Climbing Chomolhari in 1970

Travelogue

“What’s your problem?’ Dorjee Lhatoo shouted in Tibetan, “We’ll all die if we carry on pushing towards the summit,” Lieutenant Chachu replied. The two men were a hundred feet below the summit of Mount Jhomolhari (Chomolhari – 24,000 ft) making their final assault to the summit.

Chachu was an officer of the Royal Bhutan Army, while Lhatoo was an Indian mountaineer. They were part of the 1970 Indo-Bhutan expedition. Colonel Kumar from the Indian army, who worked in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, headed the expedition.

The colonel had met the Third King in Darjeeling, who had accepted his proposal to scale the mountain.

The Bhutanese consider mountains sacred and the abode of the gods. Climbing them is sacrilegious.

Mount Jhomolhari is one of Bhutan’s most sacred mountains. It is the highest peak on the western border and dominates the border with China. It is worshipped as the house of the goddess Jo-mo. Its symmetrical peak the summit is considered fit to be the throne of the divine and worshipped as a living being. Furthermore, the mountain is considered to be the bride of Mount Kangchenjunga.

The sacred mountain was first scaled in 1937. When the English mountaineer, Spencer Chapman, climbed it, the yak herders living in its shadows were not happy.

After more than three decades, the second expedition took off in 1970. The ten climbers were divided into two teams. Chachu and Lhatoo were on the first team.

On the morning of April 23, the first team set off from camp II at 23,000 feet. The climbing condition were most favourable, the weather clear.

After some hours of dangerous climbing on razor sharp ridges and slippery slopes the team reached the southwestern summit and rested 100 feet below the throne of the mountain. It is here that Chachu first refused to climb any further and tried to prevent his team members as well.

“Please don’t go any further,” Chachu cautioned his team members. His words fell on deaf ears. While his team entered the throne, he could not bring himself to tread upon the goddess with his feet. He remembers, staring at the summit, “I felt I couldn’t go up to the top.” Years later, psychologist called this reluctance the ‘Chachu syndrome.’

Obviously, the rest of the team had no problem scaling the mountain. In the words of one of them, “There is nothing wrong with going to abode of the goddess Chomolhari to pray. We all had come here in utter humility on a pilgrimage.” The four members reached the top at 4:30 am. In addition to the flags of the two countries (shown in the photo), Lhatoo placed the ornate urn (shown in the photo), containing precious objects, such as gold and diamonds, to pacify the divine lady. It was placed on the throne of the goddess. It had been blessed by the monks and was to appease the deities residing on the Sino-Bhutan border.

The Jhomolhari expedition of 1970 is known for two things. First, the efficient use of bamboos as ladders; and secondly, the dramatic disappearance of the three climbers Captain PSL Kang, Captain Dharam Pal and Sherpa Aa Nima. To this day, the disappearance remains a mystery shrouded in conspiracy theories.

Lieutenant Chachu and his team met the second party when they were descending. They were last seen about 150 feet short of the summit. A big search party was set up and helicopters engaged. This expedition did stop a few metres short of the summit, in respect to the religious concerns of Buddhists on both sides of the mountain.

“As a Buddhist and a Tibetan speaker, the goddess spared you because you were carrying the yangu,” the Bhutanese cautioned Lhatoo and stopped him from joining the rescue mission. However, Col. Kumar, Prem Chand and six Sherpas went ahead with a ground search but had no success.

On the 1st of May 1970, the search for the three Indian mountaineers was called off. All means were implored to locate the missing climbers. It was with a heavy heart that Lt. Chachu says, “That the search was finally abandoned.”

Mountaineers will tell you that the mountains get hold of people. Years later, lieutenant Chachu reflected, “It all looked rather tiring while it lasted, but given a chance now I’d again like to go to the mountains. They are so good. You feel their sacredness. Mountains do something to men. Once you have been to them, you are never the same again. Once you have been on a mountain, you feel yourself a purer, a better man.”

Contributed by Tshering Tashi for Kuensel,
Co-author, Bold Bhutan Beckons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.