The Himalayan Odyssey Part 1, by Colonel JOM Roberts

October 2, 2015

The monsoon soon hits Nepal and the low season begins, so we have decided to spend some time cleaning the office. That entails digging through old files in the archives, which can be quite interesting at times, considering Mountain Travel Nepal’s 50 years of exploring the Himalayas and developing trekking adventures. For example when we find old articles, pictures, and handmade maps from original expeditions. We would like to share our excitement over these unique stories, and therefore we here share the first part of Jimmy Robert’s article The Himalayan Odyssey. Jimmy Roberts was the founder of Mountain Travel Nepal, Nepal’s first trekking agency, and he pioneered some of Nepal’s most loved trekking routes. In the first part of the article, Jimmy Roberts describes how he first came to Nepal, his entry into the mountaineering community, and some of the first expeditions to the highest peaks in the world.



I have grown up (I refuse absolutely to write “grown old”) with modern Himalayan mountaineering and I have watched and pioneered mountaineering and trekking in Nepal literally from the beginning. I may perhaps be forgiven if personal opinions and sometimes seemingly unessential personal collections tend to intrude unduly – at least they may enliven my story. For although the history of recent Himalayan mountaineering may be interesting, it is no longer particularly amusing.

I came out to India and joined the old British Indian army at the end of 1936. I joined the Indian army partly because I as unqualified for any more intellectual employment, but mainly because I wanted to climb in the Himalaya – not just one expedition, but a whole lifetime of mountaineering and exploration. It worked. And even if the highest places where to be denied to me, I have no regrets. Fate dealt me a number of good cards and if I did not always play them properly, that was my fault.
At that time the whole of the Himalaya Karakoram lay open like a vast and fascinating book. Generally speaking, either permits were not needed, or could be obtained easily enough. The speak height record stood at 25600ft (Nanda Devi), not a single mountain over 26000ft had been climbed. Entry into Tibet was attended by mere formality, but was not too difficult if one could produce bonafide scientific or collecting aims. Bhutan was the same but at that time, for a mountaineer at least, the lure was far more potent than Tibet or Bhutan. And in the mountain book only the chapter titled “Nepal” remained closed, the pages uncut.

Until about 1948, visits to Kathmandu were by invitation only, either from the Rana rulers or the British Embassy. The rest of the Kingdom was firmly closed to foreigners, an exception being made in the case of glaciers west and south of Kangchenjunga, to which access was permitted in special circumstances by way of a high pass in north Sikkim. Now it is strange to think that then, to many, Pokhara exerted a greater fascination than Lhasa, and was certainty less known. Fourteen years were to pass before I set food in Nepal myself and this long wait, and the magic pictures conjured up during the waiting years, must account for the fact that I have never quite lost my own sense of wonder and privilege of being allowed inside Nepal at all. I try to remember that others may have a different attitude, but even so I feel my face beginning to flush when people argue that they should be allowed to enter certain border regions, restricted by the government for security reasons.

Until the war began at the end of 1939, possibly three of four expeditions used to come out from Europe or America each year. For the rest here were in India (including, of course, the countries we now call Pakistan and Bangladesh) hundreds of army officers and civilian government officials and business people, mostly British and, of these a considerable number would take their summer holidays in the hills. In the Indian Army we were allowed two or three months local leave each year, and nine months leave every three years. Annual leave was privilege and not a right and could be withheld or reduced by one’s commanding officer. It depended on what one intended to do. The social life or “poodle faking” (lying around on houseboats, I am uncertain of the derivation of the team) was frowned on but a request to keep a date with a rifle with some unfortunate wild sheep or goat on a high pass in Central Asia was a certain passport to leave, so was an application co climb a mountain, although there were few people in whole of India at that time who aspired to real climbing, as compared to trekking and more general exploration.

Meanwhile, our ambitious young mountaineer was getting quickly into his stride. His mountain scheming had extended beyond the mere Indian Army and he had managed to insinuate himself into a Gurkha Regiment with headquarters at 6,000ft on the flanks of the Pir Panjal range (Dharmsala, in the state of what is now Himachal Pradesh). So in 1937 I was able to climb for a total about three weeks among the granite peaks of the Dhaula Dhar, in 1938 I joined an expedition attempting Masherbrum in the Karakoram.

There were five of us in the party, plus four Sherpas and we needed 60 porters to carry all our loads. That year there was also another British attempt on Everest from the north, a German expedition led by Paul Bauer to Nanga Parbat, and an American expedition to K2. There was some friendly rivalry with the Americans with whom we sheared part of the trail in, but never actually met. A report that the entire team had been seen (Houston and Bates were two of them) squatting in a row cooling their blistered feet in the waters of the Indus was received with satisfaction.

For 20 years old, Masherbrum was a rather shattering experience. I acclimatized

very slowly, was frostbitten, could not sleep (oh, those unending hours of walking nightmare) and it never seemed to stop snowing. Finally two of our friends were very severely frostbitten in a summit attempt and I watched their toes wither and blacken and fingers drop off, literally as I helped the doctor with their dressings. Next year, I felt, it would have to be those sheep and goats.

However, by the time I reached Srinagar I had perked up a little and reading a newspaper report that they had failed on Everest, but might return in the autumn. I wrote to Tilman, the leader, giving him the welcome news that I would be available to join them in their second attempt. Sometime later I received a terse reply, written from the Planters Club, Darjeeling. There was to be no autumn attempt, and in any case I would not have been wanted.

In 1939, I spent two months climbing in Kulu and Spiti with three riflemen from my Gurkha Regiment, but meanwhile a new light has risen on the horizon.

A new expedition to climb Everest from Tibet was being organized for the fall of 1940, and following Masherbrum. I was asked to join. Mostly it was a new team to replace those who had spent the last six years trudging to and from Darjeeling and the Rongbuk Glacier. A Captain Hunt was another of the members. It was an alluring prospect: just the right age and, first, home leave and three months getting fit in the Alps. I do not regret the war but wish they could have put it off for a couple of years.

I do not regret the war as it gave me experience of parachuting and of command of the first operational drop of the war in South East Asia Dispirited after failures in the mountains. I still sometimes return back to uncertain glow of that small and not very dangerous parachute operation into North Burma in 1942.

The boredom, the sheer and utter misery of war and the few moments of truth which make it sometimes seem worthwhile compare very closely with high attitude climbing. I feel great admiration for the young men who voluntarily, without any clarion call from king and Country, endure similar miseries on high and steep mountain faces. Maybe it’s not quite as dangerous as war, and maybe television provides the call, but never mind, I admire them.

In case your still with me , I will skip three expeditions , including a daring attempt on Kangchenjunga during the war years which reached 20,000ft leaving only the upper 8,000ft of the great mountain unclimbed, and proceed 1949, and the beginning of the opening of the pages of chapter titled “Nepal” in our book of the mountains.

That year, the Himalayan Committee of the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club applied to the Nepal Government for Everest. This was refused, but Tilman and Peter Lloyd were permitted to visit the Langtang valley, north of Kathmandu. Once again, I wrote to Bill Tilman. Same result as in 1938! but in 1950 the Committee received permission to send an expedition to Annapurna, and at the same time the French were permitted to attempt Dhaulagiri. Now it was Tilman’s turn to write to me.

There were four of us climbers in addition to our leader who was 20 years older and by far the strongest and fittest. It was an ill–organized and badly led expedition, which made its Base Camp above the Manang Valley the day the monsoon began and then failed to reach even the summit of lowly Annapurna IV. Personally I was relieved when superficially frostbitten feet put an end to my own climbing and I was able to spend the rest of the monsoon exploring the Manangbhot and Bhimtakothi valleys and collecting birds for the British Museum. At the end, too, came a special reward when I walked across with one Sherpa to Pokhara and entered my private Mecca. Poor Pokhara has taken a bit of hammering in the 43 years which have passed, but I have not changed the opinion I formed then, there is no other mountain view in the world to equal Machapuchare and Annapurna hanging there is the sky above the green Pokhara plain. Meanwhile Herzog and the French had failed on Dhaulagiri but climbed “our” mountain, Annapurna. It was the first 8,000m peak to be climbed and the subsequent flag waving and publicity were a curtain–raiser to even greater events in 1953 and the even more vigorous waving of flags.

I went to Everest that year myself, only as a sort of poor relation, a purveyor of oxygen loads. However, I was glad to go in any capacity and, although not particularly generous by nature, I have never questioned the fairness of the selection of the team. Success was however by no means certain and I knew that in the event of failure there would be another attempt after the monsoon. It seemed reasonable to suppose that some members might be killed, frostbitten or at least become tired and that replacements would be needed in the fall. So dumping my oxygen loads at Base Camp I went off to prove myself, made the first exploration of the Lumding, Inuku and Hongu valleys, the first ascent of Marie and a south–to-north crossing of Amphu Lapcha pass in basketball boots – two firsts in one. Alas, all to no avail. Hastening back to region my Regiment in Malaya. I heard the news one hot night in June from Indian policemen who were searching my rucksack in Jainagar on the Nepal border. And I rejoiced with the rest of the world.

To be continued…

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