Mountains and Climbing

Aamir Ali

And so for the next forty years or so, I was never very far from my beloved Salève. Either alone or with a companion: Richard Peplow, Renzo Zanon, Don Snyder, Chuck Cooper, or with a group from the Club, or someone from England like Monica Jackson, or Loulou Boulaz, or René Dittert.

Mountains were a very important part of my life. From my childhood walks and scrambles, to climbs like the Dent du Géant, towering above the Vallée Blanche, mountains were an essential part of life.

I might as well begin with the Géant, which I climbed with Monica Jackson. Monica’s father was a coffee planter in the Billy Gilly Rangan hills of South India, and also being a keen ornithologist, he was a friend of Salim Ali; who of course, was my uncle. And inevitably the Jackson family and the Ali family were good friends. That is how it happened, that in summer 1958, Monica phoned me one day in Geneva from England suggesting a week’s climbing. How about it? I was on at once.

Monica and the Dent du Géant

I met Monica at the airport; we drove to Chamonix and took the ‘highest téléphérique in the world’. About 3800 m.

We had planned to climb Mont Blanc the first day, come down again and go to the Torino hut. Alas, the steep Western slopes of the mountain were covered with loose powder, and after a while we deemed it the better part of wisdom to retreat.

After a luxurious night in the Torino, which is more like a hotel than a climbing hut, we were ready for two peaks facing each other across the valley. We did them both, thus overcoming the fiasco of the previous day.

At the hut, we had a pleasant surprise; we ran into René Dittert and Ernest Hofstetter. They were also aiming for the Géant the next day. René said that the Géant was the only 4000 m peak he had not yet climbed. The four of us spent a most pleasant evening together, oiled with modest dollops of white wine. We had another pleasant – or was it a sorrowful? – surprise. The Italian ship, the André Doria was sinking in the Atlantic and the passengers were being taken off. And we could sit comfortably and watch it all on TV. Yes, there was TV in that ‘hut’!

The next morning we left the hut at about 5.30. Monica was indubitably the stronger climber; so she led. Very soon after we began climbing, we came to a ‘hold’, rather too high for Monica to grasp. So I took over and by tacit agreement, I kept the lead for the rest of the climb; for which I was grateful. There is quite a difference between being the leader and the follower.

About an hour after we left the hut, René and Ernest over took us, made sure we were all right, and went on their way. We met them, again, on their way down.

We did our climb and I can say quite truthfully that it was one of the best I have ever had. The sky remained clear all day, the snow was just right, the views were stupendous, and Monica and I fitted our climbing exactly to each other (except for Monica’s reach!)

We got back to the hut at about 4 o’clock, anxious to do the three hours it would take us to cross the Vallée Blanche and catch the téléphérique down to Chamonix. René and Ernest saw us coming; they shouted, “Come and have a drink with us.” “Can’t”, we called back. “We have a téléphérique to catch”. René gave a great big guffaw. “You’re not going to catch any téléphérique”, he shouted merrily. “The last cabane leaves at 6 o’clock and you’ll never catch it. We are stuck too; come on, you need a drink.”

So that was that. Weren’t we lucky to have two of Geneva’s élite offering us a drink and rescuing us from what would have been a cold night in the open at nearly 4000 m!

Even in those ancient times, telephones rang all right, though they needed a lot more persuasion than they would today. They were good enough to tell Monica’s husband in London, who was no climber, that all was well. She would be a day late, that was all. “And by the way, we’ve just done the Géant and it was just about the best climb we’ve ever had!”

In Pursuit of Social Security

In January 1947, on the 2nd of the month – the Treasurer was most strict about that 2nd – I joined the International Labour Office (ILO) as a junior official. I was recruited to Geneva but was asked to stay on in Delhi to join a group of ILO officials coming to India to prepare the Conference in November.

There was a bit of a turmoil going on. The ILO had found refuge in Montreal during the war and was in the process of returning to Geneva. India was on the verge of independence; in fact all the colonial territories of Asia were moving that way. India was going to host an Asian Labour Conference in November; though no one knew it yet, India would be free then – but crippled.

After the Asian Conference in November, I was to go to Geneva at last, but stopping in Istamboul on the way to help service a Middle East meeting. And so to Geneva at last!

But the part of the ILO to which I was to be attached, the Social Security Section, was still in Montreal, waiting to be repatriated. So I was told to hie1 me to Montreal. I left Geneva on the day Gandhiji was assassinated. Throughout my trip – Paris, Southampton, London, Queen Mary, New York, Montreal, - people, complete strangers – came up to me to offer their condolences. It was quite moving.

I reached Geneva to learn that the Social Security people in Montreal were fed up with postponements and could you please wrap-up this elusive thing called Aamir Ali and pack him at once to Montreal?

So, another trip in search of a home. Don’t get the idea that I resented being knocked around like this; good heavens, No! I lapped it up and was quite prepared to spend any amount of time in pursuit of my Social Security Section.

Geneva and the Salève

A happy year in Montreal, and at last in December 1948 I found myself in Geneva. And come Spring, there I was sitting opposite Loulou Boulaz, eager to have my first lesson in rock climbing.

Loulou was without doubt Geneva’s foremost woman climber. She also happened to be a first class verbatim reporter of the ILO. I should mention here that René Dittert was a first class proof reader of the ILO. So there we were : two first class officials of the Office!

Back to Loulou. I began hesitantly, “You had said you would put me in touch with …” She interrupted me right away. “I haven’t forgotten you,” she said. “I promised to get someone to take you pour la varappe, and I haven’t forgotten you. Now let’s see what Raymond is up to.”

Raymond Lambert was just about the best known climber and guide of Geneva. He had lost all his toes when he was caught in a snow storm in the Mt. Blanc massif just before WWII. “Raymond,” she shouted in the phone. “I have a client for you. A beginner, but very keen.” In a few minutes it was all fixed up. I was to meet him at 5.00 a.m. at the Rond Point de Plain Palais; we would be back by 9.00 a.m. In time for office – almost.

After a few outings, when I had acquired some confidence, Raymond said it was time to go with fellow climbers and not depend on him all the time. He promised to ring up a few people and see what he could do. And he did. Over the years, god knows how many dozens of times I have been on the Salève. The great advantage of this is that even if you have only three or four hours at your disposal, you can get enough climbing to be satisfied and yet be in time for office.

There was another reason for my hesitancy. The Swiss Alpine Club had no ‘coloured’ persons among its members (at that time) and I thought I would stick out like a sore thumb. In the event, this proved utterly wrong and I never had any problem at all.

And so for the next forty years or so, I was never very far from my beloved Salève. Either alone or with a companion : Richard Peplow, Renzo Zanon, Don Snyder, Chuck Cooper, or with a group from the Club, or someone from England like Monica Jackson, or Loulou Boulaz, or René Dittert.

Many names come to mind. There were my Indian friends, stopping over for a few days on the way to England : Basant Dube, the tea planter; Mahinder Nath, who wanted to find a berth for his daughter. Gurdial Singh and Nalni Jayal, devoted to the mountains, with whom I’ve climbed in the Alps and in the Himalayas. And others, many others.

The Alps

During my first summer 1949, I was also introduced to the Alps. The first summit was the Aiguille du Tour (3540 m). Eighteen years later, I took my son up that same summit; he was eight years old.

I got into the habit of signing up with the SAC (Swiss Alpine Club) every weekend, for whatever was on the agenda. You did not have any of the hassle of working out the route, the buses or trains, the booking the beds and so on.

Sometimes of course we preferred to go on our own. Such as we did on the Gand Cornier. There were the three of us : Archie Evans, who joined the British Civil Service during the war, and came back to the ILO when the war was over; Claud, who had lost his right arm in a railway accident, but could do just about everything without it. Driving to our starting point, the last few miles was a very zig-zag road. I was driving; Claud suddenly turned to me and said, “As you’re not used to these Swiss mountain roads, would you like me to drive?”

I was struck dumb. How on earth could he drive on that zig-zag road with only one hand? And how shamed I would be to say “No, you certainly can’t with only one arm.” With as much aplomb as I could muster, I said, “Oh thanks,” and moved over. Needless to say, he drove better than I could.

In those sunny days when everyone went home for lunch - and a nap – and we worked half days on Saturdays, and there were no autoroutes, getting to Grimentz was no joke. We left Geneva at about I o’clock and got to Grimentz at 6.00 p.m. It was a five hour walk to the Moiry hut; we reached it at 11.00 p.m. To do the Grand Cornier we would have had to leave our hut at 2.00 a.m. It needed one-and-a-half minutes to decide that we would leave the Cornier to itself and content ourselves with the Pic de La; the name was both euphonic and poetic. And it was only three hours from the Moiry hut.

Some thirty years later, I climbed the Pic de La again, with another friend, Ray Manning. How different it all was! We did not work on Saturdays; there was an autoroute almost till Grimentz; there was a car road until less than two hours of the Moiry hut.

Grande Course d’Eté

Every summer, the SAC used to organize a week’s climbing. We would choose a well-placed hut and establish ourselves there. And then a climb – or two – every day. The fact that you did not have to climb all the way down again, then the drive back home, was a real bonus. No wonder that it was a week I really looked forward to. Sometimes we would hire a guide for the week, especially when the region was new to us. We were always lucky in the choice of guides. On one of our week’s climbing, we had Raymond Lambert as guide; in fact nearly everyone knew him well. One day on that trip was stormy weather; I spent some time playing chess with Raymond; he beat me every time! By the way, we limited our numbers to a round dozen.

We used to keep a record of our climbs every day. Here’s a part of the record of summer 1970. We spent the first night in the Cabane Quentino Sella in the Italian Maritime Alps. This made it possible to do the Monte Viso (3841 m) the next day, a seven hour climb. We then drove to a comfortable auberge in Terme di Valderi. Next morning, we had a relatively short walk to the Cabane Remondino which was to be our ‘Base Camp’ for the next few days.

We were to spend five days in the Argentera Massif and as this was new to all of us, we had hired a local guide, Guy Dufour. He turned out to be a graceful and competent climber, but also a good companion. I’ll just quote what I’d written for the climb of Monte Nasta (3108 m). (We had to take it in turns to write the daily report.) “…we had three hours of good rock climbing: a ridge, then a gendarme, then a breche, then a wall; Guy wondering whether he should turn a gendarme on the right or on the left, and finally deciding to do up and over, IV Sup. And he did this with the grace of a ballet dancer.”

The Himalaya

I have had five expedition to the Himalayas, and each was a special joy. The first, in 1943, was largely prepared for in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society in Bombay. Here we did learn from books : Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton, Heim and Gamsser, and several others. Our sleeping bags were manufactured by sewing two razais together. Our porters were two youngsters who were paid the princely sum of two rupees a day!

Our notions were anything that could be gleaned from books. The rope we had was a ‘yak’ rope bought from a goatherd in Mana. We tried it out in the ghats, on the Karnala funnel. My companion and close friend, Rusi Ghandhy slipped on the way down and our wonderful yak rope promptly gave up the ghost and snapped at once. Luckily we were almost down and Rusi had only about 4 m to fall. Enough however to end up with a broken arm; lucky it wasn’t more.

One of the expeditions was to Mrigthuni in 1958, next door to Nanda Devi. Although not a difficult mountain, just a wee bit below 7000 m. it had all the cachet of being the first to climb that mountain. It was with Gurdial Singh – with whom most of my trips in the Himalayas were undertaken - Mahinder Lall and Rajindra Vikram Singh.

And Others

I have not mentioned anything like all the fun I’ve had in the mountains; nor can I hope to mention them. But sometimes happy times come along unannounced, by lucky chance.

There was the time when I spent the day with members of the Danish Alpine Club. I had met a couple of Danish climbers in one of the huts in central Switzerland and we exchanged telephone numbers and as usual, soon forgot about them. On a driving holiday with some non- climbing friends, I found myself in Copenhagen. I bethought myself of those phone numbers. Could they have remained in my purse all those many days, forgotten – almost?

First shot lucky. “Do you remember…?” “Yes, of course we do. Look, we are planning to go across the straits to Sweden, on the sea-cliffs tomorrow. There are two others, with us we will be four. Why don’t you come along?” And we did and what a glorious day we had!

Yes, well it doesn’t always happen that way. But sometimes it does. There were those two South African boys we ran into in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; the several trips in the Laurentians and the Adirondacks; the numerous outings with the Sierra Club and the Ramblers in New York; the mountains of the Provence; and I pass.

It is usual to try and explain why on earth we climb. Would it suffice to say that it brings an exaltation of the spirit as few other activities do?

Amir Ali’s scrambles in the Alps and other ranges.

About the Author

AAMIR ALI has held several prestigious diplomatic posts and written books on subjects as varied as A Basic Introduction to Shakespeare. He was a mountaineer, an avid birdwatcher and has been a friend of the Himalayan Club for several decades. He has written articles for the HJ, participated in Club events and contributed ideas on environmental protection much before it became a buzz word.

On the event of the HC turning ninety, he sent a gift of his recent writing. So this piece is from one ninety year old friend to another – enjoy!



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