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Home » Features » An interview with Suman Dubey about his memories of the 1961 Indian expedition to Nanda Devi

An interview with Suman Dubey about his memories of the 1961 Indian expedition to Nanda Devi

A view of Nanda Devi (7816m) from snow camp on Devistan I (6678m) at about 6100 meters. [Photo] Suman Dubey collection

A view of Nanda Devi (7816m) from a snow camp on Devistan I (6678m) at about 6100 meters. [Photo] Suman Dubey collection

Suman Dubey became a member of the 1961 Indian expedition to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in India’s Garhwal Himalaya when he was an undergraduate student in Delhi. (Other members of the expedition team, as listed in the 1962 American Alpine Journal, were “Gurdial Singh and Hari Dang of the Doon School, Major John D. Dias, Captain K. N. Thadani and Lieutenant (Dr.) N. Sharma of the Indian Army, and three Sherpas, Kalden, Nima and Lhakpa, from the Sherpa Climbers’ Association, Darjeeling.”) Though the team retreated from Nanda Devi (7816m), several members summited Devistan I (6678m), a first ascent, and Maiktoli (6803m), a second ascent, and some reached the top of Trisul (7120m) as well.

In 1964, another Indian team, led by Narinder Kumar, became the first Indian expedition to succeed on Nanda Devi, with Nawang Gombu and Dawa Norbu Sherpa arriving at the top of this sacred peak (first summited by British climbers Bill Tilman and Noel Odell as part of an Anglo-American expedition in 1936).

The mountain Nanda Devi is significant to local residents as the abode of the Hindu Goddess Nanda. It had long been a difficult one for mountaineers to approach because of the high peaks that surround the Sanctuary and the challenges of trekking through the narrow Rishi Gorge (currently this area is part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and the peak is closed to climbing).

In this interview, Dubey recalls the challenges he and his teammates faced in 1961 and the impact the trip had on the rest of his life.

The 1961 expedition team with Mrigthuni (6855m) in the background. [Photo] Suman Dubey collection

The 1961 expedition team with Mrigthuni (6855m) in the background. [Photo] Suman Dubey collection

How did you first become interested in mountaineering?

At the age of 11, I was enrolled in the Doon School in Dehradun, a boarding school for boys established in 1935. From its inception, mountaineering and trekking had been an integral part of school life, thanks to English teachers like R. L. “Holdie” Holdsworth, who made the first ascent of Kamet (7756m) in 1931 with Frank Smythe, E. E. Shipton and Lewa and Nima Dorji. Boys were encouraged to explore the hills around Dehradun during midterm breaks, and some went on to bigger and higher mountains.

My mother’s younger brother had been at Doon School a decade before me and he would tell me stories of exploration and adventure, firing my imagination long before I got there myself. He had given me a copy of Eric Shipton’s book on the first expedition through the Rishi Ganga gorge to the base of Nanda Devi. Armed with all this, I was 11 when I climbed my first big hill, Nag Tibba (3022m), just under 10,000 feet high, on my first four-day midterm excursion. That progressed to further adventures during subsequent midterm breaks, and to mountain climbing when I was in my late teens.

What caused you to want to join a Nanda Devi attempt in 1961?

Among our schoolmasters was Gurdial Singh, “Guru” to us boys, who taught us geography and swimming–in both of which I was reasonably proficient. He was one of India’s first leading mountaineers, and had already in the 1950s climbed Trisul, Mrigthuni (6855m) and a number of other mountains around the Nanda Devi basin. In 1960, he had organized an expedition to Devistan on the southern rim of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. The 1961 expedition was also his brainchild and, knowing my interest in climbing, he invited me to join the expedition despite my lack of experience.

What were your first impressions of the mountain Nanda Devi?

It’s one of the most incredible mountains in the world–protected by the ramparts of the Rishi Ganga gorge. It’s a pretty unique geography, and the Shipton-Tilman exploration through the Rishi Ganga was as recent as 1934–what later became a ten-day trek on dramatic cliffs to reach the pastures at the foot of this mountain rising, like a cathedral, 10,000 feet straight up. The whole idea of a mountain surrounded by natural defenses, as Nanda Devi is, requiring an expedition in itself to reach the base, is inspiring and of course challenging. But beyond that it is overwhelming in its unearthly beauty.

From your encounters with local residents on the way to the climb, what was your impression of how the Goddess Nanda was then viewed in the Garhwal?

The Goddess Nanda is venerated widely in the Garhwal and Kumaun regions and celebrated in numerous ways, including the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra, or pilgrimage, every 12 years. Several nearby peaks are named after Nanda, all with legends and lore assigned to them: Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Khat, Nanda Kot and Nanda Bhanar. She is a living presence in the lives of the hill people. There is an important temple to her in Lata village, the jumping-off point for the Rishi Ganga gorge.

How did the local stories about the Goddess Nanda Devi compare with your own religious beliefs about mountains? Did you feel a similar sense of presence there?

I am not a religious person, but the high mountains exude an unfathomable power and mystery beyond their beauty and physical grandeur. One cannot but be awed by their aura–and to connect with this aura is to be blessed.

Why do you think the 1961 attempt didn’t succeed in getting climbers to the summit?

In the end, I think we were probably not equipped to tackle a high mountain that would need several camps to climb, especially with the monsoon having arrived early, making conditions unpropitious for climbing at high altitude–the mountain is just a shade under 8000 meters.

In 1954, seven years after Indian Independence, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute opened in Darjeeling. Then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in a speech: “The spirit and lure of the Himalaya is spreading now all over India among our young people, and that is a sign and a symbol of the new life and the new spirit that is coursing through India’s veins”? Were you inspired at all by these kinds of ideas in 1961?

I was too young to be impressed by the specifics of what Nehru said, but there was a coincidental connection–the first principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was Major Narendra (“Nandu”) Dhar Jayal, who had also been at Doon School. He was, along with Gurdial Singh, a pioneer in Indian mountaineering. Long before Tenzing Norgay, the first chief instructor, climbed to fame with his ascent of Chomolungma (Everest) with Edmund Hillary, he had climbed with Doon School teachers. So these individuals and their accomplishments were part of the general lore of our school and its outdoor adventure activities.

Looking back on the 1961 expedition today, what stands out most vividly in your mind? What role did the experience play in your own climbing career and in your own relationship with the mountains?

We were a group of six climbers, three Sherpas and a dozen inhabitants from nearby villages, several of whom had been with Gurdial on many previous expeditions. We spent almost 10 weeks in some of the most spectacular country I have ever seen, independent of outside support, exploring valleys, glaciers and summits that had seen few visitors, if any. It was a period of unadulterated fun, pure adventure and warm camaraderie that is hard to replicate. For me it was the perfect introduction to the high mountains, to exploration and to the challenges of mountain climbing.

This expedition also catapulted me into an expedition to Chomolungma [Everest]: Major John Dias of the Indian Army was one of us on Nanda Devi, and he was chosen to lead the second Indian expedition to Chomolungma in 1962. He invited me to join, and I climbed with him and Gurdial in support of our summit attempt (which failed by 400 feet) to the South Col, spending three nights there. This then led to other Himalayan expeditions and climbs in the European Alps before my marriage and profession intervened to put an end to serious mountaineering–but not to high-altitude trekking and eventually making a second home in the Kumaun hills.

[For more on the history of Nanda Devi, see Pete Takeda’s two-part series: Part I was published in Alpinist 62, with the early history through 1939, and essays by Paula Wright, Julia Pulwicki and Stewart Weaver; Part II appears in Alpinist 63, with accounts from 1940 to today, and contributions from Harish Kapadia, Julie-Ann Clyma, Martin Moran and Meera Baindur–out on newsstands now.–Ed.]