When I protested that I was 86 years old and had done no mountaineering of any sort for many years, our esteemed and indefatigable editor said, ‘But then you must have so many memories; write about them.’ This reminded me of the first meeting of the Geneva Section of the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC; in French it’s Club Alpin Suisse, CAS) that I attended. As a new member, the President introduced me to the assembly, all very formal and very Swiss.
After the formalities, a group of elderly members asked me to sit with them and tell them about myself. I was 26 years old and considered myself young. ‘When you are young, you climb,’ they told me. ‘When you grow old like us, you just talk about what you did when you were young.’ Of course, I had thought then that though others might, I would never grow old.
To my surprise, I did, so let me talk about climbs of long ago, with all the embellishments that age sanctions... When I started climbing, René Dittert told me, ‘Keep a diary. Write an account of the climb you’ve done immediately while it’s fresh in your mind. One forgets easily. I keep my diary in my office and the first thing I do on Monday mornings is to write an account of the weekend’s climb.’ Of course, I thought that while others might, I would never forget. To my surprise, I did. How very wrong I was! And how hard I kick myself for not having kept a diary.
There is a sad ending to the story of René’s diary. In the middle of a night in 1966, the annex in which he worked caught fire and his desk and his diary perished in the flames.
I was lucky when I first came to Geneva. When I joined the International Labour Office (ILO) in 1947, I was asked to remain in India and serve on the secretariat of the ILO’s first Asian Regional Conference. One of the officials who came over from Geneva to man (or should I say ‘woman’?) the Conference was Loulou Boulaz, probably the foremost woman climber of her time. She promised to initiate me to the climbing world when I got to Geneva, and so she did.
I finally got to Geneva in December 1948, and in the spring of the following year, I was in Loulou’s office, ready for my initiation. She picked up the phone and called Raymond Lambert, Geneva’s best known guide, and told him that she had a client for him who was bursting with enthusiasm but was a novice.1 But I had a car; this was still relatively rare. Loulou arranged for me to pick up Raymond at 4.30 next morning and I had my first lesson in rock climbing on the Salève, a mountain that I got to know intimately over the years. Twenty minutes by car, a fifteen minute walk, and you had dozens of possibilities before you, from easy to extremely difficult.
For a four hour outing with an outstanding guide, it cost me the princely sum of Frs. 15! (In those days, a rupee was worth a wee bit more than a franc). I continued with Lambert regularly once a week for the next few weeks; next year he took me up the Matterhorn. Together with Mt. Blanc, it seemed to be something that you just had to get off your chest.
He urged me to join the Alpine Club. I had two reasons for being hesitant; the first was that I was a beginner (‘so is everyone when they begin,’ said Raymond wisely, ‘and you are no longer a beginner and anyway there are plenty of beginners in the Club.’) The second, which I didn’t confess to anyone, was that the Club had no ‘coloured’ persons among its members and I thought I would stick out like a sore thumb. In the event this proved completely wrong; I was warmly welcomed and I never had the least feeling that my colour made any difference.
Loulou herself took me on the Salève a couple of times. On one such occasion, we saw Raymond Lambert with a client above us; ‘I’ve stolen your client,’ she called out gaily. And she took me up a route which was new to her as well.
2. When I was young
I had joined the Tennis Club and on my first day, looking for a partner, I met Joseph Dittert of the UN. He told me that his brother was in India just then. It clicked. ‘Do you mean René Dittert?’ I asked. Not only Yes to that but I also learnt that René was an ILO official! As soon as he returned from his Himalayan expedition, I met him and he took me on the Salève several times. The most difficult passage on the Salève that I did - the Grande Arete - was with him. Loulou had taken me up the Petite Arete. I hadn’t realized what a useful organisation the ILO was!
I continued my love affair with the Salève over the years; my regular companions were Richard Peplow and Renzo Zanon, but when they weren’t available I would go by myself and do the Route Nationale, a round trip offering several variants. When I was too old for this, I would take one of the several paths offering a pleasant half day’s walk. When I was even older, my wife and I would drive up to a delightful restaurant, offering views of the Mt. Blanc range on one side, and the Juras on the other.
On the Route Nationale, there is one passage where you approach a fearsome overhang with no visible way of avoiding it. But just below the overhang, there is hole in the rock wall; you can wriggle feet-first through it and land on the other side, La Grotte de la Mule. This hole can’t be seen until you are right next to it. It was a standard ploy to lead a newcomer up there without telling him of the hole. I took Gurdial Singh there when he first came to Geneva; to my chagrin, he remained completely unfazed.
During my first summer, 1949, I was also introduced to the Alps by Archie Evans; another ILO colleague who had climbed with the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club as well as the CAS before the war. He was a dedicated mountaineer, World Federalist and Boy Scout. It was Archie who sponsored me for membership of the CAS. He led me up my first real summit, the Aiguille du Tour (3540 m) that was also my first experience of a climbing hut, the Albert Premier. Eighteen years later, I took my son up this same mountain but from the Swiss side, with a night in the Cabane du Trient, It was his first Alpine summit; he was 8 years old.
3. Now that I am old
I had several weekends with Archie. In those days, we still used to work on Saturday mornings so we couldn’t leave Geneva till after lunch. One weekend, Archie, Claude Girard (an absolutely amazing skier and climber who had lost his right arm in an accident as a child) set out to do the Grand Cornier. This was a rather stupid idea; we left Geneva at 1 pm and didn’t get to Grimentz, our starting point, till almost 6. It was a five hour walk to the Moiry Hut and we didn’t get there till about 11 pm. The last hour or two was in the dark and rough going. By tacit agreement, we abandoned the idea of the Grand Cornier; we did not get up at 3 am. and contented ourselves by climbing the euphonic Pic de La; closer and easier. Shame on us.
Some thirty years later, I did the same euphonic mountain again with another companion, Ray Manning. How different it was. The autoroute got us to Grimentz in less than two hours; we could drive to within an hour and half of the hut. All in all, it was a pleasant little climb for aging people.
I had just started going regularly with the CAS - they had a climb every weekend - when I was posted to Bangkok for a couple of years. When I returned to Geneva in 1955, I immediately rejoined the CAS and then spent a week at Arnold Glatthard’s Climbing School in Rosenlaui. He had only recently been in India, advising on setting up the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. I felt I had to make up for the lost years in Bangkok. (I don’t want to give a wrong impression; I loved both my job and the way of life in Bangkok - they were lost years only as regards climbing.)
Back to Archie. I once spent four days with him in the Chanrion hut and did a number of climbs from there. It’s such a joy to get back to the hut in time for a bit of a siesta before dinner and not have to gallop down to the car and face a long drive home. On our last day, we did the Ruinette, almost all on rock, some of it crumbling. Archie was approaching 60 so I led the climb and played anchor on the way down. The route was fairly easy to follow and neither of us was paying the attention it deserved.
I lost sight of Archie round a bend and then heard him shout, ‘I can’t go on.’ And a bit later, ‘I can’t turn ; you’ll have to come and help.’ I could have fixed a running belay for myself but the rope wasn’t long enough. ‘I can’t stay here much longer,’ shouted Archie, with a tinge of panic. I stopped wondering how I could belay myself and started down at once. Fortunately there was an outcrop close to him and a belay just gave us the confidence necessary to haul ourselves out of our difficulty.
Important lesson to be learnt. Be constantly alert to the route. Raymond Lambert had often admonished me: watch the route; note signs like a peculiarly shaped rock; remember that a route looks quite different when you are coming down. You would have thought I’d learnt my lesson; well, not quite.
A few years later, I was signed up as usual for the weekend’s climb; this was the Aiguille de Requin, one of the Chamonix needles. The drill in those days was: you signed up on a form kept in the Choitel Optician’s shop on the Corraterie (Choitel was a second generation climber); the Chef de course picked this up on Friday evening and brought it to the Café Valaisan where we met to work out the logistics, mainly whose cars to use next day, how many ropes, slings and mousquetons , and what food we would need and so on. In those days, parking was no problem; to have a car was very useful. That Friday it was raining and the weather report was bad. The Chef decided that it was pointless trying any climb so we had a glass of wine and dispersed.
However, by Sunday the weather had defied the Met and turned quite reasonable; Richard and I decided we would go to Chamonix anyway and do something. I suggested the Clochetons, a series of five ‘clock towers’ of lovely granite. Raymond Lambert had taken me on these, East to West; I suggested we now do them the other way, West to East. A téléphérique half way up the Brevent, a half hour walk, and we were there. I went first; one rope length and I was immediately round a corner so we couldn’t see each other. Turning the corner brought me on the face, with a drop of some 80 m. or so. There was a crack leading up the face; it got narrower and more difficult. Full of hubris, I failed to do the elementary thing: look around to see if I was on the right route. If I had done so, I would have seen where I should have left the crack and crossed over to the edge. Instead I forced myself up, jammed my knee in to get purchase and found I couldn’t un-jam it, try as I might.
If I pulled away from the rock, I would probably free my knee and I would probably also fall free - . 80 m down to a jumble of large rocks. Finally I gave up and called to Richard to come and help. (Shades of Archie on the Ruinette?) Fortunately, we had enough rope this time, so he could fix a belay, come round the corner and up. He got his shoulder under my foot and pushed and I was freed. I could clearly see where I had gone wrong. Lesson Number Two (Repeat): Be constantly alert to the route. (Was the lesson properly driven in this time?)
Le Dent du Géant
Then there was that long weekend at the Torino hut, with Monica Jackson.
Brought up on a coffee plantation in South India, she was a dedicated member of the Scottish Alpine Club and had been on the first Ladies’ Expedition to the Himalaya in the early ‘fifties. We had four full days before we needed to get back.
Our first day was a washout. We took the téléphérique to the Aiguille du Midi, vaunted as ‘the highest téléphérique in the world’, and set off for the Mont Blanc du Tacul. Down to the Col du Midi and then up a wide fairly steep slope. Soft snow on a bed of hard ice, a sunny day. Avalanche danger? Yes. Go on? Let’s try a bit a see if it gets better. It didn’t. Discretion ...
The next day made up for it. We had one of those climbs where everything went swimmingly, though perhaps that is not the appropriate term. We alternated the lead and did the peak we had studied the day before; La Ronde, I think it was called. We were down on the glacier before noon and it seemed a pity to go straight back to the hut. There was a rock and snow peak facing us so we went up that; I don’t remember its name, if I ever knew it. Another very satisfying climb and we felt we had earned a white wine panaché. As a finale next day we planned to climb the Dent du Géant, a spectacular granite tooth standing out in isolated glory.
That evening, we met René Dittert and Ernest Hofstetter in the hut; they were also planning to do the Géant. ‘One of the few four thousand metre peaks still on my unclimbed list,’ said René. We started off next morning before them, but they soon overtook us. There is a special delight in climbing on granite, there is a special delight when you are in harmony with your companion; a special delight when the climbing is tough enough to call for your full attention but not so tough that you need to constantly break the rhythm of your climb. As there seemed to be several pitches where height was an advantage, by tacit agreement, I kept the lead most of the time. And I watched the route carefully!
We were still about a half hour from the summit when René and Ernest crossed us on their way down. We got back to the hut just after four in the afternoon and there were the two of them having a leisurely beer. Come and join us, they said. No thanks, I said. We have to get back to the téléphérique and back to Geneva. Monica is taking the plane tomorrow morning.
No, she isn’t, said René calmly. The last cabine leaves at six pm and there is no way you will be able to catch it. So relax, have a drink, and then you can telephone and rearrange your plane. (The Torino was one of the few huts with a phone; now practically all the huts have one.) So that’s what we did and had a delightful evening, full of mountain talk. Yes, I had watched the route carefully, but I had failed to check the téléphérique timings.
There was a period between 1955 and 1960 when I spent most summer weekends in the Alps - the Mont Blanc massif, the Valais, the Oberland - either with the Club or with one or two friends. I cannot now remember the names of all the peaks we climbed, or failed to climb. As cars became more common, and parking became more and more of a problem, our rendezvous had to keep changing. Many of us were regulars and became firm friends. We always parted with the words, “A la prochaine!” (Till the next one.)
Gradually, autoroutes made climbing centres like Chamonix and Zermatt more accessible; téléphériques and télésièges replaced many long slogs to the huts. Several climbs became feasible in one day without the need to spend a night in a hut.
One of the climbs that remains vividly in my memory is the Jagigrat that I did with the Club. It must have been about 1956 or 57. A five hour drive to Saas Almagel; a three hour walk up to the Weismies hut. The Jagigrat is a long rocky ridge with five or six gendarmes to climb up and down. (Would it be heresy to say that a ridge is sometimes much more fun than a simple summit?) We started with the Jagihorn peak; just a few weeks before, Tom Bourdillon had been killed on it, a sobering thought.
The day was memorable for two reasons: first, it was the first Alpine climb with Richard Peplow. We were twelve in all and split ourselves, three to a rope. Richard and I chose to be just the two of us. We had been on the Salève several times together so were used to each other. We used the lead-through system; the second man would come up to his companion and go straight on up the next pitch; thus each of us led alternately.
There is a special joy when there is full understanding between two persons on a rope, when tugs - one or two or three - are easily interpreted: a tight belay, I need more slack, I’m belayed, come up now. The second reason was the thunderstorm. We were on the last and highest gendarme when it broke suddenly, almost without warning. Or perhaps there was: I just wasn’t alert to it. We were pinned down on that exposed ridge and tried to find what shelter we could. It only lasted about a half hour but we were drenched. But worse, our ropes - we still had manila ropes in those days - were wet and stiff. Rappelling became difficult and slow. But the sun came out; our clothes dried; the ropes became more flexible. The climbing had been great; a few difficult passages to make it exciting.
With or Without Guides
In many ways, it’s much more fun to climb without a guide; in many ways it’s more fun with a guide. I think that on the whole, I managed to have a judicious combination of the two. I had Raymond Lambert and I couldn’t have had a better or more sympatique person to initiate me to the art of climbing: rock and ice. In 1958, Gurdial Singh invited me to join him on an expedition to Mrigthuni. Most of my climbing with Lambert had been on rock; I thought I had better get ready for Himalayan ice and snow.
So I arranged to spend a week with Fabian Avanthey of Champery, concentrating on ice. We planned to spend the week in the Cabane du Trient. The first two days were fine and Fabian took me up the Aiguille eu Chardonnet, a fine mixture of ice and rock, and the Tete Ronde. There was a young English couple, both school teachers, also spending a week in the Trient hut. We got quite friendly and on the second day, Fabian allowed them to follow us for the first hour or two when we separated: they to the Aiguille du Tour and we to the Tete Ronde. This was generous of Fabian. On another occasion, when I was with Fabian in the Suzanf hut, we left at 3.30 for our climb of the Tour Saliere, two young men who were doing the same climb, followed us through the maze of boulders in the dark. Suddenly Fabian said, Come on, let’s speed it up for a while, and he did, and we left our followers behind. When we had shaken them off, Fabian explained, I don’t like them using me in this manner, he said, if they can’t afford a guide, let them stick to something easier.
On another occasion, we heard cries for help above us. An English tourist had slipped and fallen on some scree and was terrified of getting up on the steep slope. Fabian went up and helped him to stand up and then led him down to the path; then he treated the frightened tourist to a severe scolding. Again, as we left him behind, he explained, These people who aren’t used to the mountains and are too mean to hire a guide, often get into trouble and give the mountains a bad name for nothing. I have no sympathy with them.
Fabian was one of those guides who are interested in all aspects of the mountains; his special love was fossils. On yet another occasion, he showed me a place where he had found many fossils of shell-fish and other fossilized marine life at about 2500 m. He had a little museum of his own. He found a fossil on that expedition for my son Rafi, then about 15 years old. Rafi’s fossil returned to its watery home; he had his ‘den’ in the cellar of our house, and a fierce storm a year or two later flooded the cellar and all his belongings were drowned out.
Alas the rest of the week at the Trient was rained out; one result was that we got to know Mr. and Mrs. Bailey - the couple in the hut - quite well and we met again in Geneva when they were on the way back home.
Grande Course d’Eté
Every summer, the Geneva Section of the CAS arranged a full week’s climbing. The number of participants was limited; many of them went every year and so it became a cohesive group. I went a few times and they were really great fun. We would stay in one hut for the period and do a climb - sometimes two - every day. Sometimes we would engage a guide for the stay; he would lead the first rope; the others would follow. We would always produce a record of the week, each one of us describing one climb, and the Chef would then put it all together in one booklet.
By some quirk of destiny, the record for the 1970 Grande Course d’été, has survived and I have it in front of me. It’s illustrated with sketches by James Golay, a member of our group. He had had some heart trouble and was forbidden to exert himself, but having been a regular member of the Grande Course for many years, he continued to come but could not join us in the climbing.
There was another occasion a few years later, when I was due to spend a week in the Oberaletsch hut; we only had two days of reasonable weather. Looking back, I believe I had almost as many days spoilt by bad weather as I had of good weather. One thing that struck me was that weather forecasts became more and more reliable - especially when they were bad.
Our week that summer of 1970 was at the Cabane Remondino in the Italian Maritime Alps. In fact we spent the first night in the Refuge Quintino Sella and did the Monte Viso (3841 m) the following day; a long climb on crampons that took seven hours up and four hours down. A first day that showed that most of us were out of training. The hut, alas, was rather shabby and shabbily kept: Not like our Swiss huts, we grumbled. After a bit of a rest, we hurried down to the cars and drove through Crissolo, Pinerolo, Saluzzo to Terme di Valdieri (I mention these names purely for their euphonic value) where a good meal and comfortable beds awaited us in a pleasant auberge. The next day, Monday, we had a delightful - and leisurely - walk up to the Cabane Remondino where we spent the rest of the week. A contrast to the Quintino, the Remondino was spruce and clean and the guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Piacenza , gave us a warm welcome. It was a pleasant and friendly place to spend our week.
We had engaged a guide for the days at the Remondino as the Argentera massif was new to us all. Our guide, Guy Dufour, met us there; not only was he a graceful and competent climber, but he was a good companion and soon became ‘one of us’. Since I wrote the account of the climb of Mont Nasta (3108 m), let me quote just one sentence from myself (I had written it in English and got a friend to translate it into French; now I am translating it back into English.). ‘...we had three hours of good rock climbing: a ridge, then a gendarme, then a breche, then a wall, Guy wondering whether to turn a gendarme on the right or the left and finally deciding to go up it and over, IV Sup , and this he did with the grace of a ballet dancer.’
One of the special joys in the Alpes Maritimes was the abundance and variety of flowers: Each crack in the rocks had its quota of colour: saxifrage, myosotis, primroses.
When we got back from Mt. Nasta to the hut at about 2 pm, it had been invaded by a troop of Boy Scouts. What a mess! Chocolate wrappings, oil from sardine tins, plastic bottles, dirt and noise. And this was 1970, the International Year for the Protection of Nature!
Enough said. It was a great relief when the Scouts blew their whistles and prepared to leave. They did clean up a bit before they left. We were glad to see them go.
1970 doesn’t seem so long ago but how the Alpine scene has changed - as has the Himalayan. We were lucky to have climbed in the days when Nature had not been ‘tamed’ to the extent that it is now. But this is one of the constants of aging: to look back and feel that the old days were indeed the good old days.
Climbing with close friends is so much more pleasant than with casual acquaintances. My expeditions in the Himalaya have of course, all been with friends; my friendship with Gurdial Singh and Nalni Jayal have been what I consider to be ideal; close friendships have become even closer.
Over the years, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve had two very close climbing companions in the Alps: Richard Peplow and Renzo Zanon. Not only did I spend weekends, long weekends and sometimes weeks, with them, but went frequently on the Salève in the early mornings before work. Richard had a watch - jewellery shop in Worcester and was doing an internship in Geneva; he had come with an introduction to Rene Dittert who introduced him to me. Renzo was in the hotel business and became manager of a hotel; he gave my son his first summer job as an assistant concierge. The climbs I particularly remember with him are the Grand Muveran and the Dent des Morcles in the Vaudois Alps.
My close friendship with Richard continues. He is about 12 years younger than me; though he returned to England after a couple of years in Geneva, his work brought him regularly to Switzerland.
In 1957, at Richard’s pressing invitation, I arranged to spend a few days rock climbing in Wales. We invited Monica Jackson to join us. I had proposed dates which would span the Easter weekend - a very sensible thing to do, I thought. A few days before I was due to join them, Richard and Monica both wrote in alarm; they had only just realized that it was the Easter weekend and the hostelries and the rocks would be over-crowded; there was no way we should go then. I went to England anyway, but instead of rock climbing, we went to Stratford-upon-Avon and saw Paul Robeson in Othello. A great man in a great role.
Whenever Richard visited Switzerland, we would fit in a couple of days climbing or skiing . It was at his insistence that I arranged for us to do the Haute Route in 1958, Verbier to Zermatt on skis. We were six of us: Richard and myself, two Swiss friends who had done the Haute Route before, a young American Chuck Cooper who was doing something post-graduate in Geneva, and a young Canadian, Paul Delaney, who was doing a short spell in the ILO. (Skiing with him and two others down the Vallée Blanche the previous year, he had fallen in a crevasse. Luckily, we were well equipped with rope and ice axes, and managed to haul him out; the only damage was a broken ski-tip.) We were lucky with the weather and had six wonderful days. Our luck held out to the end because as we walked into Zermatt we saw another friend Kyril Tidmarsh, enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace of a hotel. We joined him and persuaded him to give us a lift to Martigny where we had left our two cars.
Richard is also a passionate bird watcher, as are both his sons; in addition to climbing and skiing excursions, we’ve had several birding trips as well. For a few years they - particularly the two youngsters - were dedicated to seeing the Wall Creeper (Tichodroma murari) still missing from their life List. For once I was ahead of them as I had seen one in Derborence with Ray Manning. (Derborence is the valley that was blocked off by a rock-fall in the 18rh century and so still has some primary forest left.)
This article has become far too long but can I end it without at least mentioning my trips to the Himalaya? They are like beacons lighting the path of my life at regular intervals. They were a very different experience from climbing in the Alps. The approach march in itself was always a joy; I don’t know if, with mass tourism, it still is. As I have already written about some of my expeditions, I have no excuse for not being short.
Apart from long weekends with Jack Gibson when I was still in school, my first trip was in 1943 with Rusi Ghandhy. There were no agencies, no maps, no equipment available, even if we had known how to use it. We spent hours in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society reading Shipton, Smythe, Heim and Gansser, and anything else that might help; we copied sketch maps from them to work out a route. I got a Chinese cobbler to make me a pair of hobnailed boots and the local durzee to sew two razai together to make a sleeping bag (very useful for train travel as well), We had no tents and were lucky to find a shepherd’s dung-filled hut when we had a real storm one night.
We went to Almora (spent a morning in Uday Shankar’s dance academy); bus-ed to Garur, wasted a day looking for porters (finally got two youngsters who were excellent), went over the Kuari pass to Badrinath, (Rusi convinced the keeper of the temple that Parsis and Bohras were sub-castes from Bombay), and in Mana we found Khim Singh who became our guide, philosopher and friend. He took us up the Satopanth glacier for three days and found us a sheltering cave when there was a snow storm. He also accompanied us for three days up the Khiraon valley, in the footsteps of Smythe, A young shepherd in his early teens followed us; Khim Singh told us that the youngster had hoped to pick up discarded tins as he had done with Smythe a few years ago. Alas, we had no tins for we lived on local food (a lot of potatoes). No, we weren’t real sahibs at all; not like the lone Englishman we met on the Kuari pass who had 13 porters to help him along.
The following year I had become an Asst. Master at the Doon School and in the vacation four of us - Bidhu and Nalni Jayal and T.N. Vyas - walked from Chakrata to Shimla.
A year or two later, when I first met Gurdial Singh, I told him about the joys of Satopanth and the Khiraon; he probably doesn’t remember but I like to believe that his eyes lit up and that it gave some encouragement to his becoming a dedicated mountaineer.
My next trip was in 1956 also with Rusi and four others. He had made all the bandobust and engaged two Sherpas. The objective was Trisul. We were stranded in Rishikesh even before we started. It was October but the monsoon hadn’t realized that its time was over (a common failing among humans as well). It poured and poured; the road to Joshimath was washed out in several places; there was no hope of any bus being able to use it for many a day. It was time for Plan B but of course we didn’t have a Plan B. I took the train to Dehra Dun, consulted Gurdial, and we decided to go to Chakrata, the Har ki Doon and the Black Peak. In spite of all the initial problems, we had a wonderful time, cut off from the palsied hurry of urban life. It was only on our return that we learnt of global events such as the Hungarian Revolution and the Anglo-French attack on the Suez.
On the return we had picked up a couple of porters from Osla village; it was interesting that though they were accustomed to seeing planes flying overhead, they had never seen a car till we got to Chakrata.
In 1958 I had my best expedition ever. Gurdial had invited me to join him and two others, Rajendra Vikram Singh and Mahinder Lall, on an expedition to Mrigthuni. It was all that such a trip should be and remains my foremost mountain experience. The only sorrow I had was that I didn’t manage to do any skiing. I had lugged - or rather one of the unfortunate porters had - an old pair of skis and I was determined to use them once Mrigthuni was over. Alas, no sooner were we down from a successful first climb of the mountain than it began to rain; it continued for two days and showed no sign of stopping. Shades of Rishikesh? We decided it was time to start on our return, so no skiing.
My last trip in the Himalaya was again with Gurdial in Ladakh, in 1979. This too started inauspiciously: Nalni who was going to join us wasn’t able to do so because of a Government crisis (he was a civil servant); the plane to Srinagar was delayed for several hours with Gurdial waiting at the Srinagar airport and me biting my nails at the Delhi airport; the jeep that was to take us over the Khardung la broke down and we spent a day or two in Leh waiting. There seems to be a lot of waiting around in this climbing business.
But finally we made it and walked to the Saser la; food and shelter was by courtesy of the Army, thanks to Gurdial’s connections.
Siachen Peace Park
If I cannot help writing about the Himalaya, I confess that I cannot refrain from writing about the Siachen. Some time in the late 80’s, our editor asked me to write a series about past issues of the Himalayan Journal. I had already learnt that it is impossible to say ‘No’ when Harish has made up his mind. One of the early issues of the HJ had an account of the famous Workman-Bullock duo on the Siachen glacier. So I read whatever I could easily find about the Siachen and learnt something about the highest war, the coldest war, the war in which casualties from the cold outnumbered any from gunfire. And the most absurd war.
I wrote suggesting that the Siachen should be made a transboundary Nature Park: it was uninhabited; it was one of Nature’s wonderlands; it was the longest mountain glacier in the world; it was home to the Sia (Roses), to the ibex and to the snow leopard; it harboured no minerals; it was a burden on both countries and of strategic value to neither. I dreamed that the mountaineers of the world succeeded in urging India and Pakistan to join in establishing a peace park which would safeguard the environment and bring honour and respect to them both.
I did not expect anyone to pay much attention to these dreams but our editor did. Harish Kapadia became a crusader for the cause; not only did he arrange meetings where I could speak, but he himself took every opportunity to promote the concept, not only in India but wherever he went. Many members of the Himalayan Club and indeed many others, espoused the cause, in India and Pakistan and throughout the world. Interestingly, these included senior officers of the Army and Air Force who had served on the Siachen.
True, it seems an impossible dream; but impossible dreams have sometimes become reality. May one dare to hope that one day it might be so for the Siachen Peace Park?
The HC’s environmental efforts got some impetus when the Club celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2008; it held a special seminar on protecting the Himalayan environment. Juerg Meyer, who had served for many years as Mr. Environment of the Swiss Alpine Club, was invited as a special guest; by a series of curious chances I found myself chairing this seminar. It must be confessed, however, that though the meeting aroused a great deal of enthusiasm, aired a number of ideas, and led to a comprehensive report, the possibilities of any meaningful action seem to be limited.
You know, Harish was quite right. I do have many memories. And my elderly friends in the CAS that first day were also quite right; I love to talk about them. I could go on for quite a bit longer. I haven’t mentioned the day spent with the Danish Alpine Club on the cliffs across the straits in Sweden (I had met a couple of Danes in one of the huts in Switzerland); nor the two South African climbers we ran into in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; nor the long weekends in the Lauarentians and the Adirondacks when I was posted in Montreal; nor the regular outings with the Sierra Club and the New York Ramblers when I was posted in NY; nor the happy weeks spent in walking in the hills of Provence in later years with friends; nor the many climbs and walks from our holiday home in Champex in the Valaisan Alps; nor the week’s walk in the Cotswolds with Richard; nor....
There remains only the eternal question: why do people climb? Or, since this is a personal memoir, why did I climb? Many mountaineers have given their own answers; let me try mine.
It is a physical sport, so it’s like playing tennis or soccer or going to the gym. It is a mental exercise, as many other games are. But, and here’s the core: there is something that moves one at a deeper level; people have called it spiritual and that’s a big word. Let’s say it touches the spirit. It calls for effort; it calls for skills; it provides a frisson of fear; it inspires a communion with nature; it bonds friendships with hoops of steel.
But trying to itemise what is really undefinable is a soulless exercise; would it suffice to say that it brings an exaltation of the spirit as few other activities do?
I have been lucky and can say - and in fact do say, quite often - ‘When I was young.’
Recalling a life time in the hills and mountains.