Colonel (retd) Balwant Singh Sandhu AVSM, decorated soldier, mountaineer, raconteur and aesthete, died on 10 December 2010 in a hit and run accident whilst crossing the road near the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in New Delhi. He was 76. The manner of his passing was as sudden and tragic as it was ironic; a survivor of multiple jumps under duress as a paratrooper, and of many high Himalayan climbs and emergency bivouacs in high altitude blizzards. His sudden passing leaves his family and us, the climbing fraternity all bereft of an individual who enriched the lives of all whose paths he crossed.
Balwant graduated from the Indian Military Academy in 1957 and was commissioned into the Mahar Machine Gun Regiment. In 1962, he volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, rising to command the 6th Battalion of the same regiment from 1971 to 1975 with distinction. He also graduated from the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, in Tamil Nadu and taught at the prestigious Army College of Combat in the Faculty of Tactics for three years.
Colonel Balwant Sandhu
Balwant climbed and trekked extensively in most ranges of the Himalaya as well as the European Alps in a climbing career that spanned five decades. He loved the mountains, either leading expeditions or in later years, visiting them almost every year with his wife Helga, son Mukki and assorted friends.
My own first meeting with Balwant was in October 1964, when we were together climbing Rathong in West Sikkim with the Pre-Everest selection expedition, the prelude to a successful 1965 Indian Everest expedition. Balwant then was a young Captain, an observing Sikh, sporting a turban and a full beard as part of the traditional 5 Ks required by his religion. The atmosphere in the expedition was one of intense, not always friendly competition and Balwant stood shoulder to shoulder with any. Ignoring the jockeying for position that can mar big expeditions and knowing he would lose a very real crack at Everest, he volunteered to evacuate a very sick climber in a 10 day trek down through the Singalila wilderness to Darjeeling, effectively writing off his own chances.
Earlier that same year, Balwant was climbing on Tirsuli and East Nanda Devi in an expedition led by Capt. M. S. Kohli. Whilst attempting Nanda Devi’s formidable east peak from the Martoli side, Balwant and his Sherpa companion Sonam were swept 300 m down the mountain by an avalanche from the Longstaff Col. Both survived with only broken legs and minor frostbite. In the ensuing three years between 1966 and 1968, Balwant led the St Stephens College expeditions to Leo Pargial in Himachal Pradesh, to Chiring We in the Kumaun Himalaya, and Shinkun in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, the latter a first ascent.
In 1974, with a mixed Indian and British team, Balwant made the historic alpine style first ascent of Changabang, co-leading the expedition with Chris Bonington. In an era when European climbers in particular were pushing new boundaries, he was among the few Indian climbers who sensed the need to elevate Indian mountaineering to another level. In 1975 Balwant was once again co-leader of the Indian-French Nanda Devi Traverse Expedition. The French team was comprised of elite Chamonix guides. As two of the eight Indians selected, we were climbing together again. The main aim of the expedition was to traverse the three km ridge between the East peak and the West peak. In 1951, the French had lost two fine climbers on a similar enterprise; Roger Duplat and Gilbert Vignes disappeared on the same ridge shortly after gaining the summit. Tenzing Norgay and Louis Dubost had climbed Nanda Devi East during the same expedition in the course of trying to locate the missing pair at the other end of the ridge. This time too, both peaks were climbed but the traverse remained unconsummated due to an early monsoon that brought dangerous climbing conditions with it. A memorable expedition in many respects, one particular incident springs to mind. Balwant had climbed the main summit of Nanda Devi on 16 June. Finding the upper camps crowded, he decided to descend alone the following day all the way to base camp, ignoring extreme fatigue from the previous day’s exertions. Having left Camp 3 late in the afternoon and with no sign of him at base camp, the expedition doctor D. J. Singh and I, with some foreboding, set out to look for him. We found him 50 m below Camp 1, comfortably settled for the night. ‘Careful, I’ve broken my leg’ he said, in a characteristically casual tone. I stayed with Balwant while D.J. went back to base camp for his medical kit. Plastered and immobilised well after midnight, we waited several cold hours for daylight in which to move him. More help arrived at daybreak and Balwant was evacuated to Sarson Patal from where he was airlifted to Bareilly and further specialist medical attention.
I was to climb with Balwant again on Nanda Devi in the post-monsoon season of 1981, this time with a mixed Indian team of six women and six men, whom he led successfully as a precursor to the mixed 1984 Everest expedition. The final ascent was an alpine style push that required skill and endurance under testing conditions. Three women and three men reached the summit of Nanda Devi on 19 September. It was the first ascent of Nanda Devi by women and a testament to Balwant’s easy skill as a leader who could improvise, innovate and succeed with climbers of quite disparate backgrounds.
Following Nanda Devi, Balwant was chosen to organise the subsequent training camps for the young hopefuls that would comprise the 1984 Indian Everest expedition. I was an instructor on his organisational team. As he was now Principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, he took advantage of the proximity of the training areas and the available logistical support for the training of several scores of men and women climbers from all over India. In the autumn of 1982, we conducted a training camp on Gangotri glacier and over two dozen men and women climbed Gangotri I alpine style. In the autumn of 1983 another party of 18 women and 36 men from all over India assembled in the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering for the same purpose. This time the training camp was held on the south glacier of Mana peak. Whilst the main party travelled on motor transport with Colonel Prem Chand via Rishikesh, Joshimath and Mana village on to Mana base camp, Balwant and Instructor Rattan Singh took the cross country route directly over the high passes from Gangotri to Mana base camp, where we met. The huge glacier of the south face of Mana peak offered excellent training for dealing with the Khumbu Icefall on Everest the following year. With three camps established, the summit of Mana was within easy reach but climber numbers, abilities and safety issues required a tactful retreat.
After his careful nurturing of a team that had more than a chance of the summit of Everest in 1984, the handing over of the leadership of the expedition to someone else was a bitter, underhanded blow. A man ahead of his time in many respects, those who mattered understood him not a whit. Nonetheless, he showed little disappointment and took delight in the composition of the team, many of whom were either students or long-time climbing partners. With his keen knowledge of climbing history, I am sure he saw a corollary played out years ago in the selection of the leadership of the 1953 British expedition; Shipton was not chosen to lead it, yet his pre-eminence suffered little. Personally, I felt for him and when I questioned this injustice in a meeting with the Sponsoring Committee of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, its then head looked at me witheringly and gave no answer. It was a sorry episode and symptomatic of what ailed Indian climbing at that time.
Balwant moved on with his usual aplomb to pursue his love of mountains and led many more important expeditions. In 1984 he led the Indian-Japanese expedition to Mamostong Kangri in the East Karakoram range and made the first ascent of the peak. In 1985, he co-led the Indian-American Rafting expedition on the Ganges from Rudra Prayag to Rishikesh. That same spring, he led the Indian-French Kabru Dome expedition in West Sikkim which established a new route up the west buttress. In the autumn, he led an Indian-French Army expedition to Kamet in Garhwal which made the first ascent of the peak via the formidable west face route. In 1988 he led the Paratroopers expedition to Manirang in Spiti and made the 2nd ascent of the peak. In 1989 he led the Paratroopers to Mukut Parvat in the Kumaun Himalaya. In 1996 he climbed Chombu East with an International expedition to Chombu and Gurudongmar in North Sikkim. In the following years, Balwant led a number of school boys’ expeditions and continued to be actively involved in introducing young people to the outdoors and mountain climbing.
Balwant’s forte was technical, alpine style ascents of unclimbed mountains. The first ascent of Changabang in 1974 and Nanda Devi in 1981 admired achievements that ushered in a small revolution in Indian Himalayan climbing. Balwant was instrumental in the introduction of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s annual alpine style climbing camps in 1983, which he continued to oversee for the benefit of new generations of young mountaineers. He was an accomplished administrator. He was never one for being taken lightly but nevertheless inspired loyalty and affection in those he worked with. He was Principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering from 1980 to1985. Leading from the front even later in life, he often trekked to base camps with trainees of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering & Winter Sports (Nunwan Pahalgam in Jammu and Kashmir) and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (Darjeeling). In all these places, his guest lectures inspired and regaled in equal measure, both trainees and instructors.
He was Vice President of the Himalayan Club in 1981 and 1982 and then President in 1983 and 1984. He was Vice President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in 1997 and 1998. He was a life member of the Central Himalayan Environment Association, the Himalayan Club and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. In 2001 Balwant was elected an honorary member of the Alpine Club (London) and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Balwant was awarded the Ati Vishisht Sewa Medal (AVSM) by the Ministry of Defence, Government of India and the Arjuna Award by the Ministry of Sports Government of India for his outstanding contribution to the sport of mountaineering.
Balwant’s passing leaves a huge void not only in the climbing fraternity in India and around the world but also among his Sherpa friends in Darjeeling who loved and admired him greatly. He will be sorely missed.
Colonel Balwant Sandhu
.....In the late hours of 10 Dec 2010, India tragically lost one of its true visionaries of the mountaineering world. This was no ordinary man, but one of India’s outstanding climbers, who had climbed at par with some of the best mountaineers of his times. This was Colonel Balwant Singh Sandhu, whom Chris Bonington aptly described as ‘a man born to command’, a true doyen of India’s climbing fraternity.
I first met Col Balwant Sandhu, Ballu, as he was fondly called in 1987 at Army Headquarters, Delhi. As a young officer, who had heard so much about him from his contemporaries and as a student at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi I was in awe of this man, whose knowledge of the mountains, the environment and baritone impressed me, from the word go. Over the years as our interaction increased and I got to know him better, I realised that here was a man whose mountain sense, climbing vision and ideas were far ahead of his times.......a true visionary!
A man of the mountains, Col Sandhu climbed and trekked for almost 50 years of his life. After completing his Basic and Advance Mountaineering courses in 1960 and 1961 respectively, he began by climbing a 6000 m peak north of Bancha Dhura. In 1964, as a member of the IMF expedition to Trisuli and Nanda Devi East, he not only climbed the highest, but survived a 1000 m fall in an avalanche with a broken leg. In 1964, he participated in the Indian Pre Everest expedition in West Sikkim to Rathong. This was followed by expeditions to Leo Pargial and Kinnaur Kailash in 1966, Chiring We in 1967 and Shinkun in Lahaul, which was a first ascent in 1968. In 1973, he was member of the IMF sponsored Indian-British expedition to Brammah, in Kishtwar, which recorded a first ascent. In 1974, as the joint leader of the Indian British expedition along with Chris Bonington to Changabang, he reached the summit of the Shining Mountain, which was a first ascent. In 1975, as deputy leader of the Indian French expedition, he climbed Nanda Devi but again tragically broke his leg during the descent. This was followed by climbs of an Unnamed Peak in 1976 in Kinnaur and Phawararang in 1977. As the leader of the Indian-New Zealand IMF expedition in 1979 to Rataban, he was again injured during a rock fall. In 1980, he climbed Black Peak (Kalanag) and successfully led the 1981 Shivling East Pillar International expedition. In 1981, he led the successful mixed IMF expedition to Nanda Devi which put the ‘first woman’ climber on top of this legendary mountain. In 1982, he led the IMF Pre Everest Expedition to Gangotri I and Mana in 1983. In 1984, he was leader of the successful Indian-Japanese expedition to Mamostong Kangri, which he climbed in the Eastern Karakoram. In 1985, he successfully led an Indian French army expedition to Kamet from the challenging west face. The same year he climbed Kabru Dome from a new route. His other expeditions were to Manirang in 1988, Mukut Parvat in 1989, Chombu and Gurudongmar in North Sikkim, Takpashri in 1999, Rudugaira in 2001 and Jogin III in 2002. In retrospect, if I was to pick an Indian climber who had climbed with top climbers of the day, without a doubt it would be Col Sandhu.
Colonel Sandhu was a very active man. He became a life member of the Himalayan Club in 1967 and later served in it’s management committee as a Vice President from 1981-1982 and President, from 1983-84. He was also Principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi from 1980-85 and Vice President of Indian Mountaineering Foundation from 1997-98. He was a life member of the Central Himalayan Environment Association and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. In 2001, he was elected as an honorary member of the Alpine Club (London) and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Prior to his demise, he was the honorary secretary of the Society for Protection of Kasauli Environs, in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh.
Apart from being an outstanding leader and an astute climber, Col Sandhu was a professional soldier to the boot. A graduate of the Indian Military Academy, he was commissioned into the Mahar, the Machine Gun Regiment of the Indian Army in 1957. In 1962, he volunteered to serve with the Parachute Regiment. A paratrooper, he later commanded 6th Battalion, of the Parachute Regiment with distinction from 1971 to 1976. He was also a graduate of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington and taught tactics at the Army War College for three years.
Colonel Sandhu’s contribution to Indian Mountaineering in many ways was path breaking. His Alpine style first ascent of Changabang in 1974 demonstrated, that such climbs were possible by Indians in the Himalayan context too. To my mind, this ascent with the British, ushered a revolution in Himalayan mountaineering and was a climbing benchmark, as it paved the way for lightweight, small, quick alpine style ascents of Himalayan giants which hitherto seemed possible only through siege tactics. He was a strong advocate of mixed expeditions, which undoubtedly is the present norm and future of world climbing. He was also a strong proponent of hard technical climbing of smaller mountains by Indian climbers, vis a vis the big ones which he with open disdain, often referred to as ‘Cow Peaks’. It is for this reason that he started accompanying IMF Alpine Style climbing camps, a concept which he mooted in 1983, to alleviate climbing standards of young Indian mountaineers.
For his outstanding contribution, he was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal in 1985. He was also awarded the Arjuna Award for excellence in mountaineering in 1983 and the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, which was conferred on him posthumously in August 2011. Although I never climbed with him, I interacted with Col Sandhu frequently, on a wide range of subjects involving mountaineering. In fact, we had a strong convergence of thought on many issues. A true soldier mountaineer, he was always forthcoming and upright, with a great sense of humour. It is ironical, that a man who had successfully negotiated many mountain faces, riddled with great objective dangers was tragically, mowed down by an unidentified speeding vehicle in the national capital, showing just how dangerous and deadly our civilised world can be.
Col Sandhu was also a keen hill walker, shooter, rider and an angler. Widely read, in his heydays he was particularly fond of poetry especially by W. B. Keats and Browning. Outspoken, as he was articulate, we often heard him giving his candid views in various IMF meetings. As I met Mukki (his son) and Helga (his wife) at the Army Hospital with a heavy heart, somehow I was still hoping for a miraculous revival. Interestingly, in the same hospital corridor, I also met an old man profoundly limping and patiently waiting with deep concern. He was Subedar Major Bishen Singh, who was Subedar Major of the unit, when Colonel Sandhu was commanding his unit. It was a touching moment to see him beside his CO even after 35 years! My brief interaction with him and his moist laden eyes summed up Colonel Sandhu, the man, the climber, the soldier and the leader.
Col Sandhu is no more, but his values and convictions, his mountain sense, his environmental concerns and climbing vision which he propagated and lived by, will always be there to guide young Indian climbers, who endeavour to climb hard in pursuit of their Himalayan dreams.
BRIGADIER ASHOK ABBEY
President, The Himalayan Club
Nawang Gombu, one of the last Tigers of the Snow, passed away on 24 April 2011 in Darjeeling. He was part of a small group of pioneering Sherpa mountaineers who scaled the Himalaya to bring fame and prestige to their community.
Born in southern Tibet near the famed Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, Gombu was the son of a former Tibetan monk Nawang Gyaltzen and former nun Lhamu Kipa. He remembered the place where he was born simply as Donak, which means ‘black rock’ in Tibetan. It was a place his mother who tended yaks had been visiting.
He briefly attended the Rongbuk monastery as a student but then moved to the village of Khumjung in Solu Khumbu near Everest in Nepal with his parents and sister Doma, where he spent his childhood.
Gombu then followed his uncle Tenzing Norgay to Darjeeling where most of the mountaineering expeditions to the Himalaya were mounted from. He became a high altitude porter before going on to become a climbing member of many subsequent expeditions.
Gombu was the youngest climbing Sherpa on the team that put his uncle Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary on the summit of Everest in 1953. At age of 21 he reached the South Col, carrying a heavy load. For this he was awarded the ‘The Tiger Badge’ by the Himalayan Club in 1953.
He went on to climb Everest a decade later with American mountaineer Jim Whittaker in 1963. Whittaker was the tallest member of the team and Gombu, the shortest. This climb made history and Gombu was invited to meet President John F. Kennedy at the White House. He then climbed Everest again with an Indian team in 1965, with Captain A.S. Cheema, to become the first man to climb the world’s highest mountain twice.
Other mountains that Gombu climbed and pioneered routes on in the 1950s and 1960s included Makalu, Sakang Peak, Saser Kangri, Nanda Devi, Cho Oyu, Kokthang and Rathong.
Gombu was part of the first group of Sherpa mountaineers who along with Tenzing Norgay completed a guide course in Switzerland in 1954. They became the backbone of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), an idea promoted by the late Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He retired from the HMI as its Director of Field Training after more than 40 years of service during which he taught thousands of Indians basic and advanced climbing skills.
For his climbing and teaching accomplishments, Gombu was awarded India’s highest honours including the Padma Shri (1964), the Padma Bhushan (1965), the Indian Mountaineering Foundation Gold Medal (1966), the Arjuna Award (1967) and the Tenzing Norgay Lifetime Achievement Award (1986). He also received international acclaim and was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation medal (1953) from Her Majesty, the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, USA, (1963) and the Olympic Gold Medal, Rome (1967). He also had the honour of putting a Katha, a traditional scarf around the neck of President John F. Kennedy in the White House. He was made the Honorary Member of the Alpine Club (London) and the Himalayan Club.
In 1971, at the invitation of his old climbing friend Jim Whittaker, Gombu visited the United States of America to learn the then latest techniques in mountaineering, skills he later taught to his fellow instructors and trainees at the HMI. He spent many a happy summer with Whittaker and his twin brother Lou Whittaker who ran the Rainier Mountaineering Institute in Paradise, Washington.
Gombu’s passions included gardening, collecting orchids, driftwood, religious icons and mementos from his travels around the world. His greatest passion was his work as the President of the Sherpa Buddhist Association situated in Toong Soong basti, a Darjeeling neighborhood where he spent his early years and met his wife Sita Lhamu. This association works for the welfare of the Sherpas, especially those who cannot afford medical treatment. He asked that any contributions made in his name be given to this Buddhist association that is renovating a temple and helps the needy financially.
Gombu died peacefully at his home on 24 April, 2011 in Darjeeling surrounded by his family after a brief illness. Born in the year of the monkey, he was 79. Gombu is survived by his wife Sita, his sister Doma, daughters Rita Marwah, Yangdu Goba, Ongmu Gombu, Ang Doma, son Kursung Phinjo Gombu and nine grandchildren.
.....I went to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, for the first time, when I was training for the IAS, in Metcalfe House, Delhi. We went on an Eastern Bharat Darshan. I had a chance, for the first time, to visit Darjeeling and of course, we were taken to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The institute was impressive, and I found their library full of exciting books of adventure. Tenzing himself was a handsome, ever smiling, fit star with a million dollar smile, always dressed better than his Swiss mountaineer friends, with stockings, mountain boots and dazzling mountaineering sweaters.
In 1960, when I was the SDM Mahendergarh, 80 miles from Delhi, I ran away to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, for a basic training course, with dubious permission from the Chief Secretary, Punjab. Those two months in the HMI, the long walk from the Institute to Chaurikiang, below Kabru Dome, the training and the camaraderie, the hiking and the camping, are vivid in my memory. The training ended with no less than Prime Minister Nehru, presiding over our passing out ceremony. He was accompanied by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the young Rajiv Gandhi, with a huge stylish puff of hair.
Some of the great names of Indian mountaineering were our instructors. Nawang Gombu, Tenzing’s nephew was one of our young instructors. Handsome, a perpetually cheerful smiling young man, Gombu became my close friend. Hari Ahluwalia was also doing the basic course with me, and we three often walked together on our march to the training area. I can never forget that when we came to Dzongri, we had to undertake a very steep climb. Gombu mischievously challenged us, to compete with him. We raced up that slope. All three of us were young, Gombu the youngest and the fittest. All I can say is that I did not disgrace myself in that climb.
Since that day, I have known Gombu here, there, and everywhere. The years passed. We all got older, but Gombu remained bubbly. I am happy that in 2000, when I was the Himalayan Club President, we invited three of these great Tigers from Darjeeling: Nawang Gombu, Topgay Sherpa and the 90 year old Ang Tsering, with a famous history of Nanga Parbat. We had a great function in Mumbai, when we honoured all these heroes of India. It was a shock to me, when I learnt of his sudden death. There was no reason for Gombu to go so soon. He was the type of man, who would have broken the UK Marathon runner Fauja Singh’s age and endeavour record, but sadly, Gombu went too early, just as his uncle Tenzing had. I miss him, but none in this country, can forget Gombu, as a mountaineering hero.
DR M S GILL
(1929 – 2011)
The death of George Band at the age of 82 brings British mountaineering suddenly perilously close to the end of a generation – those who as young men in the 1950s adventured in the Himalaya and who, for as long as most of us can remember, have formed the climbing establishment in the UK. George was at the heart of it. Energetic and affable, he seemed to be there at every festival or gathering, retelling his stories of Everest and Kangchenjunga yet equally enthused by the latest headline routes in alpinism.
So naturally did he fit this role of elder statesman that it was easy to forget that in 1955 the smiling, white-haired gent regaling you in a lecture hall or club bar had made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, with Joe Brown, and two years earlier had helped forge the route through the Khumbu Icefall that Hillary and Tenzing would follow to the summit of Everest. Band served as president of both the Alpine Club and the British Mountaineering Council and was an honorary member of the Himalayan Club.
Kangchenjunga and Everest confirmed Band as one of the top alpinists of his day. However he remained an amateur – in the best French sense of the world – climbing for the love of it, while making his career in the oil industry.
George Christopher Band was born in 1929 in Japanese controlled Taiwan where his parents were Presbyterian missionaries. He was educated at Eltham College, south London, and Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he studied geology and became one of a mainly Oxbridge set pushing the standard of British climbing in the Alps. When John Hunt chose his team for Everest, he included not only Band who had been president of the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club but a recent president of its Oxford equivalent, Michael Westmacott, though neither had climbed in the Himalaya. At age 23 Band was the youngest of the climbing team.
Band had other qualifications that appealed to Hunt besides a 1952 season in the Alps which included a string of first British or first British guideless ascents. National Service in the Royal Corps of Signals appeared to make Band a natural for radio duties and when he pointed out he had actually been a messing officer, Hunt responded, ‘Better still, then you can also help... with the food’.
Band spent a week in the hazardous Khumbu Icefall, along with a small group of other climbers, weaving between ice walls and bridging crevasses, opening the way into the Western Cwm, the great glacier trench that leads to the south side of Everest. Names given by the climbers to features in the icefall – such as Hillary’s Horror and the Atom Bomb Area – give a taste of the unstable terrain.
A bout of flu obliged Band to descend to the valley to recuperate, but he returned to help ferry loads up the Cwm and on to the Lhotse Face, as well as performing his radio duties, monitoring weather reports, and dishing out rations. His high point was escorting a group of Sherpas to Camp VII at 7300 m.
On 2 June, three days after Hillary and Tenzing had, in the Kiwi’s immortal words, ‘knocked the bastard off’, Band tuned in the radio to the Overseas Service and the team listened to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Then came an additional announcement: ‘Crowds waiting in the Mall also heard that that Mount Everest had been climbed by the British Expedition’. The climbers were dumbfounded that the news had got back so soon – a scoop for James (now Jan) Morris of The Times who accompanied the expedition. Band recorded in his diary: ‘A lively evening. Finished off the rum. Sick as a dog!’
George and Susan Band in front of Gateway of India, Mumbai.
Band wrote the preface to Road to Rakaposhi while on the 1955 Kangchenjunga expedition. Led by Charles Evans, a Liverpool surgeon, it was a very different affair to Everest: compact and low key with much less national pride at stake. In fact as the climbers would be exploring new and dangerous ground there was no expectation they would reach the top; the expedition was a ‘reconnaissance in force’. It was also a more socially mixed team than on Everest, exemplified by the pairing of Band with Joe Brown, a jobbing builder from Manchester just making his name as a rock-climbing phenomenon.
Band was on messing duties again. He recalled being popular at first, but there were few villages en route and the craving for meat, eggs and fresh vegetables became strong. ‘I was constantly reminded that ‘Just in case you’re getting swollen headed, Band, the grub’s bloody awful’.
Ascent of the 8586 m peak, third highest in the world, would be via the southwest face. Nobody had been higher than 6400 m on this side of Kangch’ and John Hunt predicted, correctly, that the technical climbing problems and objective dangers would be of a higher order than on Everest. The team endured screaming winds and blizzards, but eventually Band and Brown pitched their tent on an inadequate ledge at 8200 m. Next day, 25 May, dawned fine – ‘the God of Kangchenjunga was kind to us’, wrote Band – and after a couple of pints of tea and a biscuit the pair set off for the summit. Shortly before the top they came to a wall broken by vertical cracks – an irresistible temptation to Brown. Cranking up the flow on his oxygen bottle, he disposed of the highest rock pitch ever attempted, though it would have been a modest Very Difficult grade at sea level; Band followed, and there, six m away and one and half m higher, was the summit snow cone. They respectfully left it untrammelled.
Lecturing and writing kept Band independent until 1957 when he pleased his parents by getting ‘a proper job’, beginning a long career with Shell, initially as a petroleum engineer then moving up the executive ladder. Oil and gas development took him to seven different countries – some, like Venezuela offering climbs on the side – before returning to England where, in 1983, he was appointed director general of the UK Offshore Operators Association.
After retirement in 1990, Band returned to the world of mountains – immersing himself in the affairs of the Alpine Club, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Geographical Society and the Himalayan Trust, the charity founded by Edmund Hillary to provide education, health care and other aid to the Sherpa people of Nepal. He took over as chairman of the UK arm of the Trust in 2003 and worked ceaselessly as its ambassador even as his health was failing. He authored two more books, the Everest history and Summit: 150 Years of the Alpine Club (2006), also for Harper Collins and led adventurous treks in the Himalaya for the company Far Frontiers, of which he was chairman. In 2008 he was appointed OBE for services to mountaineering and charity.
When the Alpine Club celebrated its 150th anniversary in Zermatt in 2007, George was in his element. For the media, AC leaders and their mountain celebrity guests made a mass ascent of the Breithorn, the 4164 m snow summit above the resort. George had climbed it in 1963 during the club’s centenary celebrations, via the tricky Younggrat. Fifty years later he reached the summit again, albeit by the easier standard route, but at aged 78 a testimony to an unquenchable enthusiasm for the mountains.
George Band seemed to defy the years. Such was his stalwart presence that word that George was suffering from an aggressive prostate cancer came as a shocking surprise. He isn’t the last of his generation, members of the Everest 1953, Rakaposhi and Kangchenjunga expeditions live on, but he was the most publicly active. Though Hunt, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were gone, George tirelessly kept the Everest show on the road at reunions, festivals, lectures and charity events. It was in a way a family affair and he took on the fatherly role with conscientious grace and genuine enthusiasm.
(1924 – 2011)
Joss Lynam died on 9 January, 2011 at the age of 86. I first had significant contact with Joss when we were members of an Irish team which attempted the northwest ridge of Rakaposhi in 1964, and for perhaps thirty five years afterwards we corroborated on so many schemes connected with mountaineering and the outdoors that I think I have forgotten some.
We had met briefly in 1962 when he was on leave from his job as an engineer in Orissa but he was so caught up in a maelstrom of his own and his sister-in-law’s children living temporarily in the same house that we barely spoke about initial plans for the Rakaposhi trip. He had left Ireland before I joined the Irish Mountaineering Club which he had co-founded. He had seemed to me a distant, even legendary, figure who was respected by my elders in the club for his organisational ability and for having been the first ascensionist of Pine-tree Buttress, a classic Wicklow climb of enduring reputation. It was only when we were together in Hunza in 1964 that I came to know him well.
His first trip to the Alps followed soon after and then, in 1958 and 1961, he took part in two expeditions to Lahaul-Spiti, on the second of which he made the first ascent of Shigri Parvat and, in the best tradition of the time, lugged plane table and accoutrements to several summits to complete a survey which resulted in what was for some time the definitive map of the Bara Shigri basin. Many years later we were to compare his experience of walking from Manali to Spiti with my visits there by bus or four-wheel drive.
When he returned to live in Ireland not long after the Rakaposhi trip he immersed himself in the affairs of his club and then, as an increasingly prosperous Ireland became more leisure-oriented, in those of a number of organisations which sprang up to cater for a new enthusiasm for the outdoors. During that heady time when the tiny number of enthusiasts involved in incipient adventure sports organisations came together to form the Association for Adventure Sports and then, in many cases to adopt similar training methods and a joint approach to government, Joss quickly came to prominence. Initiators of various projects, including that of setting up the national body for mountaineering (now Mountaineering Ireland) and even of new activities such as orienteering, turned to Joss for help. His energy, his ability as an administrator and as a facilitator of consensus, ensured that he was recognised by his peers, and then by government, as a spokesman for adventure training. In the 1970s he became a member of the newly established National Sports Council.
In the meantime he led two expeditions to Greenland in 1968 and 1971, extended his alpine experience, helped to initiate contacts with mountaineering and mountain training bodies in other countries, persuaded the newly formed national mountaineering body to take over the Mountain Leadership training scheme and became involved in the setting up of the National Adventure Centre at Tiglin in Co.Wicklow. He was back in the Himalaya in 1977 on a trip to Kishtwar as a member of a strong team led by Calvin Torrans which failed in its objectives and again in 1984 to Zanskar where Joss’s team completed the first official ascent of Z8. (They found evidence of a previous unauthorised ascent). He took part in an Irish expedition to the Peruvian Andes in 1980.
On a personal level, the 1980s were a difficult time for Joss. He lost his job with a major Dublin civil engineering firm in 1983; in 1986 he had a coronary bypass operation and his son Nick died in the following year. His resilience was remarkable. As he said afterwards his job redundancy was the best thing that could have happened as it gave him time to devote to the editing of Mountain Log, the mountaineering magazine which he had founded in 1979, to his work as chairman of the committee which advised the government on the establishment of a network of way marked country walks and to his editing of a number of walking guides. Within a year of his by-pass operation he was guest leader of an expedition to Zhangzi in Tibet. That trip, on which the team reached over 7000 m in poor conditions, was a very valuable learning experience and part of the methodical build-up to the successful Irish ascent on the north side of Everest five years later in 1992.
Joss felt that with advancing age (he was then 63) his Zhangzi experience was to be his last Himalayan venture but two years later in 1989 he was persuaded by the irrepressible Mike Banks who had led the first successful team to Rakaposhi in 1958 to take part as joint leader in an attempt on the Khatling side of Jaonli (6632 m) in Garwhal. That began a series of such outings, all sponsored by a magazine which catered for retired folk, on several of which I took part as the ‘baby’ of successive teams which included some of Britain’s most experienced mountaineers and explorers as well as us two ‘Paddys’. We failed on Jaonli in 1989 because of snow conditions and again in 1991 when the Uttarkashi earthquake threw up unstable obstacles on the south ridge -fortunately when we were on their downward side. Joss was feeling his age and was not to the fore on these trips but his sound mountaineering judgement, judicious advice and his well-established friendship with our capable liaison officer, C.P. Ravichandra, were of much value. On that second trip the combined age of our six-man team, excluding Ravi, was 382 years.
Joss and Mike joined again in 1993 on a climbing outing to Sermersoq Island off Greenland’s Cape Farewell where the small party included Joss’s old friend Bill Hannon.
I was not too surprised, but secretly very impressed by their durability, when Mike and Joss again asked me to join them on an Anglo-Irish trip to Bogda Ola in 1995. Joss was in his element on that trip, dealing tactfully with the Chinese authorities and restraining Mike’s irritation with our party-appointed minder, seeing for himself some of the places of his early dreams including Turfan and Shipton’s old consulate in Kashgar; and then following Shipton’s and Tilman’s route into the Bogda Ola itself. Although much hindered by his years and too many hours spent at a desk on behalf of his various causes, the lower altitude of this area enabled Joss to reach several summits, one of which was a possible first ascent. Our outward trip along the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan, and particularly our short stay in Hunza, had an elegiac air as we gazed nostalgically at the great ice walls of Rakaposhi and dined at the home of Mike’s former liaison officer and brother of the Mir. We sensed that this was indeed the last serious Himalayan venture of our two doyens.
The 1990s saw Joss taking his place as Ireland’s representative on the UIAA and then as the chairman of that body’s Expeditions Commission. Despite frustrations associated with constantly changing membership of such a voluntary body he managed to establish closer relationships between the Himalayan and Andean ‘host’ countries on the one hand, and the established Alpine and other ‘user’ countries on the other. One feels that it was at least partly due to his good work that the disparate problems of the host countries became more clearly recognised and that dealing with mountaineering bureaucracies in some Himalayan countries became much more pleasant as the new millennium began.
Joss met his wife Nora Gorevan in the early years of the IMC and they married following his graduation. They had three children Ruth, Nick and Clodagh, all three of whom were involved in outdoor activities. The Lynam home was a busy and welcoming centre for business meetings of various organisations and for crowded mountaineers’ parties at which the contortions of Joss’s lanky frame trying to cope with an Irish dance were wonderful to behold.
In 2001 Joss received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin in recognition of his voluntary work and adventurous achievements. His funeral was attended by a large crowd of mountaineers and other sports people of all ages and the Ireland’s President sent her condolences. His ashes were scattered from the summit of Knocknarea in Co. Sligo, the first hill he had climbed as a child.
Joss Lynam, b. 29 June 1924; d. 9 January 2011.
(1948 – 2010)
The death occurred on 29th August 2010 in Kolkata. I was in Mumbai when I received word. It was for me a moment of deep sadness as he was a close friend. Guenter was seriously ill for over a year and therefore the news of his death was not altogether a surprise. He had borne his illness with considerable equanimity, though not without a fight and with some hope of remission. The expectation was belied and the inevitable followed. A private man he rarely gave any indication of personal pain or sadness. Upon my return to Kolkata I attended the Memorial that was organised on 8 September jointly by the Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany in Kolkata, The Indo German Chamber of Commerce and the Directorate of Max Mueller Bhavan. The MMB Hall was packed with people from the Consular Corps, members of various Trade Associations, photographers with whom he shared an affinity, his many friends, dignitaries, admirers and family. I was an invitee from The Himalayan Club. His mother-in-law (his wife Maren’s mother) with whom he was particularly close, and called her Amma, had come with her son from Germany. Members in Kolkata will recall Maren’s passing almost three years back, ironically also of cancer. As it happened they were both cremated in Kolkata.
He was a life member of the Himalayan Club since November 2006 and became a member of the Board of the HC Kolkata Section soon thereafter. His contributions to the Club were many and I came to value his advice during the period that I was actively involved. He applied the word ‘Camelot’ to the style and excitement of that period. The passing of Guenter (and Aditya Kashyap before him – In Memoriam HJ Vol 63, 2007) was perhaps the end ‘of Camelot as in the days that were’.
He was educated as a Political Scientist at the Free University, Berlin, the London School of Economics & Political Science and further at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. The degrees he obtained ended with an MSc (politics). The career that followed was inevitably in the German Foreign Office. His love affair with India began with a posting as a young Foreign Service Officer in Madras in the early eighties. And so began, with it, the pursuit of his lifelong interest in the Himalaya.
He was posted as Consul General in Kolkata since the summer of 2005 and came to the city from Boston, MA, where he was also Consul General. He had one final term to complete before retirement and requested to remain in Kolkata. He loved Kolkata and its people and the people of Kolkata adored him. He was an unusual career diplomat in that he mixed easily with dignitaries as well with as the common man. No. 6, Raja Santosh Road, his home in Kolkata, will be long remembered for the Club meetings that he hosted. He was a gracious and generous person and the HC Kolkata Section was often a recipient of his substantial personal contributions. I shall miss the evenings that we spent together at his home sipping good German wine, discussing his various interests and those we shared. He was a good listener and after we had exhausted ourselves listening to each other, we never tired of reviewing the beautiful photographs of his various visits to mountains and the wilderness areas of the world. He was a photographer of considerable skill bordering on professional. His photographs were published and exhibited regularly, having studied the intricacies of the art at the International Center of Photography, New York.
Guenter was a long standing member of the German Alpine Club for more than 40 years. He had trekked in Solu Khumbu with its members in 1976 and travelled through Tibet with a group of photographers in 1997. There was wanderlust in him. He had taken Alpine Club courses in rock climbing and ice craft and had hiked extensively as a young man in the Alps and in Scotland and climbed a few Klettersteige in Germany and the Dolomites. Not surprisingly he got engaged to Maren on the summit of Ben Nevis. He had led a group of adults and a sled dog (which was his and Maren’s prize pet) on a week long hut-to-hut hike across the German Alps. The dog-sledding habit was acquired in Alaska and he had travelled with Eskimos by dogsled north of Thule Airbase, Greenland. Guenter was also adept with kayak and canoe and among the places of the world that he negotiated in that fashion were the waters of South India.
At his Memorial at the MMB there was a lovely full blown screen photograph of Guenter with his camera clicking the audience as it were. He had a lively sense of humour and a way of smiling with his eyes. He enjoyed life and his pictures reflected it. His self photograph with that smile of his looking at us seemed to say farewell, it was nice knowing you.
It was very nice knowing you too, Guenter.
MEHER H MEHTA
A brilliant Engineer and serial entrepreneur, he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai. After a career with Godrej Electric, he set up his own company – Rimo Technologies, which was one of the great success stories in the Indian IT industry.
He was very well read about expeditionary and exploratory mountaineering and has contributed significantly to spreading ecological awareness, especially in relation to mountains.
Ajit is survived by his wife Radha and his daughter Arundhati, both of whom are ardent mountain lovers.