Mountaineering

Peak Map of Nanda Devi Area

Early Explorations

During its heyday, Nanda Devi stood as the highest peak in the British Empire and drew the interest of mountaineers from the entire western world. As part of their search for trade routes to Tibet, the British also began as early as 1830 to explore the upper reaches of the High Himalayas, with the region around Nanda Devi providing the most attractive access to the “hermit” kingdom. G.W. Traill, the first commissioner of the recently acquired Garhwal and Kumaon districts (ceded by the Gurkhas to the British in 1815), crossed Pindari Glacier in search of a shortcut to Milam in the north. In 1883, W.W. Graham led a small but adventurous team in search of a path up the Rishi Ganga to the foot of Nanda Devi. Encountering all manners of obstacles including steep rugged terrain and incessant snow and rain, the party also portered much of their supplies themselves, reaching beyond Dharansi Pass before turning back. In 1905 and 1907, T.G. Longstaff resumed Graham’s efforts, exploring the eastern and western approaches to Nanda Devi respectively. In the later mission, Longstaff’s team retraced Graham’s path, ascending Trisul (23,406ft), but did not attempt another foray into the upper Rishi. Twenty years later, Longstaff returned and with Hugh Ruttledge sought out the elusive access route to no avail. Ruttledge as Deputy Commissioner for Almora district tried three more times without success.

The Inner Sanctuary

Shipton Tilman, Angtharkay, Pasang, and KusangIn 1934, Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman with three Sherpa companions, Angtharkay, Pasang, and Kusang, finally solved the riddle of the upper Rishi Ganga. With a minimum of gear and supplies, the small compact team became the first to set eyes upon the Nanda Devi basin they likened to an inner sanctum. They went on to explore the Southern Ridge of Nanda Devi as the most likely ascent route and were the first to summit Maiktoli and cross the Sunderdhunga Col. Paying further homage to the Himalayas, Shipton and Tilman later also accomplished the arduous Gangotri-Badrinath and Badrinath-Kedarnath watershed traverses.

Writing in Nanda Devi, Shipton explained the experience of reaching such a wonderous new land:

“Each step I experienced that subtle thrill which anyone of imagination must feel when treading in hitherto unexplored country. Each corner held some thrilling secret to be revealed for the trouble of looking. My most blissful dream was to be in some such valley, free to wander where I liked, and discover for myself some hitherto unrevealed glory of Nature. Now the reality was no less wonderful than that half-forgotten dream; and of how many childish fancies can that be said, in this age of disillusionment?”

First Ascent

Anglo-American Summit Team 1934Shipton and Tilman’s explorations set the stage for all subsequent mountaineering expeditions. Only two short years later, the summit was attained for the first time by Tilman and British geologist N.E. Odell from the South Ridge. The expedition itself came together by chance, as four American undergraduate students hailing from the Harvard Mountaineering Club teamed up with four experienced British mountaineers including Tilman (Shipton was at Everest at the time). Cultural differences between the two groups made for an interesting journey as the Americans had to adapt to both British norms as well as Tilman’s minimalism. With Tilman leading the way, the team quickly abandoned canned and processed foods for the gifts of the land, while gear was kept at a minimum. However the chance of a joint-summitting was dashed when the American Charles Houston fell ill, and Tilman moved up to join Odell for the final push to the top. The expedition also suffered the first fatality with the death of Kitar, a porter, at base camp.

List of Successful Expeditions

The following chart has been informed by Nanda Devi: Exploration and Ascent (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1999) a recent compilation of Shipton and Tilman’s classic works on their Nanda Devi adventures.

Year Nationality Achievement Notes
1934

UK

First Entry of Inner Sanctuary (Shipton and Tilman) Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman discover a passage into the “inner sanctuary” of the Rishi basin.
1936

USA/UK

1st Ascent / South Ridge (Tilman and Odell) 8-member joint British-American team led by T. Graham Brown (UK) and Charles Houston (USA) loses Kitar, a porter, early on at base camp. Tilman and N.E. Odell succeed at reaching summit.
1939

Poland

1st Ascent / South Ridge (Nanda Devi East – Bujak and Klarner) Led by Adam Karpinski, this 4-member expedition approachs Nanda Devi East from the east, but loses Karpinski and Stefan Bernardzikiewicz later on an attempt on Tirsuli.
1951

France

2nd Ascent / South Ridge (Duplat and Vignes) 8-member French expedition is the third overall French Himalayan expedition. Roger Duplat, team leader, and Gilbert Vignes are lost on attempt on summit. Nanda Devi East summited by Louis Dubost and Tenzig Norgay while searching for Duplat and Vignes.

In 2001, Le club alpine de Lyons brought together surviving members of the expedition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the expedition.

1964

India

3rd Ascent / South Ridge (Gombu and Norbu) 8-member Indian expedition led by Major N Kumar.
1965-1968

USA/India (covert)

4th Ascent / South Ridge American and Indian veterans of Everests involved in secret CIA-backed attempts to place a nuclear (plutonium)-powered listening device on summit of Nanda Devi to monitor Chinese missile tests. Device lost in avalanche. Further expeditions to locate it prove unsuccessful, including 1966 solitary ascent of summit. Composition of teams remain secret and some may have succumbed to radiation poisoning. Leads to short-term closure of Nanda Devi.
1974 Reopening of Nanda Devi. 15 expeditions attempt ascents of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East between 1974 and 1982.
1975

France/India

5th Ascent / South Ridge (Coudray, Renault, Sandhu, Chand) 13-member Indo-French expedition includes simultaneous climbs of Nanda Devi East.
1976

Japan

6th Ascent / 1st Traverse (Kato, Teramoto, Hasegawa, Takami) 21-member Indo-Japanese team approaches south ridges of main peak and Nanda Devi East simultaneously. Yoshinori Hasegawa and Kazushige Takami traverse westwards to join Yazuo Kato and Masafume Teramoto at main peak.
1976

USA/India

7th Ascent / 1st Nortwest Face-North Buttress (Roskelley, States, Reichardt) 12-member Indo-American team – John Roskelley, Jim States, and Louis Reichardt succeed at forging a difficult new route. Ad Carter, member of the original 1936 team is joined as co-leader by legendary mountaineer Willi Unsoeld and his daughter Nanda Devi Unsoeld. Devi died of illness at camp IV.
1977

USA/UK

8th Ascent / South Face (Roberts, Harder, Smith, Jones) 12-member British-American team led by Eric Roberts.
1978

USA

9th Ascent / South Ridge (Hambly, McClung, Fryberger, Byers, Casebold, Brindiero) 8-member American team lose their liaison officer Capt. S.S. Dhilon from a fall. The team discovers that other expeditions in the Nanda Devi area were leaving large amounts of campsite litter.
1981

Czechoslovakia

10th Ascent / North Face-Northeast Pillar (Srovnal, Kadlcik, Horka, Palecek, Karafa, Rakoncaj, Sulovsky) 13-member Czechoslovak team led by Vlastimil Smida opens up difficult new route (originally attempted in 1978 by members of British expedition, King and Lloyd).
1981

India

11th Ascent / South Ridge (Sharma, Aitwal, Bisht, Chauhan, Dorji, Paljor, Purohit) 11-member Indian team led by Nanda Devi veteran Balwant Sidhu puts first women on summit – Rekha Sharma, Chandra Prabha Aitwal, Harshawanti Bisht. The three are later joined by Rattan Singh Chauhan, Lhatoo Dorji, Sonam Paljor, and Nandial Purohit.
1981

India

12th Ascent / South Ridge-Southwest Ridge (Ram, Tsering, Kami) Indian Army expedition attempts both main and Nanda Devi East peaks simultaneously. Southwest Ridge of East peak climbed for first time, but both Premjit Lal and Phu Dorjee are killed in the descent. Three others – Daya Chand, Ram Singh, and Lakha Singh – also fall to their deaths, leading to the highest ever number of casualties.
1982 Upon the recommendation of scientists and wildlife experts, the Nanda Devi Sanctuary is upgraded to a National Park. All further treks, expeditions, and grazing are banned in the core area, including mountaineering on the Nanda Devi main peak. Nanda Devi East remains open from the south side.
1993
India
13th Ascent / South Ridge (Naik, Swaroop, Sharma, Singh, Bhatt) An army-led Indian ecological expedition checks inner sanctuary recovery and removes over a ton of rubbish from the reserve left behind by previous mountaineering expeditions.

Additional Resources

Nanda Devi Exploration and Ascent – a collection of classic texts by the first explorers to reach the inner sanctum of Nanda Devi.
Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition – John Roskelley’s first-hand account of the doomed 1976 Indo-American expedition to Nanda Devi led by legendary mountaineer Willie Unsoeld. His 22-year-old daughter, named after Nanda Devi, died during the ascent.
Spies in the Himalayas – esteemed Indian mountaineer M.S. Kohli’s account of a joint Indo-American attempt to plant a nuclear-powered listening device aimed at China’s 1960s nuclear program on Nanda Devi’s summit

Shipton, E. E., & Tilman, H. W. (2000). Nanda Devi : exploration and ascent : a compilation of the two mountain-exploration books, Nanda Devi and The ascent of Nanda Devi, plus Shipton’s account of his later explorations. London Seattle: Mountaineers.

    The classic collection of texts from the early British expeditions to Nanda Devi that unvealed the path to the inner sanctuary and eventually the summit.

Klarner, Januscz. (1956). Nanda Devi [Polish]. Czytelnik: Warszawa.

    Account of the 1939 Polish expedition to Nanda Devi. They made the first ascent of Nanda Devi East but met with a fatal accident later on Trisuli.

Languepin, J.J., Payan, L. (1952) Nanda Devi, Troisième Expedition Française l’Himalaya. Arthaud: Paris.

    Photo book of the tragic 1951 French expedition attempting to make the second ascent of Nanda Devi. While attempting to traverse the mountain two members disappeared.

Languepin, J.J. (1955) Himalaya Passion cruelle.Flammarion: Paris.

    Titled “To Kiss High Heaven: Nanda Devi” in English, (London: William Kimber, 1956) this book ranks as one of the classics of mountaineering books with its touching tribute to Duplat, the spirit behind the French expedition to Nanda Devi.

Kohli, M. S., & Conboy, K. J. (2002). Spies in the Himalayas : secret missions and perilous climbs. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas.

    Recent retelling of the Indo-American attempts in the 60s to to place a nuclear-powered listening device on Nanda Devi to spy on China’s nuclear tests. M.S. Kohli was the chief Indian officer on the CIA-sponsored expeditions that secretly scaled the heights of Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot.

Roskelley, J. (2000). Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition. Seattle: Mountaineers Books.

    John Roskelley, one of the three members of the ill-fated 1976 Indo-American expedition to reach the summit of Nanda Devi, lays bear its inner conflicts and tragedies in this classic mountaineering novel.

Horka, Leos. (1989) Nanda Devi 1978-1981 [Czech]. Profil: Ostrava.

    Account of the two Czechoslovakian expeditions to Nanda Devi. The 1978 expedition attempted the North Ridge. The 1981 expedition succeeded with a direct ascent of the North Face/NE Pillar. Horka was one of those who summited.

Sanan, D. (1995) Nanda Devi: Restoring Glory. New Age Intl: New Delhi.

    Account of the 1993 Indian Army scientific, ecological, and mountaineering expedition. They made the 13th ascent of the mountain and placed five members on the summit, as well as removed rubbish from the park.