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The impossible peaks of Himalaya

Monitoring Desk

Climbing Machhapuchhare is forbidden, a rarity in a country like Nepal that has embraced mountain tourism so enthusiastically that even the world’s highest point gets overcrowded.

Through the window of a bus one summer, I remember being awestruck by the faint outline of a giant triangular mass of rock and snow, shrouded in a swirl of clouds for a brief minute, towering over Nepal’s famous Pokhara valley and its eponymous city. Seeing an imposing peak dominate the skyline of a bustling town was unlike any other first glimpse of a Himalayan mountain I had experienced in my decade-long exploration in the Himalayas, either in India or in Nepal. I was quite amused that I didn’t have to trek for days to get a glimpse of the elusive beauty; I merely had to sit in a bus.

The mountain that inadvertently captured my imagination was neither Everest nor any of the country’s seven other peaks that are more 8,000m tall, but a relatively lowly peak whose height would easily betray its beauty. Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my obsession. Decades before me, another man also fell in love with this mountain – and left behind a rather quirky legacy.

Machhapuchhare – which translates to “fishtail” – is an iconic 6,993m mountain in central Nepal’s Annapurna range that contains three of the world’s 10 highest peaks. And yet, Machhapuchhare effortlessly steals the show, thanks to its position far from the much higher peaks of the Annapurna range, where it stands isolated and appears tall despite its humbler height.

The peak’s geographic position affords easy views of its different profiles from several places, and the stunning prominence of its vertical relief is inescapable from any angle or distance. Rising like twin spires twisting into each other, Machhapuchhare’s double summit is joined by a sharp ridge and has as much allure as the steep, symmetrical triangular tip – its other profile.

After that initial sight, I returned to Nepal several times and always made time to see my favourite mountain. Some days were spent in Pokhara, watching the sublime reflection of Machhapuchhare in Phewa Lake. Others were spent watching the early morning and late-evening sun cast glorious light on the pointed peak towering over the rural slopes around Begnas Lake. On other days, I gazed at the mountain from ridgetops like Sarangkot or Astam around Pokhara valley.

Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my obsession

One winter, I finally hiked to the basecamp of a smaller peak called Mardi Himal beneath Machhapuchhare. Established in 2012, the short five-day, 40km trek reaches a height of 4,500m and offers one of Machhapuchhare’s finest and closest views. Another 1,000m upwards to Mardi Himal summit is the closest anyone can get to the peak.

That’s because climbing Machhapuchhare is forbidden, a rarity in a country like Nepal that has embraced mountain tourism so enthusiastically that even the world’s highest point – Mt Everest’s 8,848m summit – gets overcrowded. But the reason Machhapuchhare remains a virgin peak – as well as the explosion of commercial trekking and mountaineering in Nepal today – can be attributed to one man: Lieutenant Colonel James Owen Merion Roberts (1916-1997).

Phewa Lake in Pokhara has iconic views onto Machhapuchhare and the Annapurna Range (Credit: Pisit Rapitpunt/Getty Images)

Jimmy Roberts, as he was popularly known, was a celebrated British Army officer whose contributions to Nepal and Himalayan mountaineering are profound. Roberts was appointed as the first military attaché to Nepal in 1958. He used his position, passion and knowledge of the Himalayas to open up the country’s remote mountains for commercial mountaineering and trekking, an industry that has gone on to contribute significantly to Nepal’s economy and local livelihoods.

He not only pioneered a golden age of Himalayan exploration, but also made its beauty accessible to the rest of the world when he founded the country’s first trekking agency called Mountain Travel in 1964. He even co-opted and popularised the term “trek”, which has become synonymous with hiking in the Himalayas today. For that, he is still fondly remembered as the “father of trekking” in Nepal.

Roberts’ fascination with Pokhara and Machhapuchhare began after reading a dispatch from Nepal written in 1936 by an army officer, who wrote of the mountain and a curious town on the banks of a lake. “To see Pokhara and Machapuchare [sic] and the villages in which my men lived, and especially the Gurungs [one of the main Gurkha tribes in the Himalayas] soon became an obsession,” Roberts wrote in the preface to the book Climbing the Fish’s Tail by Wilfrid Noyce. “But in those days, the interior of Nepal was a forbidden land, more securely closed than even Mecca or Lhasa in their hey-day.”

Officially opened in 2012, the five-day Mardi Himal trek offers spectacular views of Machhapucchare (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

In 1950, he finally saw his beloved mountain from close quarters. “I was the first Englishman into my private Mecca [Pokhara]. There was Machapuchare shining in the moonlight, a great white pyramid incredibly aloof,” he wrote of his seminal encounter. “So Machapuchare became for me the ideal of a mountain, a personal possession yet out of this world, unattainable but mine by illogical right, brooding over a country and a people which would shape the rest of my life.”

In 1957, after more than 20 years of fixating on Machhapuchhare, Roberts organised the first expedition to summit the mountain (led by Noyce and joined by a few other climbers), which had not been officially climbed till then. One thing that stands out in Noyce’s account of the climb was the ease with which Roberts let go of his summit dream when logistical issues forced the summit team to be pared down to two. Roberts volunteered to take the support team down while Noyce and another climber went ahead with the final summit push. They, too, ended up abandoning the ascent, just 45m below the summit due to bad weather.

After the expedition, Roberts made a rather uncharacteristic request to the Nepal government: to have the peak restricted and thus to make Machhapuchhare a Himalayan summit that would remain forever unclimbed.

Surprisingly, they obliged.

The razor-sharp double summit of Machhapuchhare has been off limits for climbers since the 1960s (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Lisa Choegyal, a writer and veteran tourism industry professional based in Nepal who knew Roberts personally since 1974, told me, “Jimmy was not a mountaineer with a huge ego. Even though in this case, it sounds a little bit like it was hubris that if he couldn’t climb it, he didn’t want anyone else to climb it. But that doesn’t really represent the very gentle character that he was in real life.”

Roberts felt a strong kinship with the Gurungs, for whom Machhapuchhare is a sacred peak, and the people of Chomrong, the last Gurung village before Machhapuchhare, weren’t particularly happy with the foreign climbers trying to summit it. However, several mountains are sacred for several communities in Nepal, and that hasn’t stopped the government from issuing climbing permits, nor did it stop Roberts from climbing other mountains. But perhaps it was his love of the Gurung people and his unwavering enchantment with the mountain that led to Roberts’ unusual request.

Its forbidden summit, tantalisingly within reach, somehow made it more enticing

Exactly how Roberts managed to get the Nepal government to agree to remains a mystery, too. The sentiment, however, seems to have resonated well, with widespread acceptance within Nepal that the virgin peak is illegal to climb.

In fact, Roberts’ association with the peak being off limits has been largely forgotten. In his later years, “He used to smilingly say, ‘It’s very nice that they have still taken my advice that the peak should remain sacred.’ And by then it was sort of just generally accepted that it is sacred,” said Choegyal.

British Army officer Jimmy Roberts, who pioneered a golden age of Himalayan exploration, was fascinated with Machhapuchhare (Credit: Boy_Anupong/Getty Images)

Today the prevailing view is that the mountain is sacred and thus forbidden. “Machhapuchhare’s summit is not meant to be stepped upon; it is only to be adored by the eyes,” Tirtha Shrestha, a poet and long-time resident of Pokhara, told me, explaining that locals are of the view that Machhapuchhare should not be opened for climbing. “Any discourse, not just on Pokhara, but about the beauty of the entire Himalayas, would be incomplete without mentioning Machhapuchhare. Its beauty has greatly moved poets, authors and artists. In many folk songs, the mountain has been showered with praises. Machhapuchhare, for us, is the epitome of beauty,” he said.

Neither Roberts nor I would disagree. Nor would anyone who’s been on the Mardi Himal trek or in the general vicinity of Pokhara valley. While I walked through the rhododendron groves in the lower hills, floating above the clouds at times all the way to the highest viewpoint from where the Annapurna range comes into full view, Machhapuchhare’s pinnacle always dominated the horizon and held me in a strange thrall. And its forbidden summit, tantalisingly within reach, somehow made it more enticing.

 While it never became clear why Roberts wanted the peak to remain inviolate forever, especially after he himself tried to summit it once and got very close, it’s hard to find fault with Roberts’ move, seeing how many places have been ravaged by overtourism and commercial mountaineering. It is perhaps rather apposite that while Nepal’s many other mountains generate much-needed revenue, one sublime mountain remains untainted by the touch and ego of humans, quietly watching over the world from its sacred, solitary abode.

Today the prevailing view is that Machhapuchhare is sacred and thus forbidden, but no one knows the full story behind Roberts’ request (Credit: Siripong Kaewla-iad/Getty Images)

Courtesy: BBC

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