Shyam G. Menon remembers Roger Payne who helped realise what seems an impossible task even now: a joint Indo-Pak climbing expedition.

Mid-July, a photograph and an e-mail returned to focus.

Taken in 2002, the picture showed a team of climbers, including those from India and Pakistan, atop The Monch (German for monk), a peak in the European Alps. Prominent were the flags of the two Asian countries notorious for their mutual animosity. Very rarely, probably never until then, had the Indian and Pakistani flags been unfurled by mountaineers, side by side, on a summit.

In 1994, eight years before this incident, environmentalist and mountaineer Aamir Ali had proposed, for the first time, a peace park on the world’s highest battlefield — Siachen glacier. Author and veteran mountaineer Harish Kapadia took up the call. According to him, “Roger Payne, who was secretary of UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation), was enthusiastic about it and held detailed talks with IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). He drafted a plan whereby four climbers from India and Pakistan would climb together and unfurl their national flags.” Joining Kapadia for the climb was Mandip Singh Soin from India. Col. Sher Khan and Nazir Sabir represented Pakistan. Also in the team was Scottish mountaineer Jamie Andrew, a quadruple amputee. Payne and his wife, Julie-Ann Clyma led the ascent. “This was our call for peace on Siachen glacier and to save mountains everywhere,” Kapadia said. The summit photo, available with Kapadia, was clicked by Payne. So he doesn’t appear in it.

The politics of peaks

The Monch ascent, similarly, was to highlight the need to protect mountain environment. The military stand-off on Siachen and the resultant pollution of the glacier begged a solution. A peaceful Himalaya also holds other possibilities. Thanks to a history of conflict, with the mountain range itself becoming a war zone and deemed strategic, the subcontinent’s trekkers and mountaineers aren’t free to go anywhere they please in the Himalaya. For instance, the highest peaks of the Punjab Himalaya and the peaks of West Karakoram are generally beyond access for Indians as they are in territories occupied by Pakistan. Although elevation is only one measure of challenge in mountaineering and India has many genuinely challenging peaks in the 6000m and 7000m categories, the planet’s 14 8000m peaks have always been prized in climbing.

India has only one peak from this elite list – Kangchenjunga, which it shares with Nepal. Pakistan, Nepal and China have exclusive / shared access to more. Indian access to the prized peaks of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) — among them, K2 — has remained hostage to the politics of ownership of the Himalaya and its high-altitude battles ranging from Siachen to Kargil. A peaceful Himalaya provides for both protected mountains and for us to be amid them.

Some three years after that summit photo from The Monch, Col. J.S. Dhillon, the then Principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling, proposed a joint Indo-Pak expedition to climb K2, which straddles POK and its portions gifted to China. Dhillon envisaged a mix of military and civilian climbers, five from each country with a leader also from each. There would be six months joint training at HMI. In October 2006, it was reported that HMI’s executive council headed by the then Union Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, had cleared the proposal and it may be formally submitted after an upcoming round of Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan. However, nothing more was heard of this project.

Such predicaments make the 2002 photograph from the Alps, which Payne helped realise, interesting. The Monch was chosen because it was easy enough for the symbolic climb and lay in the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn world heritage site. Plus, assembling such a team, with that photo for record, was unthinkable in the Indian subcontinent. Long-ingrained mutual rivalry intact despite a beautiful shared climb, Kapadia joked that the Indians ensured their flag was higher than the Pakistani flag in the photo! He also recalls Payne saying, on the summit, that the occasion was a “dream come true”.

An avid mountaineer

Payne, a professional mountain guide, served as General Secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, President of British Mountain Guides and as a Director of UIAA, mountaineering’s apex body worldwide. Praised for his exploratory climbs and efforts to support the sport, he also contributed to raising awareness about the world’s mountains. The vast majority of Payne’s trips were alpine style, climbing in a team of two or four on very demanding high-altitude routes.

Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma did several expeditions together. In the Indian Himalaya, peaks they attempted or climbed included Changabang North Face and Nanda Devi East. Many in India’s climbing circles remember the smiling, easily approachable Roger Payne. “He was a rare combination of a top-notch climber and a good organiser. That summit photo from The Monch was a small part of what he did,” Kapadia said. Payne worked to popularise climbing, got ski-mountaineering and ice-climbing competitions into the UIAA fold, and brought competitive climbing closer to the Olympic movement.

Following his climbs in Sikkim, the state government sought Payne’s suggestions for developing mountain tourism. In January 2011, while responding to questions on a fatal mountaineering accident in Sikkim leading to calls to reclassify the concerned peak to indicate risk, Payne e-mailed me something utterly relevant but eventually poignant. “If there is a simple message I would like to share, it is that safety in mountaineering is a matter of education and not bureaucratic categories. One key lesson is that even with the best training, accidents will still occur. So it is vital that recreational climbers and mountaineers can recognise the hazards, accept the risks, and be responsible for their own participation and safety.  You may be surprised to know that here in the Alps, each winter around 100 people are killed in avalanches while skiing or climbing.  Of course we do everything possible to learn from these accidents, strive to improve safety, and be ready to help if we can.  But the only certain way to avoid fatal avalanche accidents is not to visit the mountains,” he said.

Early morning on July 12, Roger Payne was killed in an avalanche on Mont Maudit, part of Europe’s Mont Blanc massif. According to news reports, a snow slide 500 feet wide swept off mountaineers, among them Payne, a known avalanche instructor. “Roger’s commitment and enthusiasm was infectious. He will be missed by the climbing community,” Kapadia said. Among photos Kapadia shared for this article, was the one from The Monch, 2002.