So much Himalayan lore is centred on the highest peaks, argues Martin Moran, that the glories of the rest remain unexplored
Ever since the first ascents of the highest peaks of the world, the mainstream media has presumed that there is nothing worthwhile left to explore in the Himalaya. How wrong they are! Public attention is focused on dramas and disasters on the famous 8,000-metre peaks. The vast majority of mountaineers and trekkers visits only a handful of trekking peaks such as Mera in Nepal and Stok Kangri in India’s Ladakh range. Most such expeditions are professionally organised and staffed. These peaks and their approach treks may be uncomfortably crowded in the high season. Whilst such ventures may offer personal adventure and aesthetic reward to the participants, any lure to the unknown is completely subordinated to commercial expediency.
If we care to step aside from the “honeypot” mountains and range our eyes across the vast Himalayan horizons, we fast realise that 90 per cent of the peaks are unvisited and unsung. Mountaineering in the Himalaya has been an active sport for 125 years, yet many peaks of lower altitude are still unclimbed. A small but vigorous band of Indian climbers and foreign visitors has realised the untapped potential and has set about putting these magnificent peaks and ranges on the map over the last 25 years.
My own passion for pioneering in India began in 1983 with a visit to Gangotri in Garhwal Himalaya. The Indian government had recently opened the area for mountaineering after 30 years of sequestration behind the Inner Line security zone. A cirque with upwards of twenty 6,000-metre peaks rings the Gangotri Glacier. Thanks to their granite bedrock and dramatic glaciation these mountains are amongst the world’s most impressive. The soaring pillar of 6,543m Shivling was already famous to the multitudes of pilgrims who have toiled the trail to the snout of the glacier. Here, the Ganga issues forth from the ice gorge known as Gaumukh in a broad torrent of milky meltwater.
We set our base camp a few miles up the glacier and climbed the West Ridge of Bhagirathi I. The route was 2,300m (or 7,500ft) in vertical height, an assemblage of twisting rock ridges, gothic granite buttresses and a soaring arête which led directly to the 6,856m summit. As a piece of mountain architecture the ridge was the equal of and nearly twice the scale of anything to be found in the European Alps. Yet, prior to our visit, it was unclimbed, as was nearly every wall and ridge in the Gangotri massif. In the Alps the period from 1850 to 1870 is denoted as the “Golden Age” when the major peaks were climbed, including the Matterhorn. The Alpine Golden Age laid the foundations for the flowering of mountain tourism and ensured the future prosperity of the region. Here in India modern climbers were being offered their own Golden Age, but on an altogether grander scale.
As my career as a mountain guide unfolded I was drawn back to India and saw my own horizons stretching far beyond the known peaks. Why not run commercial trips for groups with the specific aim of exploring new peaks and little-visited valleys? This was something of a Eureka moment for me. These peaks didn’t have to be the most difficult or highest. Indeed, their very obscurity would be part of the appeal. Intrinsic beauty and the spirit of the quest would be the guiding criteria.
By these standards, even Gangotri seemed a road too-travelled. Instead, I took my groups to Kumaon. We perched on the pinpoint top of Panwali Dwar at the edge of the Sanctuary of Nanda Devi and looked longingly over to the twin summits of the Goddess, just 10 kilometres distant. Switching the gaze eastwards I noticed a rectilinear ice wall on the southern face of Nanda Kot. The rules for effective pioneering are: i) Store every glimpse of inspiration in the memory bank and ii) Don’t forget to take a picture. Two years later, in 1995, I was back with another group and we made the first ascent of that South Face.
We pioneers must, with appropriate irony, thank the Indian government for doing much to preserve the sanctity and mystique of these ranges. Even in open areas outside of the Inner Line, the government has concocted a labyrinth of rules and charges for the issuance of climbing permits. So daunting are these bureaucratic barriers that many foreign climbers have given up the chase and gone elsewhere. In Uttarakhand the state government has added its own layer of criteria and fees to those levied in Delhi by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. For those who persevere the rewards of access are proportionately increased.
The paucity of maps of these ranges is a further complication. I completed 20 years of exploration of Uttarakhand Himalaya solely reliant on 1:150000 topographic maps from the British era published in Switzerland in 1951! We know that the Survey of India has 1:50000 scale maps with contours but access to these is tightly restricted. After trying all avenues I was able to obtain some Open Series 1:50000 maps through my agent. My anticipation quickly evaporated on discovering that all the contours had been removed! The ranges were depicted as the “blanks on the map”, just as they were encountered by the great explorers of the century past such as Shipton and Tilman. In recent years the availability of Google Earth satellite photogrammetry has removed some of the thrill of blind exploration. The hidden lakes and gorgeous meadows of Kumaon are now plainly visible at a few clicks of the mouse and a quick zoom on the laptop, yet the chaos of sunlight and shadow on the peaks leaves them as enigmatic as ever.
Many of these peaks have evocative names that demand action. Panwali Dwar—the Gateway of Winds—was presumably inspired by the cloud plumes shearing off its summit in the jet stream. What could be more enticing? Others are unnamed and denoted only by a spot height. In 2002 we braved the challenge of applying for Inner Line permits to go into the Adi Kailash range, which is squeezed into a wedge between the borders of China and Nepal in easternmost Kumaon. In the modern era the only mountaineering record was of an encircling trek by the guru of Indian mountaineering, Harish Kapadia. We discovered that not only are most peaks unnamed but that many weren’t even shown on the crude published maps. A dozen 6,000-metre summits were thereby “discovered”. We found out the names for some by enquiry of the locals in Kuthi village. One particularly attractive specimen was known as Cheepaydang in the local dialect, meaning Peacock Mountain.
In 2014 I returned to Adi Kailash with the fond hope of finding a way up the peacock peak. We ventured up the Nama valley, of which the only written record is by the Swiss geologists Heim and Gansser from a brief survey they made in 1936. All potential routes to Cheepaydang from north, east or south flanks looked fiendishly difficult or else exposed to lethal ice and rock avalanches. Only the west side remained. Pioneering can be a tense and frustrating game. All the plans and preparations hinge on finding some fold or dimple in the mountain wall that will admit the climber’s boot. We pushed our camp to the head of the Nama Glacier. An afternoon storm obscured all view of Cheepaydang’s west face. We bedded down in despondent mood.
At 6am I poked my nose out of our tent door and saw my mountain, gently frosted and impeccably etched in the austere light of dawn; and down her western walls she proffered a deep and generous gully of solid snow and ice. We had our line! Few mountain moments can compare with the ecstasy of discovery. Soon we were outside jumping with excitement without even having laid a foot on the mountain. In due course three of us climbed the gully and bivouacked in a hollow at 6,150m on the summit ridge. On both our south and north sides were splendid ranges of virgin 6,000-ers, their ridges freshly fluted with monsoon snows. Captured by the setting sun a lonely galleon ploughed the skyline far to the north in Tibet—holy Mount Kailash. The peak was surrounded by an infinite murk. For precious minutes we were looking into the great beyond. We know, all too sadly, that reality often doesn’t match the romantic vision, but mountaineers can on occasion enjoy those epiphanies of spirit. That’s a large part of why we do it.
Failure is part of the bargain we make in the pioneering game. The commercially-driven mentality of modern mountaineering leads some of our clients to believe that having paid they must succeed. A realisation that this isn’t the deal comes hard to folk who are blinded by material expectation. We have failed on many trips but have usually found some consolation with a smaller peak, an untracked pass or a collective bonding through the shared trials of surviving an epic journey.
In 2015 I failed big time on a new route on Nanda Devi East. Remarkably, on the highest Indian summits there are still great lines, seemingly obvious, that are untouched. We went as a two-man team to climb the North-East Ridge in pure alpine style. This means that we carried all our kit, fixed no ropes and were entirely dependent on our own resources if anything went wrong. After six days of effort we met impossible snow conditions on a serrated arête 500 metres below the 7,434m summit. At such moments there is little prevarication. Intuition, when born of long experience, gives sound direction. To go on would be to put our lives beyond the line of justified risk. We turned tail.
For me, this was a watershed. I was 60 years of age and suddenly realised that this pioneering game, which had given me happiness for 30 years, was drawing to a close. There wouldn’t be another chance on Nanda Devi, surely India’s greatest peak. Yet with age we become less possessive and increasingly value the things left undone. Pioneers must deal with this paradox. Yes, we thirst for the knowledge of what lies up there and for sure we want to be first, but we also know that by removing the unknown we progressively destroy the seeds of our inspiration. The main summit of Nanda Devi has remained inviolate for 35 years since closure of the Sanctuary by the Indian government for environmental protection, and perhaps that’s how it should stay.
When age stalks one’s steps the inveterate pioneer responds by seeking out the lesser heights, where the joys of discovery are more intimate and personal. Many of my clients are in their seventh decade, but still pursuing their dreams. Last year I guided a 63- and a 61-year-old up 6,315m Kang Yatze III in Ladakh, this itself a possible first ascent of the peak. There are sprawling ranges of sub- 6,000m peaks that no self respecting young tiger would consider but which are generally free of permit restrictions. The Vishnu Ghar Dhar—Vishnu’s Fortress range—on the southern flanks of the Kedarnath-Badrinath massif is a delectable mélange of high glacial plateaux, nunatak peaks and richly forested valleys. In 2016 we had an epic just getting to a base camp. The climb to the highest summit was relatively straightforward by comparison to the vertiginous approach march. Rhododendron jungles, spectacular thunderstorms and sheer ravines lent an adventurous ambience reminiscent of the forays of India’s earliest mountain pioneers—Graham, Bruce, Longstaff, Smythe and their like. In our own small way we were upholding their tradition.
As always, we were supported by our Indian staff. It is invidious to describe them as porters. Over many years they have been our companions, and often our saviours, and whenever we can, we give them the opportunity to climb to the peaks with us. Mangal and Heera Singh joined us on Vishnu’s Fortress. I sense that they are somewhat perplexed by our mountaineering zeal, and adopt a stance of noble detachment when it comes to planting ice axes in summits. Yet they seemed quietly pleased to have shared a first ascent amongst these their local mountains, and we were deeply happy to have them with us.
Later in the year at 6pm on October 1, I reached the summit of an unclimbed peak in the Miyar valley of Lahaul Himalaya with a friend. Together we had ascended a clean and sinuous rock spur 1,300 metres in height over six lonely but glorious days of climbing. After the reality check on Nanda Devi I had managed two pioneering climbs in a year at lower altitude, proving the adage that “there is life in the old dog”. With the wisdom of age, our pleasure was less in the heady egotism of personal achievement than in the knowledge that we had made a fine and beautiful climb that will undoubtedly be enjoyed by generations of climbers to come. We gazed spellbound across the Miyar valley and over west to the spears and serrations of innumerable peaks in the Kishtwar ranges. I knew that many were still unclimbed and knew equally that I could never climb them, yet those thoughts were no longer fearful or unsettling. Rather, I felt reassured that the great beyond is still there. One pioneer’s life had come full circle.
This essay is published in April-June 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is The Himalaya and writer Stephen Alter is the guest editor of the issue.