Soaring Pinnacles: The Nepal Himalayas

Features Issue 78 Jul, 2010
Text by Ivan Sada

They are considered altars of the gods, and as such, they are sacred. In lofty Nepal they are a world unto themselves and here, in the ‘Abode of the Snow’, time and space have meanings unlike anything that humans have ever encountered. They are difficult to describe; reality and fantasy overlap, and each conceal the identity of the other. And, perhaps, one has to be born amidst them to grasp the subtle and unfathomable shades that fill the essence. Phrases and adjectives inevitably prove inadequate to define the vast subject at hand because here in the Nepal Himalayas all is splendor, measureless, majestic and mysterious. They are at once terrifying and alluring, inspiring still deadly, and what seem unreal may prove far more solid than expected. They are the Great Himalayas.

The Nepal Himalayas are more than a crystallized mass of rocks and minerals. They have a spirit, and the mere presence of humans cannot taint their existence. They are considered unchallengeable, yet the human spirit seeks to conquer them rather than admire, observe and revere. People of our mountains still believe that dizziness is not caused by lack of oxygen, but that it strikes because the spirit of the wayfarer is not powerful enough.

The beauty of the landscape might not interest one because he seeks within himself and meditates. What counts is chiefly the soul, just as a monastery is not considered to be more a less interesting because of its architecture or the art contained within, but because of the sacredness of the place on which it is built. Some choose to carve prayers into rocks and hoist prayer flags aplenty—everywhere, and some kneel where others have knelt to pray. For them, Mount Everest is still Chomolungma, ‘Land of the Goddess, Mother of the Earth’; Manaslu still is ‘Mountain of the Spirit’; Sishapangma still is ‘Place of the Holy’; Kantgengri still is the ‘Lord of Spirits’; and Annapurna is still the ‘Goddess of Bountiful Harvests’. They conquer the mountains with their soul. Such mountains are ‘conquered’ with the soul.

Guests of the Himalayas perhaps do visit them for adventure, but only a few wonder how they came to be there in the first place. The Himalayas were created by the collision, eons ago, of an Asian landmass called Gondwanaland (what is now India) with the central Asian plate, forcing it upward to create what we now know as Tibet. The space between was known as the Tethys Sea. The continuing northwards and upwards movement closed the sea off and cemented the two land masses together, and the buckling effect resulted in the Himalayas. The plates are still moving and the mountains are still rising, though not as fast as they once did. The structure of the Himalayas support the theories of their origin and, not surprisingly, the geology is immensely varied with many metamorphosed rocks created by the huge pressures applied during the uplift, as well as sandstone and limestone, some of which bear marine fossils of creatures that once lived in the Tethys Sea. It is by no means uncommon to find fossils at 5,000m (16,400ft) and higher. Locals collect them from the river beds and embankments, and sell them to trekkers. Pilgrims consider them sacred.

The Nepal Himalayas extend approximately 800 kilometers between the Kangchenjunga massif at the east, to the Mahakali River at the west, accounting for a third of the entire Himalayan mountain system. They were not accessible to the outside world until the modern frontiers of Nepal were drawn at the conclusion of the British-Nepalese War of 1814-16, which was brought about by the frequent Gurkha raids on territories in India controlled by the East India Company. A few years prior to the war, a rough map of the country was drawn by Charles Crawford who surveyed a small part of eastern Nepal in the region of the Koshi River, from which he noted the great heights of the snow peaks. In 1809-10, W.S. Webb observed the position and height of Dhaulagiri from survey stations in the plains and calculated its height quite close to today’s official figure. At one point it was considered the highest mountain in the world. During the campaign of 1814-16 other great peaks were noted and then the frontiers were closed.

Only after British surveyors successfully calculated the positions and height of the most prominent peaks in Nepal, in 1852, was the Government of British India granted permission to send a party to survey the country by the King of Nepal. One notable journey was made in 1873 by Pandit Hari Ram, who crossed the western border and traversed northern Nepal as far as the Kali Gandaki River, between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Himals. Captain Henry Wood came next, in 1903, to authenticate the names of peaks. In 1907, Natha Singh, a lone surveyor, made a hurried visit to the upper Dudh Koshi and sketched the southern slopes of Mt Everest, including the end of the Khumbu glacier. About the same time, the Nepalese Government was prepared to allow a mountaineering expedition to visit Mount Everest, but at the last hour the British Government deemed it inadvisable. George Herbert Leigh Mallory, an English mountaineer took part in the first three British Expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s. On the third expedition, in June 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the northeast ridge during the final stages of their attempt to make the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain. Their ultimate fate was unknown for 75 years, until Mallory’s body was finally discovered in 1999. Whether he and Irvine reached the summit or not still remains the subject of speculation and continuing research. It was during the British attempt on Everest in 1922 that seven Sherpa climbers died in an avalanche, the first reported deaths on the mountain. Otherwise, apart from one or two incursions across the border by various travelers and mountaineers, Nepal and its mountains remained relatively unknown until 1949.

When the door to Nepal was re-opened in the mid 20th century, two factors made it attractive for climbers and explorers. First, it was new territory teaming with high peaks, many of them giants that had been observed only from afar; and second, of the 31 Himalayan peaks that exceeded 7,600 meters, 22 studded the Nepalese landscape, including eight of the worlds 14 highest. Detailed maps of the Himalaya along the Nepal-China border became available only as late as 1997 and a closer examination of them revealed that there are more than 208 summits exceeding 6,500 meters within five kilometers of the boundary on the Nepal side alone.

The Golden Decade of mountaineering ran from 1950 to 1960. After Nepal was opened to outside visitors in 1949, there was an influx of mountaineering activities in the country that created a boom in the economy. The pioneering exploration and mountaineering teams of the first year were the British to the Langtang-Ganesh Himal area and the Swiss to the Kangchenjunga area. By the end of that decade, over 100 large and small expeditions from 17 different nations were accomplished in the Nepal Himalaya.

The British led the field with 27 expeditions by 1953, and in that year alone, the year that Everest was finally summited, there were altogether seven British expeditions in Nepal. The Japanese, who sent their first team to Nepal in 1952, came in second with 17 expeditions, five of them in 1959 alone. The Swiss accounted for ten expeditions during the decade. The French sent only six, but their dramatic triumph on Annapurna in 1950—the first successful climbing of a peak over 8,000 meters—was a big impetus to others. Austria and New Zealand fielded three and two expeditions, respectively; and the same number came from neighboring India and distant USA. Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark and West Germany sent one expedition each and the Italians teamed up with the British on Ama Dablam. There were three joint expeditions, and the first women’s expedition came in 1955.

Those ten years of pioneer achievement, combining reconnaissance and climbing, were impressive. All the peaks above 8,000 meters within the Nepal Himalaya were climbed: Annapurna in 1950, Everest in 1953, Cho Oyu  in 1954, Kangchenjunga and Makalu in 1955, Lhotse and Manaslu in 1956 and Dhaulagiri in 1960. Everest was climbed thrice while Cho Oyu and Annapurna twice each. Other prominent first ascents were Pyramid Peak, Chulu West, Chamar, Baruntse, Pethangtse, Ganesh, Putha Hiunchuli, Kan Garu, Annapurna-II, Api and Himalchuli. Apart from these achievements, there were extensive explorations that paved the way for other expeditions.

The next decade saw normal climbing activities until 1965, with a total of 68 expeditions. The peak year was 1964 with 20 expeditions. In late 1965, however, mountaineering expeditions were banned in reaction to one ‘expedition’ that engaged in clandestine political activities across the border in Tibet. There were no mountaineering expeditions between 1966 and 1968, although two trekking groups and various scientific expeditions were allowed to operate. Alpinism, however, triumphed when Nepal Himalaya was opened once again for mountaineering with new set of regulations. Thirty-seven expeditions responded to this opportunity during the two-year period of 1969-70.

During this decade, 105 parties from 17 countries visited Nepal; Japan topped all other with 48 expeditions. They sent eight parties each in 1963 and 1969, and 14 in 1970. Britain, which had led the field in the previous decade, sent only 15 expeditions. Other expeditions represented West Germany, India, The Netherlands and Austria, the USA, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Italy and Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Spain.

There were numerous successes despite the disruption of the 1966-1968 climbing ban. Notable first ascents were accomplished on Ama Dablam, Annapurna-III, Nuptse, Chamlang, Jannu, Nilgiri North, Pumo Ri, Kangtega, Numbur, Saipal, Glacier Dome, Gangapurna, Rock Noir, Gyanchung Kang, Annapurna South, Baudha, Churen Himal, Peak 29 and Lhotse Shar. Everest was climbed thrice and Glacier Dome was also ascended thrice in successive years. In addition, Cho Oyu, Annapurna-I, II, III, IV, Annapurna South and Makalu were also re-ascended.

Mountaineering in the Nepal Himalaya showed an unprecedented increase between 1971 and 1981, with 404 expeditions as compared with 105 in the preceding decade. There was an immediate response when the government rationalized mountaineering management with the recognition of multiple routes to individual peaks and extension of climbing seasons. The number of expeditions more than doubled compared to the previous year and by 1981 the annual figure reached 74. Japan alone accounted for 141 national and eight joint expeditions. There were 17 Japanese parties in 1981, 16 in 1973 and 22 in 1981. The British came with 30 parties followed by expeditions from other European countries, as well as from South Korea, Iran and Mexico. Himalayan mountaineering, once the almost exclusive domain of Europe and America, was beginning to attract climbers from elsewhere in Asia and from Latin America. The first Nepalese national expedition was launched in 1975 and Nepal subsequently participated in numerous joint expeditions on the border peaks. Of course, Sherpas and other Nepalese had always been hired individually as porters and high altitude climbing guides.

By 1980, all 8,000 meter peaks with the exception of Cho Oyu had been climbed numerous times, including the loftiest, Everest, which was ascended 16 times–twice in 1973, 1974, 1978, 1979 and 1980, and thrice in 1976. Manaslu was climbed 10 times, including four times by the Japanese. Makalu, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna-I were all climbed eight times and even the renowned giants such as Kangchenjunga and Lhotse yielded six times each. The beautiful peaks of Ama Dablam and Pumori in the Kumbu were not spared, each with seven ascents. Jannu, immortalized by photographer Vittorio Sella in 1899, was climbed five times while Yalungkang was ascended four times.

The Nepal Himalayas have witnessed many triumphs and tragedies, making up some memorable chapters in human endeavor and extreme adventure. Every mountain is like a diamond, each facet revealing a new dimension. And there are many more challenges remaining, with more than 120 unclimbed mountains above 6,000 meters in Nepal alone. Currently, there are 326 peaks open for mountaineering in Nepal, out of which 33 are managed by the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Twenty-one peaks are open for Nepalese expeditions or joint Nepalese and foreign expeditions consisting of at least three Nepalese members. Another four peaks are set aside for foreign expeditions, to be climbed by Nepalese and foreign joint expedition under the government’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.

The mountains of Nepal have always held a mysterious charm. Their allure has captivated many and has made heroes of some who have suffered or disappeared in their quest and moment of glory. Victories and deaths are the yin and the yang of the Nepal Himalayas. They exist in deadly proportions, yet people aspire and continue to climb. It makes one wonder why they do the unimaginable. Perhaps, they do climb them “because it is there”, as Mallory famously put it. Recently, however, some questions have been raised regarding the authenticity of that quote, and whether Mallory actually said it, with a possibility that it was invented by a newspaper reporter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Nepal Himalayas are there to be climbed and, by some, simply beheld or revered. As it is said that each has a mountain to climb and conquer; if yours is the snowy kind with an objective in mind to be recognized, so be it, because the world will certainly rejoice over your courage and achievements.

For many in the Nepal Himalayas, however, mountaineering is more than climbing the irresistible and more than experiencing the joy of the pursuit. For them, mountaineering is the art of suffering stoically as it takes place in an environment indifferent to human needs. Despite the rich physical and spiritual rewards, not everyone is willing to pay the price in hardship. The mountains do not exist for their amusement, but they take them as a privileged communion with the high places, then (hopefully) leave them as they found them.

What more is there to say than this, by an anonymous American climber: “Once in their lifetime, every person should journey to a place where legends live, where everything is bigger than life. For me, Everest has always represented nature at its most powerful, most awe-inspiring, most unconquerable.”

Some information for this article was adapted from High Asia: An illustrated History of the 7,000 Meter Peaks by Jill Neate; Mountaineering in Nepal: Facts & Figures by Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation, Nepal; The Official History of Everest by George Band; Himalayas by Macro Majrani. And, special thanks to Bidur Dongol of Vajra Books in Kathmandu (tel. 422.0562).