Tents in the Clouds: The First Women's Himalayan Expeditionby Monica Jackson, Elizabeth Stark
Going where no one had gone before, three women pooled their resources, sailed to India, flew to Kathmandu, and trekked the remote Jugal Himal, a far-flung, hitherto unexplored region of the Himalaya. Written over 40 years ago, Tents in the Clouds documents this unprecedented adventure. Part travel journal and part historical account, it's a lively story of the… See more details below
Going where no one had gone before, three women pooled their resources, sailed to India, flew to Kathmandu, and trekked the remote Jugal Himal, a far-flung, hitherto unexplored region of the Himalaya. Written over 40 years ago, Tents in the Clouds documents this unprecedented adventure. Part travel journal and part historical account, it's a lively story of the expedition's achievements. Theirs was the first ascent of an unknown peak over 22,000 feet; and as they crossed daunting passes and pristine valleys, they investigated the flora and fauna and corrected maps of one of the least accessible areas of the world. Available in America for the first time, this illustrated record comes at the peak of public interest in the sport of mountain climbing.
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Cloak and Dagger
OUR EXPEDITION was barely two months in the field, but it took us nine months to plan it. We could not pretend to be brilliant climbers but we could organise thoroughly and carefully. None of us was a model of efficiency, and this detailed work, which had to be fitted in with our professions or the care of a house and family, often went against the grain; but if we slipped up and so got into trouble, there were plenty of people who would say, "These women should never have been allowed out in the mountains on their own." We did not mean to give them the chance.
We had no leader, in fact it never occurred to us to have one, and since we are all individual in character we probably co-operated better so than if one of us had been in command. We were all of the same mind in most things to do with the expedition and when decisions had to be taken in the field there was always a casting vote.
Our first major problem was the choice of area. Some of the most delightful parts of the Himalaya, in Garhwal and Sikkim for instance, had been put out of bounds to us by the Indian Government's "Inner Line." The Karakoram offered many real giants but, though tempting, was likely to be expensive and too difficult for us. That left Kulu and Nepal. There were unexplored areas and unclimbed peaks in Kulu, and we were told that many of those nearing the 20,000 foot mark were less formidable than peaks of this height in other ranges. But the approaches to this area seemed too "popular." In the Nepal Himalaya, on the other hand,we should encounter terrific gorges, little-known country and peaks so strongly fortified throughout thousands of feet that the question of climbing them would not arise. In the end we decided to go to Nepal. It would be a bigger adventure, possibly even too big.
But the whole northern frontier of Nepal, 500 miles long, is on the main Himalayan chain, therefore we had to narrow the choice down much further. To this end we consulted Douglas Scott, an experienced member of two Scottish Himalayan expeditions, who has a flair for hatching exciting, exacting mountain plans. His finger went unerringly to a great loop in the Himalayan chain north-east of Kathmandu.
"You know, nothing much has been done there," he said reflectively, "I've had my eye on that part of the world for a long time myself."
Further research showed that this loop comprised the Langtang Himal, which Tilman visited in 1949 on one of the first mountaineering expeditions ever allowed into Nepal, and the Jugal Himal. Tilman's party had explored the Langtang Himal pretty thoroughly but had climbed none of the peaks there. They were hampered by poor snow conditions and cloud during the monsoon. The area had not been visited since and no one at all had been to the Jugal Himal, a horse-shoe-shaped range of mountains, which, as far as we could discover, was the last great unexplored area left in Nepal.
This state of affairs seemed strange to us since the Langtang Himal and the Jugal Himal lie nearer to Kathmandu than any other part of the Nepal Himalaya. But there were two good reasons for the neglect of these areas. When Nepal was first opened to mountaineers, expeditions naturally tended to gravitate towards the giants of its great ranges, particularly in the Everest region, whereas the highest peak in the Langtang-Jugal area is well under 24,000 feet in height. Secondly, though lower in height, these peaks were not easy, the only reports of them being far from encouraging.
We were intrigued to learn that Tilman had found a pass from the Langtang Himal through to the Jugal Himal, without being able to penetrate this second range. He followed a glacier on the far side of the pass and camped on its lower reaches.
"Early in the morning," he writes, "before the clouds rolled up, Tensing and I climbed on to the moraine to see where we were. Not far away the glacier terminated and its waters drained south-east into a deep gorge. Beyond we could make out the dark cleft of the main valley, to all appearances an even deeper gorge, where, the rivers still running high, we could count upon meeting all sorts of trouble.... If (this) main valley could not be reached from above, why should we not enter it from below, from the nearest village? According to the map there was a village called Tempathang on the east side of the valley close to a bridge, whence, from our experience of the Langtang and the Ganesh, we might expect to find a track to some high alp in the heart of the Jugal Himal."
He followed this course, but unsuccessfully. On contacting the natives of Tempathang, he found that "They could give us nothing but green mealie cobs and, what was worse, the information that there was no path up the valley; for their grazing alps had long since been abandoned, the track to them through long disuse and fallen bridges being no longer passable."
We decided to go direct to Tempathang and first of all to find out more about the approaches, if any, to the Jugal Himal. We hoped for little from this line of inquiry, for Tilman adds ... "From a latter glimpse we had of them, they (the Jugal peaks) seemed as uncompromising as the Langtang peaks and far less approachable."
The second and major part of our plan was concerned with crossing by Tilman's pass over to the Langtang. We hoped to visit the cols he had discovered there overlooking Tibet, in clear weather, taking bearings and augmenting the photographic record of the area.
To carry out this plan successfully we must avoid the monsoon, with its heavy cloud and swollen rivers, and either go before it in the spring or after it in the autumn. Spring used to be the season most generally favoured for climbing in the Himalaya, but though cloud contrasts and Alpine flowers make it a lovely time of the year it is also a time of storm and avalanche. Apart from one or two big storms, autumn weather is more settled, the mountains assuming a static theatrical appearance, like huge cumbersome pieces of stage furniture. Great cold and darkness however drive the climber into his sleeping-bag earlier each day. After weighing these considerations carefully, and a further one, that we had better go soon or we should not go at all, we settled for the spring.
The first decisive step was taken when we placed our project before the Screening Committee of the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club (now replaced by the Mount Everest Foundation). It was only through the good offices of this august body that we could hope to gain a permit to enter Nepal, especially as, in view of recent unrest in the country, the Nepalese authorities might be unwilling to countenance an all-woman party.
We were not very hopeful about our chances of obtaining the Himalayan Committee's recommendation, because of our sex, and because we were nowhere near the top flight of British climbers. To our amazement and gratitude, we found neither of these considerations seemed to weigh with them as much as what we and our referees were able to tell them about our general experience of mountaineering and mountain travel.
We were recommended through the Foreign Office to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, who were in direct contact with the Foreign Affairs Department in Nepal.
Understandably enough, other people in authority did not show the same reassuring faith in our ability to bring off such a venture unscathed. Some thought that we would never reach the mountains at all but be murdered, robbed or raped by brigands on the way. Those who were better informed knew that we could travel with perfect safety among the friendly people of the foothills, but thought we should certainly come to grief among the mountains themselves. Others again thought that the Sherpas, whose outlook has altered radically since the conquest of Everest has brought them into the limelight, would desert us at some crucial point on the march.
Months elapsed before we heard that our application would not be put forward to the Nepalese unless we were given a further very strong recommendation. Our mountaineering experience was all very well, but what, it was asked, would we do with a drunken Sherpa?
Monica replied with conviction that Esmé Speakman had been with a welfare unit during the war, which followed the liberation army into Holland and Germany. That when Evelyn and I were climbing in Arctic Norway we found that the chief hazard there was the persistent attentions of drunken Sea-Lapps in our valley camps and that we had emerged from our predicament with honour and international relations unimpaired. She herself had spent a great deal of her life in India, and spoke Hindustani fluently if ungrammatically. She had got on well with the Sherpas on her previous Himalayan expedition, acting as liaison between the leader and the sirdar.
A further fact emerged quite fortuitously, helping to turn the scales in our favour. I had hitch-hiked to the Alps one year with another girl, coping en route with Communist lorry-drivers, an emotional attorney and a travelling circus.
This time our application went forward to the Nepalese authorities. It was likely we would hear no more about it until we were ready to sail, so we had to get ahead with the detailed work of organisation.
We had neglected one important maxim laid down by W. H. Murray in the following words, "You must ... face the brutal fact that if you want to go, say, to the Himalaya, you must first of all save up at least three hundred and fifty pounds, or else persuade someone to give it to you. Until that is done you cannot move."
That was in 1951. Now costs have risen in the Himalaya and you may need four hundred and fifty pounds (each).
We had not actually moved without any money at all. Esmé Speakman, though compelled to withdraw herself, had made us a generous loan but we still did not have anything like enough to run an expedition. Nor did we have the time to save it up, so we resorted to persuading someone to give it to us.
This was Monica's job since she lived in London, and it was a ticklish one. Though we knew we could arouse a certain amount of interest by the very fact that we were the first all-woman expedition to the Himalaya, we did not want to become a cheap stunt. We owe it to a certain sporting instinct in editorial and publishing worlds that we ever got into the Jugal Himal at all. But it was not until very near the day of departure that this problem was finally solved.
Monica also arranged for the four Sherpas we required, not as guides ... no one can act as guide to an unexplored area in any case ... but to carry loads to high camps. She insured them, applied for duty free entry permits, export licences, Bank of England permission to take enough money into Nepal, and maps. She began to see everything in triplicate, relieved occasionally by quadruplicate.
My job was to plan food supplies, order all the expedition equipment and draw up lists of personal equipment for each one of us.
Stuart Bain of Messrs. Andrew Lusk and Co., Ltd., who had much experience in packing for expeditions to Everest, Kanchenjunga and the Antarctic, undertook to pack and ship our stores and some of the equipment. At his suggestion I drew up a packing plan, dividing the food so that the assortment in each crate was enough for one week. Then if one crate fell into a raging torrent, we should not at one stroke lose all our soup or jam. Quite a different assortment had to be made up for those weeks when we should be in the mountains, featuring more high-altitude rations.
This job was more difficult than one would imagine for, just as I had achieved a really beautiful set of permutations, Stuart Bain would point out, "You can't have a pound of biscuits in crate No. 7. Biscuits only come in 2 lb. tins." Or Evelyn, who began like Tigger by saying she liked everything, would look over my shoulder and qualify this statement as far as nearly every item on my list was concerned. "We should have treats," she would conclude, "in case we ever feel low." And judging by the number and variety of treats suggested, she did not expect to be particularly cheerful. Then Monica would comment plaintively, "You've only got twenty-four tins of sardines. I like sardines."
Our climbing equipment had to be modest, including only such items as were absolutely essential. We could not afford eiderdown suits and fortunately oxygen was not necessary at the heights we should reach.
One heavy expense was the Sherpas' equipment, which we would have to give to them. We did not know that Sherpas are much more demanding nowadays, and took only second-hand stuff for ours.
In the past, Scottish expeditions triumphantly raided the Glasgow Barrows, a market like Petticoat Lane, where boots, wind-proof suits, kit-bags and goggles could all be unearthed for a mere song. But those halcyon days are gone. All I could discover were a few woollen semmits. I dare say our Sherpas were the first ever to receive these articles washed, aired and mended by the expedition members themselves.
I had a stroke of luck, however, in hearing of some men's long underpants going at a sale, and a fellow member of the Ladies' Scottish Climbing Club dashed off and joined the queue four successive times (they were sold singly) to secure these prizes.
Many firms supplied us with food and equipment, free or on special terms. Several manufacturers actually pointed out that we had not asked them for enough and this was especially generous, for Himalayan expeditions were beginning to be two a penny and all seemed to be in the same state of beggary as ourselves.
Indeed, apart from the initial difficulties of having our project accepted, everyone, business people, civil servants, British, Indian and Nepalese officials, was most helpful, and many arrangements and permits were specially expedited for us. There is no doubt that our sex was a positive advantage, although we never tried to use it as such nor to get special treatment. People were genuinely interested in our venture, or at the very least did not want to be responsible for getting us into difficulties, or to have us on their hands if we did.
Evelyn, who had the least time of any of us to spare from her duties in a maternity hospital, studied tropical medicine, arranged for us to be variously injected and, with the invaluable help of doctors and pharmacists who had been to the Himalaya, ordered and packed our drugs and medical equipment. I felt it was grossly unfair that I could not criticise her lists in my turn, since they dealt with mysteries beyond my ken. But when Evelyn said loftily, "I have enough antacid under my bed to sink a battleship," I was able to reply sharply, "I have enough dried vegetables under mine to feed the expedition, which is more to the point."
Finally, I had to list and value everything over and over again for the United Kingdom High Commission in New Delhi, for packers, Indian Customs, Board of Trade, the P. & O. Steamship Navigation Company, and, it seemed, their friends. We were tempted to exercise new-found cunning and value each item twice over, once for the Customs in case we lost it and had to pay the stated value, and once for the Insurance people in case we lost it and had to be paid. At the last moment it was discovered we had no pot-scrubbers and no soap.
It was difficult in the thick of all this to keep in good training and this was especially important in view of the shortness of the march from Kathmandu to our chosen area. Evelyn and I went climbing or ski-ing at week-ends as often as we could and left it at that. Monica, living in London, was unable to get away to the hills so often, but in despair over this made greater efforts than either Evelyn or myself. She rose on winter mornings to run round Regent's Park when it was still so dark she was tripping over the ducksa procedure amply justified by results. It occurs to me, too, that it is not laughable to write" Housewife" as occupation when applying for permission to climb in the Himalaya. It is the sedentary job which keeps one in poor training.
We tried to observe great secrecy over our plans. This was because we feared undue publicity or mis-representation in the Press, since our plans were modest and might in any case come to nothing. We called ourselves at this time the "Cloak and Dagger Expedition" and Evelyn, to whom secretiveness is quite foreign, enjoyed this immensely, giving out dark hints and telling most of our friends in the strictest confidence all about it.
The news leaked out from Kathmandu when our permit was finally granted. We had to adjust ourselves to the idea that we were now actually going, and to a further disturbing fact. When the official announcement reached us, we discovered that our permit was for the Jugal Himal only. Raymond Lambert, with a Belgian scientist, had been given permission to visit the Langtang Himal and the Nepal Government, quite rightly, do not care to have more than one expedition in a particular valley at any one time for fear of disturbing local economy.
This meant a drastic last-minute change of plan. We would have to find a way into the Jugal Himal.
We had arranged to pick up the relevant maps of Nepal in New Delhi for the expedition, but the Indian Government will not allow these out of their country, and so far as we knew none of our area was available in the United Kingdom. Monica had now joined the Royal Geographical Society, and discovered that all the maps of Nepal could be referred to in its library.
The map of the Jugal Himal seemed to confirm Tilman's report of it. There were no villages near the mountains properTempathang is at 8,000 feetand no passes over the main range. In this, the area was unlike the Langtang Himal or the Everest region. The answer seemed to be that the Balephi Khola, the river running from the heart of the Jugal, and its tributaries, were colossal gorges. We would probably have to spend days fighting our way up each side stream until we could cross it, then down again on the other side, having porter trouble all the way.
The inside of the Jugal horse-shoe seemed to be another Nanda Devi sanctuary, and Heaven knew whether we would ever be able to penetrate it or to get out whole again if we did.
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