The Himalayan Odyssey
Lieutenant Colonel J O M Roberts (1916–1997) was a decorated British Army officer, who joined the military in India so he could climb mountains. He lived in Nepal from 1958 till his death in 1997. He is known as the ‘father of trekking’ having set up Nepal’s first trekking agency, Mountain Travel.
He maintained an aviary in Pokhara, a place he chose to live because he said “there is no other mountain view in the world to equal Machapuchare and Annapurna hanging there in the sky above the green Pokhara plain”.
Nepali Times brings you parts of a blog he wrote in 1997 called ‘The Himalayan Odyssey’ on the Mountain Travel Nepal website just before he died on 1 November 1997 in Pokhara.
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 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 were 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 peak height record stood at 25,600ft (Nanda Devi), not a single mountain over 26,000ft 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.
Closed off Nepal
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 certainly less known. Fourteen years were to pass before I set foot in Nepal myself and this long wait, and the magical 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 to 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 shared part of the trail, 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 acclimatised 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 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 organised 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.
The war gave me experience of parachuting and 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 you are 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 to 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 the Alpine Club applied to the Nepal Government for Everest. This was refused, but Tilman and Peter Lloyd were permitted to visit 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–organised 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 in the sky above the green Pokhara plain.
Meanwhile Herzog and the French had failed on Dhaulagiri but climbed ‘our’ 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 Mera 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 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.
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 to foreigners, while those in other parts of the Himalayas began to close. Tibet became the first to be difficult to 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 1970’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 foreign 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, although the Japanese expeditions 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 footer to fall, 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 on 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 housewife Junko Tabei who 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 Expedition of 1971 is probably remembered mainly for the walkout 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.
Trekking in Nepal
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 organise 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 cots and 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 8 that. 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 as 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, to 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 organisational 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 Nepal 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 Himalaya. I cannot hide the truth – I love them. And at times they drive me stark, raving 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 effects 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 Mt 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 realise 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 realisation 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, in Nepal or elsewhere, you will not be disappointed.
The text above was written 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 years 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 unsanitary and allowed to spring up, unchecked, on former beauty spots. And so the trails grow over-crowed and dirty and even properly organised groups say “Nepal is finished”.
This situation is especially acute on the more popular routes 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 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
© Colonel JOM Roberts, Mountain Travel Nepal