This is His Life - Gurdial Singh

Suman Dubey

Tsela on the Bailey Trail

A high altitude lake near Tsela on the Bailey Trail

Guru above Kala Pathar

Guru above Kala Pathar

Guru and John D, as he was often called, were the closest of friends, with a common attitude to climbing, a love of music and poetry, and the sensitivity, in William Blake’s lines beloved by both, to see a world in a grain of sand.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

—William Blake

On the mid-morning of 28th May 1962, John Dias and I were in our tents on the South Col of Everest, having earlier seen off the summit party of Gurdial Singh, Mohan Kohli and Sonam Gyatso on their attempt to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain. Supported by Hari Dang, the legendary Ang Tharkay and five Sherpas had soon become dots slowly making their way up the final pyramid, the support group going on a little ahead to help them to set up camp as high as possible and return before the three made for the summit the following day. Suddenly, one dot detached itself at about 8250 m and began to descend. It turned out to be Gurdial, who had decided to return, yielding his place on the summit party to Hari Dang. Few words were exchanged then but he said something about feeling dehydrated and didn’t want to be a drag on the summit party.

This was the 2nd Indian Everest expedition. After spending two nights in Camp VII near the site of the Hillary/Tenzing last camp, the three were obliged turn back from just below the south summit by a combination of weather conditions and slow progress. It was not till 1965 that an Indian expedition succeeded in putting climbers on the summit of Everest—and nine, at that. But this incident reveals something at the core of Gurdial Singh as a mountaineer and a human being.

As he explained much later, reaching the top of Everest held no particular fascination for him, and he had agreed to be on the summit party because the expedition leader, Major John Dias, a close friend and climbing companion of many years, wanted him on it. At 38, he was the oldest and most experienced climbing member of the expedition, fit and capable, well-armed with the endurance and stamina required to reach the top. It would have been fitting climax to the accomplishments of someone who has been described as the first true Indian mountaineer. This was long before climbing Everest had become a fad, when it was still a very serious endeavour. But Gurdial climbed for pleasure, to enjoy the mountains in the company of friends, to savour the beauty and grandeur of the high ranges, not to find fame or bag summits. On that morning almost sixty years ago, I suspect he just didn’t feel completely in tune with the task, and easily shrugged off the prospect of climbing Everest in favour of his younger and far more motivated climbing companion.

Over several decades of climbing and exploring the Himalaya, particularly in Garhwal and Kumaon, there have in fact been many successful ascents by Guru, as he is affectionately known to his friends and the generations of the schoolboys he has taught and inspired. But the journey has been far more noble than the narrow pursuit of mountain tops. It has been a life of exploration, travelling where few have been before, spending weeks together in remote regions, self-contained, independent and unshackled, on expeditions marked by camaraderie over conquest, refined by an uncommon sensitivity to nature, informed by a deep knowledge of mountain flora and fauna, to the accompaniment of poetry, literature and music. In a world where interests and abilities are narrowing, he has been something of a renaissance man who has lived an enviably full life while passing on his passions to many of the hundreds he mentored at their most impressionable age.

I am fortunate to have been one of them. Guru was already something of a legend when, aged 11 and freshly arrived in the Doon School, I had a choice to make of a mid-term excursion—a biannual tradition that encouraged boys to spend four or five days in the wilderness. Older boys went off on their own, younger boys were shepherded by schoolmasters. At the end of March 1954, I joined a group led by Guru and another master to climb Nag Tibba, slightly under 3022 m, a thickly forested hill across the Aglar valley north of Mussoorie. The experience was unforgettable. We walked from Mussoorie along the Chamba path, down to the Aglar, exhilarated by views of the Bandarpunch range looming above. 6000 m summits were identified; tales of adventure were recounted; names of those who had trodden on them were uttered in hushed awe. These were mountains that Doon School masters and former students had come to be identified with.

Guru and John D

Guru and John D (Kekoo Naoroji)

Sleeping on the floor of the Forest Rest House in Devalsari, in a magnificent deodar forest, we made do with thin sweaters and rough blankets. Summit day started before dawn. Shod in rubber-soled sports shoes more suited to the playing field than rough trails, we walked on snow for the first time and felt like we’d accomplished an Himalayan ascent when we reached the tall wooden ‘jhanda’, or flagpole, erected on the summit. We lost our way on the return, almost got benighted, and sang songs in the dark to keep our spirits up. It was my first ‘mountain’ and I was bitten by the bug but entries in the visitor’s book at the Forest Rest House revealed that it was already a regular feature in Guru’s life; he had climbed Nagtibba numerous times with students, friends and fellow schoolmasters.

Gurdial Singh owes his love of the high mountains to Doon School, specifically the English masters who taught there. Among them were Jack Gibson, John Martyn and notably R. L. Holdsworth, an accomplished sportsman, skier and mountaineer who made the first ascent of Kamet (7756 m) with Frank Smythe in 1931, and famously smoked a pipe on the summit. Mountains had played no part in his Guru’s early life, spent in the plains of the Punjab. Born on New Year’s day 1924 in a village in Gurdaspur district, into a relatively affluent landed family, he was the third of five sons. His father was the first Indian to be inducted into the newly formed Military Farms and Cantonment Service, which meant that he spent his early years moving from one cantonment to another. But he was a precocious youngster who matriculated at the age of 13 and joined Foreman Christian College in Lahore at 14. Not surprisingly, he sailed through college, acquiring two Masters degrees, in History from Government College in Lahore and in Geography from Aligarh Muslim University. The latter included a course on the history of geographical exploration which is when he first read about mountain climbing. In the meantime, he had also become an accomplished horseman, swimmer and shooter.

Armed with these qualifications, Guru returned to his village home and wrote off to the Doon School and Mayo College, setting out his degrees and sporting skills and applying to become a teacher. Sight unseen, the Doon School offered him a job right away—a vacancy had arisen, and a replacement was urgently needed. So in the summer of 1945 he joined the school—eventually retiring 34 years later in 1979 as Deputy Headmaster.

As a mountaineer he started modestly enough. His first treks were in Kashmir, in the Sonamarg region—walking to the Kolahoi glacier and crossing the Yamhar pass to the Sindh river in 1946, and doing the Amarnath cave circuit from Sonamarg to Chandanwari in 1947. Still just trekking, his next excursion was in 1948, when along with Martyn, Gibson and two schoolboys, the Koregaokar brothers (who later achieved fame in school by climbing the Matterhorn in cricket boots), spent a few days visiting Dodi Tal and climbing a few hours above to Darwa Top, about 4000 m. The following year, he was back in these hills with Willi Unsoeld, who in 1963 made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Everest and had been a guest at the school, before joining his first real expedition to Bandarpunch (6316 m), in 1950.

Guru and The Doon Swim Team 1951

Guru and The Doon Swim Team 1951

This was the third expediton in which with Doon School masters were joined by Tenzing Norgay, not yet a climber of renown, who reached the summit with Roy Greenwood, a Physical Training instructor at the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun. Bandarpunch was Guru’s first climb on a real mountain, and he climbed to the last camp at around 5792 m. Of Tenzing, he has the fondest of memories, describing him as “the most modest human being conceivable” and recalling that his “broad smile won over people in a big way”.

Tom Longstaff’s autobiography, This My Voyage, describing his 1907 ascent of Trisul (7120 m) had just been published—I propelled Guru and Greenwood to make the third ascent of the mountain in 1951. Tenzing would have been with them, had the French on Nanda Devi not made him the more attractive offer of being Sirdar on their ill-fated expedition. On top of Trisul, Greenwood did a spontaneous, exuberant handstand and Guru followed with a headstand. These antics apart, this climb is recognized as the first ascent of a major Himalayan mountain by an Indian climbing for the love of it—and thus regarded as the birth of Indian mountaineering.

The ascent also enabled him in 1952 to become the first Indian member of the Alpine Club in London. Guru’s other notable takeaway from this expedition was the great value of Garhwalis in supporting climbing expeditons. He climbed with Sherpas, of course, but many tough men belonging to higher villages like Bampa and Ghamsali, joined him on expeditions in the years to come. They included stalwarts like Kesar Singh, who had climbed Kamet with Smythe’s party—clad in local footwear made of straw, rather than boots—and in later years Kalyan Singh and Dewan Singh.

Guru’s focus next shifted to Kamet. By this time it was the Bengal Sappers of the Indian Army, based in nearby Roorkee, who had taken to mountain climbing, thanks to the presence of both Major General W. E. Williams, a British officer who became Engineer-in-Chief after Independence, and Nandu Jayal, a Sapper officer and Doon School alumnus, who was fast becoming a well-known climber in his own right. The army engineers were focussed on Kamet, and Williams, who had been on Bandarpunch, invited Guru, fresh off his pioneering ascent of Trisul, to join their expedition in 1952. They turned back less than 200 m short of the summit, sinking in soft snow after taking a wrong line on the broad final pyramid. The following year, they were all back on Kamet under Jayal’s leadership (the expedition included Guru’s youngest brother, Jagjit, then a cadet at the Military Academy) and climbed to within 30 m of the summit when severe dehydration—something Guru recalls they hadn’t encountered seriously on earlier expeditions—turned them back. But Jayal did get up Abi Gamin (7355 m), the peak across from Meade’s Col, the site of the last camp.

A long trekking visit to the region of Tibet (including Manasarovar)bordering the yet-undisputed Bara Hoti plateau followed before, in 1955, Kamet beckoned again. Tenzing was now world famous for his ascent of Everest and working as Director of Field Training at the newly established Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. So the Sappers turned to equally experienced Ang Tharkay as Sirdar. Indeed, before Tenzing climbed Everest, Ang Tharkay was the better known Sherpa for his heroic support of the French on Annapurna in 1950. The Kamet expedition was a great success. Not only did Nandu Jayal and others climb the mountain, the expedition also succeeded on Abi Gamin the same day.

It happened like this: on summit day, leaving before sunrise, Nandu Jayal soon found that he’d forgotten his sun goggles in camp. John Dias volunteered to give his to Jayal and return to Meade’s Col to fetch them. Guru came back with him. At Meade’s Col they realized that a return towards Kamet was impractical, so they decided to go the opposite way, and accompanied by Kalyan and Dewan were soon atop Abi Gamin. The climb was notable for one other reason: it was the first time Guru used crampons!

Then followed what might be called his Nanda Devi phase. But it began with a tragedy. In 1956 he set out with a small group for Mrigthuni (6857 m), the gentle mountain on the outer ring of the Nanda Devi complex, just east of Trisul. At Dibrughetta, three long walking days from Lata village, one of the members, fellow schoolmaster Nabendu Chukerbutty, fell ill suddenly and died from pulmonary oedema. But not before Indian Air Force officer Nalni Jayal, also a Doon School alumnus and cousin of Nandu, who was on this expedition, made a heroic effort to get the Air Force to airdrop medicines, walking in one day from Dibrughetta to reach the telegraph lines in Joshimath. But to no avail. The death was a big blow. Guru was in charge of swimming and geography at the Doon School, and Chuckerbutty was a recently recruited geography teacher whom Guru was introducing to the high mountains.

Base Camp, c.12,000 ft. on Bandarpunch

Base Camp, c.12,000 ft. on Bandarpunch

Not only was Guru a highly engaging and motivating teacher, he was innovative in his approach. His main subject was geography, brought more to life with the use of coloured chalk on dull black and greenboards. His lessons would include topics off the curriculum weaving in mountaineering terms and concepts and exploration history. Another of his passions, introduced to him by Jack Gibson, was western classical music. Occasionally he would announce that the class would that day abandon the set curriculum—for music! We would troop to his rooms to be treated to the sublime cadences of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (“There’s nothing unfinished about it,” he told us), the dancing rhythms of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or the melodic evocation of rural summer in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. “Did you hear the cuckoo?” he would ask, as the call of the bird was rendered on clarinets in the second movement.

His abilities as a teacher were widely recognized. In 1957 the British Council facilitated a year for him at Gordonstoun, a school in Scotland founded by the German educator Kurt Hahn and known for its emphasis on sports and demanding physical outdoor activities. The months he spent there and in the UK enabled him to meet climbers like Tom Longstaff, John Hunt and N. E. Odell, among others. It also gave him a taste of Scottish climbing: John Ray, who was later to become headmaster of Tyndale Biscoe School in Srinagar, took him to climb several Munroes (‘mountains’ taller than 915 m) including Ben Nevis, the highest in the UK.

Returning to India, he was back on Mrigthuni in 1958, and succeeded in making its first ascent. The following year he teamed up with A. D. Moddie, a future President of the Himalayan Club, to spend much of the summer of 1958 trekking around the Nanda Devi massif from the Milam valley through the Girthi Ganga and down the Dhauli Ganga.

And that brought him face to face with India’s new-found infatuation with Everest, triggered by the Hillary and Tenzing ascent, which drove Jawaharlal Nehru to take a personal interest in the establishment of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling under Jayal’s directorship. It was only natural that the Sponsoring Committee, which had earlier organized expeditions to Cho Oyu (on which, in 1958, Nandu Jayal died of pulmonary oedema), would look to the country’s most experienced climber to lead the first Indian expedition that was being planned for 1960. The committee was headed by a senior member of the ICS, S S Khera, who invited Guru to be the leader.

Meeting Mountbatten

As Guru puts it, for about two months he was in the saddle. Not being used to the ways of officialdom, he found it irksome. While Guru wanted a free hand choosing his team of climbers, Khera had some names that had to be included. Guru wanted the best equipment available anywhere, but Khera wanted him to use what was being manufactured by the ordinance factories—largely untested on the heights. Eventually, Guru gave him a list of equipment that he necessarily wanted imported. When this wasn’t accepted, he turned his back on the expedition—along with John Dias, who gave voice to some acerbic thoughts on what he called ‘sarkari mountaineering’. The leadership passed on to Brigadier Gyan Singh, then HMI principal.As with Dias, Guru declined even to join the expedition.

He didn’t waste time, though. In 1960 he took a big step, compliant with his own fascination for Nanda Devi, organizing an expedition to the unclimbed Devistan I, (6680 m) which would take him for the first time into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. And in another first that speaks volumes for his mentoring capacity, he also took along a teenaged student, Dilsher Singh, who had no previous mountain climbing experience. The expedition didn’t succeed but it was a rare penetration in those days of the Rishi Ganga gorge, and it whetted his appetite for more.

In 1961 he returned with a more ambitious goal, Nanda Devi itself, and for the first time felt the need to approach an outside agency, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, for financial assistance. Remarkably, Guru had so far paid from his own pocket for all his climbing. Even on the army expeditions to Kamet, officers on the team paid according to their ranks, ranging from Rs. 300 for a Lieutenant to Rs. 500 for a Major. He recalls that the total costs on most expeditions—all self-funded and very frugal—came to between Rs. 800-Rs. 1000 per person. The more ambitious 1961 Nanda Devi expedition cost Rs. 22,000, toward which, in another first, the Mount Everest Foundation in London contributed £400 and the IMF about Rs. 12,000. Interestingly, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to be its Patron. Guru had written to him on an impulse and Nehru surprisingly agreed, though he did write back to say he wasn’t sure what exactly a Patron was supposed to do.

Guru ranks the 1961 expedition as one of his most treasured memories. Continuing his practice of inviting a teenage novice, he agreed to my being part of it. And there couldn’t have been a more thrilling introduction to mountain climbing than in the company of men like Gurdial and John Dias. We were six climbers, fast friends by the end of it, three Sherpas and a dozen Garhwalis from villages like Lata, Bampa and Ghamsali. In ten carefree and largely self-contained weeks in the Rishi Ganga basin, we climbed to 6000 m on Nanda Devi before realizing we weren’t equipped to tackle such a tall mountain in monsoon conditions. But we did make the first ascent of Devistan I, the second of Maiktoli (6803 m) and almost made a hat-trick to the top of Trisul by moonlight.

An expert on Himalayan flora, Guru took pains to educate the rest of us ignoramuses on the abundant variety and beauty of Himalayan wildflowers, especially as we slipped into the verdant rainy months. We were expected to remember Latin names and identify the rainbow blooms dotting the lush pastures. One day, John Dias, on being asked once too often, what flowers he had encountered, tersely replied, “Primula bloodyfooliana”. Guru and John D, as he was often called, were the closest of friends, with a common attitude to climbing, a love of music and poetry, and the sensitivity, in William Blake’s lines beloved by both, to see a world in a grain of sand.

Things began to slow down for Guru after the 1962 Everest expedition. He had turned back from the summit attempt but ended up spending six consecutive nights on the unforgiving South Col at 8000 m, mostly without supplemental oxygen to ensure that everyone got off those extreme heights safely. Not many have spent so many consecutive days at this altitude, today melodramatically called the ‘Death Zone’.

Guru and Chris Bonington, 2003

Guru and Chris Bonington, 2003

The IMF wasn’t yet done with Everest. In 1965 Guru was invited to join the third and eventually successful Everest expedition led by Mohan Kohli. By now it was such familiar territory for many of the members that it was almost an easy climb. And it went like clockwork in perfect weather conditions. Although nine reached the summit, he believes that if there had been more oxygen, more could have made it.

That turned out to be his last major outing. A few small expeditions came sporadically in later years. In 1966, he was on Reo Purgial I (6816 m) when he, Balwant Sandhu and I with Sherpas Ang Phutar and Chinze turned back about 40-50 m short of the summit because mists obscured the cornices on the summit ridge. Had we waited for the dry Tibetan air to drive away the mist, we would have stepped on top in less than half an hour. In the early 1970s he was back on Bandarpunch, but not doing much climbing.

Gurdial Singh at 90

Gurdial Singh at 90

He joined some IMA expeditions led by Brigadier Darshan Khullar as adviser and also accompanied women’s courses at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering for about ten years. Over the years, he collected several honours, including the Arjuna Award in 1965, the Padma Shri in 1967 and the IMF Gold Medal in 1983. In the 1990s and 2000s, he worked with another close friend, Aamir Ali—a pupil at the Doon School when it first opened, briefly also a teacher there, later serving with the International Labour Organization in Geneva—on a proposal to convert the heavily militarized Siachen Glacier region into an International Peace Park.

Of the Indian climbing scene he feels strongly about much that passes for contemporary Indian mountaineering, such as the obsession with Everest that bespeaks, not a love of the sport, but worldly benefits such as publicity and reward. He decries the tendency to repeat easy routes, sometimes accomplished only because of the professional services of Sherpas and other experienced climbers from the hill communities. Few Indians test their mettle on difficult climbs, unclimbed routes, on lower but more challenging mountains that need higher levels of skills and offer greater satisfaction than well trodden routes up the more famous summits. Many Indians have climbed Everest but all, save a minuscule number, by the two well-prepared common routes. Guru laments that no one has attempted the West Ridge, for example.

Now, less than four years short of 100, Guru has stepped back from his beloved mountains, from travels to the four corners of the earth, even from the games of bridge that filled his afternoons at the club in Chandigarh. Guru never married. The story may be apocryphal but his reply to those who quizzed him about his bachelorhood is said to have been, “Well, I am married—to the mountains!” His old friends have passed on—Nandu Jayal lost long ago to the mountains, John Dias to sudden illness in 1964, Aspi Moddie, Aamir Ali and most recently Nalni Jayal to old age. But numerous other relationships stay vibrant, built on long years of deep affection and common interests. At one time, they provided him ports of call wherever in the world he found himself, for the diaspora of the Doon School has spread far and wide. Today, they manifest themselves in the many former students who make it a point to drop in on him whenever possible. His mind remains razor sharp and he has better recall than most of those he has taught. He is liable to surprise his visitors with details of their school days or events that they themselves have long forgotten. I have yet to meet anyone who felt that he wasn’t welcomed or acknowledged visiting him. And his values, like his interests and spirit, continue to shine undimmed: old-fashioned values, perhaps, based on decency, rectitude, integrity, honour and fair play. He remains a beacon of excellence, a role model and a symbol of high character. To paraphrase the words of the Bard whom he loves, it can be said of him, “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, This is a man!”

This is a heartfelt salute to one of the greatest living Indian mountaineers, Gurdial Singh, 96 by his student, friend and renowned mountaineer and writer Suman Dubey.

All photos are courtesy 'The Suman Dubey collection'.

About the Author

Suman Dubey is a retired journalist who in his early years climbed in the Himalaya, the European Alps and tried his hand at rock climbing in Britain. In later years he trekked extensively in the western Himalaya. He has been President of the Himalayan Club and a Vice President in the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.

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