‘Some of the Best Weeks of our Lives’

Bill Aitken

Some of the Best Weeks of our Lives

Crossing an unknown pass across a mountain range to my mind is mountaineering at its best.

On the day Eric Shipton and party were poised to discover a way in to the Nanda Devi sanctuary in May 1934, he wrote “No situation has provided me with greater happiness than that in which we found ourselves at the mouth of the upper gorge of the Rishi Ganga (leading to) some of the best weeks of our lives.” It so happened I was born that day and forty-six years later would stand more Caledonian teuchter1 than mountaineer petrified at the same spot alongside the booming Rishi Ganga, drawn there entirely at the prompting of Shipton’s compelling prose.

Before the launch of Alpine climbing in the mid-nineteenth century the term ‘mountaineer’ could refer to a teuchter (a half-wit) but by the 1930s Shipton had elevated the meaning beyond the sporting to that of the search for self-fulfillment. Perhaps he anticipated the current mantra of the Himalayan Club—Climbing and beyond? Much of Shipton’s writing dwells on “the subtle thrill which anyone of imagination must feel when treading hitherto unexplored ground.” He rates the horizontal investigation of a mountain’s layout and character comparable to the satisfaction gained by topping out: “Crossing an unknown pass across a mountain range to my mind is mountaineering at its best.” After making the first traverse of the punishing South Patagonian ice cap, he notes that achieving “terms of intimacy” with one’s objective, “is the highest reward of any mountaineering venture.” Certainly his sniffing out an active volcano on this icecap proves more rewarding reading than the umpteenth banal account of summiting an achtausander (eight thousander).

Shipton’s take on the joys of horizontal travel over vertical gain must seem heresy to the orthodox school of macho peak baggers but for most of his career Shipton was happy to pay the price for being a heretic. His heresy was to trust his own instincts rather than endorse the stiff upper lip fashions of his day worn along with obligatory necktie and a crease in one’s trousers.

Shipton’s relationship with Nanda Devi can only be described as intimate. It is almost as if the mystique surrounding this mountain had penetrated his being. Elated by the risks taken and overcome in mounting a pioneering Himalayan expedition stripped to its basics, he experiences moments of revelation before the mountain goddess. She is “peerless among mountains,” her “graceful beauty a source of wonder” while her surroundings yield “a vision of divine beauty guarding the mystic shrine of the Blessed Goddess.”

That it is possible to have an intimate bond with a mountain is vouched for by the life of the modern south Indian saint Sri Ramana Maharishi who worshipped the modest peak Arunachala as a divine reality. That the height of a mountain need not be a factor in the release of enchantment I can confirm when as a boy on the top of Dumyat’s springy turf in the Ochil Hills at the measly altitude of 1300 feet one experienced an expansive plenitude that remains a source of undying wonder.

Some may find Shipton’s glowing tribute to Nanda Devi a bit over the top, but for me his words were more than just memorable: they proved life-changing for they stopped me in my tracks. Shipton’s eulogy provided evidence of the kind of non-abstract divinity I was searching for and could relate to—uncannily the field for this discovery might appear to have been prepared. On arrival in Kolkata in 1959, on a hitch hiking journey round the world furthering a study of comparative religion, the funds I had started out with from London six weeks earlier were exhausted. I had to find a teaching job to buy a boat ticket to Penang for the proposed journey further east. Intriguingly the principal of the school I joined happened to be the biographer of the south Indian saint who discerned divinity manifest in a mountain. It was intriguing because the going away present from the boys in the school where I had been teaching in England before I left happened to be a book introducing the mountain worshipping saint to the west.

Kolkata then was most travellers’ idea of a city of dreadful nights but for this visitor it provided insight into profound yet obvious mysteries denied to one brought up on a diet of Scots Calvinism with its (to my mind) irrational gender bias. It happened to be the Puja season when every street corner hosted images of the divine in the voluptuous feminine form. Such was the artistic allure of these images that one’s theological socks were blown off. The Eureka moment would come while casually browsing the dusty shelves of the Asiatic Society library in Park Street. Fatefully my hand alighted on Shipton’s Nanda Devi book, the reading of which smote me with an intensity never felt before or since. All desire to go round the world evaporated and enraptured by the compelling beauty of the Devi nothing now mattered save the urgent need to follow in Shipton’s footsteps.

Rene Daumal in Mount Analogue notes mountains can be seen as more than a physical presence. In bridging the void between heaven and earth they can be a delivery system to, and an unlikely ally of, the welfare of our inner being. They deliver us from the despair of urban conformity and the sense of ennui that follows the easy surrender to the comforts of modern society. Having suppressed our animal instincts for collective convenience the individual needs to celebrate his wild side and mountains provide the space to do so. The greater the risk, the more palpable the pleasure.

From the miniscule but friendly hillfoots2 of the Ochils to the aloof grandeur of the Uttarakhand Himalaya most of my days have since been spent walking the mountains seeking to relive such fiery moments of awareness (which might sound like I have never done an honest day’s work in my life). Shipton through the power of his words instantly had become a kind of guru figure. Twenty years would pass before I could fulfill the vow I had made in 1960 after being bowled over by the author’s inspired writing. If twenty years seems an inordinate time for the maturation of a deep-felt desire, there were some real constraints for an individual bent on accessing the Devi’s Sanctuary. The inner line was then in force and the nuclear device caper came to be an added concern.

Twelve years were spent in Himalayan ashrams in sight of Nanda Devi seeking to know the mystery of oneself: and then blanching before what I found. Having tried with little success formal meditation as a means to release the Shiptonic mood of exaltation, it was trekking in exposed situations that decisively did the trick. While good disciples rose with the lark to meditate on noble airy abstractions my instincts were to stubbornly cling to the conviction I could engage with the Devi by trekking around her base. Possibly this fierce physical loyalty to Nanda Devi pleased my patroness. At her annual Nandastami festival the goddess tested my resolve with a visitation of typhoid which resulted in a fast of six weeks. After initial intimations of departing this world the doors of perception opened to confirm the sobering lesson most mountaineers learn that without physical risks we never know what it is like to fire on all cylinders.

In his detailed biography of the Sanctuary pioneers Shipton and Tilman, Jim Perrin notes how the writing of their experiences revolutionized Himalayan literature. Shipton’s prose conveys ‘magic’, ‘freshness’, ‘candour’, excitement’, ‘elation’ along with the hint of nature mysticism. To this could be added the riveting nature of his Patagonian writings where the hostility of the terrain brings out (as in Shackleton’s memorable prose) a ‘backs to the wall/Battle of Britain’ heroic flavour. Perrin unerringly spots the author’s remarkable faraway look of detachment, considered the prime virtue of the Bhagavadgita.

The other thing that sets Shipton apart from most expedition leaders was his insight that could distinguish between the price of things and their actual lasting value. Just as hitchhiking through twelve countries to India on 50 pounds sterling provided me a matchless education, Shipton and party’s pioneering Nanda Devi and Badri-Kedar explorations were accomplished on a budget of less than 300 pounds.

By the late 1970s, the expedition infrastructure to the Sanctuary was in place and Shipton’s trail from Lata if not a highway was well trodden though still hairy in places. There were ten padavs3 and porters available and willing to get you there if you had a head for heights, the required depth of pocket and most important, treading mindful of the Devi’s restrictions. On my first Sanctuary foray I carried a thousand rupees which to meet porter rates forced us to do two padavs a day.

This had the advantage for a teuchter of allowing no time to fully register the ever present horror of threatened dissolution. Incredibly after four days of wet marching, foul visibility and the Rishi Ganga in spate the clouds cleared inside the Sanctuary to reveal the summit of Nanda Devi in all her splendour.

Exiting the Sanctuary on that maiden visit after several hair raising river crossings on two unsecured sagging birch trees, the huge relief translated not just into a hallowed sense of thanksgiving to the goddess for keeping her hand on my head, but in sensing her command that one had a duty to write about the glories of her realm. After Shipton this had been done with great promise by the pen of Major Nandu Jayal the wayward mountaineering protégé of the Doon School housemaster R. L. Holdsworth (of Kamet pipe-smoking fame)4. Sadly Nandu’s fluent climbing career was cruelly nipped in the bud and only Holdie’s tribute remains to honour his gifts: “Nandu was very much the master of himself and of most of the world that is worth mastering.”

Ravished by the south inner Sanctuary I returned in 1981 again in the rains with Natha Singh Butola of Lata in support to try and enter the north outer Sanctuary to reach Changabang base camp. I only got as far as Upper Deodi amidst torrential downpours before my stomach gave up the fight. The third entry post-monsoon in 1982 went more smoothly thanks to Kundan Singh the Lata carpenter whose wiles, added to Natha Singh’s physical strength, enabled us to circumambulate the smooth black base of the mountain from south inner to north inner Sanctuary. For the perfect climax the curving base culminated in darshan of the sheer sweep of the north face of Nanda Devi. Our return was up and over the newly discovered Nanda Kharak pass to cross the Devistan ridge for a near vertical scree descent (reportedly since collapsed) to Trisul base camp.

The following year entry to the inner Sanctuary would be restricted ostensibly to allow the environment to recover from the stampede of entrants. I made the error of assuming the government in closing the Lata route would understand the need to open to climbers’ access to other areas so as not deprive the Dhauli valley porters of their livelihood. When the government failed to take action the villagers took matters into their own hands and through popular movements like Chipko and Japto Cheeno (leading to the emergence of the Mountain Shepherds initiative5) re-established themselves as stakeholders in the sustainable development of tourism and climbing in their Nanda Devi area.

Having fallen in love with a fellow seeker our guru blessed the union arguing that for an intellectually disposed person, my partner’s womanly intuition was the only antidote. Her property in Mussoorie made the ideal base for treks to the pilgrimage sites of Uttarakhand to which we trekked annually with our dogs. It was an era when the Badrinath motor road was being extended beyond the fleshpots of Pipalkoti and no viable bridge existed over the Jad Ganga at Lanka, though there was a solitary bus on the other side whose separate parts had been ingeniously winched across the chasm and reassembled.

Trekking became admissible outside the Sanctuary curtain along the old Bhotia trade route to Milam, branching off at Martoli to Nanda Devi East base camp. Beckoning in the west lay the Bara Nanda Jat pilgrimage route in honour of Nanda Devi that passed Rup Kund (with its gruesome skeletons) to the southern base of Trisul. Back in the seventies, access to the Ronti saddle was via a dicey snow slope that allowed only the likes of Shipton and Angtharkay to escape the Sanctuary and gain access to the Nandakini basin. What could be attained on that snow slope in a matter of hours nowadays involves two days of negotiating a murderous slew of erratic boulders. Like the old grey mare, the Uttarakhand Himalaya isn’t what it used to be.

The publication in 1999 of Eric Shipton: The Six Mountain Travel Books as well as its literary delight proved the affection in which Shipton continues to be held by mountain lovers. In his introduction to the collected works Jim Perrin dissects the watershed moment in Shipton’s career when his candidacy for leadership of the 1953 Everest attempt was shabbily dumped by the British mountaineering establishment. Included in the book is Charles Warren’s obituary of Shipton contrasting the latter’s “integrity of outlook on mountaineering matters” with the committee’s skulduggery. Perrin is spot on in discerning Shipton’s likely crisis had he ever succeeded on Everest. How on earth could he have brought himself to wear a top hat to Buckingham Palace? Forever the heretic Shipton secretly hoped Everest would remain an inviolate peak. His discovery of the route to the top had given him more genuine satisfaction than any chest thumping on the summit might. To prove he was two decades ahead of his time, Shipton in 1934 had shared a tent with his Sherpas whereas in Kathmandu on the successful 1953 Hunt expedition, the Sherpas had to share floor space with the United Kingdom Ambassador Rolls Royce.

Because he only wrote a classic about Nanda Devi but failed to make the first ascent , Eric Shipton does not compete for the award of being ‘the best climber of all time’ though Indian climbers would easily vote him Mountaineer of the Century. His conviction that mountains induce the dimension of inner joy that can inspire and crystallise in a climber Henry Vaughan’s “bright shoots of everlastingness” is the mood in which he concludes his report on the 1939 Karakoram expedition even as war was unleashed on the world: “There are few treasures of more lasting worth than the experiences of a way of life that in itself is wholly satisfying. Such are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.”

Bill Aitken reminisces about his life-long love affair with Nanda Devi while reading the 1999 publication of Eric Shipton: The Six Mountain Travel Books.

About the Author

BILL AITKEN is Scottish by birth, a naturalized Indian by choice. He studied comparative religion at Leeds University and then hitch- hiked to India in 1959. He has lived in Himalayan ashrams, worked as secretary to a maharani, freelanced under his middle name (Liam McKay) and undertaken miscellaneous excursions—from Nanda Devi to Sabarimala—on an old motorbike and by steam railway. Aitken has written on travel and tourism for newspapers and magazines in India for several years and is the author of The Nanda Devi Affair, Riding the Ranges and Branch Line to Eternity among other books. (Courtesy Penguin India)


  1. Teuchter (/ˈtjuːxtər/) is a Lowland Scots word originally used to describe a Scottish Highlander, in particular a Gaelic-speaking Highlander. Like most such cultural epithets, it can be seen as offensive, but is often seen as amusing by the speaker.
  2. The Hillfoots villages are the villages and small towns which lie at the base of the southern scarp face of the Ochil Hills, formed by the Ochil Fault, in Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire in central Scotland.
  3. Sections/one padav is equal to a day’s walk, at the end of which is a camp.
  4. R. L. Holdsworth was an English scholar, academic, educationalist, cricketer and a distinguished Himalayan mountaineer. He was a member of the first expedition to Kamet in 1931, which included other stalwarts such as Eric Shipton and Frank Smythe. Holdsworth, along with Shipton and Smythe, are credited with the discovery of the Valley of Flowers during their return from Kamet. Holdsworth also holds the record of smoking a pipe at the summit of Mt. Kamet. (Wikipedia).
  5. Mountain Shepherds Initiative is a community-owned and operated ecotourism company that grew out of the Nanda Devi Campaign for cultural survival and sustainable livelihoods.

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