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CHOMALHARI - 1970

by Col . N. Kumar


Chomalhari is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. It stands on the border of China and Bhutan and is approximately 24,000 ft \high. To be exact, its height is 23,997 ft. It is considered to be a sacred mountain and worshiped by the Bhutanese and the Tibetans alike.  The Deity of Chomalhari finds its place next to Lord Buddha in a monastery located just below the base camp of this great mountain. The Bhutanese as well as Tibetans in the Chumbi valley have great faith in this deity. Goddess Chomalhari is supposed to bless them with health, wealth and happiness but when she is angry she causes immense destruction by her violent storms.

Spencer Chapman made the first ascent of this mountain in 1936. Though the people of Bhutan did not believe in his claim I feel that there is no reason why a mountaineer of his standing should have made a false claim. On reading his accounts I feel quite certain that he must have climbed the mountain.

The first time I set eyes on beautiful Chomalhari was from Sikkim. I had been invited by the Chogyal of Sikkim to witness their famous Lama Dances. While there I sought permission from the Chogyal to make an attempt on Kanchenjunga. This had been vehemently refused. Dejected, I had gone to Nathula Pass on the Sikkim Tibet border. The two across the Chumbi Valley – the dominating Chomalhari. My heart yearned, but like Kanchenjunga this was also a wild dream, for Chomalhari is to the Bhutanese as Kanchenjunga is to the Sikkimese. After a long time I had felt the over powering “Mountain Call”.  But I firmly suppressed my desires as I knew that this was a religious mountain and I would never be allowed to make an attempt on it. To strengthen this feeling was the refusal and the rebuttal I had just received by the Chogyal of Sikkim. Kanchenjunga had just been put out of my reach. So, the desire for Chomalhari was like a flash in the pan, for it was put out of my mind as soon as they had come.

But the ways of God are indeed inscrutable for one fine Sunday morning His Majesty – the Late – Jigme Dorji Wngchuk, the King of Bhutan came to visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. This was while I was the Principal of this prime institute of mountaineering in India. I conducted him around the newly constructed Everest Museum and then showed him some mountaineering films. And then he graced our house with his presence. The moment he was seated he said, “We have many big mountains. Why don’t you climb them”? I was taken completely unawares and I stood in front of him dumb founded. I could not believe these few words had just thrown open the Bhutan Himalayas, here was my opportunity. And without any forethought or deliberation the words that tumbled out from my lips took me also by surprise. I had asked for “Chomalhari”.  Immediately there was an uneasy silence all around. I am sure a dropped pin would have been heard then. I was certain that the doors of the Bhutanese Himalayas that had been so suddenly thrown open to me would be just as suddenly closed. Why had I not named any other mountain ? I had even begun to curse myself for my foolishness when I heard his Majesty say “All right, but this should be an Indo Bhutanese Venture.” I could have danced for joy for this was too good to be true. The Bhutanese complement would look after the local problems of transportation etc.  Before leaving Darjeeling his Majesty invited me to Thimpu to discuss the details.

I have yet to meet a more gracious host than his Majesty. He was like an eagle looking after you in the paradise. Apart from the hospitality he agreed to pay the entire costs and also import much needed equipment. He sent me his personal Helicopter to pick me up and during the audience that he granted me he agreed to import some special equipment required for the expedition. It came to be known as the Kings Expedition.

Mr. H. C. Sarin the Chairman of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation gave us equipment from the Jayal memorial fund. We were lucky to have Maj. Gen. Jaganathan as commandant IMTRAT.  He took upon himself to make all the arrangements in Bhutan.

As there were no climbers in Bhutan at that time His Majesty’s Government sent six Bhutanese men for training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. I found them to be natural climbers and immediately realized that they would be a great asset to the team.

By now the superstitions of many Bhutanese had got worked up. There were many protests against the launching of our expedition. Some said that it would end in a catastrophe to the team while others maintained that it would bring deluge and destruction to Bhutan. The discussions and the debates went on and we soon received our first jolt. Our Sherpa Sirdar had been working for a building contractor in Darjeeling. While climbing a ladder with a load of bricks on his head he slipped and died instantaneously.  This gave strength to the arguments of the superstitious. Considering it a bad omen some Sherpas backed out. Despite these portending omens our preparations and training went on. On the 4th of April 1970 the team consisting of Maj. Oberoi, Maj. Prem Chand, Capt. Kang, Capt. Dharampal, Arora and Dorji Lhato were seen off. From Darjeeling Lt. Chhachu and Lt. Indra Bahadur of our team joined us.  We reached Thimpu on the 5th. By this time preparations to receive the President of India were afoot.  It was the first visit of the President of India. He was soon to visit this Himalayan Kingdom. The tricolor along with the Bhutanese Dragon flag was fluttering all over. Thimpu seemed to be clothed in a new gay look. The team called on the King and the honorable Ministers and also on India’s Special representative in Bhutan – Sri Das. During the cocktails in honour of the team Sri Das jokingly said, “It would be a good idea if like everywhere else in Bhutan the tricolour and the Bhutanese dragon flag would fly a top Chomalhari before our President lands on the Bhutanese soil.  At that time I laughed at it but in my heart I knew that this was a mission of friendship for our two countries which I must perform. If possible, we had to get to the top of the mountain before 10.30 am on 23rd of April.

We left Thimpu on the 7th April. We went to Dukhe Dzong by vehicles and then had to March 45 kms before reaching the base Camp at the height of 15,000 ft. This was one of the most memorable marches I have ever undertaken.  The lush green forests, splashes of Alpine flowers and the crystal clear rivulets were a real treat. What gave me great confidence and happiness was the knowledge that I was leading the King of Bhutan’s own Expedition. We faced no problem with porters or muleteers. This was perhaps the only expedition which I have led and have not had to face any porter problems. What surprised me most was the excellent communication system arranged for us without the use of the wireless. The messages were passed from village to village by fast runners and the messages reached their destination in quick time. His Majesty’s Govt. had given us a Liaison Officer who proved to be very capable and useful.

On the 13th of April the Caravan was proceeding Eastwards in Simre Gam valley/ Shige Valley. There were clouds all over. In the absence of villages no one knew where a good location for a Base Camp could be found. There were no land marks which could tell us where to halt. It was my sixth sense which made me halt at 1430 hrs. Next morning when the clouds cleared we found to our surprise that we had halted at exactly where our Base camp should have been. The route to the advance Base Camp was so steep that the horses could not tackle it. Then the yaks came to our rescue.

From the Advance Base Camp 16,500 ft to Camp I we followed the rocks and then the glacier snout – the right fang as it is called by Spencer Chapman. The going was good in the beginning. The tongue of the glacier was smooth and unbroken. But we soon ran in to a labyrinth of ice and had great difficulty in finding a route up. Dorji Lhato leading the first recce party entered into a crevasse and came out from its ceiling. From here we had a lovely view of the route right up to the top. The main obstacle was between Camp I and Camp II - a very badly broken ice fall.

By the 20th, we had set up Camp II at approximately 22,000 ft. From here onwards we had to gain summit, ridge on the left and then walk along the crest to the summit. There was still a slim chance to make it to the peak before the 23rd of April – the date of the President’s arrival in Bhutan. Hectic activity, ferrying loads took place in the next few days. Everyone was now motivated enough to win this race. In the short time available with us we were able to stock Camp II sufficiently for the summit party to be able to make its bid.

On the 22nd of April, Dorji Lhato, Lt. Chhachu, Maj. Prem Chand, Sherpa Nawang and Arora occupied Camp II. After spending a comfortable night in two tents they left for the summit. When they were 50 ft below the summit Chhachu was over whelmed by the sentiments of his countrymen. He suddenly felt that he could not go to the top. Respecting HIS sentiments, his rope mates left him fifty feet below the summit, properly anchored to an ice axe. We witnessed all this from camp I. We saw the two parties reaching the summit. The time was 10 am and our goal had been achieve thirty minutes later a special Indian Airlines flight landed at Thimpu and his late Majesty received Mr. V. V. Giri with the news that the Indo Bhutanese had climbed the second highest peak in Bhutan. Together, on top of this mountain flew the Indian Tricolour and the Bhutanese Dragon in peace and friendship. There was jubilation all around the Camp, especially when the parties came down safe and sound. Encouraged by this initial success we sent another party consisting of Capt. Dharampal and Capt. Kang with Sherpa Nima and Gyalbo.  As Gyalbo was not feeling too well, he stayed behind. This party left Camp at 7 a.m. a rather late start, but they made good progress. Till 9 am I had been watching them and they were just short of 23,000 ft. then I got busy in filming Maj. Prem Chand and Maj. Oberoi who skied down to the Advance base Camp. At 9.15 am when I looked up again my heart missed a beat. Even in that cold I began to sweat. “They are not there”, I said too shocked for words. Lhato snatched the binoculars from me. He could only repeat my words “Yes, they are not there.” Before we could confirm this further the clouds descended suddenly and drew a curtain on this ghastly tragedy. Home is a great thing and that is what kept us going for some time. We soon convinced ourselves that they must have been hidden from view behind some ridge, and that when the clouds would lift behind some ridge, and that we would soon see them. But the clouds did not lift and that whole evening Camp II remained obscured to the eager eyes waiting below. The suspense remained and only grew in intensity. Night came and with the absence of wireless communication with Camp II there seemed no way of finding out the outcome of the second attempt on the summit of the Goddess Chomalhari. That was the longest night that I had spent, the longest that I can remember. I must have peeped out from the tent a hundred times waiting for the dawn to break. At the dawn, every one at Camp I came out of his tent and looked up. Everything seemed the same – peace and quiet reigned everywhere.  Then a Sherpa came out of Camp II and began to walk down hill. Lhato walked up to meet him. We could see the Sherpa waving and the tragedy seemed confirmed. Capt D. Pal married only four months before and Capt Kang married for 18 months with a four months old child were perhaps no more. Nor was the Sherpa whose only relation in the world was his old ailing mother. Lhatoo with another Sherpa reached Camp II and brought Gyalbo down. God above would know how this Sherpa must have spent the night above.

Thanks to the Indian Air force the very next day we were able to carry out an aerial search. We found nothing. Lhatoo and the Sherpas waited below. But I decided to stay at camp I and not leave the mountain till a through search had been made.

Down at the Base Camp another drama was being enacted. A Lama had come and said that this tragedy had been foreseen and we were all fools not to read the writing on the wall and he further predicted that if anyone went in search of the bodies he would also meet a similar fate. This completely shattered the morale of the Sherpas and the members alike. I was requested to come down and talk to the Lama before taking any decision regarding the search for the lost men. But I refused to comply with this request, for I knew that if I went down I might be affected by the comfort and the security of the Base Camp and might be tempted to change my mind. I asked for volunteers for the search to come up. I was glad when Major Prem Chand and Sherpa Gyalbo came up to Camp I. We together moved up to Camp II and spent a night there. Next day we ascended to the spot where the accident was suspected to have taken place. Even though the snow had covered all traces it was quite evident what must have happened. On the North Western side – i.e. the Tibetan side – there was a sheer drop of 5 – 6,000 ft.  One of the members on the rope must have slipped on this sheer ice face and while slipping must have carried the others on the rope with him down into the waiting abyss. We waited here for a while pondering over our helplessness to rescue our teammates wherever they had fallen and then returned- dejected and defeated. For the sake of a good tradition and for the satisfaction of the families of the dead a sincere and thorough effort had been made to search for whatever remains of the tragedy that we could have found.

The prediction of the Lamas came true. Goddess Chomalhari had taken its toll. A few days later an Indian Airlines plane crashed in the Bhutanese Terai. Naturally the ascent of Chomalhari was held responsible. Again a week later when the President of India was returning from his visit to Bhutan one of the correspondents was killed by a falling stone. This was also attributed to the wrath of Goddess Chomalhari whose sanctity had been violated. But, it is to the credit of the Late King of Bhutan that he did not lend ear to the superstitious talk of the Lamas and was very sympathetic in this hour of our sorrow.

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