After one of the most difficult missions ever undertaken in the Himalayas, Indian mountaineers have now finally been able to reach a team of climbers on Mt Nanda Devi who went missing last month. As of writing, they have recovered the bodies of almost all of the eight climbers, four of them British, who were caught in an avalanche on its slopes, bringing to a close another tragic chapter in the mountain’s history.
To most people, Nanda Devi is just another peak in the Himalayas and might as well be anonymous. But once it was a name to conjure with. At 25,640 feet, it was the highest mountain in the British Empire, and the Alpine Club, the first mountaineering society, were determined to make a first ascent. Yet no one could even get to its base.
Its twin summits are ringed by a sheer curtain-wall of inaccessible peaks. Before you even begin the climb, you have to penetrate these very considerable outer defences to reach the isolated valley, evocatively christened ‘the Nanda Devi Sanctuary’, which surrounds the mountain.
The first Victorian explorers who saw it were bewitched by this mountain castle surrounded by moats and outlying barricades – it seemed almost impossible to reach both the valley and the peak. For almost a century the Alpine Club puzzled over the conundrum of how to reach the base of the mountain. The best of three generations of climbers all made the attempt and failed. It became an object of obsession to rival Everest.
By 1932, there had been no fewer than eight attempts to get inside the Sanctuary. Each expedition had demanded a long trek over the foothills and a complicated circumnavigation of the enormous Nanda Devi massif. Hugh Ruttledge who led the last three of these teams, described for the Times the:
‘70-mile barrier ring, on which stand twelve measured peaks over 21,000 feet high. The Rishi Ganges gorge, rising at the foot of Nanda Devi, and draining an area of some 250 square miles of snow and ice, has carved for itself what must be one of the terrific gorges in the world.’
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary, said Ruttledge, ‘was more inaccessible than the North Pole’, which had by that time long been reached.
It was left to two maverick unknowns, Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman, to pull off one of the most audacious of mountaineering coups. When they went to Nanda Devi in 1934, the charismatic Shipton was just 26, Tilman some ten years older.
Going against custom, Shipton and Tilman avoided the usual military-style expedition, with endless porters and a string of base-camps, considered to be the only way to ‘conquer’ such peaks. Instead the two set off alone, with just a shirt each, intending to live off the land. They relied on the skills and instincts of a few hand-picked Sherpas and shared all they had with them. Despite its terrors, they refused to be beaten by the gorge and finally found an arduous route up to the Sanctuary which is still followed today.
However, the time needed to penetrate the Nanda Devi Sanctuary – one reason it has taken so long now to recover the bodies – makes it difficult to judge when a suitable weather window between winter and monsoon may present itself. Worse, it also means it can take longer to get out when the weather unexpectedly closes down, as seems to have occurred with this recent expedition. When I went there, we had to do a sudden and forced march back down the gorge to get out before a sudden onrush of winter.
Faced with these dangers, why do people still choose to risk climbing this dangerous peak, which has five times the death rate of Everest? Because while Everest has become logjammed with the corpses and detritus of previous expeditions, the appeal of Nanda Devi is that it remains the epitome of the inviolate mountain, fuelled by literary imagination. Even after all these years, the original account left by Eric Shipton of the Sanctuary is an enticing one: he spoke of blue sheep grazing in the high pastures, unafraid of man, of snow leopards and of a natural wildlife reserve in a cirque of beautiful mountains. It is a prelapsarian vision – and Shipton remains a mountaineering hero for his buccaneering and freewheeling approach to the climb. In 1933 James Hilton drew on the stories of how difficult it was to get to Nanda Devi for his creation of a hidden ‘Shangri-La’ in the Himalayas in Lost Horizon – and the idea of a remote, unspoilt sanctuary known only to the odd Buddhist lama remains iconic.
The often tragic history of those who have tried to reach it shows what happens when the dream of finding a sanctuary, one of mankind’s oldest and most compulsive quests, collides with solid rock.
Perhaps the saddest incident of all was when the American mountaineer Willi Unsoeld, who had named his daughter Nanda Devi in honour of the mountain, took her there in 1976. She died just below its summit from altitude-related complications, and as it was impossible to bring her body down, he had, in his words, ‘to commit her shrouded body to the deep’ over the precipice of the North-East Face.
Its position on the border with Tibet has also made it militarily sensitive. The CIA once mounted some abortive spying expeditions there. In 1982, the Indian Government decided to restrict civilian access to the whole Sanctuary and the peak. Such relative inaccessibility has only increased its appeal; in a world where seemingly everywhere is open to the traveller, Nanda Devi has been closed.
I was lucky enough to go to the Sanctuary in 2000 when it was opened for a special millennium expedition and wrote a book about it. But the Sanctuary is often restricted for climbers and trekkers and the Indian Government shows no desire to make it more open. This recent tragic accident will only encourage them to keep it that way.
Personally I am only too happy if there remains at least one sanctuary in the Himalayas that few can reach. But then I’ve been there.
Hugh Thomson is the author of Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary