The Annapurna Adventure, 1961

Captain M.S. Kohli

A few days ago, when I was presented a copy of the book Great Walks of the World, I was curious enough to glance through it. I was delighted to notice that the author, John Cleare, had accorded the crowning glory in the book to the Annapurna Circuit which he had termed ‘Ultimate in Mountains’.

My thoughts rushed to my own days on this circuit. That was fifty three years ago. I had found this circuit interesting and scenic. But much more exciting was the style of living and culture of the Thakali women inhabiting villages around Annapurna massif. Sadly this ancient culture seems to have lost its splendour over the years. On reaching Manangbhot, besides overcoming the challenge of exploring route to the impossible looking and virgin Annapurna III (7555 m), we had to confront the unusual challenge of continuous harassment, loot, captivity and ransom demands from the hostile Bhotias. A lot of glamour and compassion was however added to our great adventure by the four local belles ‘Manangbhot Memsahibs’. And to add to the unusual drama, under the protection of Nepalese troops, we had gained the coveted summit. One of the members of my team, Lieutenant V. S. Shekhawat, who later rose to become Chief of the Naval Staff, aptly remarked in the reprint edition of my book Last of The Annapurnas:

The recollection of those times, places, villages and people encountered, the hardships and privations shared and overcome, is an indelible part of my being. If I may share a personal secret, every morning when I spend a few moments in quiet meditation I imagine myself transported to one of those towering hillsides, bare and bleak, to contemplate the mysteries of life and nature. It is a tranquil moment drawing strength from eternal India’s ancient tradition.

Burried under the pages of history, this great adventure needs to be resurrected for the benefit of present generation of climbers. It all started in January 1961, at the beautiful Marve Beach, 25 miles off Mumbai where I was posted to INS Hamla as naval lieutenant. After climbing Nanda Kot (6861 m) in 1959 and attempting Everest in 1960, I was dying to return to the Himalaya. I had planned to attempt Nanda Devi (7816 m) and had already started preparations. Unfortunately, my friend Gurdial Singh was keen to attempt Nanda Devi that year and was set to go there, and I was suddenly confronted with a challenge to look for an alternative.

In the small naval library of INS Hamla there was only one book on mountaineering, Nepal Himalaya by Bill Tilman. While going through the book I came across an interesting passage:

From the broad back of the main ridge west of Annapurna II or Annapurna IV, either of these peaks could be reached, while Annapurna III, bristling with gendarmes and cornices, could not be reached at all.

The challenge was irresistible. I instantly decided to select Annapurna III as my target for 1961. I wrote to Bill Tilman for advice. He wrote back suggesting that we proceed to Manangbhot and explore the route.

Towards the middle of March our preparations were complete and we left for Pokhra. We had hired high altitude Sherpas from the Namche Bazar area; most of them were with me on Everest the previous year. Our Nepalese liaison officer Bal Bahadur Lama had brought 80 porters from Kathmandu and we recruited additional 55 porters locally. I had decided to proceed from the eastern side via Marsyangdi, attempt the peak from the Manangbhot side and return from the west via Muktinath and Tukuche. After usual prayers we left Pokhra on 25 March in good weather.

Our trek was full of excitement. The villages on the way were picturesque and the people cheerful and friendly. Wayside inns known as ‘Bhattis’, were everywhere and our porters invariably used to frequent them. They were managed by attractive women, an added temptation to the passers-by to drop in for a little rest, a glass of chang, rakshi (a local brew) or tea.

These Bhattis were long, spacious halls. They were dark and dingy rooms with coir matting or gunny bags to cover the floor. Cheap calendars with pictures of film stars hung on the walls. Customers had to squat on the ground, though sometimes coloured carpets or jute matting was offered to sit on. Long or small tables, about six inches high, were placed in front; on these rakshi was served in small cups. Brass vessels, nicely polished, were arranged in neat rows on open wall-shelves, and battery radio-sets blared music to attract customers.

The waitresses as well as the proprietress were invariably dressed in loud, bright colours and, thanks to various mountaineering expeditions, had acquired a smattering of European languages. These ‘restaurants’ came to life at night, when laughter, gaiety and drunken brawls provided a Bohemian atmosphere. After dusk, it was by no means unusual to find a few drunks lying outside the Bhattis. Our Sherpa Sirdar, Sona Girmi had a hard time driving our porters out of these houses of pleasure.

The Bhattis owed their existence to the mobile population of Gorkha soldiers who travel back and forth on this route, going home on leave or returning to duty after holiday. as these soldiers have extra money burning holes in their pockets, the Bhattis were a paying proposition.

The third day of our march brought us to nalma at the end of a 600 m climb. The porters found it tough climbing. in the evening, a former indian army JCo invited us to a local dance performance. Before a large, motley crowd, the local belles sang and performed wild, rhythmic dances. We sat on benches while others squatted on carpet. The women dancers and singers were huddled on one side, and facing them were the musicians with long brass-spouted trumpets and a ‘dholak’ (drum). The dancing girls wore bright costumes and heavy jewellery of the kind that is worn only on special occasions. The music was soft and melodious. The evening provided a welcome change, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Next day we reached Khundi, and from here we moved along the Marsyangdi, a narrow rocky, swirling, turbulent river, which isolates the vast annapurna sweep from the Manaslu-himal Chuli massif. As we crossed a bridge then under construction we were pleasantly surprised to meet ang tshering who was cook on Maurice herzog’s French expedition to Annapurna I in 1950. He was now working with the Bridge Engineer. The old man glowed with pride as he recalled with nostalgia the days he had spent with herzog during his soul-stirring adventure.

As the gorge became narrower and deeper, we had to clamber up and trek along wooden galleries fixed to the rockface. These were frail wood and bamboo structures fastened to the rock with rusty nails and wires; our hearts were in our mouths as we negotiated the trembling, decaying wood. These galleries were seldom wider than just a plank. Down below, at times, more than 300 m deep, the Marsyangdi roared and thundered through the gorge.

On the seventh day of our trek, we reached thonje. We were now north of the main himalayan crest and once again in the open countryside. The vegetation had changed; there were no paddy fields and the hillside were forested with pine and fir trees. The houses were low and built of stone; the people were rugged but very cordial and cheerful. We were welcomed here by the checkpost officials. The Nepal Government had very kindly permitted us to transmit and receive our wireless messages from this post.

At Chame, we came face to face with the annapurna Massif. We were now at a height of 2700 m and our track was carpeted with pine needles. the Gompa in the village looked deserted; dead crows hung outside a few houses. We crossed the impetuous Marsyandi again and again, thrice within a mile.

On way from Pisang to Bagarchap, we met a number of local women collecting buckwheat flour. They shrieked, giggled and sniggered as they threw a ring around our Sherpa Sirdar Chhotare and teased him. Tauntingly they invited him to choose a wife for himself out of them if he was not already married or else, they chirped, he would miss the bus forever. When Chhotare ignored their baiting and buffoonery, they threatened to pin him to the ground! Poor Chhotare, who normally exhibits a keen sense of humour, was completely flabbergasted. Finally, however, he managed to come out unscathed!

We now entered the famous Manangbhot valley. the landscape was brown and bare, the plants were stunted and the soil cracked, sun-baked, and unfertile. it was 4 april the eleventh and last day of our trek. the porters were now puffing and panting, and they could hardly keep warm in their scant clothing. With some difficulty, we were able to persuade them to bear with us a little longer. We reached Manangbhot before dusk.

Jimmy Roberts had earlier told me that his expedition members were accused of smoking in the Manangbhot area by the Bhotias who had confiscated their large supply of cigarettes. They believed that smoking desecrated the sacred mountains. Accordingly, I had decided to put under lock our three boxes of cigarettes and had imposed a voluntary ban on smoking in and around Managbhot.

I was, however, amazed to find on our arrival that almost everyone at Manangbhot, even little children, were smoking merrily. I asked one of the Sherpas to inquire into the mystery of this smoking spree. he came back with the explanation that the large quantity of cigarettes confiscated from Roberts’ team were still with them and they were smoking fast to exhaust their stock!

At Manangbhot, we found clusters of medieval stone-houses, nestling in eroded conglomerate crags. the Bhotias of Manangbhot appeared hostile and accosted us on arrival. They thought our objective in climbing Annapurna III was to collect precious stones so they insisted on receiving a handsome royalty. They refused to listen to the Nepalese liaison officer who tried to tell them that our team had already paid the prescribed royalty to the Nepalese Government.

These Bhotias were adventurous traders and travellers who used to go to tibet for salt and wool, taking with them indian textile and other consumer goods for exchange. Their business activities extended as far as Burma, Malaya and Singapore where they went to sell semi- precious stones, curios and medicinal herbs. We saw a number of Bhotias with sparkling gold teeth, Japanese and Singapore printed scarves, readymade crepesoled shoes without laces, Singapore and Hong Kong shirts and jackets with zips. Pictures of Indian and foreign film stars and pin-up girls hung on the walls of many houses. Several of them had been to amritsar, in punjab, and had visited the famous Golden Temple. I noticed some men with long hair and beards, as also wearing the Sikh ‘Kadda’ (steel Bangle). I imagined they would be happy to meet me being a Sikh. But I was sadly mistaken. In fact they were gunning for me.

After two days of arguments with the Bhotias, we set up our base camp at 4300 m along side a nasty icefall away from the village. We decided to climb several ridges facing annapurna iii to look for a likely route to the summit. Before embarking on our high altitude exploration we paid off our low altitude porters. We were about to Send back the four women porters, fearing that the hostile men might trouble us later on, When Shekhawat jokingly asked Midula, the eldest of the girls, who could understand and speak broken hindustani, if they would like to continue working for few more days.

Expedition starting its march from Pokhra

Expedition starting its march from Pokhra

Team members at base camp

Team members at base camp

Team members en route

Team members en route

The team of Sherpas

The team of Sherpas

Manang Bhotias

Manang Bhotias

Meeting between Bhotias and team members

Meeting between Bhotias and team members

At Camp3

At Camp3

We were pleasantly surprised when, after a few minutes of consultation among themselves, they came back with cheerful faces to say that they would love to continue working. Shekhawat asked, ‘Won’t your folks at home be worried? Do they expect you to be away for another few days? And what will you do for food? Midula answered in hardly intelligible Hindustani with an air of innocence, ’Mengu (one of the girls) has a sister in Ngachi. She will give us food and clothing. And when we produce 20 rupees for each day our people at home will not be angry!’

Midula, accompanied by another girl, went off to get food and clothing. She returned with food for all the four girls but no woollens. ‘We don’t feel col’”, she said with a smile. We offered them a tent and Chhotare, who had been deprived of one, gallantly offered to sleep in the open, under a tarpaulin.

The following morning, there was bright sunshine; the sky was blue - the deep blue of the mountains - when we moved further west, camping at 4900 m. There was no vegetation and we had to get yak dung and juniper from lower down to light a fire. There were many patches of melting spring snow and one such patch, turning into a large ‘pokhri’ (lake), provided us with water.

On 13 April, we set out at 7.00 a.m. to attempt a peak we had seen the previous day, leaving instructions with Sherpas to move our camp a mile or so down on the return route, near a stream which we had crossed while coming up. Climbing a steep hill above the camp, we traversed a vast scree slope which gave access to a rocky col. It did not seem far and we expected to make it in an hour or so; but after three hours we were still struggling, so illusory are heights and distances in the crystal clear air of the mountains. The scree slid away all the time. After four and a half hours of battling, we gained the col, at 5500 m.

 Annapurna III first seemed to be wholly inaccessible. Moving on to the highest point of the ridge, in the radiant sunshine, we surveyed the massive sweep of the Annapurna uplift which spread before us like a gigantic cinemascope screen, from Annapurna I in the west to Annapurna II in the east, with our own Annapurna III adorning the centre of the screen. We were now clear about the likely route.

After spending a leisurely hour eating, dozing and talking, we raced down rapidly to our camp. The ’Manang Memsahibs‘, as the Sherpas sarcastically had started calling our lady porters, greeted us with pleasant smiles. The ’Manang Memsahibs‘ sat in their tent and watched intently as we washed our faces and brushed our teeth. It was soon evident that they had profited from our example, for they trooped off silently to a nearby stream and emerged after a little while, with shining faces. Given a good environment and an education, these smart girls would certainly do well for themselves.

In the evening, we lit a camp fire. The ’Manang Memsahibs‘ and our Sherpas danced with vigour and sang folk songs, both dolorous and joyous. We spent a delectable evening watching the rich, colourful performance. The girls danced with professional perfection, holding one another by their aprons in traditional Nepali style. They danced for a long time till the fire had completely died down.

On 14 April, when we returned to the base camp, we reluctantly took leave of the ’Manang Memsahibs‘, giving each of them three extra rupees. Midula, Mengu and Ishikhanda shook hands with the Sherpas, then went down the hill and disappeared in the pine forest. They did not look back!

We now decided to plan our ascent through the east icefall to the east col beyond which we had noticed a series of ice terraces that seemed negotiable and offered access to the upper north shelf, situated at 6400 m. The north shelf was a very prominent feature of Annapurna III and provided the last point of take-off for the summit.

Bad luck had not yet deserted us. During the last week of April, about 300 Bhotias from Manangbhot attacked our advance base camp and took away all our stores to the village. Two members of our team were taken as hostage. No food was given to them during their captivity. The four ‘Manangbhot Memsahibs’ however, took mercy on our climbers and fed them by throwing food down the ventilator of their dark and dingy room.

The news of this unwarranted attack spread far and wide. Prime Minister Nehru asked us to return to India immediately. His Majesty the King ordered troops from the nearby Jomsom Cantonment to rush to Manangbhot. In the midst of all this drama and oblivious of the ongoing events, Sonam Gyatso, Sherpa Sona Girmi and I kept moving up. After a few days we were poised for the summit bid.

The summit ridge was steep, making it necessary for us to cut steps and belay each other firmly. Below us was the north face of Annapurna III, falling 1000 m down in a single sweep. We had always calculated that the last lap of our climb would be easy, but here we were rubbing our noses against a steep climb. We continued our climb, step by step, minute by minute, struggling against the mountain, inch by inch. It seemed like eternity. We stopped again and again to suck air into our lungs. A gendarme stood in our way. Skirting it on our left, we climbed up the last few feet. Alas! It was a false summit.

A mild slope, almost level, stretched from north to south and there were a few humps. We moved from one hump to another. Our energy was now flagging; we put one foot forward and then another; it appeared to be such a deliberate effort. Gasping for breath, weak and exhausted, we went on and on, propelled by sheer doggedness.

Snow was beating hard on our faces as we stepped onto the highest hump. Then… of all joys! We were on top of the 7555 m high virgin peak of Annapurna III! We had made it!

The time was 4.15 p.m.; the date, 6 May, 1961.

During the descent, we were caught in heavy snowfall, lightning and thunder. Despite zero visibility and the metal frame of my snow goggles charged with electricity, we survived and reached our base camp. Here, I was shocked to see Nepalese troops guarding our camp from all sides. Soon the base camp story unfolded.

Our next challenge was how to proceed to Muktinath without any porters. Our route passed through the village of Manangbhot and even the soldiers feared that stones would be thrown on us from rooftops. We decided to cross the village at midnight when all Bhotias would be sleeping. As we left our camp, carrying heavy loads, out of the blue appeared Tsyangi, one of the ‘Manangbhot Memsahibs’. She broke down on seeing us leaving Manangbhot, weeping like a child. The other three girls were kept inside their homes. We were touched by Tsyangi’s spirit of humanity and compassion.

En route to Muktinath, we camped at 4300 m. It was ten to twelve miles outside Manangbhot. The site was barren and arid, not to be compared in beauty with our base camp. A ridge in the vicinity afforded an excellent panoramic view of Annapurna III. We settled down here happily, forgetting the harrowing times at Manangbhot.

We waited here the whole day, hoping that porters and yaks, we had ordered from Jomsom through a special messenger, would arrive soon. But it was a useless wait, and as hours passed by, all that we could do was to read and listen to the radio or watch yaks grazing on the slopes.

Next morning we were still waiting for our yaks. At last, they were in sight, a slow rambling procession together with a few ponies and porters. Within an hour our caravan was under way. The road plunged down most of the way. The sturdy yaks plodded along with heavy steps. Before it became dark we had crossed the 5000 m high Thorungse pass and descended to Muktinath.

After an extremely busy and enjoyable day at Muktinath, I returned to my tent feeling happy at the turn of events. No sooner had I fallen asleep, I heard some noise outside my tent. I opened the zip and looked out. Our Sherpa Sirdar was talking to a village woman carrying her dead child. She wanted to sell some rakshi to raise funds for the last rites of her child. I asked the Sherpas to buy the rakshi and went to sleep again. An hour later, I heard more noise and laughter. I came out of my tent full of anger. What I witnessed was unforgettable - all Sherpas as well as the village woman were drinking rakshi and laughing heartily.

On 16 May, we reached Jomsom, 2700 m high, from where our escorting troops had come. They were glad to be back in their barracks. After dinner the Nepalese soldiers, many dressed as females, organised some memorable dances. We were stunned by the beauty and charm of male soldiers attired in female dresses. They could beat the legendary ‘Drag Queens’ of New Zealand!

Since we left Muktinath, we had been in the vast, awesome gorge of the Kali or Krishna Gandaki. Our track descended steadily through a picturesque part of Nepal, past Lete which was described by Maurice Herzog as the Chamonix of Nepal.

 We now had to pass through Tukcha, Dana and Ghasa and a host of other attractive and prosperous villages of the Thakalis. At Dana, we had our first bath after a long time in a cool stream. On 22 May, we saw before us the flat, even plains of the Pokhara valley. We rapidly descended the last hill and found ourselves on the outskirts of Nepal’s second largest town. A huge welcome arch was erected to welcome us. We were received by the new ’Burra Hakim‘ (Governor). The previous two governors, one after another, were ordered by the government to rush to Manangbhot to investigate our problems but had resigned on health grounds. A blaring brass band led the entire population of Pokhara. Thousands of people from nearby villages also joined the procession. They threw coloured powder on us wherever we went.

The thick coating of multi-coloured powder disappeared after a few days but memories of the fabulous adventure have left an indelible stamp on our lives.

The author reminisces about his interaction with the people of Manangbhot valley of Nepal Himalaya during the first ascent of Annapurna III (7555 m) in 1961, over 50 years ago.

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