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GURKHAS AND MOUNTAINEERING

By Brigadier Ian Rigden OBE MA (late Royal Gurkha Rifles)

Although Gurkhas are famous for their fighting skills and operational prowess, their significant contribution to British military mountaineering has been largely overlooked.  Gurkhas have, in fact, been key players in Himalayan exploration and mountaineering at various times over the past 125 years.  Despite this, the Brigade has never had the opportunity of placing a serving Gurkha on the summit.  Of all the stories of Gurkha involvement with Everest, it is the 1922 British Everest expedition that illustrates their importance to early exploration and why we would like a Gurkha to summit in 2015. 

In 1922, Brigadier General Charles Bruce CB MVO (a 5GR officer who commanded 1/6GR at Gallipoli) and Lieutenant Colonel Edward Lisle Strutt CBE DSO led a groundbreaking attempt to reach the summit of Everest. Other notable members of this first serious attempt at Everest were George Finch, who was instrumental in developing oxygen apparatus for high altitude climbing, and George Mallory who died on the mountain two years later. Bruce’s concept was to have “attack teams” of two “local boys”, for their strength and general attitude, supporting one westerner. As well as a large contingent of Indian Army porters, the expedition therefore included 4 Lance Naiks from 2/6 GR .  One of these, Lance Naik Tejbir Bura, achieved a height of 26,000 feet.  Thanks to their combined support, the expedition reached an overall record height of 27,000 feet. The European team members all later attested to the fact that they would not have reached this height without their Gurkha and Indian Army team members to support them because of their high altitude endurance. 

In 1924, the Olympic Alpine Committee awarded 13 Gold Medals retrospectively to the European members of the team, one to Lance Naik Tejbir Bura, and seven others to honour the Indian Army porters who died during the attempt.  Lance Naik Tejbir Bura’s Gold Medal is now in the Gurkha Museum in Winchester, and it is the only Olympic Gold Medal to have been awarded to Nepal. 

These medals were collected by Lieutenant Colonel Strutt at the Olympic Games in 1924.  When he was presented with them by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, a pledge was formed between the two men.  Baron Coubertin asked if one of the medals could be taken to the summit of Mt. Everest. Edward Strutt pledged to do this at the next opportunity. For various reasons, not least the Second World War, this did not happen until 90 years later, when Kenton Cool fulfilled this pledge and took one of the Gold medals to the summit in 2012.  It is this achievement that has been the catalyst for the 2015 Gurkha Everest Expedition and a reappraisal of the contribution of Gurkhas to British Army mountaineering.

A Short History of Gurkhas and Mountaineering

Gurkhas are generally highlanders, living in a country that is dominated by the Himalayas. Up until the late 1990s, most British Army Gurkhas were recruited from regions with a mean altitude of between 3,000ft and 9,000ft.  Although this is less the case now, Gurkhas generally operate exceptionally well at altitude.

It is, however, the passion of their British Gurkha officers for mountaineering, specifically in Nepal and India, which has always been the driver and access route for Gurkha involvement in expeditions.  Once on expedition, it is the Gurkha soldiers' humour, natural toughness and ability to work at altitude, and in arduous and hazardous terrain, that has been a key ingredient for morale and success. 

Brigadier The Honourable Charles Granville Bruce CB MVO

Brigadier Charles Bruce, mentioned above in the context of the 1924 Everest Expedition, is still perhaps the best known of the Gurkha mountaineers and has a formidable reputation.  He was a passionate climber with extensive experience, including:

  • 10 climbing seasons in the European Alps.
  • In 1892, he took a troop of Gurkha soldiers to accompany Sir Martin Conway during his exploration of the Baltoro region of the Karakorum.  During this expedition they visited, but did not summit, Muztagh Tower, Broad Peak and K2.

  • In 1893, he accompanied Sir Francis Younghusband on his mission to the Hindu Kush, where they are reputed to be the first to consider mounting an expedition to climb Everest.

  • In 1895, Bruce joined Albert F. Mummery and Collie in their attempt on Nanga Parbat.  He had, however, to leave the expedition early because his leave had finished.

  • In 1906-1907, he took another troop of Gurkha soldiers to accompany Thomas Longstaff on an exploration of the Nanda Devi group.  They visited Dunagiri and Kanchenjunga, and climbing Trisul.

  • After distinguished service in WW1 in Egypt, Gallipoli and Waziristan, he subsequently led the 1922 and 1924 Everest Expeditions.

Lieutenant Colonel James Owen Merion Roberts MVO MBE MC (1916–1997)

Jimmy Roberts ranks certainly as the greatest Gurkha mountaineer, but is also widely reputed to be one of the greatest Himalayan mountaineer-explorers of the twentieth century.  He could also rightly claim to be the father of the Nepalese tourism industry and, in particular, trekking.  He is often compared to Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton, and is easily their equal in terms of Himalayan exploration. Originally commissioned into the 1st Gurkhas in 1936, he started taking part in major expeditions in 1938.  His subsequent pre-war and post-war experience is deeply impressive.  These include:

An unsuccessful attempt in the Karakorams to reach 7,890m in terrible weather.

In 1939, he successfully summited Guan Nelda at 6,303 metres in the Spiti Himalaya. He climbed only in the company of Gurkhas, which was to become his strong preference.

He was selected for the abortive 1940 Everest expedition based on the strength of his mountaineering ability. In 1941, he successfully climbed a c.6,445m foot peak, which he named White Sail (also known as Dharmsura) in the Tos Glacier of Kullu Himalaya, again accompanied by Gurkhas.

After service in North Africa with 1GR and 153 (Gurkha) Indian Para Battalion in Burma, for which he was awarded a MC and Mention-in-despatches respectively, he resumed his climbing career.

In 1946, he conducted a recce of the Saser Kangri Massif in the Eastern Karakorums. During this expedition, he conducted the first ascents of Lookout Peak, at 6,140m, and Stundok Peak (6,100m).

In 1950, Roberts joined the ill-fated Annapurna expedition, led by Bill Tilman, during which none of the Annapurna summits were achieved.

In 1953, Roberts aspired to joining the Everest expedition but was not selected for the team, despite his considerable experience.  He was eventually used in a supporting role with the unimaginative task of transporting oxygen cylinders to Everest Base Camp. With no further role, he explored a number of valleys in the Everest region and, on 20 May 1953, made with Sen Tensing the first ascent of Mera Peak at 6,476m, now one of the most famous Himalayan trekking peaks.

On 11 November 1954, Roberts achieved with Ang Nyima the first ascent of Putha Hiunchuli at 7,246m in the Dhaulagiri group.

In 1956, he completed his first recce of Machhapuchhre (The Fish Tail), now so well known by all Gurkha officers and soldiers that it is almost a talisman of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

In 1957, Roberts was the expedition leader for the only officially recorded attempt to climb Machhapuchhre at 6,993m. Officially, the summit team stopped some 150 feet (46m) below the top due to lack of time, but the legend is that Roberts stopped short because of his respect for the holy status of the mountain.  The peak is therefore regarded as unclimbed, and there is now a permanent ban on further expeditions because of its religious status. Additionally, Roberts’ expedition recorded the first ascent of Fluted Peak at 6,644m.

In 1960, Roberts was the expedition leader for the succesful first ascent of Annapurna II at 7,937m.  This was also the first major Himalayan summit achieved by Sir Chris Bonington.

In 1962, Roberts was the expedition leader for the attempt on Dhaulagiri IV.  The ascent was unsuccessful but the team did reach Dhaulagiri VI at 6,400m.

In 1963, Roberts was the transport officer for the American Mount Everest Expedition.

In 1965, Roberts was the joint leader of the unsuccessful RAF expedition to Dhaulagiri IV, which was defeated by the weather.

In 1971, Roberts was the joint leader of the International Everest Expedition that ended in disaster and the death of Indian member H. V. Bahuguna on the West Ridge.

In 1995, he was given the Back Award (instituted 1888) by the Royal Geographical Society.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wylie (1919-2007)

Charles Wylie started mountaineering at the age of seven and spent every year with his family climbing in the European Alps.  He was commissioned into the 1st Gurkha Rifles in 1941. Hastily dispatched to Malay, the Battalion was forced to surrender to the Japanese and Wylie spent over three years on the Burma-Siam railway. On his release from captivity, Wylie rejoined the 1st Gurkha Rifles and, subsequently, the 10th Gurkha Rifles, and resumed his interest in mountaineering.  He is best known for his role as the organising secretary (effectively a combination of Executive Officer and Quartermaster) of the successful 1953 Everest expedition.  A large part of the success of the expedition must be attributed to both his climbing ability and outstanding administrative ability. He was also a team member on Jimmy Roberts’ 1957 Machhapuchhre expedition.

Major Nick Cooke GM

Major Nick Cooke of the 10th Gurkha Rifles was awarded a George Medal in Ecuador for his actions during the Mt. Sangay eruption in 1976 while on an expedition.  He saved the life of another climber by carrying him off the mountainside.

Colonel Mike Kefford OBE  

A 7th Gurkha, Mike Kefford was one of the Brigade’s most experienced mountaineers.  He was a member of the 1976 Army Mountaineering Association Everest Expedition, and led the successful 1986 Kiratchuli Expedition and the unsuccessful 1992 British Services Everest Expedition.  He did a great deal to promote mountaineering to Gurkha soldiers.

Colonel Bruce Niven OBE

A 10th Gurkha, veteran of 22 SAS and a legendary leader of the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force (GCSPF), Bruce Niven has explored large tracts of Nepal and the wider Himalayas.  He was the deputy expedition leader for the successful Army Mountaineering Association ascent of Annapurna I in 1970.

Major Kit Spencer    

Kit Spencer was a 7GR Officer with extraordinary ability to operate at altitude.  A very experienced climber, he took part in the following expeditions: 1982 - Peak 29; 1986 - Joint Services Expedition to Kiratchuli; 1987 - Joint British/Indian army Expedition to Saser Kangri; 1988 - Joint Services Expedition to Everest West Ridge; 1992 - British Services Everest Expedition.

The 7th Gurkha Rifles Gurkha Mountaineers

The 7th Gurkhas played the most prominent part in promoting mountaineering in the Brigade of Gurkhas from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.  One of their great successes was developing four exceptional Gurkha mountaineers: Khagendra Limbu, Basantkumar Rai, Narbu Sherpa and Pasang Tamang. They were all "recruited" from 7GR by Colin Lees in 1969, with a view to getting them on a future Everest Expedition. All four Gurkhas took part in the Army Mountaineering Expedition to Nuptse in 1975, which was the planned warm-up for Everest. Sadly, Pasang was killed on the expedition. Khagendra, Basantkumar and Narbu all took part in the successful Army Mountaineering Association to Everest in 1976, during which Bronco Lane and Brummie Stokes achieved the summit.  Later, Lalitman Limbu made his name as another 7GR climber on the 1986 Joint Services Expedition to Kiratchuli, the 1990 Army Mountaineering Association Expedition to Gyachung and the unsuccessful 1992 British Services Everest Expedition.

 

 

 

 

Articles by: Charlotte Lycett Green
Images by: Alun Richardson

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