How many aitches in Machapuchare?

As October draws to a close I will soon be turning over another page of my World’s Greatest Mountains 2014 wall calendar, which this month features Machapuchare, the celebrated 6,993m peak in Nepal’s Annapurna range, a mountain that you often see given the ludicrous spelling Machhapuchhare, with two sets of double aitches. This post is all about how to spell the mountain correctly.

My 2014 wall calendar, which happily spells Machapuchare in a sensible fashion (Photo: John Warburton-Lee / DanitaDelimont.com)
My 2014 wall calendar, which happily spells Machapuchare in a sensible fashion (Photo: John Warburton-Lee / DanitaDelimont.com)

Many people’s first view of Machapuchare is from Pokhara, Nepal’s second city and a popular place to chill out by the lakeside before or after a strenuous trek. It’s also one of the more notable peaks that appear as dawn is breaking at the popular viewpoint of Poon Hill in the Annapurna foothills, alongside the two big 8000ers Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. At just 6,993m, it’s much lower than most of the peaks that surround it, but it’s arguably more striking in appearance. Depending which angle you look from it appears as a steep pinnacle, a bit like a larger version of the Matterhorn, or a steep twin-summited trapezium which gives it its name (the word Machapuchare, pronounced matcher-pootcher-ray, translates as Fishtail).

It also has an interesting climbing history. In 1957 British climbers Wilfrid Noyce and David Cox got to within 50m of the summit during an expedition led by Col Jimmy Roberts. With the summit in sight they found their way barred by several columns of blue ice “like the claws of some great dragon” and decided to retreat. Back down in civilisation Roberts, an officer in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army who spoke fluent Nepali, managed to persuade the local authorities that Machapuchare should henceforth be considered a holy mountain. The local people believe all great mountains in the Himalayas are inhabited by mountain gods whom it’s necessary to appease by conducting a puja ceremony. The Sherpas won’t set foot on a mountain without one, but once the puja has been performed, the mountain gods have given their consent and the peak can be climbed. The same is not true for special holy mountains, whose summits must remain untouched. Since Roberts’ 1957 expedition, no further climbing permits have been issued for Machapuchare, and to this day it remains unclimbed.

This all seems a bit selfish of Roberts, but anyone who has ever travelled in Nepal owes him a great deal. Not only is he regarded by many as the grandfather of trekking in Nepal, by taking three old ladies from the US on the first ever commercial trek in 1965, but the fact the name Machapuchare is vaguely pronounceable is largely down to him.

Many people's first view of Machapuchare is from the town of Pokhara
Many people’s first view of Machapuchare is from the town of Pokhara

In an appendix to his book about the 1957 expedition, Climbing the Fish’s Tail, Noyce explained how this came about. Before the book was published he wrote to Roberts expressing dismay that on most maps of the area the mountain seemed to be spelled Machhapuchhare. Noyce pointed out this involved a ridiculous number of aitches which people in Britain wouldn’t be able to take seriously. As he was the expert on the Nepali language, Noyce wondered if it was possible for Roberts to let him drop a couple so the spelling would be much more palatable to folk back home. Roberts whipped out his English-to-Nepali dictionary and looked up the word fish. To his horror he found the translation machchha, even more aitches, which meant there would be a high risk of dying of breath before getting even halfway through the name. Luckily he had another dictionary which spelled it macha, exactly what Noyce was looking for.

He hurriedly turned the pages and, in a fever of excitement, looked up the word tail (actually he probably wasn’t in a fever of excitement, but if you imagine he was for a moment then it makes the story seem a lot more dramatic). One of the dictionaries had pucchar, the right number of aitches but too many c’s, while the other had puchar. I imagine at this point he flung his dictionaries in the air in a gesture of resignation, picked up his pen and scribbled a reply to Noyce telling him to spell the mountain however he sodding well pleased. Nepalis don’t use the Roman alphabet anyway, so why did it matter? In any case, whatever actually happened, Noyce spelled it Machapuchare, and a good thing too. You will still see some people spelling it Machhapuchhare (and on Wikipedia they even spell it Machhapuchchhre!), but these people are fools.

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4 thoughts on “How many aitches in Machapuchare?

  • October 29, 2014 at 7:59 pm
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    You say that Machhapuchhare is still virgin. I DO HOPE so, and I’d like to think it will remain virgin. What better peak to remain inviolate and aloof?
    There are more things in Heaven and Earth….

    However – some years ago when travelling in the US, I was perusing the AAC internal publication welcoming newly elected members – you may be familiar with it – it details the entry qualifications listed by the aspirants. To my surprise one new, young member (whose name meant nothing to me) had included in his otherwise unremarkable list the ‘First Ascent of Machhapuchhare – solo’.

    It made me cross. If this is true, I thought, he should be banned from Nepal for ever, not just for breaking the well-known rules, but especially for boasting about so doing. If it was not true, then someone at the AAC should have asked questions and blackballed him for lying. There are, after all, some ethics in mountaineering.

    Jimmy Roberts was a good friend of mine, he once told me never to be surprised if on reaching a thought-to-be-virgin summit, one found a cairn or other indication that someone had been there first. When they do climb illegally, as many have done and many continue to do, true mountaineers keep their mouths shut afterwards. Remember the case of Yannick Seigneur and Taweche !

  • November 12, 2014 at 4:08 pm
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    Hi John, thanks for posting. I completely agree, I don’t know what goes on in the minds of these people. Whether it’s a hoax or true it’s hard to understand what they hoped to gain. More surprising is that the American Alpine Club let the claim slip through. It sounds like a joke – I wonder if any newly elected members have listed the first ascent of Rum Doodle.

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