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Northwards Soar The Peaks

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By Ganesh Saili

Visitors to our hill station will find no red in Lal Tibba; no cannon in Tope Tibba; no gun in Gunhill and no mules in Khachar-khana. Potentially disappointing, were it not for the magnificent view from Lal Tibba where barely fifty aerial miles away lie the Garhwal-Kumaon Himalaya. They take your breath away as one peak after another soars into the sky. Looking northward, fourteen twentythousanders in a row, from Banderpoonch on the left, to Nanda Devi on the right, demand your admiration.

Dare one ask for more?

For Nanda Devi sits in the center of a seventy-mile barrierring with twelve peaks measured at over 21,000 feet. There is no depression lower than 17,000 feet, except to the west where the river Rishi Ganga drains an area of 250 square miles of ice and snow. It carves for itself one of the most terrifying gorges in the world. Two internal ridges, converging upon the river from the north and south, form, as it were, the curtains of an inner sanctuary, within which Nanda Devi soars to 25,643 feet.

Nine attempts had been made since 1883 to penetrate the veil of Nanda Devi. In 1934, the Shipton-Tilman team tried several times to open a route to the mountain till finally in August 1936, they broke through the rim of the Rishi Ganga gorge to arrive in the sanctuary. Tilman and Odell were the first to reach the peak. As he came down the mountain, Tilman felt as if he had committed sacrilege and said: ‘The feeling which predominated over all was one of remorse at the fall of a giant.’

‘Look what I found!’ exclaimed Pramod Kapoor, the redoubtable publisher of my first book. Before moving to his home near Lal Tibba, on a visit to London, he chanced upon a letter in the National Archives, a stone’s throw away from the Kew. Written to the Royal Geographic Society by a Sqn. Leader A. H. Young, on August 23, 1942, it details a flight that Pilot Officer Waymouth, Royal Air Force of the No. 60 Squadron, stationed at Ambala, had flown in a Bristol ‘Blenheim I’ along with a Sergeant Pilot as his photographer-observer.

‘On reaching a high altitude, Waymouth saw the jagged teeth of the Himalayas shining in the brilliant sunshine. Fascinated by the ranges, he flew towards them, and selecting the highest, Nanda Devi he flew towards it climbing steadily at the same time. Neither the pilot nor the observer wore anything more than their uniforms and ordinary flying overalls of linen; nor were they equipped with integrated oxygen masks. Despite this they reached the maximum altitude of around 23,000 feet.

At this altitude, though the pilot was fairly comfortable, the observer was exhibiting the drunken effects characteristic of a lack of oxygen (hypoxia), only managing to spasmodically press the button of the electrically operated exposure mechanism of the camera at irregular intervals.

‘Though the pilot and observer suffered severely from the cold, they returned to Ambala safely, none the worse for their trip.

‘Thus far, the pilot had never before taken more than a passing interest in mountains and, when I spoke of the inaccessible nature of Nanda Devi, he was considerably shaken to realize the magnitude of the risk he had taken in going there.

‘I consider it one of the most dangerous mountains over which to fly – for engine failure or human collapse can only mean a crash landing somewhere in the Inner Sanctuary, out of which it would be hardly possible to escape without proper food or equipment!’

Imagine their plight if the engine had stalled or the pilot had lost consciousness.

Dear Reader, next time when you find yourself in Mussoorie, facing those snow-capped mountains, spare a moment to remember the incredible feat of those aviators from Ambala. Without fancy gear and wearing just their workaday linen uniforms in an airplane not pressurized for the giddy heights they went where no man had gone before. The miracle is that they returned to the airbase alive and well, and lived to tell the tale.

The twain had just flown over India’s highest mountain.

(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.)