Himalayan Odyssey – Chapter 3: Nepal 1979

The distant hum of aircraft engines was unmistakable. Asit, Hasmukh, Dilip, Naresh, Bajraman and I ran to the gravel landing strip and chased away the dzos grazing on the sparse grass as the Twin Otter dropped out of the clouds and touched down at the far end of the field in a cloud of dust. The sole employee of Nepal Airlines in Jomosom came out of the makeshift control tower cum terminal and accompanied us and our baggage as the aircraft ground to a halt. Within minutes we were airborne and climbing to the Twin Otter’s maximum altitude of 15,000 feet. The braided streams on the bed of the Kali Gandaki river spun away as the pilot pointed the nose upwards. Very soon monsoon clouds wrapped themselves like wraiths around the green wooded slopes on both sides. There was a brief period of turbulence as the airplane rose above the clouds and we were treated to the most wonderful mountain scenery – On both sides of the wingtips glistened the slopes and snows of two of the highest peaks in the world. Annapurna was on our left and Dhaulagiri on our right and it felt that if I would just extend my arms I would touch these two magnificent mountains. It was a fitting finale to an adventure that had begun five weeks earlier.

It was May of 1979 and it was my very first trip to Ahmedabad. The intense summer heat had driven Asit Gokli and me to the terrace of his family house where the night temperature was bearable. We lay supine on our backs and gazed up at the haze which passed for the sky during this time of year. I had met Asit the previous October during the course of doing the Basic Mountaineering Course in Uttarkashi – see https://alokesurin.com/2020/02/24/himalayan-odyssey-chapter-2/ .

Asit had approached me later in the year in Bombay and told me that he was organizing an expedition to the Annapurna Sanctuary and the Dhaulagiri areas of Nepal in the summer of 1979 and would I be interested? He had a group of friends in Ahmedabad who would help fund the entire trip. It would mostly be a trekking excursion but the two of us (the only ones with a basic knowledge of mountaineering techniques) might have a go at Tent Peak in the sanctuary which was touted as a “trekking peak” which did not involve technical climbing. Asit also had his eye on ascending a little knob on the long southeast ridge of Dhaulagiri which again did not involve any great experience nor expertise in mountaineering. I had never been to Nepal and the prospect of seeing two of the world’s 8000 meter peaks up close was an opportunity that I could not miss. I said yes.

Asit and his Gujarati buddies were an enterprising bunch of guys and after a couple of days in the city we boarded a train for Mount Abu to borrow equipment from the Gujarat Mountaineering Institute located atop this charming hill station which actually was in the state of Rajasthan! We returned to Ahmedabad after a day and then boarded a train for Lucknow. It was a long journey and I had the opportunity of acquainting myself with the other members of the team over endless cups of tea as the searing plains of India moved endlessly beyond the windows of the carriage. Dilip Mavalankar was obviously a key player as his father was a Member of Parliament and was instrumental in securing funds and sponsorship for our little venture. Mehul Parikh was the tallest of us all, Naresh Gandhi struck me as a mild mannered and amiable person who smiled a lot. Hasmukh Patel, a little shy by nature, completed the Ahmedabad quartet. When sitting inside the carriage became tedious, Asit and I clambered up to the roof of the bogie to join scores of other passengers also enjoying the hot summer breeze blowing through their hair. The wind was peppered with tiny pieces of coal dust from the steam engine which was hauling the train so we looked like chimney sweeps by the time we descended back into the interior of the carriage!

We switched trains from the broad gauge to the meter gauge railway at Lucknow and boarded the overnight train to Gorakhpur where we arrived in the wee hours the next day. We transferred to a bus bound for Nautanwa on the India-Nepal border, loaded our considerable amount of baggage on a handcart pulled by a person whose skinny frame packed a lot of muscle and proceeded to the Customs and Immigration checkposts – first we had to be processed by the Indian side and then processed again by the Nepalese authorities. We then boarded a bus bound for Pokhara. It was a relief to leave behind the dusty, ramshackle and decrepit townships and head up towards the foothills beyond the terai. The crowds thinned and the air became increasingly cleaner as we gained altitude and the road began to ascend in a series of switchbacks that had the driver constantly turning the steering wheel clockwise and then anticlockwise. I still wonder if they had power steering back then; probably not, because the driver’s forearms were well toned from the constant exercise! The bus stopped many times, passengers got off, passengers got on, we stopped for snack breaks, pee breaks, and a lunch break. Some time late in the day we finally rolled into Pokhara where we found some cheap lodgings and settled in for the night.

We spent the next day walking the streets of Pokhara looking for a trekking agency which would supply us with the porters we would need. We found Bajraman Tamang, a slim man of slight build who would be the sirdar and who would organize the porters. We bought some maps and while walking along one of the lanes we came across a garden sale happening on the lawns of a lodge. Spread out on the grass was a full array of used camping and climbing equipment. There were tents and sleeping bags and down jackets and ropes and harnesses and carabiners of all shapes and sizes. Walking around the display were a group of battle hardened Polish mountaineers, obviously the owners and sellers of the goods. One of them told us in halting English that they were returning from a climb of Annapurna South and they had lost one of the team on the mountain in an accident. There was a brand new coil of climbing rope for sale and I bought it – back then these were impossible to get in Bombay where my friends and I relied on nylon industrial ropes (not certified by UIAA) for rock climbing on the local cliffs.

We trekked for 6 days via Suikhet, Landrung, Ghandrung, Chomrong, Hinko Cave before emerging out of the Modi Khola gorge at junction of the Annapurna main glacier and the subsidiary glaciers pouring down from the southern ramparts of Annapurna III as well as Machapuchare on our right. To approach Tent peak we descended onto the moraine of the Annapurna glacier and made a small cache of food and equipment which we would pick up when we actually established a camp on the other side. It is a measure of our ignorance and naivete when a big snowfall buried our tents and made all movement impossible for a few days – it was already the last week of May and the monsoon storms had arrived! With our tails tucked embarrassingly between our collective legs we beat a hasty retreat from the sanctuary after retrieving our gear from the glacier.

After the snowfall at Annapurna Base Camp. Asit (in red) and I watch as Naresh digs out his tent.
Machapuchare (6993m) from Annapurna Base Camp

Our optimism however was not affected. We had plenty of time and rations. Over the next few days we headed leisurely for Marpha and Tukuche in the Kali Gandaki valley. From Lete we began to ascend towards the Dhaulagiri icefall area. What I remember even to this day is the idyllic spot in the woods where we set up camp one night – the forest floor was overgrown with wild strawberry bushes and we plucked the tiny red fruits which were so much smaller than the commercially grown ones you find in the markets of the plains. What they lacked in size they more than made up in sweetness! We climbed up through groves of rhododendron trees but alas the flowers had long since fallen.

Camp below the Dhaulagiri – Tukuche col

A few days later Asit, Bajraman and I ascended the little prominence almost at the bottom of the very long south east ridge of Dhaulagiri. Asit had read some accounts of the area where it had been referred to as “White Peak”. Looking back now with the wisdom of hindsight and experience I would blush to call it a mountain summit. But we were inexperienced and totally new to the Himalaya and it felt great to say that we had climbed White Peak! The highlight was the view of the stupendous south face of Dhaulagiri that we were treated to as we climbed.

The south face of Dhaulagiri (8167m) towers 4000 meters high!

By the time we arrived at what appeared to be the highest point, the clouds had swirled around us and there was nothing to see.

Google Earth view of area
“White Peak” circa 5250m

Retreating rapidly back to the valley of the Kali Gandaki we made our way to Jomosom and Muktinath, below the Thorong La. We would have loved to ascend the pass that leads to the northern side of the Annapurna massif but it was not to be. Mehul was showing signs of acute mountain sickness and we deemed it prudent to return to Jomosom. Our original plan had been to trek back to Pokhara, but with this new development it became judicious to consider flying back.

Asit follows Bajraman along the final ridge

As it turned out, our flight overflew Pokhara and landed in Kathmandu instead, so we were faced with another long bus journey back to Pokhara. I returned to Bombay about ten days after the scheduled date. I had to face a rather irate boss when I reported for duty at my workplace. Mr. Jimmy Naegamvala growled at me when I explained how I had been stuck in a faraway place with no communication facilities. At least I had sent a telegram from Kathmandu, I tried to reason with him! His parting sentence as I left the room was more a veiled threat than a statement – “I will see how you go to the mountains again!” His bark, as everyone knew, was worse than his bite. I beat a hasty retreat.

L to R : Dilip, Mehul, Asit, Aloke, Bajraman, Hasmukh

Over the course of the next 20 years or so, Air India, the company I worked for, would accommodate my new found passion for the mountains. And for that I shall remain ever grateful.

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