Illustration: Shyam G Menon
The voice at the other end of the phone line sounded alert and articulate. We decided on Friday, 4PM to meet. Friday’s conversation happened in the kitchen of the apartment; there was a youngster next door preparing for his exams. At the small dining table, pantry nearby for making coffee, the 86 year-old gave me an overview of his life and the early days of climbing in Mumbai.
On October 2, 1955, two young men stood on top of the Karnala pinnacle, roughly 13 kilometers from Panvel in Navi Mumbai.
Rock climbing was very much in its infancy those days in the Mumbai region. Almost sixty four years later, one of the two climbers, a student of Topiwala National Medical College (TNMC) back then, remembered an instance – possibly an afternoon – from two years prior to the Karnala episode. It was June 1953, and after a circuitous process whereby a coded message was carried by runner from Everest Base Camp to Namche Bazaar, then dispatched as telegram from there to the British embassy in Kathmandu and relayed onward from there to London, news of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary achieving the first ascent of Everest on May 29, 1953 was at last broken to the world on June 2. The day the news appeared in India, the young man in question – 86 years old when I met him at his house near Bhatia Hospital in Mumbai in October 2019 – was standing in queue at the city’s Metro Cinema to catch a movie, likely an afternoon show. The day’s newspaper was being sold and the ascent of Everest was prominently featured. The news was also broadcast on the radio. He remembers rushing to the British Council Library, a favorite haunt to read, for more information on the development.
“ The first ascent of Everest created quite a buzz,’’ he said, recalling the early days of climbing in Mumbai. By all accounts, the instinct in him those years was less a specific activity called climbing and more, the desire to explore; taste adventure. In 1949, as a sixteen year-old, he had made his first push in that direction, buying a return ticket to Kalyan at what was then the Victoria Terminus (VT) station – now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Station (CSMT) – and then boarding the train to see parts of Mumbai he hadn’t been to yet. “ It was beautiful after Thane. At Mumbra, the Parsik range and its rock faces appeared. Then there was the Ulhas River further on,’’ he said. The rock faces reminded of landscapes featured in foreign magazines, some of which, he had gotten to see; there was Life magazine and the books on the shelves at British Council Library and American Center. More importantly, the hills reminded of memories from childhood.
The young man atop Karnala was born in 1933 at Tedim, administrative headquarters of the Chin Hills in north-west Myanmar. It was a remote place, especially in that era. His father was a doctor. Tedim had no electricity, no telephone; there was one telegraph line. It took several days from the nearest road to reach Tedim, a journey – he said – his mother with her orderly had made on two ponies all by themselves. Yangon (Rangoon then) was a long way off to the south. When he was seven years old, the future climber was packed off to boarding school in Yangon. By then his father was working in Shwedaung. In 1942 the Japanese attacked Yangon; their planes bombed the city. In its wake, orders for evacuation were issued. Thanks to his position as doctor, his father was assured passage aboard a ship to India. But that was for only him. He turned down the offer and elected to stay with his family, now facing the prospect of walking all the way to India. This exodus of Indians, Europeans and troops of the British Indian army is well documented. They followed two routes both fairly treacherous. The first was the shorter route running through the Arakan Peninsula into what is now Bangladesh. The second was the longer route leading to Imphal, Manipur in North East India. The climber’s family opted for the second route. “ On the way, the long convoy was periodically attacked by Japanese aircraft. You could see the pilot in the cockpit looking for a suitable target as he approached. They spared the Indians but not the British, who got strafed. So when we heard the aircraft’s sound we would bundle the British onto the trucks accompanying the convoy and cover them with tarpaulin,’’ he recalled.
Upon reaching Manipur and assistance from volunteers of the Indian National Congress, the family made its way to Mumbai where their relatives stayed. “ We had nothing with us except the clothes on our back and some belongings. We started life afresh. We stayed initially at a chawl on Lamington Road. Now I am here,’’ the 86 year-old said. Tardeo nearby was a busy crossroad as was the road in front of Bhatia Hospital. But Talmakiwadi where the apartment stood was peaceful. The long walk from Myanmar assumed significance because to his mind, that childhood spent in remote parts of Myanmar and later steeled by trek of five weeks over the hills of Myanmar and North East India amid World War II, may have sown in him the ability to endure discomfort. That’s useful for a life in the outdoors.
Among Maharashtra’s pinnacles, Karnala is small. It has been climbed many times. By the 1980s and 1990s, it was among the first pinnacles anyone into climbing attempted. You finished a rock climbing training camp and headed to Karnala for graduation. By then rock climbing shoes, ropes and gear had started trickling in; at the very least people had stuff sourced through friends and relatives abroad. Today, there are plenty of options in Mumbai for youngster curious about the outdoors. There are clubs to train with, supported hikes in the nearby hills and seasonal camps and expeditions parents are happy to dispatch their children on. Things were different in the 1940s and 50s. “ Unlike today’s dilemma of which role model to select from the many available, back in time we had none to follow,’’ he said. In Mumbai of the 1940s, there was nobody to train budding hiker-climber. So books became teachers. On trips to the hills and rock, they experimented with some of the things they had read about – a climbing move or two. Slowly, they picked up techniques. They read about climbing knots and practised making them but having no equipment, restricted their climbing to safe limits partial to learning technique. Improvisation played a role. Buzz around Everest notwithstanding, outdoor pursuits like hiking and its infant of a relative – climbing, were utterly niche hobbies in Mumbai. In fact, the first time the young man met others interested in the outdoors, was when he joined TNMC.
Illustration: Shyam G Menon
That was why the 1955 Karnala climb felt like a marvel. It smacked of personal break-through. The hike to the pinnacle had been long; much longer than the comparatively short walk of today. “ The vultures on the pinnacle flew away seeing us climb up. We also made sure not to disturb the honeybees and their hives, known to be around. We climbed the pinnacle with no equipment or rope and on bare feet,’’ he said. At the top of the pinnacle, the enormity of what they did and the descent that waited, hit them. “ We wondered if anyone else had climbed it before,’’ he said. Around 1955, the young man walked into a meeting of the Bombay University’s hiking club. “ There I ran into Professor Manjrekar. He was a year senior to me and well established in trekking. I was also introduced to Professor D. B. Wagh, who was then president of the hiking club,’’ he said. Same time, the young man set about securing more information on Karnala pinnacle; he wanted to find out if it had been climbed before. At a public library in south Mumbai, they checked the Bombay Gazetteer published in 1882. It had a section on Karnala; detailed maps and all. It informed that the British had climbed it with ropes and ladders. Still one question remained – had anyone climbed it without equipment? Politician and Member of Parliament, Homi Talyarkhan was author of a couple of books on the surroundings of Mumbai. The young man wrote to him informing of the climb. Talyarkhan invited the two climbers over and gifted copies of his book. What excitement remained was however short-lived. Sometime later, at an exhibition in Mumbai, the two friends came across material on the Parsi Pioneers and a photograph of the well-known mountaineer Keki Bunshah (in 1958, he would be leader of an Indian expedition to Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world). In the photo, Bunshah could be seen climbing Karnala pinnacle clad in white shirt, white pants and white canvas shoes. There was no rope, no gear visible. So no, they were definitely not the first atop Karnala, not the first climbing it without equipment either. “ I belong to the early days of climbing in Mumbai. But the real pioneers were the Parsis. If I am not mistaken, there was also climbing around Mount Abu in western India in that early phase,’’ he said. Some years later, the Parsi Pioneers would become a more tangible link because their publication with regular update of activities used to reach Climbers Club, when the latter started functioning in Mumbai. It was common for the two outfits to exchange notes.
Having completed his MBBS, the young man entered government service as a doctor. He served in a rural area away from Mumbai and his parents. Committed as he was to his work, he didn’t last long in that job. He wasn’t successful as a private practitioner too. That approach didn’t seem to gel for him. Luckily, an opening emerged to teach at Nair Hospital. “ From that point onward, there was no looking back,’’ he said. He would work there for many years, eventually retiring in 1991 as Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Radio Isotopy. Being an outdoorsman he took students – those interested – on outings. “ I used to tell them – you will seek wealth, I seek health and fitness. When I retire I will be living on my pension,’’ he said. Back in the 1950s, the period from 1955 to 1960 was spent on private trips to the outdoors; he hiked and put whatever climbing moves he saw in books into practice. In 1954, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) came up in Darjeeling. In 1959, the Mountaineering Committee was born in Mumbai and a year later – in 1960 – it transformed to Climbers Club. The young man had joined the Mountaineering Committee.
The Committee sought to conduct an annual rock climbing camp in Mumbra. The self-taught young man wasn’t particularly impressed by the climbing skills of those on the Committee. It was a peculiar situation. On the one hand, everyone around knew that he moved well on rock, sometimes better than them. On the other hand, when Climbers Club took shape they wanted every member to have done a basic mountaineering course and every life member to have done an advanced mountaineering course. He never did any formal course in climbing. But in 1960, he did join Climbers Club. Every December, Climbers Club organized four to five training camps at Mumbra taught by HMI instructors. Prominent mountaineers like Nawang Gombu (first man to climb Everest twice) and Ang Kami Sherpa came to teach. In later years, instructors from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) came. By around 1975, Climbers Club started losing steam. It doesn’t exist anymore. But other clubs like Girivihar (which emerged from the Bombay University’s hiking club), Explorers and Adventurers (E&A) and several more have kept the flame of climbing alive in the city.
In those early days, there was no rock climbing shoes. It was typically Hunter shoes. “ I found that they improved in friction and perch once they aged, lost tread and the sole became flat,’’ he said. Ropes used were made of hemp. The 86 year-old even recalled a harness fashioned from hemp, fabricated locally. During the 1960s, when Climbers Club was active, all the metal gear used in climbing came from the Indian Army. “ There were heavy iron and steel pitons and carabiners of different types. If I remember correct, they cost seven to ten rupees a piece. The amount seems small but so was income those days. We accumulated gear slowly. Hemp rope was priced at one rupee per yard or so. One rope served for both climbing and rappelling. There was no testing. Nylon ropes came much later. Carabiners too started coming from abroad – brands like Pierre Allen and Stubai. Another source of gear for us was people who had worked on Himalayan expeditions,’’ he said.
Among the things he acquired – in the 1960s – was a classic wooden handled glacier ice axe. The wood requires periodic treatment with linseed oil. Obtained from Climbers Club, it served him well on Himalayan trips. The last time he took it out was in 2003, on a trek to Pindari Glacier. He was 70 years old then. “ I still have the axe. My grand-nephew has given it a good cleaning. The only problem is that unlike the small light ice axes of today, this one is big. You can’t conceal it. On the train, policemen came and asked me – what are you up to?’’ he said laughing. At the crags, climbers from the early clubs – Climbers Club and Girivihar – would run into each other. They got along; helped each other. “ Clubs should work together. They shouldn’t let competition get in the way,’’ he said. Foreign climbers used to drop by in the early years of climbing in Mumbai. One of them – he recalled – was the Swiss mountaineer Raymond Lambert, who had been on early Swiss expeditions to Everest from the southern side. In May 1952, he along with Tenzing had reached 8611m on Everest, at that point the highest altitude anyone had climbed to. In Mumbai, Lambert accompanied local climbers to Mumbra.
Illustration: Shyam G Menon
The last Himalayan expedition the 86 year-old was on, was a solo trip from Mumbai with pretty big load to Manali and the nearby Manalsu Nallah. “ It wasn’t exactly expedition; I don’t call it so – more a personal jaunt. I was unable to join my friends when they went a few months earlier to the same place. So I went alone afterwards. There’s a peak there called Khanpari Tibba. I climbed it but the descent happened at night. There was snow. I had my trusted ice axe in one hand, a torch strapped to the other so that if I fell, I could use both hands on the axe to arrest my fall,’’ he said. He had hired three local persons to assist but they weren’t with him when the descent occurred. The solitary light coming down the dark slope was noticed by people from far who asked him of it later. That was in 1966. Today Khanpari Tibba is a much advertised hike. Times change; perceptions change. For instance, nowadays climbers don’t settle for one mountaineering course; they do a handful and perch unassailable on top of a mountain of certificates. The 86 year-old, who never did a course, sees it differently. “ Did Eric Shipton do a course? Did John Hunt do a course? Take a person who did a course ten years ago. He is all flab now. Outdoor activity is something that springs from within you. The rules and regulations of a club may not suit everyone,’’ he said.
Many of Mumbai’s early climbers are no more. A comprehensive multidimensional account of the early days will be difficult to piece together. “ Sir, it is tradition to have a photo of the person I spoke to alongside the article. Failing which, I illustrate. Is it alright if I took a photo?’’ I asked. He thought for a second or two. “ No, spare me that. The account of that period matters more than the person,’’ Dr Srikar R. Amladi, 86, said. At the time of writing, he still enjoyed his periodic excursions with family to Matheran. The friend who was along with him on the Karnala climb was the late Sharat Chandra Sarang, popularly known as Baban Sarang. “ He was a couple of years junior to me. Baban passed away several years ago,’’ Dr Amladi said.
Tedim in the Chin Hills is now accessible by road. Besides its road connection to other parts of Myanmar, there has been since World War II, a Tedim Road linking Imphal to Tedim. The Tedim Road was built by the British to aid the war effort. As per accounts on the Internet, it was made operational in 1943 after the first wave of Japanese attacks on Yangon. The subsequent occupation of Myanmar (Burma) by the Japanese brought the war close to India’s borders. The Japanese advance would continue till their defeat and push back at Imphal and Kohima by the Allied forces. Like the Stilwell Road running from Ledo in Assam to Myanmar and onward to Kunming in China, awareness of the Tedim Road, post 1947, was most with regard to the functional portions of the road within India. There was little talk of ill maintained sections beyond the border leading to places in Myanmar. Things have been slowly changing. A February 2016 report in The Assam tribune said that the Rih-Tedim Road Project will provide all-weather connectivity between eastern Mizoram and western Myanmar. In January 2018, The Hindu Business Line reported, “ A detailed project report (DPR) is underway to build the Rih-Tedim road that will help connect the Trilateral Highway through Zokhawthar-Rih border in Mizoram, where India has already committed huge sums for widening the highway. Currently, Myanmar is connected by road only through Moreh in Manipur.’’ The Trilateral Highway will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Amladi. Thanks to Ravi Kamath of AVI Industries for an afternoon spent talking about climbing in years gone by, wherein he mentioned of Dr Amladi and suggested that I meet him to know more. Please note: while this blog writes about climbing, including free climbing, it recommends that climbing be done with safety gear and protocols in place.)