape, even staying four days in an official Inspection Bungalow without detection. When they left Europe in 1939 they thought they 'would be away forfive months'. They spent a happy, interesting, eventful decade in Tibet, until the Chinese arrival. One of my deepest regrets was that I never inquired from him about his research in Tibet. I wonder if the German Alpine Club has any information. HC officials, after 1947, should have been in this quest with him then. If I had accepted my first posting in the IFS in 1947, as Trade Agent in Gyantse, I might have had a first hand opportunity to do so.

In 1949, when I was a district officer on the Indo-Nepal border, and Mao seized Peking (now Beijing), Iknewthen that the post-war northern route to Everest would be closed. Being a public servant, and wanting to involve the scientists of the government, besides a physiologist friend and Desmond Doig, an ex Gurkha Officer in The Statesman, Calcutta, I was bold enough to write to PM Nehru on began by saying no one in India then was interested in mountain exploration. I said I had paid a private visit to Nepal and secured permission from the Maharaja of Nepal for an exploratory approach to the southern route to Everest via Namche Bazar. I had also said I had approached Dr West, DG, Geological Survey of India to send a suitable geologist. I estimated the cost at Rs. 6000 - unbelievable now - and requested the PM's support. I got a reply from Dr West dated 9.2.50, to say that they intended to have two parties working in Nepal in the spring. However, if the work in Nepal was not undertaken, they could depute an officer to accompany me, and the equipment and travelling expenses would be met by the Survey.

The letter to the PM must have floated in government scientific bureaucracy for the next 9 months! I got a reply seven months later from V. V. Sahani, D G Observatories, dated 21.8.1950, convener of a scientific committee appointed by the Dept. of Scientific Research, then under the PM himself, asking me to, a) provide a brief note setting out objectives, b) probable composition and tentative programme of the expedition (planned for in spring 1950) and asking me to appear before the committee in October 1950!

Which I did. I received no reply since even though I had pointed out in my letter of 22.9.1950 to the committee, that apart from scientific exploration a) some of the best British officers were groomed in the Himalayan/Central Asian region; and b) not anticipating 1962, 'the military value of such interest and training was not inconsiderable,' on our frontiers. Shipton had organised the first exploratory expedition and opened up the southern route to Everest in 1951. Everest and scientific exploration did not seem to stir the PM and government, until Tensing-Daijeeling domiciled - got global recognition with the first ascent of Everest on Hunt's expedition in 1953. But summits and chauvinism usually go together. In the next few years India's chauvinism with Himalayan summits suddenly erupted with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Daijeeling (with Tensing as Chief Instructor), and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in Delhi to promote (and, of course, regulate) Indian mountaineering. Governments teach 'kismet' or fate more decisively and more continuously than God!

When I wrote to the PM in 1949 from my Indo-Nepal border district of Madhubani, I intended to go north into Nepal from Jaynagar, the rail-head on the border; I did not even dream then that over a decade later, Indian expeditions to Everest would take off from Jaynagar - a strange coincidence.

More than a quarter of a century later, when I was President of the Himalayan Club, and Shipton gave us a talk in Delhi, I was able to personally congratulate him on opening the southern route to Everest. It was a pleasure to meet one of the greatest exploring mountaineers of the 20th century. I also met Odell at the HC's 50th anniversary, when I told him his account of his last days on Everest seeking the lost Mallory and Irvine so moved me as a boy, when I was vice-captain of Mallory House in a Daijeeling school, and the titular keeper of Mallory's compass retrieved by Odell himself from their last camp at 8230 m and gifted by Mrs. Mallory to the school.

In 1953,1 submitted an article to the HJ on 'Babur's crossing of the Zirrin Pass in 1506', in which I thought he displayed the leadership qualities of the leader of a modern mountain expedition. It was extracted from his Baburnama. It was considered offbeat, and roused the interest of Col. Tobin, the then editor of the HJ. He found it 'a valuable and exceptionally interesting contribution'. He asked me to identify the Zirrin Pass and to provide a sketch map with Babur's route. I told him I was unable to locate the pass earlier, and Babur left no sketch map of his route. As I had described myself as a Himalayan tramp, he wanted accounts of my tramps, regretting the absence of Indian contributors: especially an account from Gurdial Singh on the ascent of Trisul, which he then considered 'unique for an Indian'. He also had hopes of an account 'of the Indian attempt on Kamet'. Those were the days when Indian climbing was just budding, and Guru, the pioneer was a shy man. Unfortunately, he was succeeded by some who were not so modest.

Next, a letter dated 27.11.54 from Guru asking me to collect some rocks sent through Martyn of the Doon School and Raja Ram of St. Stephen's College for Dr Wadia, famous pioneering head of the Geological survey, 'to revel at the prospect of doing a bit of professional work'. Typically, he refrained from using terms Tike fossils or fossile ferrous rocks for I am not certain which I should use'. He had found them 'on the border ridge of Upper Garhwal and Tibet, two stages distant from Niti'. He thought they were ammonites from the Jurassic period. Fifty years later, I have no recollection of what became of them. In 1959, Guru went beyond rocks to say some nice things about my mountain writing, about them being 'full of emotion, so intimate and personal.' Unduly flattering, he said it 'reminded somewhat of Leslie Stephen's Playground of Eur ope, and 'lestyou construe this as excessive flattery, (which I think it was), let me hasten to add that I merely imply that your descriptions are vivid, genuine and all that sort of thing.' In all this I though the most appropriate word was 'somewhat'. But coming from a very discriminating person like Guru, it was encouraging.

Before ending, he gave the estimated cost of an intended trip to the Har ki Doon as Rs.700 for six weeks. Just for the curiosity of contemporary climbers and trekkers! Back then we could have such fun and go to beautiful Himalayan places on Rs.500 for each expedition.

From Guru to Hari Dang, is both a small and a big jump; small as they were then masters at Doon School and fellow climbers; big in that they were miles apart as individuals. Of all these exchanges of letters those with Hari were the most unique and the most amusing. I may be permitted to quote, relishing my provocation to him, when he was on Everest.

'Now this will amuse you. I was reading JohnFeiffer's Galaxies to Man, and when it came to the fore-runners of man, part ape part man, I got a new insight into the old question 'why climb?' Not because mountains 'are there' or because of a quest of the spirit, or to work off one's aggressiveness. None of the stock stuff. Perhaps the true scientific answer some day may be because we inherit the instincts, the feel of our ancestors before they were men. They have been men for less than 300,000 years. But for millions of years before that man (or rather pre-man) found himself a creature of the rock, the cliff, the high point from which to observe. He was not fast enough to hold his own on the prairie or the plain; nor strong enough - or as yet ingenious enough - to make the cave his home. It must have been a bloody place of the tooth and the claw. The bear and the tiger were master there. So this biped forerunner of ours, still a vegetarian without tools to kill bigger animals, huddled above the plains and the valleys, half-shielded under ledges and overhanging rocks. His fellows were the goats and the foxes and the birds.

From his high ledge he came down to share the leftovers of the flesh devoured by fiercer creatures. Acquiring a taste for meat he became a hunter with primitive tools, first stones and sticks, later flints and sharp weapons. He could now take on the larger creatures. So he moved into the caves, roamed the plains as a huntsman, and left behind those high places where he was once a watcher, a careful creature who fed on roots and shrubs. Living that way he enjoyed the sensations of high places longer than he has done the security of a care in the valley or a house in the plain.

We inherit, in part, those primeval urges. When we sit on a slope or ledge with our backs to the wall, when we look around from the heights, we have as much of Oreopithecus (if not more), as of Ruskin or Darwin. The 'cultural mutations' which have now brought cartography, geology and physiology are, at best, only skin deep; the happenings and the experiences of the last two hundred years in a history of at least two million.'

Unfortunately, I can't find Hari's angry, rattled reply. But I remember, to my surprise, instead of amusing him, I had provoked him; possible more so with a comparative reference of Junglewala (literal name of an earnest Parsi on the expedition). At the time I put down Hari's fury to altitude! My letter reached him at Camp 3 on Nuptse.

On his return, frost bitten on the upper slopes of Everest, he wrote to me again from the military hospital, New Delhi on 4.7.62, 'regretting his petulant note from Camp III'. I quote that first paragraph to give his true reactions in his own words,

Dear Moddie,

Almost immediately after writing you that petulant note from Camp III, I regretted it; not, mind you, because I had changed my mind about the egregious misclassification with a genuine oreopithicus that had prompted it, but because I realized the folly and futility of arguments by post. One day I shall meet you in person and convince you that the instincts aroused in me by high mountains, specially by not-so-high mountain areas, perhaps dissimilar to yours, have no resemblance whatsoever with those which awaken in the ambitious, empty and fatuous heads of persons you chose, in such an obvious insult to intelligence, to bracket me with. However let us say no more of it

Even on reflection he was trailing dark clouds of resentment over Oreopitheus and Junglewala!

After a clear account of the failed summit attempt, he referred to 'investigations into case histories of suicides by famous, creative men; as these which has often crossed my mind.' In the PS in his own hand he wrote, 'Do write again.' Presumably forgiven. Unfortunately we have hardly seen each other since. Especially as he went off as headmaster in St. Paul's, Daijeeling.

Then the last letter is from Christian Bonington (as signed then, now commonly called Chris), 'sitting below the north wall of Eiger, waiting for it to come into 'condition', in Grindlewald, Switzerland. Being a Unilever management trainee then, Chris was put on to me on his first Himalayan visit to Annapurna. We met in Bombay. I was then down as a 'cardiac suspect'. We have met since on his later trips to India, though briefly. Time seems to have distanced one he once called his 'first Indian friend'. His letter of 7.8.1961 was a long (five pages) one in his small hand writing in which he described his return overland journey, and found; the desert of Baluchistan and S.E. Persia shall forever capture my imagination', As it has done mine over a larger canvas, flying over them.

The Persians were far from 'his liking' (I better not disclose his frank private comments), but Turkey was a 'pleasant change'. At Chamonix, he met Don Whillans by previous engagement, 'one of the greatest mountaineers active today'. They wanted to climb the north wall of the Eiger, because 'it is undoubtedly one of the greatest mountaineering routes in the Alps'. He said they were accompanied by two Poles, who were sent to climb the Eiger. 'If they don't get up it might mean they are not allowed to come to the Alps again. This certainly isn't mountaineering as we know it. Talking to them it seems even worse in Russia and the Chinese attitude to climbing is best left unmentioned.' I have often wondered at our own sirkari climbing under the auspices of the IMF.

Bonington said he was joining Van den Berghs (a Unilever Company) on 4 September. But the rewarding life of the last six months and the stress of climbing Nuptse brought him to the critical decision of his life: business or mountaineering?

He has chosen and distinguished himself in the latter. To be nearer the Himalaya at the time, he ended the letter adding, 'I wish I was coming out as your sales manager'. He did far better. As one of the first who has made a unique success of professional mountaineering as a career, with all its economic implications in the publishing and the publicity world: one recalls his youthful comments from Grindlewald in 1961 with a smile: 'waiting here has shown me a lot of what is hateful in the Commercialisation and Publicity of mountaineering'. The capital letters of the two 'hateful' things are significant in the context of later years. Big summits call for big money, from governments in socialist countries, and from commercial publicity in capitalist ones. Small is beautiful in most things, including mountain pleasures.

After writing this, I could not resist the temptation to return to my 1958 copy of Shipton's account in the chapter on 'Exploring the Everest Range', in Explorers and Travellers Tales. It went far beyond exploring the southern route to Everest. It was a remarkable Shiptonesque adventure, into unknown valleys, gorges, glaciers and passes within a radius of 20 miles from the summit of Everest. With the two New Zealanders, it added to school boy panache with tracks of the yeti, the prankish, near-death floating down the dashing Aran on a couple of tied lilos, and finally ending up at the railhead of Jogbari; with Hillary and

Lowe indulging with passion the eating of 160 bananas in 24 hours, and with Shipton going ill with a surfeit of mangoes.

And I continue reading this old book, lying neglected for 40 years of insect-eating in a sultry climate, literally crumbling in my hands with dust and loose bits peeling off the black cover making a dirty mess. Even the two hungry New Zealanders could not have accomplished such minute, intensive, prolonged consumption, leaving thousands of holes in cove and pages. Must have it rebound after fumigation.


The author shares old letters and anecdotes of early mountaineering years.