Looking for Nanda Devi: Remembering the iconic 1934 Himalayan expedition

Sunset on the west face of Nanda Devi. (Avijit Chakraborty)
Sunset on the west face of Nanda Devi. (Avijit Chakraborty)


90 years ago, in 1934, mountaineers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman pulled off one of the greatest feats of exploration by finding a way to enter the Nanda Devi Sanctuary

“We were now actually in the inner sanctuary of the Nanda Devi Basin, and at each step I experienced the subtle thrill which anyone of imagination must feel when treading hitherto unexplored country. Each corner held some thrilling secret to be revealed for the trouble of looking." So wrote the English mountaineer and explorer Eric Shipton, in his classic book Nanda Devi, in 1936.

The book is an account of one of the most spectacular expeditions of mountain exploration ever undertaken, when, in 1934, Shipton, along with compatriot Bill Tilman and the Nepalese Sherpas Ang Tharkay, Pasang Bhutia and Kusang, became the first people ever to find a way into the inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi, in the Garhwal Himalaya.

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The twin peaks of Nanda Devi seen from the northern rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.
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The twin peaks of Nanda Devi seen from the northern rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. (Getty Images)

In Nanda’s garden

Ever since the dawn of mountaineering, a greater premium has been placed on the summitting of peaks, in large part driven by a colonialist narrative of conquest. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the Himalaya. But if one were to talk about the less heralded—but probably more important—history of exploration, of finding one’s way in an unmapped world, then one has to tell the story of five men who managed to find their way into a vast, forbidding, mountain fastness, 90 years ago.

Nanda Devi is a unique mountain in many ways. India’s highest peak (that is entirely within the country’s borders) at 7,816m, it has one of the most unmistakable mountain profiles in the world. But apart from its sheer beauty, it is equally important to the people of Garhwal and Kumaon in a religious and cultural paradigm as their patron deity—the “Bliss Giving Goddess".

The West Face of Nanda Devi lit up by the setting sun.
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The West Face of Nanda Devi lit up by the setting sun. (Avijit Chakraborty)

Situated in central Uttarakhand, and bound by the Dhauli Ganga river to the west and the Gori Ganga to the east, the twin peaks of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East dominate an enclosed sanctuary of glaciers, glacial streams and alpine meadows some 380 sq. km in area. This sanctuary is closed in by a high circular ring of ice peaks and ridges that contains some 17 peaks that are on average about 21,000ft high. This gives rise to an outer sanctuary, that is ringed around by a second “curtain" ridge of sharp pinnacles falling straight down into the gorge of the Rishi Ganga river.

This river arises from five glaciers within the sanctuary, and the sheer gorge that it carves out of the inner rim as it flows west, forms the only ingress. Mountaineers had been trying to puzzle a way into the sanctuary since the 1880s, and till 1934, even the Bhotia people of the region had not found a way in.

A new approach

In the wake of the 1933 Everest expedition, where he had been disillusioned by the siege-style mountaineering favoured by the Mount Everest Committee, Shipton was looking for a mountaineering challenge that would vindicate his deep belief that a small, mobile group of climbers, living off the land and on a shoestring budget, could achieve more than dozens of climbers supplied by hundreds of porters.

The leader of the Everest expedition, Hugh Ruttledge, suggested Shipton try and find a way to crack the Nanda Devi puzzle, one that had eluded famous mountaineers like W.W. Graham (1883), T.G. Longstaff (1905 and 1907) Ruttledge himself in 1926, 1927 and 1932. Defeated by the Rishi Ganga gorge, Ruttledge wrote in The Times in 1932, “Nanda Devi imposes on her votaries an admission test as yet beyond their skill and endurance," labelling the sanctuary as more inaccessible than the North Pole.

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Members of the 1933 Everest Expedition, including Eric Shipton (extreme right) Hugh Ruttledge (second from left).
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Members of the 1933 Everest Expedition, including Eric Shipton (extreme right) Hugh Ruttledge (second from left). (Getty Images)

This was, for the hardbitten explorer in Shipton, a challenge he couldn’t refuse, and he drafted in his taciturn friend Tilman, with whom he had climbed in Kenya during their time as planters. Through his contact with the famed recruiter of Sherpa porters for Everest expeditions, Karma Paul of Darjeeling, Shipton enlisted the services of the greatest Sherpa climber of the time, Ang Tharkay, along with two experienced understudies, Pasang and Kusang.

The five of them, along with their supplies, took the Bombay Mail from Calcutta’s Howrah station to Bareilly, and then a branch line to Kathgodam. From there, a lorry ride to Ranikhet, and after stocking up on food supplies at the local market, another lorry brought them to Baijnath. Days of pleasant trekking through the foothills brought them to the Kuari Pass, which they crossed to descend to Joshimath on the Alaknanda river on 20 May. Following another round of shopping, they forked up the valley of the Dhauli Ganga, Alaknanda’s main tributary, and thus to the Bhotia village of Reni. Finally, their true quest would begin.

Dharansi, the Malathuni Pass and the Rishi Ganga gorge, with Nanda Devi to the left.
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Dharansi, the Malathuni Pass and the Rishi Ganga gorge, with Nanda Devi to the left. (Avijit Chakraborty)

The party would climb up the outer curtain ridge to the high alp of Lata Kharak, and tackle high passes in an attempt to find a way to the Rishi Ganga. The lower gorge of the Rishi Ganga is nigh on impassable, so the way to outflank it and reach the upper Rishi gorge is to cross the high and tricky Dharansi Pass to the hanging valley of Dharansi, and then over the Malathuni Pass down to the alp of Dibrugheta, and finally to the Rishi Ganga.

After crossing the Rishi Ganga, which is as far as previous expeditions had come, the five explorers tried to find different routes through. Criss-crossing the raging torrent and attempting in vain to negotiate the near vertical rocks of the towering box canyon, it was Tilman and Angtharkay that finally found a way: A series of thin rock faults, overhanging the chasm of the gorge, that almost miraculously ran in an unbroken line across the towering slabs, and, finally, improbably, into the sanctuary. Later climbers would call this the “stairway to heaven". It had taken them eight arduous days of trial and error since they had set out from Joshimath.

Images from the 1934 Nanda Devi Expedition.
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Images from the 1934 Nanda Devi Expedition. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Footloose and fancy free

Having solved the greatest puzzle of Himalayan mountaineering at the time, the five were struck by the wild beauty of the inner sanctuary, a veritable theatre of the gods. As always, it is difficult to top Shipton’s soulful description. Having finally overcome the Rishi gorge, he writes, “It was glorious country, gentle moorlands grazed by herds of bharal and in places gay with Alpine flowers, small lakes that reflected the surrounding mountains, deep lateral valleys holding glaciers enclosed by a hundred magnificent peaks of clean strong granite or glistening ice and snow. Out of the centre of the basin rose the wonderful spectacle of Nanda Devi, 13,000 ft above its base, peerless among mountains, always changing and ever lovely."

The five explorers would go on to spend nearly a month in the sanctuary, till the monsoon broke with violent downpours on 28 June, surveying and mapping the northern side of the sanctuary, climbing peaks and finding new passes. Beating a retreat through the now swollen, and even more fearsome Rishi Ganga, they would return after the monsoon, on 8 September. Over the intervening months, they would attempt a crossing of the Badrinath-Kedarnath-Gangotri watersheds, mapping more glaciers, valleys and traversable routes, having grand adventures on high peaks and in bear-filled bamboo forests.

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Eric Shipton, Bill Tilman and their Dotial porters navigating the Rishi Ganga gorge.
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Eric Shipton, Bill Tilman and their Dotial porters navigating the Rishi Ganga gorge. (Wikimedia Commons)

They would spend 10 days in September surveying the southern reaches of the sanctuary, while also trying to figure out a likely route by which the main Nanda Devi peak may be climbed. These were days suffused with a warm glow of satisfaction for the team, and also sadness that they would soon have to leave Nanda’s abode, before winter set in.

Lying in the open at a high camp on the peak of Maiktoli, Tilman would muse, “A more pleasant site…would be hard to find, for it was situated in a meadow of short grass…with a clear stream running past the tents…What a ‘bedroom’ it was! As dawn banished sleep, the opening eyes rested full upon the majestic outline of the ‘Blessed Goddess’ and watched the rosy light steal gently down her east-turned face."

The party’s exit from the sanctuary too was a remarkable piece of mountaineering, as they negotiated the dangerous, avalanche prone snow fields and hanging glaciers of the Sunderdhunga Col on the southern rim of the sanctuary to descend directly down to the Pindar Valley.

The legacy of 1934

Apart from the grand adventure that the expedition was, 90 years later, what is also striking is just how divergent from the prevailing attitudes to climbing Shipton and Tilman’s sentiments were. In a world where ascending the world’s highest peaks sparked a prestige race between the major western powers, these two misfits, and their Sherpa friends who they treated as their equals, had spent six months wandering among the mountains, accomplishing stupendous feats, with just their joy as their fuel.

It’s a spirit of mountaineering that wouldn’t be seen again till the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-establishment climbers like Doug Scott, Rheinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka would take Shipton’s dictum of alpine-style climbing to heart and shatter climbing records. Sadly, these days, the tide of mountaineering has turned again towards commercial and egotistical aims, as rich clients pay climbing Sherpas to take them to the world’s highest summits, becoming social media celebrities in the process.

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In 1936, when Tilman would climb Nanda Devi, it became the highest peak ever climbed, a record it would hold till 1950. Ang Tharkay would go on to win even greater renown as a climber, while Shipton would go on to explore other “blanks on the map"—as he put it—find the current route up Everest from the Nepal side, and mentor a younger generation of climbers like Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Tilman kept exploring with Shipton till the outbreak of the Second World War, and after spending the 1950s climbing in the Nepal Himalaya, would take up deep sea sailing in his old age, exploring the Atlantic on small pilot cutters. He was lost to sea in 1977 while sailing to South America.

As for Nanda, she remains the bliss-giving goddess of Uttarakhand, the queen of myths, the ruler of the fates of the Bhotia people. Over the decades, both of Nanda’s twin peaks have been climbed and re-climbed by different routes, while the mountain has shrugged off such human insolence as an attempt by the CIA and Indian intelligence to place a nuclear device on her summit. All the while, Nanda Devi has continued to captivate generations of mountain lovers with her regal, remote beauty.

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