The mountains have drawn, and continue to draw, students and masters of The Doon School. On each occasion, we have answered this calling with courage and gaiety, knowing that these mountains will in the words of Nandu Jayal, continue to make us feel “physically small and spiritually great”.
“Creator of life and light…
we thank Thee for physical joy,
for the ecstasy of swift motion,
for deep water swim in,
for the goodly smell of rain on dry ground,
for hills to climb and hard work to do..”
J. S. Hoyland, The Doon School Prayer Book
The sound of metal clashing against loose snow rang out in the cold, clear night. Behind me lay Swargarohini, its outline forming an ethereal silhouette in the dark, and in front lay a steep and narrow ridge leading to our goal, Bali col. Having started at midnight, we had slowly made our way up from the Ruinsara valley towards the pass. The climb had been tough. It was April, and the oppressive weather in the Garhwal Himalaya during this period had given us either ice cold rain or heavy snowfall on every night of the expedition, resulting in us having to traverse through new, soft snow which gave way all too easily. Every ten steps or so, I would place my foot on a patch I thought to be stable but would end up getting myself jammed in waist deep snow, cursing my luck.
The incline was only getting steeper as we got closer to the col. All four of us, Stanzin, Samar, Shivendra, and I were not only pushing ourselves, but also each other, knowing that reaching the pass would not only complete our expedition, but it would also be the first time that any expedition would cross the pass in the unforgiving months of the Himalayan winter. Of course, more than anything else, we were undertaking this expedition to commemorate Major Nandu Jayal’s 60th death anniversary. One of the finest Indian alpinists, Major Jayal, lovingly called Nandu, passed away after suffering from pulmonary oedema on Cho Oyu, in 1958. He had been a student of The Doon School, the school in which we currently study. So, we thought it to be our duty to remember and honour him by doing what he loved most— relishing the beauty and grandeur of the mountains, and climbing them. We knew that reaching the col would be a fitting remembrance.
Major Nandu Jayal - a legendary figure in Indian mountaineering. Founding Principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. (South Asian Life & Times - actual photographer unknown)
But any thoughts of being adventurous mavericks, and other illusions of grandeur that mountaineers have a tendency to harbour when they start out, begin to falter when one is actually struggling in these desolate mountains. We were here because we too, like the many travellers, before us, had fallen deeply in love with the mountains, and all that they hold.
After eight hours of incessant grind, we did eventually reach Bali col. It was a clear day, and the view from the top was breathtakingly beautiful. The entire Bandarpunch massif on one side, and on the other, we could see the snow-covered Ruinsara valley with the citadel- like Swargarohini towering above it. I just stood there in awe, taking it all in. I was sure had Nandu been there with us, he too would have cherished such a glorious Himalayan morning. Like at the end of most treks and climbs we had gone on before, a deep sense of gratification washed over us. And so, we shall continue climbing and trekking in these mountains. This allegiance of sorts towards the Himalaya, to all mountains for that matter, remains unquestioned.
The question that does arise, however, is how this passion was ignited. My foray into the world of trekking is inextricably linked to my schooling at Doon, located at the foothills of the Himalaya, in the Doon valley. One of the first things I learnt about school was the tradition of going for ‘mid-terms’, which were five-day excursions to the nearby Garhwal Himalaya. With my grandfather and father having gone to Doon too, I grew up listening to stories of their (mis) adventures in these mountains. Although none of these stories had enamoured me initially, they did create an interest which would later only heighten when I started going for mid-terms.
The first rays of the morning sun shining on the Swargarohini massif (Samarvir S Mundi)
So on joining school, I began visiting the mountains twice a year – in early April and in late September. These forays had been planned in a manner that ensured that the weather would be favourable for climbing and other outdoor pursuits. Mid-term for all of us at school is a sort of escape, where boys as well as masters, can forget worldly worries and immerse themselves in the beauty of the hills. That is perhaps why the sweet fragrance of juniper trees, cold water from bubbling streams, and a plethora of other sensations and smells unique to the mountains, almost always bring back happy memories for every student who has passed through the gates of Chandbagh.
A relationship as deep as Doon’s with the Himalaya could only have come into existence, and been sustained by individuals who had been wholly captivated by these majestic landforms; Doon has had its fair share of such individuals. The holy mountaineering trinity of John Martyn, R.L Holdsworth, and Jack Gibson were all masters at School, and along with the first headmaster, Arthur E. Foot, they were instrumental in starting mid-terms, which acted as the foundation for further climbing and mountaineering at Doon. Major Jayal was introduced to mountaineering by Holdsworth during his time at school. Gurdial Singh, another master, was a member of 1951 Trisul expedition—the first Indian climbing expedition. He later went on various Indian expeditions including Everest. Suman Dubey, a former student of Doon, was a member of the Indian Everest expedition. Nalini Dhar Jayal, was a member of 1951 Nun expedition, the first expedition to summit the 7000 m Ladakhi peak—the list is long, and full of glorious achievements. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the members of the Doon community contributed to the golden age of mountaineering in India.
More interesting than their achievements perhaps is the way in which these pioneers performed such feats. Gurdial Singh, for instance, famously summited Trisul without the use of crampons. Stories such as this one have often motivated me when I find myself left with no resolve on a difficult climb or trek. For instance, whilst climbing Mont Blanc last summer, I had not acclimatized well, yet I pushed myself remembering that two fellow Doscos (a term used to refer to students of Doon) had tried to summit the same peak in cricket boots. Whilst they failed on Mont Blanc, much like I did by underestimating alpine altitude, they went on to summit Matterhorn, which is exponentially more technical, despite their clear inexperience and highly unusual footwear! Another incident that is especially moving is the story of Nandu Jayal’s 1951 French Nanda Devi expedition, where he was mistaken by some French climbers to be one of their Sherpas. And although he was their liaison officer, Nandu, understanding that being high up in the mountain and the loss of two members had mired their thinking, carried their load all the way down to ensure that they would be able to complete their descent as quickly and smoothly as possible.
A sketch of the Doon valley and the Garhwal Himalaya by John Martyn, the Second Headmaster of The Doon School (The Doon School Archives)
Footsteps in the snow
Such men, who were not only good climbers but who were, more importantly, pure souls, with tales of bravery, courage and enterprise, drew me further into the world of the vertical. During every trek or climb I undertook, I would think about whether Nandu would approve of the route, or what Holdsworth would do if he was there. I never had the honour of knowing any of these legends personally, but I suppose that this is the beauty of mountaineering—that although we may have never known them or even lived in the same era, we are connected to each other by this invisible climbing rope made from our shared love for mountains and the institution that is The Doon School. I am at peace with whatever little this ‘knowing’ means for I believe if need be, one fateful day, they will be there to belay me with inspiration, guidance and motivation in spirit.
The mountains have drawn, and continue to draw, students and masters. On each occasion, we have answered this calling with courage and gaiety, knowing that these mountains will in the words of Nandu Jayal, continue to make us feel “physically small and spiritually great”. I am sure that with such sure foundations and such an illustrious legacy, mountaineering and all its boons shall remain an integral part of the Doon School education. After all, there are many hills that are yet to be climbed!
Four boys from Doon School—Stanzin, Samar, Shivendra, and Ranvijay embarked on an expedition to traverse Bali pass in the Ruinsara valley of Garhwal during April 2018. They undertook this expedition to commemorate Major Nandu Jayal’s 60th death anniversary. One of the finest Indian alpinists, Major Jayal, lovingly called Nandu, passed away after suffering from pulmonary oedema on Cho Oyu, in 1958. They honoured him by doing what he loved most—relishing the beauty and grandeur of the mountains.
RANVIJAY SINGH is student of The Doon School, Dehradun. An amateur yet enthusiastic climber and trekker, he can often be found either wondering or exploring the Himalayas or the Alps. He is member of the Swiss Alpine Club.