The Bhutan-India military expedition team’s conquest of the peak was a pyrrhic victory
COVER STORY: On April 21, 1970, as the first spring sun touched Bhutan’s second highest peak, Mount Jomolhari (24,035ft), Chhimi Dorji and seven men set off to summit the peak from the southeast spur of the mountain.
The night before the Bhutan-India military expedition team made the climb up the razor sharp edges of the mountain, they made a halt at Jomolhari Camp I at 21,500ft. The 10 climbers were divided into two groups.
Captain Chachu of Royal Bhutan Army was in Chhimi’s group. There were two officers, a mountaineering instructor and a Sherpa man in the group. Colonel Narendra Kumar from the Indian Army led the group.
Jomolhari was first summited in 1937 by English mountaineer Spencer Chapman. More than three decades later, a joint military expedition from Bhutan and India would conquer the highest peak on the western border. Three climbers – Captain PSL Kang, Captain Dharam Pal and Sherpa Aa Nima – disappeared and were never found again.
His Majesty the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck had met Colonel Narendra Kumar in Darjeeling. He’d granted colonel’s request to scale one of the highest unclimbed mountains in the world. The men carried with them ice axes, rope, ladders, sleeping bags and medical equipment.
Chhimi Dorji from Tsendo Chukha in Paro was 22 and the youngest member of the expedition. He was picked from the army to accompany the expedition. He was a medical assistant in the army hospital. In 1969, Chhimi went with a mountaineering group to Lunana. The experience that he gained from there landed him with the team at the base of Jomolhari a year later.
“The weather was perfect for the climb that day, but it was very cold,” said Chhimi Dorji said. “We could hear avalanche below the camp. That was scary.”
The team crossed four dangerous crevices to get to the Camp I. As the team got higher up, their chance to summit the peak gradually diminished.
“A slight mistake by a member would have pulled us all into the abyss. That night I thought would be my last,” said Chhimi.
He woke the morning, but could not get out of his sleeping bag. He could see the team members preparing for the climb to camp II but he couldn’t move. “My whole body became like cotton soaked in water.”
On the morning of April 22, the group left for Camp II at 22,000ft.
More than a dozen Sherpas from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, India were hired to assist the expedition because of their reputation as tough mountain climbers.
Chhimi Dorji returned to the base camp while Captain Indra Bhadur of the Royal Bhutan Army could not start from the base camp due to severe altitude sickness. Captain Chachu was the only Bhutanese left in the first group. Colonel Narendra Kumar’s team stayed at the camp I to monitor the mountaineers. Because of the narrow route up the mountain, the second group would make the ascent only after the first team got down from the summit.
At 4.30am sharp on April 23, two members from the team reached the summit. They hosted the national flags of Bhutan and India and placed sachu bumter that His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck sent with the team.
Captain Chachu could not make it to summit. He was about 150 feet below when he gave up. Chhimi Dorji was completely exhausted and had to return.
“In the mountains even to take a step takes hours,” Chhimi Dorji said.
The second group had begun their ascent from the camp II when the first team was getting down. Chhimi Dorji saw Colonel Narendra Kumar guiding his group very carefully. From where they were stood, the summit just ahead could be seen clearly. And then they disappeared.
A dark cloud obscured the scene and, when the clouds cleared, there was no one. Immediately a group of Sherpas were sent for rescue, but in vain. Days passed and rescue operations had to be called off. To this day, how the men disappeared, no one knows.
Jomolhari should remain close to ascent
Every autumn, close to a thousand tourists hike to the base of Jomolhari. The mountain cannot be climbed. The Bhutanese government has placed a ban to scale the mountain. Tourists camp at Jangothang, from where Jomolhari is visible majestically.
Here, at Jangothang, tourists pitch tents and spend days and weeks observing and admiring the pristine mountain.
Vivianne Barry from Australia has come to enjoy the virginity of the mountain.
“I knew it’s restricted. But I came to feel the ambiance and be a part of it,” said Barry. “I enjoy the sound of avalanche here.”
A couple of years ago, a father and son ventured up the Mont Blanc in Europe. They died on the way. Barrey said that, if there are not restrictions, even children might attempt the difficult climb that could be dangerous.
Said Barry: “We must maintain the originality of the mountains. Otherwise nature would become a mess and lose its value for the future generations. We have lost much already. I really like the Bhutanese way of preserving the mountains.”
By Tenzin Namgyel, Jomolhari