The Himalayan Odyssey Part 2 – How it all began

October 2, 2015

Have you ever wondered how trekking in Nepal began? Or why it is called “trekking” in the first place? If you are planning your next trek in Nepal, the history of Himalayan mountaineering and travel and comments by the father of commercial trekking in Nepal, Colonel Jimmy Roberts, might interest you.

THE HIMALAYAN ODYSSEY – Part 2

By JIMMY ROBERTS

A wind blows across the highest mountains of Asia and rattles the tiles of the roofs of the houses in the valleys below. Doors swing open and others slam shut. This, too, is a land of uneasy frontiers and political winds blow across the frontiers and open and close doors. Now Nepal began to open the doors of her mountains foreigners, while those in other parts of the Himalayas began to close. Tibet became first difficult of access, and soon impossible. Relations between India and China became strained, and finally reached the breaking point of war in 1962. India and Pakistan fought in Kashmir. During those years, which continued in effect until the early n1970’s Pakistan sometimes permitted the entry of a few expeditions to such mountain as Nanga Parbat but apart from Nepal, the remainder of the Himalayan Range from Bhutan to Kashmir remained firmly closed to forging expeditions. Nepal closed her own mountain for three years from 1966 to 1968 in sympathy with trans–himalayan tensions prevailing at the time.

The years from 1950 to 1965 were the golden age of climbing and exploration in Nepal. Permits were of course required, but there were no restrictions, as after 1969, on particulars peaks, which might or might not be attempted. Most of the highest peaks were climbed during these years but yet there were never too many expeditions in the field at one time. Generally speaking, the expeditions were no too large and publicity and ballyhoo remained at a low level. After 1969 the flood gates opened and although the Japanese expeditions which devalued Nepal mountaineering for a time to the status of a football league. In 1976, the doors of India and Pakistan eased open once again (mainly for economic reasons) and we now have a situation, not so different to that I have described 43 years ago, plus the bonus of Nepal. However, the permit system is now far stricter and more complicated.

After 1953 I continued to return to Nepal from army services in Malaya almost yearly, to the detriment of my military career. In 1954 I climbed Putha Hiunchuli (23,800 feet) with one Sherpa and this remains my humble personal height record. Machapuchare followed in 1957, Noyce and Cox reaching a point about 50 meters below the north summit in the latter year. In 1960 Annapurna II was the last 26,000 of footer to fail, Grant, Bonington and Ang Nima being the summit trio. In 1962 and 1965 I scraped around the flanks of Dhaulagiri VI, mistaking it for Dhaulagiri IV. Like Machapuchare, “D4” was an old ambition but proved even more difficult to grasp than the proverbial Fish Tail itself. Meanwhile, in 1958, fate dealt me one more card, an ace this time, and this gives me the opportunity gradually to switch the theme of my story from expeditionary mountaineering to trekking and the origins of Mountain Travel.

Towards the end of 1958 I was appointed to the newly created post of Military Attaché at the British Embassy in Kathmandu, and I have lived in Nepal ever since. In those days the Embassy staffs was very small and so, at first, it was paradoxically more difficult to get away than it had been before. However from now on I was at the centre of the Nepalese mountain scene, and the 1960 expedition to Annapurna II was fitted into this period. The appointment was for three years and rather weakly I managed to have this extended by another two, I say ‘weakly’ as I had already decided to retire from the army and to devote myself full time to mountains. Now I was merely opting for another two years of security and good army pay. But again fate intervened and this time dealt me a joker in the shape of an Army Brigadier (we don’t call them Generals in the British Army) who turned up in Kathmandu in leave. Unfortunately (fortunately) I took a dislike to his face and was unwise (wise) enough to tell him so rather late one night in the Yak & Yeti bar in the Royal Hotel. Rather unfairly – for he had no official standing in Nepal – he later reported me for “insulting” him. No, I was not court–martialled or sacked, but the two year Embassy extension was cancelled and I took the hint and retired voluntarily.

At the same time I also did two other things. I wrote to Norman Dyhrenfurth and volunteered my service for the American Mount Everest Expedition planned for 1963. And I went to see my friend the Director of Tourism and discussed some ideas with him.

I shall always be grateful to Norman for allowing me to join A.M.E.E.1963. It gave me both immediate object to work for and, afterwards a sense of partnership in probably the most outstanding feat yet performed on Everest barring the first ascent. I refer, of course, to the Unsoeld/Hornbein climb of the West Ride and subsequent traverse of the mountain although I would accord almost equal honour to the diminutive Japanese house wife later reached the summit with a single Sherpa companion in 1975.

In 1971 and again in 1972 I returned to Everest in a more exalted capacity than the “transportation officer “of 1963. However, a disability now prevented me from going beyond base camp, and that is no place for a leader or his deputy to remain. The International Expeditions of 1971 is probably remembered mainly for the walk–out of the four so–called “Latins” I protest against concentrating all our efforts on a South West face climb. In fact the seeds of failure had already been sown when a spell of appalling weather followed the quite unnecessary death of a well-loved Indian member. The expedition was if anything strengthened by the departure of the dissidents, (three of whom were in any case probably somewhat too elderly for very high altitude work), only to be decimated by an outbreak of apparently infectious fever. Despite all this, we did not do too badly and my main regret was the loss of a childish and innocent personal belief that mountaineers of a certain calibre and reputation must also be gentlemen (to use an outmoded expression). After the expedition had failed the mutual personal abuse and accusation which broke out among some of the members (and not only the Latins) was quite extraordinary and continued for over two years. At the same time, encouraged by the press, some normally well respected on looking Himalayan pundits were unable to resist the heady satisfaction of having a personal cut at the expedition corpse. However, to return now to more pleasant and important matters.

After A.M.E.E. 1963 I decided to remain in Nepal and create my own means of employment there. The field of ‘mountains’ obviously suggested itself – indeed I had few other qualifications. But within that field my credentials were good – long standing knowledge of the country, the people and their language, and more recently some familiarity with official circles in the capital. I thought back to earlier days in Kashmir, and agents who used to help organize the forays of my sheep hunting friends, providing all camp gear, staff, porters, and food for an agreed daily rate. However, their methods and equipment were heavy and old fashioned – army tents, sheets and blankets, camp cotsand camp furniture, and china cups and plates. There was also the consideration that these agents catered mostly for seasoned travellers who spoke the local language and who remained in full control of their caravans.

At this stage I should mention the terms trek and trekking etc, which are now very commonly used and understood but were novel to some in 1964 I think. The derivation is form an old Boer word but the terms were so often used in Himalayan literature in connection with mountain camping and travel and so on that I never had any doubt that the beast forming in my mind would be called a Trekking Agency. It would be based on what I had already seen in Kashmir, but streamlined and modified by lessons learnt in expeditionary mountaineering. And as the clients or trekkers would not be experienced in Nepal conditions, we would have to maintain a greater degree of control, which would necessitate a high standard of trekking staff and their training.

Beginnings were modest. I remember sketching out a plan to provide for no less than 8 trekkers in the field at any one time. I would have 8 pads, 8 this and 8that. I wrote down 8 tents, scratched out the 8 and wrote 4 – “let’em share” I said to myself. I placed a small but expensive advertisement in Holiday Magazine which produced five replies, two obviously from curious children. One lady wrote “Mount Everest… here we go again get out the Entero-Vioform… Rush me details”. With dollar signs beckoning at me, I duly rushed. But alas, silence prevailed. Perhaps she could not read my writing – Mountain Travel owned no typewriter in those days. By now, towards the end of 1964 it was however registered with the government as the first trekking agency in Nepal, and it was to remain the only one for the next four years.

My first clients came to do an Everest trek in the early spring of 1965. There was a story in circulation a year or two later that these were “three American grandmothers”, and a more sporting trio of enthusiastic and appreciative ladies I have never since handled.

Even by 1966 the days of the 8 sets of equipment were long past and I soon had to begin considering the problem of “how big?” In order to preserve the exclusive quality of the mountain experience I wondered if I should not turn people away. But the demand grew and grew, and now there were other Agents coming into the field. Turning people away would not reduce the numbers coming to trek, so it seemed better to expand and at least try and ensure that the good name created for trekking in Nepal did not suffer. With expansion there was the danger of losing the personal touch which is vital in an operation of this sort. However, by selection, by training, by example and influence, and the delegation of responsibility, it may become possible for a special spirit to permeate an organisation, down to the humblest Sherpa “Kitchen Boy”. This I hope we may have achieved in Mountain Travel.

There was, too, the question of approach, of what we were trying to achieve the aim behind the way a trek was conducted. Stated simply, I would say we are trying to show you the mountains of Nepal, its valleys and villages and people, under the best possible conditions, but without shielding you from reality. One hears criticism of groups who trek through Nepal isolated from the people and country by their own entourage and disinterest. That is not, I hope, our way of running a trek. Rather we try and give you all the ingredients of enjoyment, with Sherpas who look after you but do not intrude. The final, total experience remains yours to create, and to enjoy to full without organizational worries or distractions.

I have attempted, somewhat awkwardly I fear, to express something of the philosophy which lies behind the name Mountain Travel, as I feel that this should be shared with those who come to trek with us in Nepal. Now I must say something about our Sherpas as this is quite a special relationship. We have all heard that the Sherpas are splendid fellows. And we have heard that they have been “spoilt” (by expeditions, trekking, tourism or education – take your choice). Probably the truth lies somewhere in between. As in any community, there are “bad” ones, and the wages and other rewards now became customary for mountaineering and trekking work are high by Nepalese standards. However, the good ones – there are many – are very good indeed and reply their wages many times over with willing work, loyalty and comradeship. On an expedition or a trek, they served superbly but without any trace of servility. Sherpas give trekking agents in Nepal a most unfair advantage over their counterparts in other parts of the Himalayas. I cannot hide the truth – I love them. And at times they drive me stark, starting mad.

The year 1966, when Mountain Travel was beginning to give a fair amount of employment to Sherpas, also marked the end of mountaineering expedition activity for three years. Khumbu was already suffering from the economic efforts of the near closure of the once profitable trade with Tibet, and this new source of employment, then and swelling steadily in coming years, was a godsend to Sherpa people. Now it is all taken for granted and tends to rate less honourably than the aid (hospitals, schools and bridges) given to the Sherpa community by an outside source. However, someone had to start it all – and what trekking gave the earlier years have not been forgotten in the villages, which lies at the foot of Mount Everest.

What of the future? The growth of wilderness travel in Nepal during the past years has been phenomenal. The foreign exchange earnings from trekking have been considerable and more important, converted into rupees these earnings – in the form of Sherpas’ and pay, food purchases and so on – have reached people in remote mountain areas, not just a few pockets in Kathmandu. The facilities which have been developed in Nepal have enabled people, who never dreamt that it would be possible, to enjoy an expeditionary type holiday in the Himalayas.

India and Pakistan have not been slow to realize the economic advantage of thus utilising their own Himalayan assets, and have opened hitherto restricted area to foreigners, despite the fact that the security situation in those areas has not materially changed. On the debit side, in Nepal we hear of dirty camp sites and trails littered with rubbish (the legacy of mountaineering expeditions as much as trekkers) and crowds of hikers invading the peace of the mountain. The now widespread realization that the first problem does really exist, amounts at least to a partial solution.

Thank you for following my rather long and rambling story so far. My time, indeed my life, has been mountain travel in the Himalayas in all its aspects. Wherever you can yourself follow, Nepal or elsewhere, you will not be disappointed.

POSTSCRIPT

The text above was received up to 1987, when about 40,000 trekking permits were issued. Five years later, the latest figures available, being for 1992, 71,439 were issued. That is about 20% of the visitors total for that year, but trekkers spend considerably longer in Nepal than normal visitors, so the income from trekking and mountaineering probably accounts for at least half of the grand yearly total of foreign exchange by tourism.

The year since 1965 have been something of a success story for this aspect of tourism in Nepal, which has spread to the rest of the world. Nepal did not invent hotels or aeroplanes but it did invent trekking tourism as we know it today. Even in its now somewhat degraded form it has brought benefits to many sections of the community and to the national economy, and it has enabled thousands of foreign visitor to explore the more inaccessible parts of this beautiful Kingdom. But despite the statistics, the industry is not all that healthy – for much longer than these last 5 years we have been engaged in strangling the goose, golden eggs and all.

In 1992, of then total 71,439 trekkers, 40,808 made their own private arrangements not employing one of the official trekking agencies. This implies they lived comparatively cheaply in shanty like “tea houses”, which are often insanitary and allowed to spring up, unchecked, on former beauty spots. And so the trails grow over-crowed and dirty and even properly organized groups say “Nepal is finished”. This situation is especially acute on the more popular rules of the Annapurna region which played host to 60% of the overall trekking total in 1992, the majority being “do-it-yourself “ trekkers. One cannot blame the latter for doing what they wish to do, but the trouble is that they are spoiling the experience, and the country, for others and contributing comparatively little to the national economy.

There are now over 200 trekking agents officially authorised in Nepal and it is doubtful of more than 100 of these make a proper living from their agencies. Small wonder than that some agencies may try and balance their accounts by petty dishonesties. Such as underpaying their load carrying porters. This particular subject has recently roused the anger of a well-known British mountaineer, himself now in the business.

The fault really lies with the employer, who should not fall for the lowest offer, and the fact that an Agency bears the nametag of a “Cooperative” carries no special guarantee of superior services.

4 August 1997

Copyright, Colonel JOM Roberts

Mountain Travel Nepal