The Himalayan Career of Robert Dove Leakey (1914 - 2013)

Stephen A. Craven


The late Bob Leakey is famous in English caving circles for his spectacular cave explorations and discoveries in the northern Pennines of England under the auspices of the defunct British Speleological Association (BSA) of which he was a prominent and active member. He was sufficiently well known to merit a full page obituary in his local, Skipton, newspaper, five pages in the cavers’ magazine Descent, and prominent appreciations in the Guardian written by his children, Yorkshire Post and Telegraph. His best known exploit is at Mossdale Cave above Grassington which he gradually extended and surveyed during BSA meets during May - September 1941. This is a very wet cave, with about nine km of mainly low stream passages, and three sumps. Leakey removed all his clothes, took a deep breath, and free dived through the sumps. At that time the only available protective clothing for cave exploration was discarded woollen clothes worn underneath old boiler suits. This early exploit well illustrates Leakey’s remarkable ability to thrive during, and survive, adverse environmental conditions.

Corporal Leakey of the British Air Corps. Uniform kindly identified by Cdr. M. Bissett

Corporal Leakey of the British Air Corps. Uniform kindly identified by Cdr. M. Bissett

Sometime thereafter Leakey found himself at the Chakrata military hill station in the Himalayan foothills, about 50 km northwest of the railhead at Dehra Dun. There he met another member of the British Speleological Association, Brig. Aubrey Glennie who was Director of the Survey of India, and member of the Himalayan Club. Glennie had previously been exploring and surveying the easy caves and potholes beyond Chakrata. On 5 October 1942 Glennie took Leakey, and Albrecht von Leyden of the Alpine and Himalayan Clubs, to the Bodhyar forest rest house, a day’s march beyond Chakrata, where they stayed and spent two weeks exploring the caves. Leakey subsequently wrote the published description and surveys of the caves.

Bandarpunch (6315 m) in 1942

On 19th October Glennie had to return to Dehra Dun, so Leakey and von Leyden went on to reconnoitre Bandarpunch whose southern slopes drain into the Yamuna river. They spent the first night at Lakhamandal in the Yamuna valley, and during the following three days climbed towards the southeast ridge. They eventually rose to 5100 m before having to return for lack of time.

During the following month Leakey returned and attempted a solo ascent of Bandarpunch. Having recruited porters in Chakrata he trekked up a tributary of the Yamuna river to below Kharsali village. He pitched his tent at the top of a scree slope and climbed to a spur south of the Bandarpunch ridge overlooking the Hanuman ganga valley. Because of the very deep and awkward snow he retreated to Kharsali. He then followed a good path south of the village to a wide ridge where he established base camp at about 5800 m and dismissed the porters. The next day he rose at 03.00 a.m. and climbed steadily until 04.00 p.m. when he was defeated by low cloud and deep snow.

Leakey’s retreat was the, ‘worst journey of my life’; the only time when he felt the need for help during solitary climbs. He descended slowly during the night through hip-deep snow and avoiding crevasses and eventually, despite a useless headlamp and disintegrating boots, reached safety.

Leakey’s comment that his descent was the only time when he felt the need for help during solitary climbs strongly suggests that he was in the habit of trekking unaccompanied in the Himalaya.

During 1943 – 1944 Leakey had returned to England during which time he took the opportunity to begin the survey of Grange Rigg Pot in 1943. On 22 January 1944 he free-dived the sump in Disappointment Pot which had defeated a cave diver, and departed for India later that month.

Kolahoi (6066 m) in 1945

During the following year Leakey made an uneventful and amazing solo ascent of Kolahoi, about 16 km south-southeast of Sonamarg in Kashmir. He left the town on 26 June 1945, crossed the Sardal Nal (pass) and camped in the West Liddar valley below the snout of the glacier. On 29 June he bivouacked at the base of Gashibrar, two km East-northeast of the foot of the east ridge. The following day it took him about 11 hours to reach the summit where, to prove his ascent, he left a packet of chewing gum with a letter asking the finder to inform the Himalayan Club. He slept on the ridge until first light, and then descended to Sonamarg by nightfall.

It appears that Corporal Leakey of the British Army Air Corps may have been posted to the Recreational Mountain Centre at Sonamarg for aircrews recuperating from the Burma war. Its activities included mountain climbing. One of its officers was Harry Tilly who had supplied the photograph which illustrated Leakey’s account of his ascent. The Centre had been supplied with American mountain rations including chewing gum, the significance of which is discussed below.

It is surprising that there is no record that Leakey, while at the Recreational Mountain Centre, visited the caves in the Lower Liddar valley. Two months after his Kolahoi ascent he was informed that they were there. Nor did he visit the famous Amarnath and other nearby caves in the Sind valley upstream from Sonamarg.

Bandarpunch (6315 m) in 1946

By 1946 Leakey had been demoted to Private in the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, and transferred back to Chakrata. This gave him the opportunity to make his third attempt to climb Bandarpunch. On 19 April 1946 Leakey, Sgt.-Major F. Hepburn of the Royal Army Medical Corps and Warrant Officer Harold Sargent of the Royal Artillery left Chakrata and trekked during the following week to base camp at the tree line in the upper reaches of the Bin gad valley. Having left the porters at base camp they reached Camp 5 on the ridge at the top of a glacier behind schedule on 5 May. Unfortunately the continuing bad weather delayed them for a further two days before they could attempt to climb higher. On 7 May, despite having no remaining food, they set out for the White Peak. The fear of a night out on empty stomachs decided them to retreat from 200 m below the summit at 02.30 p.m.

Bob Leakey on Bandarpunch, April 1946

Bob Leakey on Bandarpunch, April 1946

During the descent on 8 May Sargent, the novice in the party, fell about 300 m down a snow slope coming to rest in a gully. Having wrapped Sargent in a sleeping bag and placed him in a tent, Leakey walked to base camp for food and help. The porters, having thought that the delayed sahibs were dead, had returned home with all the food and equipment. Leakey then, on a still empty stomach, walked on frostbitten feet a further 40 km to Nisani village. The recalled porters, under Leakey’s direction, carried Sargent on a home-made stretcher about 120 km to Chakrata where he made a full recovery from exposure, shock and concussion.

This accident had an unexpected and indirect sequel. Having returned to England and been demobilised, Leakey took Sargent et al into Grange Rigg Pot on 8 December 1946 when the latter fell about six m down the last pitch and died of exposure.


Leakey may be unknown in English mountaineering circles, but the above reliable and contemporaneous sources confirm that he was known in India. The army certainly appreciated his skills, having appointed him to Chakrata for military training purposes. He had persuaded the army to make ladders out of plaited field telephone wire which enabled him during 1945 to take a hundred British troops down Toad Hole and Moila Swallet. The ropes and ladders, needed to facilitate descents, were stored at the Bodhyar rest house. The civilian climbing community also appreciated him. Despite being a humble army Corporal he had been elected to membership of the Himalayan Club.

Much of which has been recently written about Leakey was recalled after his death by those who had previously heard his reminiscences, often in the pub, long after the events. Among this hearsay evidence one obituarist alleged that Leakey had been injured by the Japanese in Burma, and had been present at the siege of Kohima during April – June 1944. A variation of this story claims that Leakey had been loaned to the United States army to be landed by glider in Burma to disrupt Japanese supply lines. Sometime before the defeat of the Japanese Leakey is said to have walked over the Himalaya back to India prospecting for limestone and caves, even though the two dirt roads, and all the footpaths, from Burma to India go well south of the Assam Himalaya to the railheads at Dimapur and Ledo south of the Brahmaputra river. But Leakey had regretted that the only parts of the Himalaya which he had visited were in Kashmir and beyond Chakrata.

On the other hand this Burma story may be not unconnected with Leakey’s 1945 ascent of Kolahoi. His letter and chewing gum were found the following month by members of the Punjab Mountaineering Club who, presumably because of the chewing gum, assumed that Leakey was American. They wrote a letter to the Statesman newspaper to that effect, attributing Leakey to the United States Army Air Corps. Leakey replied, denying American nationality.

Leakey’s claim to have been accustomed to trekking unaccompanied is supported by what the late Alexander Phipps (alias Mahdava Ashish) had told Bill Aitken of the Himalayan Club. Phipps was a contemporary of Leakey at the Chelsea College of Aeronautical Engineering, and had accompanied him to India to build gliders. Leakey’s luggage consisted of a trunk full of climbing equipment. “When the glider scheme fell through Leakey cleverly took himself off to the mountains for weeks at a time”. He had evaded his employer for three months, by which time the trunk was empty.

Leakey had some training in aeronautics, having attended the Chelsea College of Aeronautical Engineering, and was elected a Student Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1936. His membership lapsed two years later. In 1937 or 1938 he was working in an aircraft factory in Leeds, and had learned to fly. This experience would have given him a reserved occupation which avoided conscription into the armed forces.

This circumstantial evidence suggests that Leakey, having ceased working on gliders, was recruited as Corporal into the British Army Air Corps. He would have been flown into Burma, probably as aircrew, shortly after his return from England in 1944. This 2nd Special Force, popularly known as the Chindits, was manned with volunteers from several regiments serving in India. Some members of its 77th and 111th Brigades came from Leakey’s 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. It was flown into Burma on 5 – 7 March 1944 et seq in gliders supplied by the United States Army Air Corps, the British and American air forces in India having been integrated the previous December. Following injury and / or post-traumatic stress disorder he would have had good reason to have been admitted to the Recreational Mountain Centre for aircrew.

Unfortunately for Leakey, Aubrey Glennie was based in Delhi, which was inconvenient for cave exploration from Dehra Dun. Leakey had failed to persuade any other British or Indian Army person to volunteer to accompany him underground. Being aware of the many American army personnel in India at that time, in March 1945 he had joined the (American) National Speleological Society (NSS) (member no. 321). In July that year Leakey, still a Corporal, wrote to the NSS Bulletin appealing to members of the Society to join him at Chakrata. The letter was published a year later, shortly after which Leakey was shipped back to England where he continued to explore and survey caves in the northern Pennines.

Inside Moila Swallet

Inside Moila Swallet

Toad Hole. L to r Aubrey Glennie, Bob Leakey

Toad Hole. L to r Aubrey Glennie, Bob Leakey

This short paper, omitting the unsubstantiated and hearsay evidence, gives previously unrecognised credit to bob leakey for his short, but productive, activity in the Himalaya in the difficult years during and immediately after the Second World War.


Ms. Stephanie Rubio (National Speleological Society), Rosie Watson (University of Cape Town library) and Mary Wilde (British Cave Research Association library) are thanked for their help in preparing this paper.

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