The Irish in Himachal Pradesh

Paddy O’Leary

For climbers from a small country, the Irish have had a remarkable impact on exploration and climbing in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Although Irish mountaineers have made attempts on, and ascents of, peaks in the Garhwal and in the state of Jammu & Kashmir as well as in Sikkim, it is in Himachal that the most intense Irish activity has taken place.

India contains a greater proportion of the Himalaya than does any other country and the state of Himachal Pradesh which is about sixty five per cent of the size of Ireland is almost entirely mountainous. Although the state capital Shimla (Simla) at 2160 m is easily accessible by road and rail, there are a number of valleys in the Kinnaur-Spiti area which have not been visited by westerners since the 1930s and not at all by mountaineers. There are many unclimbed peaks of over 6000 m in height.

Himachal Pradesh, in common with other Indian states, is divided into districts. Almost all the 6000 m peaks are located in three of these, Kinnaur, Kullu and Lahaul-Spiti, but some of these summits are on the watershed separating Lahaul-Spiti from Chamba. In all these districts and in Kangra there are worthwhile 5000 m peaks and many fine treks over high passes. Kullu and parts of Kinnaur are lush, with orchards and forests below snow-clad summits. Lahaul-Spiti and upper Kinnaur are beyond the main Himalayan chain and deprived of prolonged rains during the monsoon and are thus arid and virtually treeless. Extensive areas of these two latter regions are cut off by heavy snows for six months of the year and river crossings are a constant hazard.

The earliest record I can find of an Irish mountaineering venture in Himachal was that by R.I. Bruce, a landlord’s son from Co. Cork who was sent to Kullu on medical grounds in the early 1870s to rest from his dangerous assignment as a District Commissioner on the North-West Frontier. He loved the beautiful and fertile valley the name of which, Kullu, is derived from Kulanthapitha, ‘the end of the habitable world’ and during the monsoon used to trek to trans-Himalayan Ladakh over the Hampta pass and Parang la (5578 m), or by way of the Rohtang pass and Baralacha (4883 m).1 At about the same time Captain Arthur Banon, cousin of Christopher Banon MP of Broughal Castle, King’s County, left the Munster Fusiliers and joined the rare and isolated group of British settlers in Kullu where he developed the existing fruit- growing into a commercial enterprise by exploiting cheap Indian postal rates to send pack-trains of apples across the 3300 m Jalori range to distant Simla (now Shimla).2 He married a local woman, as did his sons and their descendants. One of these, John Banon, became the local honorary secretary of the Himalayan Club and was well known as a local facilitator to a generation of mountaineers including John Morrison and Joss Lynam of the Irish Mountaineering Club (IMC). The Banon family, now thoroughly Indian, are quite influential in Manali, the valley’s mountaineering and tourist centre.

In 1884, Louis Dane, of a prominent Enniskillen family, made the first crossing of what is now called the Pin Parvati pass (5400 m) between Spiti and Kullu as part of an official tour of duty. Dane, who said that his three years in Kullu were the happiest time of his life, went on to become Lt.-Governor of Punjab which incorporated what is now Himachal Pradesh.3 His successor in that post, Tipperary man Michael O’Dwyer, jokingly remarked that he appointed a Mr. Shuttleworth as Assistant Commissioner to Kullu because that worthy’s wife was a McGillicuddy of the Reeks and would be at home in the mountains.4 (McGillicuddy’s Reeks are Ireland’s highest hills). Shuttleworth made the first crossing of the Pin Parvati from the Kullu side in 1921.5

Some time between Dane’s Pin Parvati crossing and Shuttleworth’s, a fictional Irishman made one of literature’s great journeys, crossing high passes from what is now the state of Uttaranchal into the Chini valley which is in Kinnaur. Kipling’s Kim, (Kimball O’Hara) the son of an Irish colour sergeant, intercepted a pair of spies, one Russian, the other French who were engaged in that wide-ranging geo-political manoeuvring known as The Great Game. At one point Kim and the Tibetan Lama whose chela (disciple) he was, found themselves on the Hindustan-Tibet road which the spies were following on their secretive journey from Ladakh.6 That road, actually a mule track extant today, was built by a Donegal-born engineer, J. P. Kennedy, who had worked as secretary to the Devon Commission which looked into the law and practice of land occupation in Ireland. The 354 km long track from Shimla to the Tibetan border at the Shipki pass, was known locally for some time as Kengree Sahib ke Surruck, Mr. Kennedy’s road.7 The spies were tricked by an associate of Kim into accompanying him back to Shimla where, in reality, there were houses with names such as Abbeyfeale, Connemara and Ballyhooly along with a viceregal lodge built by Co. Down’s Lord Dufferin. Another Irishman, Colonel Parsons, described a trip along the Hindustan-Tibet trail made in the early 20th century by himself and Louis Dane, by that time Sir Louis, when they drank five bottles of Chianti each day.8

Himachal Pradesh, selected peaks, passes and rivers - based on original map drawn by S.O Hanlon

Himachal Pradesh, selected peaks, passes and rivers - based on original map drawn by S.O Hanlon

In April 1958, much too early in the season for serious mountaineering, John Morrison, a prominent member in the early years of the IMC who was associated with a number of harder climbs in Ireland’s Dalkey Quarry and Glen Inagh, arrived in Manali where there were then no hotels and but a few guesthouses. Morrison had anticipated the back- packing hippies of the 60’s in his wide-ranging travels having just come from Mt. Cook in New Zealand and before that from Mexican volcanoes via North Dakota spires and the Bugaboos. Along with Bob Pettigrew of the Alpine Club and others, he made an attempt on the then unclimbed Indrasan (6221 m) near Manali but they were foiled by heavy snows and avalanches. Their three weeks on the mountain cost them £12.00 each including food and porters.9

Later that year, and long before the era of climbing permits and peak fees, Joss Lynam, along with three English friends of the Sherborne Himalayan Expedition led by Gwynn Stephenson, had a very successful few weeks in nearby Spiti, filling in a sizable blank on the map and climbing several peaks (Sherborne is an English public school). Walking with pack ponies all the way from Manali, they followed a route now plied by buses, crossing the Rohtang and Kunzum passes to Losar. There they found a way through the Dongri-mo or Suvita nala (river gorge) into a glacial basin from which a col allowed them to reach the Gyundi valley, the first mountaineers to do so as the direct route along the river gorge which drains the valley is steep and subject to flooding. Lynam thought the Gyundi to be one of the most beautiful valleys he had visited; he was taken, as most mountaineers are, by Spiti’s bare, multi-coloured sedimentary rock with its convoluted, sinuous strata. On their way, Lynam and another climbed a peak of 6137 m which they named ‘Fluted Peak’. They followed the west fork of the Gyundi glacier to a col which led to the Bara Shigri basin, taking in a peak of 5961 m on the way. Descending from the col, hungry and running out of supplies, they were lucky to be met by Gwynn Stephenson, an occasional IMC member, who had brought supplies the long way round from Losar. They camped at Concordia, the main glacial junction of the already well-known Bara Shigri basin and climbed another peak of 5852 m. Lynam had conducted a plane table survey of the Gyundi, setting up the weighty equipment on several summits and high points and he corrected the previous poor map of the Bara Shigri before the party returned to Manali, from which they drove back to Britain.10

In 1961 Lynam, now working in India, was back again in a mainly British team and went straight up the Bara Shigri glacier from Lahaul, with climbing rather than exploration being the main objective. Nevertheless, he still managed to complete a survey of the basin and his map remained the definitive one for quite some time. On this trip he and P. Harvey made the first ascent of Shigri Parvat (6562 m), a very worthwhile peak which dominates the area. Lynam suffered frostbitten feet in the process, a factor which subsequently affected him at high altitude.11 This was a significant ascent, especially as Lynam would never claim to be a technically brilliant climber. He excelled in his feel for mountainous country, route-finding and in his overall mountaineering judgement. Gwynn Stephenson reached a col on the Shigri-Khamengar watershed and may have descended a short distance into the Khamengar valley.12

Post 1962
In 1962 India fought a fierce high-level war with China in Ladakh and in the Assam Himalaya, resulting in severe restrictions on access to large parts of the Indian Himalaya and inhibiting ascents by foreigners for about thirty years. In Himachal, almost all of Kinnaur and of Spiti were badly affected.

In 1977 a team of well-known climbers from the Belfast Section of the IMC (M. Curran, J. Forsythe, T. Mooney, J. Kerr, F. Kelly and P. Lamont) found that their first objective Hanuman Tibba in Kullu was out of condition, so they shifted their interest to the Karcha nala near Batal in Lahaul from which, on 19 September, Curran, Forsythe and Kerr with Tara Chand made the first ascent of a 6271 m peak close to Lynam’s Fluted Peak, which they called Karcha Parvat*. On their return to Manali, this well-balanced team again attempted Hanuman Tibba but were turned back by heavy snows.13 In 1982, Sean Maguire and Con Collins, who was to become a respected publisher of mountaineering and exploration books, made an unsuccessful attempt on Menthosa (6443 m) in western Lahaul. They estimate that they reached about 6000 m before being stopped by a large curving crevasse.14

Note * See letter in Correspondence Section in this volume - Ed.

Easing of Restrictions, 1993
The Inner Line which demarcated restricted areas within 40 km of the Tibetan border was moved closer to that border in 1993, allowing westerners into Kinnaur and large parts of Spiti for the first time since 1962. Paddy O’Leary was one of the very first westerners, and probably the first western mountaineer, to avail of the opportunity to visit Kinnaur using the all-weather road built beside the river through the Satluj gorge at the insistence of the army following the 1962 debacle. (The Hindustan- Tibet road contours along the gorge’s flank, sometimes as much as 600 m above the motor road). During the intervening period teams from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Indian army had climbed many of the Kinnauri peaks,15 but there were, and are, a few unclimbed 6000 m summits left untouched. Besides reconnoitring approach routes into some of the peaks, during the next two years O’Leary penetrated various valleys which had not been seen by westerners since before the Second World War and crossed many passes linking these valleys. With Simon Dupuy and Tom Fox in September 1993 he found an easy and previously unsuspected approach to Gramang Bal (6248 m). During their reconnaissance they stumbled upon the festival of Phulej being celebrated by the villagers of Morang in a temporary makeshift encampment about 400 m above the village. They were told that they were the first westerners to observe and be welcomed to this harvest festival which, with its sacred ceremonies and bacchanalian abandon bore resemblance to an Irish ‘pattern’ of the past. Their enthusiastic participation in the celebrations led to their acceptance and a pattern of helpfulness throughout Kinnaur. The route they found into Gramang Bal was followed by Sé Ó Hanlon and friends when they attempted the peak in 2008, (see below). Dupuy, Fox and O’Leary crossed the Bhaba pass (4865 m) into the Pin valley in Spiti and later re-crossed into Kinnaur via the Manirang pass (5550 m) in September 1993, making a tentative attempt to climb Manirang South (5888 m) on the way. These crossings, all snow-covered with most of them glacial in their upper reaches, each took about a week as did the tricky crossing of Laser We (5275 m) linking Kinnaur’s Taiti valley with the Pin valley which O’Leary did alone in August 1994. Earlier in 1993 he had crossed the Kugti pass (5020 m), one of the main routes followed by transhumant sheep and goat herders between Lahaul and Chamba, besides several lower passes in the Rampur area and between Kullu and Kangra. Although difficult to confirm, most of these crossings were probably the first by a westerner in the years since 1962 and possibly the first-ever by an Irish person or group.

Gramang Bal (6248 m). (Paddy O'Leary)

Gramang Bal (6248 m). (Paddy O'Leary)

O’Leary also crossed the Charang la (5242 m), as part of the parikrama (pilgrimage circuit) of the Kinnaur Kailash massif, the Burua pass (4724 m) linking the Pabbar valley to Baspa valley and the unnamed pass (4900 m) between the secluded Kojang valley and Urni, these latter two without porters. In Kojang he was told that the only other westerner ever seen there was a forester who used to shoot there in the 1930s. With Ladakhi smugglers, in September 1994, he also crossed the Parang la (5580 m) from Spiti into the Rupshu area of Ladakh where he was arrested for straying off the route allowed by his permit.16 In 1994 he was probably the first westerner in more than a generation to walk the most dramatic section of the Hindustan-Tibet road from Urni to Kipling’s Chini, the name of which had been changed to Kalpa following the Sino-Indian war.17 A large and still unstable avalanche had rendered this section of the track impassable for pack animals.

Khangla Tarbo (6315 m) and Shigri Parvat (6526 m). (Paddy O'Leary)

Khangla Tarbo (6315 m) and Shigri Parvat (6526 m). (Paddy O'Leary)

In August of 1999 O’Leary was back again in Spiti with Mike Scott to find a route on Khangla Tarbo I (6315m) which was reached through the Khamengar valley, hauling them on a single wire cable across the Khamengar river. As part of their reconnaissance they found themselves on the less dramatic summit of Khangla Tarbo II (6248m) which an Indian team claimed to have climbed for the first time the previous year. They later penetrated the lower Debsa valley, the first western mountaineers to do so (an Indian team had descended the valley in 1995 having crossed the main Himalayan divide from the Parvati valley in Kullu.). Before returning to Shimla the pair visited Kinnaur where they crossed the Haran pass (c. 5000 m), a long disused and snow-free route from the main Satluj valley to Kamru.18 In 2000 an IMC team led by O’Leary (C. Burns, B. Geraghty, S. Ó Hanlon, C. Owens and H. Reynolds) returned to Spiti to make the first ascent of Khangla Tarbo I. There was now a footbridge across the Khamengar river. Geraghty, Reynolds and Owens reached the summit by way of a steep ice-slope on 9 September from a bivouac at 5300 m on the far (western) side of the mountain from base camp. The party then shifted to the upper Debsa valley; from which Reynolds and Ó Hanlon crossed a glaciated pass (c. 5360 m) on the main Himalayan divide to the Parvati valley and Kullu. This may have been the pass first crossed by an Indian party in 1995 and which they named the Debsa pass, but there is a possibility that the Irish pair made a first crossing as there are several obvious cols close to each other on the Debsa-Parvati watershed, any one of which could be the Debsa pass. At any rate it was the first crossing of the Himalayan divide from the Debsa side. O’Leary, Burns and Ó Hanlon had previously been the first mountaineers to penetrate the eastern branch of the Debsa but failed to find a pass over the watershed. Burns and O’Leary then climbed up beside a waterfall, to spend several days in a side valley looking for a pass to the Pin valley by which it had been supposed nomadic herders – Gaddis – brought their flocks into Debsa. There is no such pass.19

In 2004, hoping to be the first mountaineer to reach the upper reaches of the Khamengar and establish a link to the col gained by Stephenson from the Bara Shigri 43 years before, O’Leary left the road head at Mikkim on 16 September. After a false start and time lost on the left bank of the Khamengar, he and three high altitude porters from Manali went up the right bank. On the way they met Divyesh Muni of the Himalayan Club who had just climbed peak 6360 m* at the head of the valley. Thus deprived of the chance to be the first mountaineers to penetrate these upper reaches, O’Leary and party got within 200 m of a 100 m gully leading to the 5785 m high col before heavily-falling snow and thick mist forced a retreat on the 21st of the month. Shortage of time prevented a second attempt and a crossing from Spiti’s Khamengar to Lahaul’s Bara Shigri remains to be done.20

In September-October 2006 O’Leary with a party of friends again crossed the Buran Ghati (snow-free late in the season) and went on to traverse the Parang la from Spiti to the great lake, Tso Moriri, in Ladakh.

Ramabang (6135 m). (Paddy O'Leary)

Ramabang (6135 m). (Paddy O'Leary)

In 2008, an Irish party (Gerry Galligan, D. Ó Murchú, P. Mitchell C. Scarlett) ascended by the waterfall to the side valley of the Debsa previously reached by Burns and O’Leary in 2000. They set up an advanced base here to gain access to the southwest ridge of Ramabang (6135 m), the summit of which was reached by Galligan, Ó Murchú and Mitchell on 22 July. The group then made the first entry into the Bauli Khad glacier and, making three camps on the way, crossed the 5600 m col at its head into the Dibibokri basin and glacier which they followed down to its confluence with the Parvati valley.21 This expedition was a fine effort, climbing a good peak and covering new ground to cross the Himalayan divide, possibly the best outing so far by an Irish party in the area.

Note * Khhang Shiling, HJ Vol. 61 (ed.)

Col at the head of Bauli Khad valley and P. 6507 m. (Paddy O'Leary)

Col at the head of Bauli Khad valley and P. 6507 m. (Paddy O'Leary)

Also in 2008, in August-September, Se Ó Hanlon led a mainly female IMC party (M. Cregan, N. Sturdy, N. McGreen, Eric Corkery) in an unsuccessful attempt on Gramang Bal (6248 m) using the route through the Rovang Khad recced by O’Leary fifteen years ago. Restrictions had been eased in the meantime; the 1993 party had failed to obtain a climbing permit because the peak lay on a politically sensitive watershed close to the Tibetan border. The 2008 party’s water supply dried up and this combined with the dangers of the route from the location of their base camp resulted in retreat, but not before a possible alternative and more convenient approach route was found.22 Another change was that the reach of technology into the hills enabled Ó Hanlon to summon porters up from the valley by mobile phone at the end of their trip.

In September-October 2010 O’Leary, Ó Cleirigh, Ian Aitcheson (British), Cairns and Slevin, following in the footsteps of Harish Kapadia, ascended the Sorang valley in lower Kinnaur through drenched and difficult jungle to Dumti where the swollen river forced them to abandon their original plans to reach enticing peaks above Zhangshu in favour of a crossing of Kamba Khango pass and attempts on interesting looking 5000 m rock peaks. A prolonged monsoon and early onset of winter stymied even these modest aims and carefully tucked-in tails retreated the way they had come, but not before Aitcheson had gained the Kamba Khango.

In October-November 2010 an Irish-British group composed mainly of Colmcille Club members explored a valley in Spiti previously unvisited by mountaineers and attempted a first ascent of Singekang (6008 m). The valley runs southeastwards from a bridge across the Spiti river at Poh, a village between Dhankar and Tabo. Poh is not to be confused with Puh which is not very far away in Kinnaur. The party (Alan Tees, Andrew Tees, Sandra Kennedy, Martin Boner, George Carlton and Jeremy Windsor) arrived at Pomorang/Poh on 29 October, a later start in the season than any other I am aware of in Spiti, and spent eight days establishing three camps along the valley before making their unsuccessful attempt on 8 November. They reached a height of 5600 m but were foiled by unconsolidated snow, low temperatures and steep ice towers (see remarks above about the early onset of winter in Kinnaur in that year). On 12 November three of the party and two high altitude porters then climbed a 5500 m peak which they called Snaght Kang23.

There are a number of reasons for the intensity of Irish interest in the area. India neither has the strictly controlled access regimes which exist in Nepal and China, nor the political sensitivities of present-day Pakistan. Although one needs a permit and must pay a hefty fee to climb peaks over 6000 m, it is possible to wander at will and free of charge throughout most of Himachal Pradesh with the exception of areas close to the Chinese border (although a permit is sometimes issued) and is thus very suitable for small expeditions with limited funds. Himachal is a beautiful and varied area containing some of the Himalaya’s loveliest valleys and most interesting people. It should be noted that the term ‘unexplored’ should be used with care as most valleys, even some glaciated ones, are known to locals and especially to tough and resourceful Gaddis who traverse some quite difficult passes, and make remarkable river crossings to graze in secluded high pastures.

History of activities of Irish mountaineers and explorers in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, India.


This article was first published in the Journal of the Irish Mountaineering and Exploration Historical Society 2012 - Ed.


  1. R. I. Bruce, The forward policy and its results (London, 1900), pp. 48-53.
  2. Penelope Chetwood, Kulu: the end of the habitable world (New Delhi, 1989), p. 129.

  3. Harish Kapadia, Spiti: adventures in the Trans Himalaya (New Delhi, 1999), p.120; P. O’Leary, Servants of the empire: the Irish in Punjab 1881-1921 (Manchester, 2011), p.100.
  4. Chetwood, Kulu, p. 2.
  5. Kapadia, Spiti, p. 121.
  6. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (Oxford 1987), pp. 230-66.
  7. O’ Leary, Servants of the empire, p.155 8. Ibid, p.188.
  8. Ibid, p.188.
  9. John Morrison, ‘Throne of the thunder god’; Morrison, ‘Into the Bugaboos’ in IMC Journal (hereafter IMCJ) 1958-9, pp. 56-9: Morrison, ‘Random harvest’ in IMCJ 1961, pp. 42-9.
  10. J. P. O’F Lynam, ‘The Gyundi and the Bara Shigri’ in HJ XXI.
  11. Lynam, ‘ Back to the Bara Shigri’ in HJ XXIII.
  12. Ibid.
  13. M. Curran ‘Expeditions and notes’ in HJ XXXV. Interview with Forsythe 2012.
  14. Irish Mountain Log (hereafter IML), no. 15, Autumn 1982; email from Collins, 1st. Dec.2011.
  15. Harish Kapadia, High Himalaya: unknown valleys, New Delhi 1993), p. 182.
  16. P.O’Leary, ‘Mountain memory II’ in IMC newletter no. 3 Autumn 2005, pp.21-4.
  17. Kapadia, High Himalaya, p. 182.
  18. P.O’Leary, ‘Expeditions and notes’ in HJ 56, 2000, pp.193-7; M. Scott, ‘Spiti the forbidden land’ in IMC newsletter 1999.
  19. O’Leary, ‘Expeditions and notes’ in HJ 57, 2001; O’Leary, IMC newsletter, Spring 2001.
  20. O’Leary, ‘Spiti, Linking with the past’ in IML no. 75 Autumn 2005, pp. 20-1.
  21. Gerry Galligan, ‘Ramabang, a first ascent’ in IML no. 90, 2009, pp.26-31.
  22. S. Ó Hanlon, ‘Expeditions and notes’ in HJ 65, 2009.
  23. Alan Tees, ‘Irish/ British Singekang Exploratory Expedition 2010’ in HJ Vol. 67, p. 231-236.

⇑ Top