I try to remember that others may have a different attitude, but even so I feel my face beginning to flush when people argue that they should be allowed to enter certain border regions, restricted by the government for security reasons.
Until the war began at the end of 1939, possibly three of four expeditions used to come out from Europe or America each year. For the rest here were in India (including, of course, the countries we now call Pakistan and Bangladesh) hundreds of army officers and civilian government officials and business people, mostly British and, of these a considerable number would take their summer holidays in the hills.
In the Indian Army we were allowed two or three months local leave each year, and nine months leave every three years. Annual leave was privilege and not a right and could be withheld or reduced by one’s commanding officer. It depended on what one intended to do. The social life or ‘poodle faking’ (lying around on houseboats, I am uncertain of the derivation of the team) was frowned on but a request to keep a date with a rifle with some unfortunate wild sheep or goat on a high pass in Central Asia was a certain passport to leave, so was an application to climb a mountain, although there were few people in whole of India at that time who aspired to real climbing, as compared to trekking and more general exploration.
Meanwhile, our ambitious young mountaineer was getting quickly into his stride. His mountain scheming had extended beyond the mere Indian Army and he had managed to insinuate himself into a Gurkha Regiment with headquarters at 6,000ft on the flanks of the Pir Panjal range (Dharmsala, in the state of what is now Himachal Pradesh). So in 1937 I was able to climb for a total about three weeks among the granite peaks of the Dhaula Dhar, in 1938 I joined an expedition attempting Masherbrum in the Karakoram.
There were five of us in the party, plus four Sherpas and we needed 60 porters to carry all our loads. That year there was also another British attempt on Everest from the north, a German expedition led by Paul Bauer to Nanga Parbat, and an American expedition to K2. There was some friendly rivalry with the Americans with whom we shared part of the trail, but never actually met. A report that the entire team had been seen (Houston and Bates were two of them) squatting in a row cooling their blistered feet in the waters of the Indus was received with satisfaction.
For 20 years old, Masherbrum was a rather shattering experience. I acclimatised very slowly, was frostbitten, could not sleep (oh, those unending hours of walking nightmare) and it never seemed to stop snowing. Finally two of our friends were very severely frostbitten in a summit attempt and I watched their toes wither and blacken and fingers drop off, literally as I helped the doctor with their dressings. Next year, I felt, it would have to be those sheep and goats.
However, by the time I reached Srinagar I had perked up a little reading a newspaper report that they had failed on Everest, but might return in the autumn. I wrote to Tilman, the leader, giving him the welcome news that I would be available to join them in their second attempt. Sometime later I received a terse reply, written from the Planters Club, Darjeeling. There was to be no autumn attempt, and in any case I would not have been wanted.
In 1939, I spent two months climbing in Kulu and Spiti with three riflemen from my Gurkha Regiment, but meanwhile a new light has risen on the horizon.
A new expedition to climb Everest from Tibet was being organised for the fall of 1940, and following Masherbrum. I was asked to join. Mostly it was a new team to replace those who had spent the last six years trudging to and from Darjeeling and the Rongbuk Glacier. A Captain Hunt was another of the members. It was an alluring prospect: just the right age and, first, home leave and three months getting fit in the Alps. I do not regret the war but wish they could have put it off for a couple of years.
The war gave me experience of parachuting and command of the first operational drop of the war in South East Asia Dispirited after failures in the mountains. I still sometimes return back to uncertain glow of that small and not very dangerous parachute operation into North Burma in 1942.
The boredom, the sheer and utter misery of war and the few moments of truth which make it sometimes seem worthwhile compare very closely with high attitude climbing. I feel great admiration for the young men who voluntarily, without any clarion call from king and Country, endure similar miseries on high and steep mountain faces. Maybe it’s not quite as dangerous as war, and maybe television provides the call, but never mind, I admire them.
In case you are still with me, I will skip three expeditions, including a daring attempt on Kangchenjunga during the war years which reached 20,000ft leaving only the upper 8,000ft of the great mountain unclimbed, and proceed to 1949, and the beginning of the opening of the pages of chapter titled ‘Nepal’ in our book of the mountains.