Throne of the Thunder God

(by John Morrison, from Coast and Mountain Walkers Journal, February 1998)
An unsuccessful attempt on Indrasan in India in 1958.

(John Morrison was an original member of the IMC and was very active in the early days. His name is to be found on many first ascents including Central Buttress at Dalkey, Spéirbhean and Garden of Eden at Glendalough, and Seventh Heaven on Ben Corr. He was a physicist and, like many other early members, had to emigrate to find work, first in Britain and then in Canada. He moved around the world and finally settled permanently in Australia. He has always been a great traveller and must by this time have circled the globe several times. He never lost touch and often made short visits to Ireland, including one for the 50th Anniversary Dinner – JL)

It was February 1958. No-one in their senses went to Europe in February so I had a six-berth cabin all to myself when I boarded the R.M.S. "Orsova", flagship of the Orient Line, in Sydney bound for Ceylon and points north. For £50 sterling it wasn’t bad.

After two weeks or so we arrived at Colombo. Basil Poff, a twenty-year-old "Alpine guide" from New Zealand met me, having arrived a week earlier by ship (only the rich flew in those days). We had met up at Mount Cook.

Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was fantastic: the colour, the tropical jungle, the elephants, etc. We visited the usual sights – Kandy, Mount Lavinia, Anuradhapura, then took the ferry to the Indian mainland and on to Madras by train. There Basil picked up some stomach ailment which was to plague him for months.

A long train journey to Calcutta followed; the less said about that the better. After a few days in Calcutta we made a long overnight train journey to Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills, arriving finally by the famous zig-zag railway. Next morning we got a good view of the snow-covered Himalaya, including Kanchenjunga (8,585m), the third highest mountain in the world. Just like Austria, I thought.

Still going north, we took a bus to Kalimpong, full of Tibetan refugees. Here we obtained a visa to visit Sikkim, for one day only, with dire warnings against going anywhere near the Chinese border. A jeep ride the next day through beautiful country took us to Gangtok, capital of Sikkim.

A day or two later, shouldering our rucksacks, we got a lift up to a 4,000m ridge, Phalut, south of Kanchenjunga, for some trekking at last (or so we thought). The ridge just happened to be the Nepal border. We looked at each other – "We might as well give it a go" said Basil. We went down westwards into Nepal. Our guide was a Bartholomew’s map of the Indian sub-continent, scale 1 in 4 million. About the only place marked on it nearby was Dhankuta, so we headed in that direction. We walked down farming valleys and along rivers, living off whatever we could buy from the locals; eggs one day, bananas or raw sugar the next. We had only Indian money, but it didn’t seem to matter.

It took us sixteen days to find Dhankuta. We were ravenous. There was a good market and we had a memorable stew that night back at our tent just outside the village. Next day we got a lift back to the Indian border on a British Army truck, as they recruited Gurkhas locally.

At Patna on the main Indian trunk line we met Rod Stephenson, an English ex-Gurkha officer who now lived in Melbourne. We decided to all go up to Kathmandu, travelling on the back of a lorry. A memorable journey.

Kathmandu did not excite me; tourism and trekking hardly existed then, just five years after the first ascent of Everest. After a day or two we returned to India. There we parted, Rod for points east and Basil and I for Delhi.

From Delhi we wanted to head for the Garwhal and (shades of Shipton and Tilman) Nanda Devi. Unfortunately the Indian Army thought otherwise. It was "Inner Line", i.e. Tibet border country, and access was difficult for foreigners to obtain. Over tea at the Defence Ministry, a general suggested we go instead to Manali in the Kulu Valley of the northern Punjab, which was two to three days travel by train and bus north of Delhi. We took his advice. While in Delhi we met Ron Mowll, another wandering Englishman whom I had met briefly in Canada, and he joined us. We hired ice-axes there (as far as I remember).

The Kulu Valley turned out to be a beautiful place with many apple orchards. Manali was at about 2,000m altitude. We checked in at Banon’s delightful guesthouse, US$4 a day with all meals if we slept outside in marquees. That suited us fine. Here we met another Englishman, Robert Pettigrew of Nottingham, on his way back to England from Malaysia where he had been an Outward Bound instructor. (He later became president of the Alpine Club.) He was awaiting his friend Mike Thompson, an army officer, to arrive from Malaysia on a month’s leave.

"We should have a crack at Indrasan", Bob suggested. It was thought to be the highest peak around at rather over 6,200m and still unclimbed. It was still only March, however, with far too much snow higher up, so we had plenty of time, apart possibly from Mike Thompson. We took off for four days to climb an obscure 4,500m peak above a pass called the Hamta La. Then Mike arrived, which made us five.

We thought we should first visit Lahul, the region to the north. We headed over the Rohtang La, a 4,000m or so pass. It was still covered in snow and we were glad to get down the far side to the Chandra valley. In contrast to Kulu, however, it turned out to be barren and still almost deserted at this time of year. It was, however, lined with the most magnificent 5-6,000m peaks, all still snow-bound.

The next day or two brought us to the little village of Kyelang where we got rooms for the night with the local school-teacher, about the only person speaking English. He said that we could go no further without a permit and that local police would stop us at their check-point. We would have to return.

Coming back over the Rohtang we had another snowstorm, but in a way we were glad to be back in the green lushness of the Kulu valley. We had covered about 160 km in six days.

Mike Thompson had only about three weeks’ leave left so we decided now to start off to Indrasan, even though it was only April.

We bought as much food as we might need, making a total of just over 100 kg or enough for five men for about twenty days and a five-gallon jerrycan full of kerosene for our Primus stove. Through John Banon (the guesthouse owner) we hired seven local porters for three days and 3 rupees a day to carry our gear up to a cave "base camp" at just under 4,000m. Beyond that was snow. We could not afford to outfit the porters for snow, so we would have to carry for ourselves from there on.

We reached the cave after two days and paid off the porters. The next day we started ferrying up the loads to a further camp in the middle of the glacier, using willow sticks to mark our route between crevasses.

This took two days. That night a snowstorm came up and lasted thirty-six hours. By that time the tent Basil and I were in (held up only by an ice-axe and a camera tripod) had collapsed and was covered in snow. (It was actually warmer that way.) I shall never forget the roar of the wind – gusts coming up the glacier like an express train and shaking our tents as if to destroy us; not to mention the periodic rock and snow avalanches down the huge cliffs on either side of the mile-wide glacier.

Was I scared? Too right I was. It was a sobering introduction to Himalayan mountaineering.

After we had dug ourselves out, another two days or so brought us to a 5,400m pass. Here, for the first time, we got a look at the summit of Indrasan, ringed by some of the most fantastic mountain scenery, including one magnificent peak we identified as Ali Ratna Tibba, about twice the size of, and 2,000m higher than, the Swiss Matterhorn.

It was out "moment of truth". The route to the summit was complex and heavily crevassed and at least another three days’ march, we reckoned. We had no crampons. We camped just over the pass.

The next day Mike Thompson had to go back as his leave was almost up and Basil, who was almost chronically ill, went with him for safety. The remaining three of us, Bob, Ron and I, stayed in camp that day. Ron’s face was a mess from sunburn and I had almost lost my voice, probably due to the cold air. We had plenty of food, but our Primus stove refused to work at this altitude, try as we might, so we could not melt snow for cooking.

Another snowstorm started during the night. In the morning we decided to pack up and beat a retreat. Indrasan would have to wait for another year; we were playing outside our league. Leaving the food dump behind us, we picked out way back up the pass and started to descend the far side.

The mountain, however, was not yet finished with us. As we started to go down we set off a huge wind-slab avalanche which almost took us with it. Shaken as we were, Bob decided we could wait another day for the snow to settle. We returned to our campsite. That afternoon the weather cleared and the night was still. The next day at 4.50 a.m. I remember the sun’s rays first hit our tent and – bingo! – I knew we had a fine morning. With no stove, we just had a drink of rum and lemon juice, packed up and started off again.

This time the snow-slope held and we were down. It was a breeze. We took all day to go down the valley, plagued by afternoon thunderstorms, and reached the cave by dark. We were out of the snow at last. We lit a fire and even had some wild rhubarb to eat. The next day we were back in Manali – I just about hobbled in. Mike had gone but Basil was still there. We were incredibly tired. In twenty-two days on the mountain we had enjoyed only two days without storms.

After a few days’ blissful rest I said farewell and set off for railhead, Afghanistan and the Middle East. I believe Bob and Basil went back to salvage some of our gear and food, but wild horses would not get me back.

Indrasan, Throne of the Thunder God, Indra, was climbed eventually in 1962 by Japanese.

Our three weeks on the mountain, food, porters, the lot, had cost us about £12 each. We failed, but it was money well spent.