1335 – ‘Indian Tiger’ – Indian Himalaya

Exercise Indian Tiger was the Army Mountaineering Association’s flagship 2012 expedition and significantly was also only the second time in 25 years that British and Indian Army soldiers had climbed together in India.

The central theme of the expedition was to be ‘exploratory mountaineering’; we hoped to summit a previously unclimbed peak, in a little travelled area and all we knew of the area was what we could glean from some 1:150,000 maps (complete with 100m contour lines!) and some dodgy Google Earth images.

The pre expedition training had taken place in both the UK and the Alps. The team had progressed from moving roped together over steep ground, onto graded scrambles, through leading multi pitch climbs and finally, in the Alps, glacial travel and crevasse fields. By the end of the two weeks in the Alps, we all felt confident in our own abilities, those of our teammates, and were prepared for the challenge ahead. All that remained was to meet the Indian Team, about whom we had heard little, other than there was at least one Everest summiteer – we knew we were in good company!

So on the 18th August 2012, following nine months of training and selection, 8 British Army Soldiers and Officers left the UK for Delhi, from where we would join8 Indian Army climbers and together attempt to reach the summit ofa mountain simply marked ‘Peak 6565’ (unsurprisingly, a mountain that is 6565 metres tall) in the Garwal Himalaya, North East India.

The team was a good mixture of mountaineering experience, Rank and Capbadge, with Cpl – Maj and REME, RLC, R Sigs and Infantry, as well as both Regular and Territorial Army soldiers represented.

We arrived in Delhi to the news that not only had the Monsoon season come late, but that it was also very heavy. This extreme weather would impact all of our time in India from the minute we landed, right through to our return to Delhi; the heavy rains had knocked out a series of bridges and washed away or buried huge sections of roads in landslides. The roads in the foothills of the Himalayas, through which we had to pass, were particularly affected.

Because of the state of the roads North from Delhi, there was no point in leaving the Capital; we would simply have been stuck on the route. Eventually, 4 or 5 days later than planned, we started out North to Gangotri, which marked the end of the road and start of the trek in. By the time we were in Gangotri, we were 9 days into the 6 week window, running six days late.

The positives that came out of this extra time in Delhi, were that we had plenty of time to drink chai, see some of Delhi, drink chai, attend briefings at the British High Commission, drink chai, participate in a ‘Flag Off’ Ceremony at Indian Army HQ (where we drunk chai) and were able to travel South to Agra, where we saw the Taj Mahal and enjoyed our first taste of Indian driving (and some chai).

The extra time spent at the stops on the way up meant we were able to see Rishikesh (apparently where The Beatles went to ‘find themselves’) and spend a few days at the National Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) (the café does excellent chai). At NIM we had a few sessions on the ice climbing wall and refreshed our crevasse rescue knowledge and methodology. It was the first time that both teams were able to look at each other’s kit and techniques and we found that things weren’t too different.

From there, following a journey that used buses, jeeps, horses and feet, eventually we arrived in Gangotri, to find a small town that was deserted due to the virtually impassable roads in and out. Fortunately we were quickly able to locate the only open chai house and get our fix.

Twenty kms or so East from Gangotri (3050m) is Gaumukh (Cow’s Tongue) (4100m), which is the end of the huge Gaumukh glacier – the source of the Ganges. For this reason the valley is a sacred place and we bumped into several Hindu pilgrims that were there to bathe in the icy glacial waters, a challenge that we would later come to enjoy.

Given the religious significance of the valley and the glacier that we would be travelling over, the Indian Expedition Leader, Major Jamwal aka Jammy, thought that it was necessary that the team visited a local temple, where we would be blessed and make offerings to The Gods before we departed.

The atmospheric ceremony was conducted outside in the cool evening air and featured much ringing of bells, gentle drumming, offering of food, chanting, incense sticks and drinking and splashing on the face of water straight from the Ganges. We all concluded that it was a fitting start to the next chapter of the expedition.

Having completed the 20km or so walk in over two days (and the height gain of over 1000m, we established Initial Base Camp (IBC), where we spent a few days as part of the acclimatization process. We pared down, sorted and repacked our kit, so that only the essentials were going further up the mountain. The process of unpacking and repacking our kit happened several times on the route up, each time leaving more kit behind, until we had a series of caches up the mountain and the bare minimum on our backs as we neared what would be summit camp.

Ideally we would have moved up the mountain at a rate of 300m of altitude gain every day (to avoid the effects of altitude, or at least give our bodies a chance to acclimatize), with a rest day every third day, but this wasn’t always possible due to the time pressure, availability of flat ground for tents, water sources and the desire to NOT sleep under unstable boulders. The biggest day we had was 600m gained and on other days much less, but slowly we made progress and took ourselves and our kit through a series of camps, through a series of different terrains, until eventually we found ourselves at 5750m, standing in a huge snow and ice filled bowl, looking up at the summit of ‘our’ mountain.

Between the summit and us was a huge crevasse field, 80 degree slopes, hanging glaciers and frequent rock and ice fall. It was suddenly apparent why the mountain had not been climbed before. In fact, on reflection, the route in itself would have played a part in the status of the mountain; we had been travelling up glaciers that were covered in dirty, rock strewn boulder fields, with steep, loose rock, precariously perched on both sides of the valleys. In other words not very nice to look at, hard going and dangerous!

Over the course of five or six days, we worked together, bringing more supplies and equipment up from the last camp and recceing routes up.

It quickly became obvious that there were three main options up to the summit, all of varying difficulty and danger; going left would have taken us under a hanging glacier and ice and rock fall, so this option was immediately dismissed as too dangerous; going right we would have been channelled up a tight 80 degree snow gully, that looked fairly straight forward, but very steep (for 4 or 500 metres), slow going, gear intensive (particularly rope for the lines that the Indians wanted to fix) and with little option for shelter if things got tricky. That left the middle… and so out the recces went, picking a route through crevasses and hopefully onto a saddle at about 6350m, from where the summit was a slow, steep plod away.

Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and at about 6100m, we hit a huge crevasse, probably about 5m wide and at least 25m deep, with no way round it. As if this wasn’t enough, the back wall of the crevasse rose to about 20 metres (one of the Brits described it as ‘like hitting the Great Wall of China at 6100m!’).

So we were forced back and then into going up the snow slope to the right. Not ideal, but with the clock ticking and our time on the mountain now at a premium (we were unsure of the state of the roads, for the return journey to Delhi) we had to crack on.

Adding to the pressure was the news that the Met report for the coming five or six days was looking like heavy snow and thunderstorms. (At this point in the trip, we had become used t
o the Met typically being ‘early’ and often saw the weather it predicted, 36 – 48 hrs after it had said it should be with us). We went off to bed with crossed fingers that we could get another 2 days of clear weather.

However, it was not to be and sadly we woke up in the night to the sound of snow falling, settling and then sliding off our tents. At this point we knew that our luck had run out. Several hours later, at first light, we awoke again and looked outside to find that the gully we needed to ascend was full of snow and would be a mixture of unstable snow and rock slides for the next few days, until the snow settled.

The time we lost at the beginning of our trip had now caught up with us; we simply did not have the time to wait, with more snow forecast there was no option, but to head down.

With heavy hearts (and packs!) we headed back to Camp 1 where we would spend the night. We just managed to get the tents up, before yet more snow came down; 7 or 800m higher up there would have been even more. We knew the right decision had been made.

Over the next few days we headed back to Base Camp and into Gangotri. On the way we learned the tragic news that five members of the other Indian Army Expedition that was in the next valley had been avalanched into a crevasse and three were missing. As we reached Initial Base Camp there were helicopters waiting to take four of the Indian climbers in our team, who were trained in Search and Rescue, up the valley to help look for the missing climbers. It was a poigniant moment, not lost on anyone.

We covered the remaining 20kms or so into Gangotri in a day, from where we headed back to Delhi, enjoying some Indian Army hospitality on the way (as we had done on the route up), staying in the Garrison town of Harsal, home of 5th Btn Gharwal Rifles, where we had some great food and a few beers, before retiring to bed.

Once back in Delhi we had just enough time to attend the ‘Flag In’ ceremony at Indian Army HQ, do some shopping and on our final evening, take the Indian team out for dinner and a few more beers. It was a fitting end to the expedition.

Throughout the expedition we were incredibly well looked after. The Indian Team pulled out all the stops to get us to the mountain as quickly as possible, carrying out feats of logistical genius and Jammy was constantly on the phone, calling his contacts along the route, trying to keep one step ahead of the challenges coming our way.

Whilst I have no doubt that any expedition to the Himalayas, would be a fantastic experience, the chance to have done so with a team of Indian climbers, more importantly Indian Army climbers, made the trip all the more memorable. The Officers and NCOs (from Maj – Pte), from a variety of capbadges (many of which they had inherited from us!), made us feel welcome, looked after, shared a fantastic part of their country with us and introduced us to and taught us how to cook various Indian dishes (and Chai!). We sincerely hope that we can return the favour sometime soon.

This was only the second time that a team of British Army climbers had climbed in India with the Indian Army. I hope that it won’t be so long before the next chance comes along and that anyone who gets the chance to apply should do so. I would strongly encourage commanders of all levels to see the value in this kind of training and support their soldiers, should they wish to apply. Even if unsuccessful in securing a place on such a trip, it would be worth it for opportunity to participate in the training and selection in Wales, Scotland and the Alps alone.

Should you wish to see more photos or read anymore about the expedition, you could have a look at www.exindiantiger.blog.co.uk.

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

In partnership with:

Nuffield Trust