It was 1909, and Tom George Longstaff, an English doctor and mountaineer, was trudging through the Nubra Valley, all the way up to the Siachen glacier. Until then, the upper stretches of the valley had hardly ever been visited by European explorers, barring a few such as Henry Strachey in 1848. The numerous fjords crisscrossing the region acted as a deterrent, and attempts to traverse the length and breadth of Siachen had been unsuccessful.

“...till Longstaff’s visit, the Siachen was shown on maps with very modest dimensions, since it appears to anyone approaching from the head of the Nubra to be cut short by a large rocky wall," writes Italian explorer Prof. Giotto Dainelli in My Expeditions In The Eastern Karakoram, 1930. This article was first published in The Himalayan Journal in 1932 and later reproduced in the 2018 book Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club, edited by mountaineer-author Harish Kapadia and published by Roli Books.

Dainelli goes on to talk about the significance of the sketch map drawn by Longstaff, which shed light on the immense size of the Siachen for the first time. In the early 1900s, several explorers began to chart out routes to Siachen based on Longstaff’s maps. Some added their own stories to the sketch map.

For instance, in 1930, when Dainelli managed to reach Siachen, he realized that the swollen waters of the Nubra river had shut him off from the world. Not wishing to return by the tongue of the glacier, the route taken by Longstaff, he decided to make the crossing to Rimo, 20km north-east of the snout of the Siachen glacier. This was uncharted territory and persistent fog and tempestuous winds made the crossing difficult. But the 10th day brought him to the pass, at about 20,100ft, and he managed to descend to Leh. “To the pass between Siachen and Rimo, reached and crossed for the first time by my expedition, and nameless until now, I have given the name Col Italia," he writes.

Today, several of these historical accounts and maps of the Himalayas form the basis for expeditions, with mountaineers retracing these old routes. Sketch maps, besides having a certain appeal because they are hand-drawn, also offer valuable details. “(These) were drawn to scale, containing many details, including contours of a mountain, tracing the trail followed, place of a camp and marking (a) major route of the trek or expeditions," writes Kapadia in his introduction to Legendary Maps. Mountaineers such as Mandip Singh Soin concur, adding that digital maps are not in the same league as the old ones, for the latter are peppered with stories and anecdotes.

A section of the map used by the Swiss Garhwal Expedition of 1947
A section of the map used by the Swiss Garhwal Expedition of 1947

“Some of these have been reproduced by companies from across the world—they have a scale of 1:200,000 (the average scale is 1:24,000). These are basic, but enough for you to know where the mountains and valleys are," says Soin, founder of Delhi-based Ibex Expeditions. There are more detailed maps, such as the 1-inch ones, but they are kept under wraps by security forces. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) also keeps some of them for reference.

The other category is of the quarter-inch maps, which have been reprinted by the US army—some of these have been digitized and put online by the University of Texas—and the Swiss Foundation. These are popular with most explorers, who refer to them while planning their routes every summer. Soin, for instance, referred to a Swiss Foundation reprint from the 1950s to plan a route through the Panchachuli mountains in Kumaon. If one was to continue, this route would pass through the Milam glacier to reach the base camps of Nanda Devi East.

Bhimtal-based mountain guide and alpinist Karn Kowshik too is referring to the US army maps and the ones mentioned in Legendary Maps to plan an expedition around the peaks of Hunder and Rongdo valleys in Nubra. “I wouldn’t have discovered the region if not for the maps," he says. “These help you when you don’t have a location in mind and just want to set out on an exploratory trip."

Lake on Rimo Glacier in 1935 by Dr P.H.C. Visser
Lake on Rimo Glacier in 1935 by Dr P.H.C. Visser

In fact, it is these old cartographies that have come to the aid of adventurers such as Ashutosh Mishra, who prefer not to tread the paths taken by mountaineers in recent times. Since 2007, he has been poring over old British army maps on Pahar.in (a non-profit that raises awareness about Himalayan ecology) or the ones on the University of Texas website.

One such historical account also took him to Nelong Valley, a cold desert-like region located close to the Indo-China border, merely 9km short of Gangotri. This forbidden valley of sorts was opened up to tourists only in 2015, after being inaccessible for 53 years, post the 1962 war with China. Mishra also made a film on this adventure, The Ganga’s First Born, which won the best mountain exploration film award at the IMF’S first Mountain Film Festival in 2017. He is now planning to explore two more routes through the valley, based on maps from 1880 prepared by geologist C.L. Griesbach.

Mountaineering institutions are also using the old maps to come up with ways of helping the locals. Sunil Kainthola of the Nanda Devi Institute of Adventure Sports and Outdoor Education has been dismayed by the rise in visitor numbers to the Nanda Devi National Park, owing to the mindless overbooking of tours by travel aggregators in cities such as Bengaluru and Delhi. “But this is not resulting in any jobs for the locals," he says.

So the institute, under the aegis of Mountain Shepherds, a grass-roots eco-tourism initiative, has come up with an interpretative trek which traces the footsteps of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman. The two explorers had succeeded in finding a climbing route to the sanctuary in the 1930s through the Rishi Ganga gorge, making Nanda Devi the highest mountain ever to have been climbed at the time.

What takes modern-day mountaineers by surprise is just how accurate the sketch maps continue to be. Retracing these routes offers some interesting revelations. In the route planned by Soin, for instance, one can see the effects of migration. “Some of the villages marked on the map are pretty deserted now. People have migrated in search of jobs," he says, “Also, once in a while, you will find that passes marked on the map may no longer be of the same height or in the same spot."

However, there are certain guidelines to be kept in mind while basing routes on these old maps. One of these being the magnetic declination, or the gradual drift of the North Pole caused by the dynamic nature of the earth’s internal structure. In addition, many of these old maps need to be overlaid with contemporary 3D representations from Google Earth or Bing.

Mishra, for one, starts the process by referring to Survey of India accounts from the late 19th century, as well as those by veterans such as Harish Kapadia. “Their stories and maps inform you about the key features. One then overlays these on Google Earth in order to align them," he says. This reveals details about the location of rifts, chasms and gradients and is followed by conversations with fellow mountaineers and locals. The details are then transferred on to the GPS.

But there remains something utterly charming about the maps. As Kapadia puts it in the book: “One sketch map, like a picture, is worth a thousand words."

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