Shipton-Tilman and Nanda Devi

The Geographical exploration of Nanda Devi, W.H.Tilman and Eric Shipton

“Humans are born explorers, its exploration a thirst for the unknown which drives our species actions. Most of these acts of exploration help us to understand ourselves and the world a little better. Exploration can be done in any form like the scientists who have allowed us to enjoy better comforts. Imagine living in the dark without electricity or living without acknowledging that the earth was round it would certainly make our imaginations a bit dull I would say .”

I have been sitting in-front of my window for weeks trying to write an article on these two British explorers. As I write, I realize how many pages I have wasted trying- who were these two and why do they matter to me right now- are the first questions I ask myself as my pen scribbles on. I look outside, influence and familiarity going in my head and I see two people on the road, they are strangers to me as unacquainted as Shipton and Tilman were. The story I am trying to narrate is of two different entities, one a Mountain and the other Mountaineer. The story is partially romantic because it essentially talks about their union.

Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, both British mountaineers, actively explored the Himalayas at beginning of the twentieth century, credited with many discoveries, finding a route to the top of Everest and the discovery of the Nanda Devi Basin being the most cited ones.

The above quoted words are taken from a book by W.H.Tilman, one of the protagonists of our story. As is evident from his expressive writing, like many before him, he was driven by an innate curiosity to explore farthest reaches of the earth. Some may ask why? Geographical exploration these days has lost its relevance in a world which has already been discovered and found.

Their first expedition to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary can be posed as a breakthrough in mountain exploration but to appreciate such a quest one needs to get familiar with the history of exploration and the topography of the Himalayas.

A brief history of mountaineering till the twentieth century, picture in your mind two small black dots walking across a barren stretch of land, above them they just see the mighty Himalayan summits expanding in all directions. The Himalayas extend in an unbroken chain for an approximate 1500 miles from the Karakoram in Pakistan to Burma and western China. Enter India from the North, starting from the Indus valley over which looms the Nanga Parbat massif, the chain runs two hundred miles through Kashmir and in the same state, but across the Indus to north lies the parallel range of Karakoram with K2 at its head, behind this barrier lies the plateau of Tibet at an altitude of 15,000 feet. At a point almost opposite the center of the chain within one hundred miles of each other rises two great rivers Indus and Brahmaputra which flow opposite each other and parallel to the Himalayas. From description, it might sound like the Himalayas retain a lot of snow in middle and form a watershed but it’s just the opposite. Numerous tributaries arising from the foot of the mountains converge at various points to form Ganga and Sutlej in the North. Continuing southeast for another two hundred miles through Himachal Pradesh, the range enters Garhwal from the East, a point which lies almost in the center of the Himalayan range. All the rivers rise north of the main axis of elevation and have cut their way through the east-west range, having huge walls of valley's, on which are grouped the highest peaks of the region. There are three such ridges in Garhwal, each with its own distinction: in the middle, the second-highest peak in the region, Kamet 25,447 ft, on the west that of Badrinath and Kedarnath massif and in the east stands Nanda Devi 25,660 ft, the highest peak in the region. The mighty Nanda Devi rises 3,000 ft from the foot of its glacier giving it a profile like of K2 , located in the heart of the Himalayas and appears like its most protected secret, surrounded by a ring of peaks, most of which rise above 6,000 meters.

Physical exploration of the natural world started during the early Romantic Period in England in the 19th century. This was an age characterized by the grace of artists who in their works presented nature in its simplicity and infinite complexities. 1895 Albert Mummery and four men tried to climb one of the highest peaks of the world, the 26,660ft high Nanga Parbat. The four were never seen again and climbing entered the twentieth century tainted with extreme tragedy. The Second World War, however, changed everything, climbing in the Himalayas and climbing the world’s highest mountains became the surrogate battlegrounds to reinforce superiority or to symbolize rebirth, depending on whether a country lost or won. Mt. Annapurna was climbed by the French, Mt. Everest by the British, Mt. Nanga Parbat by the Germans and K2 by the Italians. Climbing was transformed into a conquest and summits became symbols of national pride and eternal glory.

Anyone who has been around mountains knows that there are many ways to appreciate the beauty of the mountains and climbing them is just one among such infinite possibilities. Our duo was quick to realize this and it began from The Alps, where Britishers started climbing peaks and thereby achieved what was considered impossible just a few decades ago. Towards the end, only one peak in the Alps remained, the North Face of Eiger. European nations competed with each other to obtain this last prize and many died in their attempts, and finally, Hendrick Harrer (author seven years in Tibet) climbed the face and focus of the world shifted towards the Himalayas. Peaks like Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, Nanga Parbat with their 8000 meters height only fueled ambitions of climbers around the world. Soon the North and the South Poles in the Arctic’s were also explored and all that remained was the conquest of Mt. Everest. During this very time, Shipton and Tilman met and changed the rules of Himalayan exploration and climbing forever by venturing inside the Nanda Devi Sanctuary which was described by Hugh Ruttledge as more “inaccessible than the North Pole”. This article focuses on two mountaineers W.H.Tilman and Eric Shipton, together their expedition to the Nanda Devi Basin was one of the greatest achievement in mountaineering history both in terms of its simplicity and success.

The two met for the first time in Kenya, where both worked in the coffee plantation, soon after they climbed the twin summits of Mount Kenya. The style they used was later described by Shipton as “Ghur-Sattu” style alpine climbing From their this partnership traveled across the Himalayas, mapped unknown areas of the Asian continent, solved the biggest Himalayan puzzles of their time (Found the route to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, Mt. Everest). Many other peaks and areas in the Sagarmatha Sanctuary and in mountain ranges throughout the world were discovered and mapped by W.H. Tilman and Eric Shipton. During later stages of their lives, the two drifted to their own spheres, Shipton who excelled in rock climbing returned to the cold glacial fields and drifted further towards Patagonia in South America. His partner Tilman started exploring the Oceans where he finally rested.

While other famed climbers of the past generation were famous from the sole act of climbing in expedition style which was classified by excess manpower, wastage of resources and a final objective “The Summit”, Shipton and Tilman preferred working in the opposite manner. To them, exploration of hitherto unknown places was the chief priority, their shoe-string budget expedition operations in the Kumaon –Garhwal mountains continuously from pre-monsoon to post-monsoon has never been repeated in terms of its simplicity and success.

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