Statue of Tenzing Norgay above HMI
We took a picture of Lhatoo in the bazaar, posing between these two great men, selling woollens. The photo was captioned; “Two sweater sellers of Darjeeling and one future sweater seller of Darjeeling”.
Travel to Darjeeling
It seems like ages ago. I went there for my basic course in mountaineering, in 1964! It was course no. 43, I think. If you know the history of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), this was the first decade. The courses were for 35 days, plus almost eight days for travel to and fro Mumbai. We spent the first five and the last three days at Darjeeling.
It was a ten-day walk to base camp and ten for training at the base camp and eight days to return. It was training at its best. These long marches and the stay at the base allowed us to interact with the great Sherpas who accompanied us, including Tenzing. We enjoyed the mountains and immersed ourselves with understanding the area.
During the sixties and before, travel to Darjeeling itself was long and tedious. HMI was authorized to offer a special railway concession to students and that allowed me to travel 1st class at half rate. The journey from Mumbai to Kolkata by 1Dn Kolkata Mail via Nagpur was a memorable experience with its views, rhythm and the dining car, which has now been discontinued. I changed to the Darjeeling Mail at Kolkata. Early next morning, the train halted at Sahib Ganj, which was on the banks of the Ganga. In those days, the railway bridge was yet to be constructed. All the passengers and luggage had to be transported to the train waiting on the other side. Porters carried luggage was to the waiting steamer and loaded it; many local cars too were ferried. Thanks to my upper-class ticket, I sat on the upper deck restaurant and enjoyed breakfast, while the ferry made its way across the Ganga over the next two hours.1
The same scene repeated itself at Manihari Ghat, on the opposite north bank. As we embarked onto the train on the other side, we realized that it was almost a replica of the earlier train, only it was now ‘metre gauge’. It was late in the afternoon, and we were on the move again. It was amazing to imagine that British officers, administrators and the early Everest expeditions travelling to Darjeeling, had to go through this procedure. After a long sea voyage to Mumbai, it was a sure test of endurance.
From Siliguri one had to catch a ‘narrow gauge’ train to Darjeeling. Comprising of about 15 bogies being pulled and pushed by three engines, this was indeed a remarkable experience. After chugging along for two hours in the plains, the train is divided into three sections of five bogies, with one engine each. Two great engineering marvels were designed to help the engines haul up the train. First is a climb along a very steep slope. Then the engines would reverse to be able to climb higher. In this way all the bogies were hauled up. Later at Batasia Loops, the train would make the climb in rounds, one section going over the other. This exists today too2.
At the Darjeeling Railway station, two Sherpas with large HMI badges awaited the arrival of new students. A very grand gesture I thought. We walked to Jawaher Parvat, about three km away. Soon, we were settled at the student’s hostel3.
Of the 30 students in my course, Dilip Bhide and I, from Mumbai were the two civilians. The others were 28 young army Lieutenants or Captains. But we were immediately welcomed by these young officers—as we were almost of the same age. I was teamed with Col. Prem Chand of 11 Gorkhas. We became friends instantly and and remained so until his death in 2011. There were differences in our physical fitness and abilities, but we were not too far behind either. I was glad I had come well prepared with many historic facts, as I realized that some of the Sherpas, including the great Tenzing were keen to know more about the history of their area.
Our course began the next day. First we had to get used to the routine. Morning running, army style PT (physical training), lectures on various subjects and a movie on the Institute and training. After the day’s schedule we would all go to the bazaar, eat at Glenary’s, have ice-creams and milk shakes at Keventer’s and browse books at the Oxford book shop. All these establishments are still there. Five days flew by in an instant. There was a cricket test match going on and as I had a radio, I was in great demand. To my regret, three of the best Sherpas, Nawang Gombu, Lhatoo Dorjee and Ang Kami were joining the Pre-Everest expedition to Rathong peak. Indian teams had attempted Everest twice before and 1965 was considered almost the last chance for them to achieve the ascent. So, instead of the usual advance course, which was generally held on same dates as the basic course, HMI dedicated this period to the selection of future Indian Everesters. In a way we were lucky, as we were interacting with the future legends and were witnessing the senior-most mountaineers of the country in action. Our instructors were Tenzing, Gyalzen Mikchen, Sardar Khamsang Wangdi (or simply Ongdi K.), Ang Temba, and Da Namgyal—each a great man in his own way—worth a story each.
Early instructiors (l to r) Da Namgyal, Phursumba, Gyalzen, Wangdi and Ang Temba
All these Sherpas had been to Everest on various expeditions—that was their bread and butter and fame. But they had done other climbs too. Apart from Tenzing, two of the most senior Sherpas were with us, Gyalzen Mikchen, the senior instructor of the course, had climbed with the Japanese, is credited with the first ascent of Pyramid peak in 1949 and the first ascent of the difficult Manaslu peak in 1954.
Da Namgyal was part of the Sherpa group that carried heavy loads to South Col in 1953. Next day, he with Lord John Hunt carried loads to Camp VII on the southeast ridge, the final camp, and that helped Hillary and Tenzing make the historic first ascent of Everest two days later.
Tenzing Norgay is of course renowned and there are several books on him. The first Prime Minister of India, Nehru told him to make a thousand Tenzings. To that end the HMI was established with Tenzing as Director of Field Training, a post he held until he retired. Upon his death, he was cremated in the grounds above the HMI, his statue stands there today. His soul certainly rests at HMI.
On the same grounds above HMI, was a lovely 19th century memorial built in memory of Diri Dolma, wife of Forest Ranger Kanta. It was demolished to build a grotesque building to house the museum—an irreparable loss. So much for those who care about history!
19th Century memorial Chorten built in memory of Diri Dolma wife of Forest Ranger Mr Kanta above HMI
Other Sherpas were not as lucky as Tenzing. Many years later, while visiting Darjeeling, I saw the great Gyalzen and Da Namgyal Sherpas selling woollen clothing to tourists in the streets of Darjeeling to make ends meet. They had families to look after, and with no pension from HMI, were doing this to meet expenses.
Gyalzen (left) Lhatoo and Da Namgyal in
They were the senior most Sherpas and after decades of service at HMI, were the first to retire. As per government classifications, they were not entitled to any pension. They were celebrities in their own right, and I was shocked and disturbed to see them reduced to such a pitiable condition. The Japanese and the British, who they had served well, immediately offered help. But they thought it was best to fight for their rights; to increase awareness of the situation for the benefit of their community and themselves so they decided to demand pension instead of living off voluntary support and assistance. The Government, like in all such cases, was adamant and the rules were not changed.
At that time, I was with the erudite Sherpa Dorjee Lhatoo, Deputy Director of Field Training at HMI. We took a picture of Lhatoo in the bazaar, posing between these two great men, selling woollens. The photo was captioned; “Two sweater sellers of Darjeeling and one future sweater seller of Darjeeling”. It was circulated widely, causing much pressure on authorities. It had the desired impact on Indian bureaucracy and rightful pension for the staff of HMI was introduced.
Our course started with Principal Col. Jaswal, delivering a welcome lecture. “It will be a delight to see the mountains and trek with some great personalities. The base camp at Chaurikiang will be your home for almost two weeks”. Some us chuckled at this Sikkimese name. “You can laugh now, but I assure you that you will remember this name all your life”. During our stay at Darjeeling, we started with daily morning exercises and a run to the bazaar followed by various activities like issuing of equipment, lectures on medical aspects, safety and getting to know our Sherpa instructors. During one lecture, I was caught listening to the radio, as there was a cricket test match on. Luckily the speaker, a doctor, was also a cricket fan and asked the score!
In the hills near Mumbai, every December/January rock climbing training courses were conducted. Sherpa instructors from Darjeeling, as they were free from routine courses, used to come to Mumbai to teach. I had done a course there and hence knew some of the Sherpas. All were senior but very easy to get on with. So, sometimes I took some liberties to joke with them and our army friends with their discipline would enjoy that.
After five hectic days, it was time to leave Darjeeling. The Pre-Everest team had already left. We started our 10-day trek to base camp, with heavy luggage on our backs, to Singla Bazaar, way down from Darjeeling on the banks of the Teesta river, from where we would enter Sikkim. Next day, on a cold October morning, we were asked to jump into the river. I was aghast and caught hold of one of the instructors known to me, begging to be excused. “I am from Mumbai and we never bathe in such cold water. If I am forced, I will be sick for rest of the course.” Then I added in jest “I am the only son of my father so why send me home sick!” They all laughed and I was excused, but I am sure I was noted as a weakling.
We settled down to trek routine. We were soon at Yuksom we spent a day acclimatizing. That evening several pots of the famous Sikkim drink Tomba were brought, one for each of us. It is made of fermented barley in a bamboo container, on which hot water is poured. You sip this mildly alcoholic drink slowly, and more hot water is added no sooner you finish. It was a gift from the Sikkim government to popularize their national drink! How successful was their ploy: till date, I ask for Tomba no sooner I am in those parts and I am sure my army friends, as they advanced in ranks, have made their entire battalion drink it!
From Yuksom, the climb began. We went up a steep terrain to Sachen, Bakkhim, Tsoka to Phedang—the last climb in particular was very steep and challenging. But our army friends rose to the occasion, encouraging us and even sharing some of the loads. I was later told that people have died out of exhaustion or have had a heart attack on that section.
The next major camp was at Dzongri. No place in the Himalaya could be better I thought. Rhododendrons, grassy meadows with some yak herders, Kangchenjunga and other peaks rising all around. An extra day was spent here to acclimatize before we walked the last section to Chaurikiang. As we pitched our tents, I said to myself that the Principal was right—this is a place I will never forget in my life. Many giant peaks of the Sikkim Himalaya surrounded the camp which is situated in a bowl, next to a glacier. We were settled here for 10 days of training.
I remember Tenzing visiting our tents every morning and anyone who was not yet up getting a shout. Even if someone was ill, there was no excuse—he would almost pull down the tent and ask them to re-pitch it as an exercise to get fit. We were divided into smaller groups of six each, called a ‘Rope’, with one Sherpa instructor in charge. I was on the rope led by Sherpa Sardar Wangdi, someone almost as senior as Tenzing. Daily we would line up for a short lecture by Tenzing and then went with our Rope Instructor. Rock climbing, ice and snow work, rappelling, crampon climbing, use of ropes and rescue work—all other mountain activities were taught. Due to these expert instructors, smaller group size and sufficient time, we had the best training.
Sardar Wangdi was a very different class of Sherpa. Educated and well trained abroad, he knew his ropes well and was a good teacher. He was the Sardar (leader of Sherpa team) on several expeditions and so he received this honourable nickname4. He was on International Women’s Expedition in 1959, led by Madame Claude Kogan. The team had three Sherpanis, daughters of Tenzing: Pem Pem and Nima and his niece Doma from Darjeeling, thus establishing his future connection with HMI. On this expedition, Kogan, Claudine vander Straten-Ponthoz, two Sherpas and Wangdi were trapped in an avalanche. Kogan and Claudine died, buried in the snow, but after almost three hours of struggle on his own, Wangdi came out of the debris and survived5.
Wangdi on the French Jannu expedition, 1962
Manali-Sherpa Guide School—Seated (l to r)
Pasang Lakhpa, Dr S Amladi (client), and Wangdi
His crowning glory was as Sardar of the 1962 French expedition to Jannu (Kumbhakarna) with Lionell Terray. He was one of the summiteers on one of the most challenging mountains. On the summit, “Wangdi got a big Indian flag out of his bag, then Nepalese and finally the colours of H M I.”, wrote Terray6.
We remained in contact for many years after the course. He was well ahead of his times. There were no trekking agencies in the 1960s and he thought of starting a Sherpa Guide School. Not all Sherpas in Darjeeling were earning all the time, except when they went on some expeditions in a year, if lucky. Wangdi managed to arrange a group of six Sherpas, experts, but less employed. He agreed to give them a monthly payment plus extra when climbing. This group settled at Manali, far away in the western Himalaya. As Wangdi had married a girl from Kathmandu, he could manage funds and much of the equipment. Soon, his agency became known and some groups started using them.
Unfortunately, it created a lot of jealousy amongst the local babus. The mountaineering Institute at Manali did not appreciate his presence as it was thought that he was encroaching upon their territory. In 1967, I sent a large group of students from the University of Mumbai to train under Wangdi. His Sherpas went off to a glacier to train them. At the same time, an Indo-British team was climbing Mukarbeh, a challenging peak, supported by Wangdi’s company. They were caught in a storm and called for rescue. Wangdi went to the Institute for help, and to arrange a helicopter. He was denied any help even in this emergency. Finally, he recalled one of his Sherpas and a student, Zerksis Boga from the training camp immediately, and they went ahead with the rescue. Unfortunately, three climbers, Geoff Hill, Suresh Kumar and Sherpa Pemba were found dead, suffocated in their tents7. This was picked by local administrators and politicians to ruin Wangdi, with many inquiries and notices. In later years he himself accompanied a few expeditions in the Kulu area, organized and built a Ski Hut on the slopes of Khanpari Tibba but was uniformly unfortunate in his commercial ventures.
Business suffered, so did his health, and he took to heavy drinking. On one of my later visits, I walked with him to the Mission Hospital in town. Walking small distances too was a challenge and he had to rest often. The doctor diagnosed his illness as TB, and said that if he did not stop drinking and smoking, he would not survive. Soon thereafter, he passed away.
Soon, our days of training were over and the return trek started. In three days, we were at the meadows of Yuksom. The same night, the Pre-Everest team also reached there, full of spirits as they had climbed Rathong, a first ascent. To add to the pleasure, Tenzing had invited his friend Raymond Lambert, the famous Swiss climber and his wife to join us. Ordinarily, foreigners were not permitted to visit Sikkim, but then Tenzing was no ordinary person!
Prem Chand my tent partner, was an officer from Army intelligence. “Harish, I see a large box of whisky in Mr Lambert’s luggage. We should try to get some bottles”. As army officers, he could not ask for it, so the task fell on me, a civilian. I chatted with Lambert as I knew something about his Everest record. Slowly, I broached the subject. “Sir, we are all tired, can I request you to share a little whisky with us?”
Mr and Mrs Raymond Lambert at HMI, 1965 with Da Namgyal
Lambert laughed and said “Ok if you give me a damn good campfire, I will consider it”. That was no problem—we had students from every part of the country. Prem Chand organized wood and lamb which was skinned and hung above the roaring fire to roast. We sang songs, performed skits, and told stories from different regions. After half an hour Lambert signalled me and offered a couple of bottles of whisky! With Tomba to supplement, the party took off. The senior team presented a Punjabi bhangra, we had an Assamese dance, someone sang a serious Bengali song and a south Indian presented a classical piece. I presented a Gujarati garba where you take delicate steps around a large circle, in tune with a song. Neither could I sing nor could the army officers take delicate steps—it was the funniest Garba one had ever seen.
Harish Kapadia recieving the graduation Ice Axe badge from S S Khera, 1964
Soon, Tenzing got up and with a group of Sherpas started the traditional Sherpa dance—rhythm and grace personified. It was unique to see these senior Sherpas dance - one thought they could dance only on summits! Ang Kami Sherpa, who became the youngest person to summit Everest in the following year (1965), came out with a colourful scarf and performed a solo dance with Sherpanis singing songs. These were performances to treasure. As the fire turned to embers and the party was suitably drunk, Dorjee Lhatoo, brought out a guitar and started singing as only he could. We gathered around him. The forest, cold Sikkim air, embers, moon and the singing were a cocktail to sip on for hours.
It was time to return to Darjeeling. In a couple of days, we were at Singla Bazaar. The last climb to Darjeeling was planned as a night-walk. Porters carrying lanterns, some of us with torches and of all of us panting in silence of the night was something to experience8.
The next evening, the 1965 Everest team was announced to great joy for many and disappointment for others. Capt. Mohan Kohli was elected the leader; and there were celebrations as we juniors also joined in. The fun, frolic and drunken brawls are difficult to describe!
Like for every basic course a ‘Graduation Ceremony’ was held. This time Mr S. S. Khera and Mr H C Sarin, both Presidents of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, were chief guests and awarded us the ‘Ice-axe Badge’ as a memento for completing the course. 35 days had flown by and we never realized how quickly the course was over.
Harish Kapadia as Chief Guest at HMI
After a month, the Graduation certificate from HMI arrived by post. I had received B grade, as expected. In fact, except for two students, the entire course had received a B grade. During those days, the grading was strict but honourable, as we were allowed to undertake an advance course with this grade. Next year, I went on to the newly established Nehru Institute of Mountaineering to successfully complete my training at the first advance course of the Institute. I remained friends with most of the Sherpas and army officers9.
I had my sweet revenge after about 40 years, in 2005. Having done much climbing and exploration, I was invited to be the Chief Guest at the Graduation Ceremony at HMI. After pinning ice-axe badges on students, I gave a short speech which went something like this: “You are at an important stage of your mountain training. Do not worry about grades, just learn from the experience. Freedom of the hills is something you must enjoy. I am the most long lasting B grader from HMI, but you can imagine the standard of training—that I still could do so much. On our course only two students were A grade, and I do not know what happened to them! What you do after the course, like what you do ‘After Everest’, is important. You will remember this training, various places, various names and cherish the new friends you have made, and it will be in your memory—always.”
In early 2020, Harish Kapadia went on a trek to Dzongri, triggering a cascade of memories of his weeks spent doing the basic mountaineering course at HMI in 1964. Here he recollects the friends he made, the beauty he witnessed and the adventure of it all.
Harish Kapadia is a well-known Himalayan explorer who has regularly contributed to The Himalayan Journal. He is Editor Emeritus of The Himalayan Club, the past editor of the THJ and has written many books. He is an Honorary Member of The Himalayan Club. He still explores new areas.