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Climb every mountain

The foundations of Indian mountaineering were laid by the masters and boys of a leading public school. The saga of the institution's association with the Himalayas.

ONCE upon a time, I found myself seated by the poolside of a swanky hotel. It was Ladies' Hour, and there were well-dressed women around me, some English and some Indian — overseeing their children as they disported in the pool. After a while I noticed a strange thing. I heard the English mothers urging their children to "go on, jump from the diving board, don't be such a coward;" while the Indian mothers shouted "be careful, don't go there, don't climb that, you might hurt yourself".

Who could have believed that a time would soon come when the same Indian mothers — or their successors — would be urging their sons (and daughters) to join courses on rock-climbing and mountaineering?

A popular explanation for this turnaround in attitude is that the trend was started by the Doon School that had, from its inception, laid emphasis on every kind of outdoor activity, especially mountaineering. "It would not be untrue to say," says George Verghese, veteran journalist, "that the foundations of Indian mountaineering were laid by the masters and boys of the Doon School." The Britishers who were afraid that mountaineering would peter off after they left were wrong. They had reckoned without the Doon School.

"The school sits at the foot of the Himalaya," explains the editor of the present book, "and you cannot avoid lifting your eyes to the hills." And, by a lucky chance, "the first Headmaster, Arthur Foot, was a keen climber... . and perhaps his love for the mountains influenced him in recruiting others who were attracted to the school for the same reasons... . "Prominent among these were the trinity of teacher/ mountaineers — John Martyn, Jack Gibson and Holdie (R. L. Holdsworth). Gurdial Singh joined the school a couple of years later, and the trinity became a quarter. These four were "a storehouse of experience and technical skill... they found pleasure in introducing their charges to the high hills... "

"We had all been keen," Gibson wrote "that the boys of Doon School should learn the pleasures of mountaineering, and from its early days had encouraged climbing expeditions to the hills north of Dehra Dun, and winter skiing above Gulmarg; but it was not till 1942 that John and Holdie took boys, of whom Nandu Jayal was one, into the real mountains."

That trip must have been turning point in Nandu's life, for he was able to build his career on mountaineering, becoming the first principal of the Indian Mountaineering Institute.

An early "convert" was Chengappa, who tells us how, on his very first outing, he was taught the proper techniques of mountaineering, including organising supplies, working out the correct loads for porters, mapping out routes, finding suitable tent-sites. After the first trip, mountaineering seemed to become an addiction. "For who has been to the high hills and not craved to go again?"

Soon both masters and boys were all over the hills, sometimes content to tramp about in the foothills, and sometimes setting their sights on major peaks. Many of those expeditions have a place in the history of mountaineering. Among the major achievements was Gurdial's ascent of "Trisul" in 1951 (this book celebrates its 50th anniversary) — his ascent of "Mrigthuni" in 1958, the many expeditions to "Harki Doon" and "Banderpunch", which came to be called the "Doon School mountain." A very great tragedy occurred on "Cho Oyn" in 1958 when Nandu Jayal, by then one of India's most experienced climbers died of pneumonia.

If the Doon School was the cradle of Indian mountaineering, says the editor, "the mid-term expedition was the cradle of Doon School mountaineers". The mid-term was "an institution that seemed to have invented itself, and that has influenced generations of boys as much as any other aspect of their education... " Starting as a one-day picnic in the middle of term, it grew into strenuous, but light-hearted, trips — cycling, trekking, fishing, swimming, climbing or any kind of a five-day "adventure" outing by a small group of boys under a master. As these boys grew older, they learnt to plan and organise their own outings, and were allowed to dispense with the master; such outings were a fine preparation for major expeditions in the vacations which could perhaps be considered not just good fun, but as a serious — perhaps the most serious part of education, "for mountaineering calls for an exercise of the mind and spirit, for a sense of reverence, a sense of communion with Nature".

Every expedition became a sort of education at the highest level — literally and metaphorically — whether it was an education in responsibility, in being cheerful under hardship and discomfort, in identifying flowers and animals; or in cooking, as one boy ruefully said, "Few could have had introduction to the mountains so rich and lasting as mine," writes Suman Dubey.

Each outing or expedition, big or small, was jealously written about in the Doon School Weekly, a paper written, edited and produced by the boys themselves. When Nalni Jayal and Gurdial Singh set out to produce this saga of the school's association with the Himalayas, much of the material was gathered from old issues of the Weekly, apart from the books, journals, diaries and letters which were scrupulously combed.

Of the 60-odd pieces presented here, the greatest number are by a quartet of masters They have been presented with coherence and enlivened by explanations, stories, comments, biographical notes and anecdotes.

The editing is elegant and scholarly; the book is packed with informative material and curiously uplifting. Lastly, the quality of the material is equalled by the quality of the production.

For Hills to Climb; editor: Aamir Ali; Coordinators: Nalni Jayal and Gurdial Singh; Published by The Doon School Old Boys' Society, p.439, price not mentioned.


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