Tilman’s expedition to Langtang

This is part 3 of a series of posts about early tourism in Nepal. For the previous posts see part 1: How Nepal first came to open its doors to tourism and part 2: Bill Tilman: Nepal’s very first trekking tourist.

The great mountain explorer Bill Tilman made three treks in Nepal in 1949 and 1950, to each of what are now the three main trekking regions: Langtang, Annapurna and Everest. His first to Langtang was not successful in mountaineering terms, but as an exploratory journey it must have been as enjoyable as any he undertook.

The whiskers on Tilman's moustache will have bristled at the requirement to be accompanied by scientists (Photo: Sandy Lee)
The whiskers on Tilman’s moustache will have bristled at the requirement to be accompanied by scientists (Photo: Sandy Lee)

Although he pioneered the lightweight Himalayan expedition with Eric Shipton in the 1930s, Tilman’s treks in Nepal were far removed from this style of exploration. Partly this was because of the Nepali government’s requirement that expeditions had to include scientists. Partly it was because permits to travel there were rare and others were keen to join him. Undoubtedly part of the reason was also cultural. The authorities would never have allowed westerners to travel alone, and for the local people it would have been astonishing for them to travel without attendants, cooks and porters. When Tilman departed for Langtang, an area of high mountains immediately to the north of Kathmandu, as well as the four Europeans and their four Sherpas, there was the liaison officer Lieutenant Malla and his two orderlies, a havildar (sergeant) and two sepoys (privates), and no fewer than forty porters.

The whiskers on Tilman’s moustache would have bristled at the need to be accompanied by scientists, but the lure of being the first western climber to explore the mountains of Nepal was too great. He found a botanist Oleg Polunin to accompany him, as well as a geologist J.S. Scott. Meanwhile he persuaded his friend and fellow climber Peter Lloyd to come along as a surveyor, observing that, “this would be of benefit to future mountaineers, and put all four members of our party on the same high intellectual plane”. Four because Tilman had agreed to collect beetles, something he took to with great enthusiasm.

“They were to be all of one species – ‘meligethes’ – of which I had been given a rough description – small, black, shiny beggars – but having a poor memory for faces I decided to make sure by sweeping every beetle I met, regardless of age, sex or species, into what I called my battery of Belsen chambers.”
H.W.Tilman, Nepal Himalaya

To be fair on Tilman, I’m not sure I’d be very good at sexing a beetle either.

One of the first hurdles confronting the team was getting into Nepal in the first place. Centuries of isolation had left it virtually inaccessible by modern transport. Their first stop was Raxaul, an Indian Railway terminal on the Nepalese border. Here they had to transfer to the narrow gauge Nepal State Railway, which will be familiar to anyone who can remember the 60s children’s BBC TV programme Chigley, taking four hours to cross 29 miles of Terai plain while puffing cotton wool out of a big chimney at the front. From here they had a 27 mile journey by car to the roadhead at Bimpedi, stopping off on the way to leave their luggage to be transported up the hill and across the mountains to Kathmandu on a bizarre 14 mile electrically-powered ropeway. While the ropeway was able to transport 50 or 60 tons of equipment a day, Tilman’s team had to get out and walk over two high passes. The ropeway could only handle smaller goods, and larger items such as (wait for it) motor vehicles had to be carried on porter back. Tilman explained that 70 to 90 people were able to carry a Rolls Royce by lashing two long poles underneath the vehicle and lifting it onto their shoulders.

Tilman's supplies were transported to Kathmandu on an aerial ropeway similar to this one (Photo: Steven M. / Wikimedia Commons)
Tilman’s supplies were transported to Kathmandu on an aerial ropeway similar to this one (Photo: Steven M. / Wikimedia Commons)

In common with many of Tilman’s travels, both in the mountains and by boat, his objectives for the expedition were vague, and can best be described as exploratory wandering. He wanted to map as much new territory as he could, including Gosainthan to the north in Tibet (now known as Shishapangma, the smallest of the 8000m peaks). Being a mountaineer he also wanted to climb an unclimbed peak, but they had no idea which. They hoped they would find a suitable one – not too difficult but not too easy either – as they pootled along.

He had one huge advantage in the shape of his sirdar (or Sherpa leader) Tenzing Norgay (who, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know was the greatest of all Everest climbers). Tenzing was hugely determined, a fact of great benefit to Tilman and  Lloyd when it came to finding their unclimbed peak. Tilman already knew Tenzing from the 1938 Everest expedition which he led. In common with virtually all Sherpas of the time, he was extremely humble. On the Langtang trek he doubled up as both sirdar and cook, and Tilman lavished him with praise for having, “a deft hand for omelettes which he turns out nicely sloppy but firm.” Which is useful, because there’s nothing you need more than a sloppy but firm omelette when you’re about to tackle a big mountain.

The party headed north along the lower altitudes of the Trisuli Valley to Syaphrubesi, a village which is now at the end of a bumpy dirt track which carries buses from Kathmandu. I completed this journey myself in 2007 with a few brain cells less than I started with, having smacked my head on the ceiling several times while flying out of my seat. Tilman and party had a much more comfortable journey on foot, but the downside was they were starting in May, just as the monsoon was about to break. The monsoon season usually lasts from early June until mid-September, and brings high humidity, low cloud, high temperatures and heavy rain nearly every day. Few tourists travel to Nepal during those months, and Tilman was to find out why. The low clouds meant the mountains were often obscured, which made mapping them very difficult and sometimes impossible.

It was a very wet trek, but what Tilman resented most were the leeches. I remember these very well from my own trek in the Langtang region in early June. They range in size from about a centimetre long and the diameter of a matchstick when thirsty, to an inch long and the diameter of a pencil when well-fed with human blood. While leeches sometimes drop out of trees and onto your clothing as you walk, their preferred means of access is from ground level. You don’t have to stop for very long on a muddy trail during the monsoon season before you will see a dozen or more of them rearing up from the soil and wriggling their tiny heads in your direction as they smell a meal. I used to carry a leech stick with me, a small twig to flick them off my boots whenever I saw them crawling up intent on the warm flesh of my ankle. Tilman devotes nearly two pages of his book to the habits of leeches.

One of Tilman's abiding memories of Langtang during the monsoon: leeches!
One of Tilman’s abiding memories of Langtang during the monsoon: leeches!

“The robust fellows, one or two inches long, black, brown or yellow, soon satisfy themselves there is no nutriment in leather and advance with great rapidity up the trousers, making for the soft under-belly.”
H.W. Tilman, Nepal Himalaya

Despite his dislike of science, Tilman took an interest in wildlife. As they moved north from Trisuli Bazaar he watched barking deer breaking through the trees, and beyond Syaphrubesi, as they climbed east up the main Langtang Valley, he described the pine forests and the grassy glades of dog rose, white cotoneaster and orange berberis. To the west in a forested area of the Chilime Valley which is now part of the Tamang Heritage Trail he had an encounter with two black bears play-fighting in a streambed, snarling and dishing out hefty clouts to each other. Neither Tilman nor the bears were aware of one another until they were within 20m, but thankfully the bears were more timid, and crashed off into the trees as soon as they noticed him. His biggest discovery on the wildlife front was an encounter with yak herdsman in the higher reaches of the Langtang Valley, who showed him a cave which was reported to be the favourite haunt of a yeti. They pointed out some bear tracks and explained that bears never cross snow. Tilman concluded any bear tracks on snow must therefore be those of a yeti and stated their existence “is surely no longer a matter for conjecture”, an interesting observation which proves, if anything, that he was right to steer clear of science.

From Syaphrubesi Tilman headed east into Langtang, a narrow valley just south of the Tibetan border, between the high peaks of the Himalayas to the north, the highest of which is 7227m Langtang Lirung, and a line a smaller 6000m peaks to the south. It’s a Buddhist region which takes its name from the Tibetan words lang, meaning a yak, and dhang, meaning to follow. A long time ago a lama sped up the valley looking for one of his yaks. The yak took him to a place called Langshisa at the top end up the valley, a junction where three glaciated valleys spill down from the mountains. Unlike yetis, yaks aren’t great glacier travellers, and this one keeled over and died when faced with the ice in preference to being caught by its master. The lama was keen to get his money’s worth out of it, even in death, so he skinned it and spread the skin over a rock to dry; but in the heat of the sun the skin stuck to the rock. Tilman reported seeing a big red rock at Langshisa which he was sure must be the one in question.

Tilman tried to get up Langtang Lirung, the highest mountain in the Langtang Valley, but failed to even find a way to its foot (Photo: Siling Ghale / The Responsible Travellers)
Tilman tried to get up Langtang Lirung, the highest mountain in the Langtang Valley, but failed to even find a way to its foot (Photo: Siling Ghale / The Responsible Travellers)

They spent several weeks mapping the glaciers on the Tibetan border and trying to get a view of Shishapangma. Although they did see it, they weren’t sure at the time, and were only able to confirm it when they got home and performed the calculations on their data (these days of course, you just use Google Earth). They were less successful finding a mountain to climb. They tried to access Langtang Lirung from the north by returning to Syaphrubesi and approaching along the Tibetan border, but became lost in thick cloud. Before they could reach the flanks of Langtang Lirung, they were spotted by a Tibetan official, who noticed they were the wrong side of the Lende Khola river which divides Tibet from Nepal, and sent them back. They headed west and turned their attention to Ganesh, an intricate multi-summited massif whose highest peak Yangra is 7422m, and which even today has had very few ascents. They spotted a small outlying peak, 5928m Paldor, and made its first ascent, but still they weren’t satisfied. Today Paldor is classified as one of Nepal’s trekking peaks by the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

A couple of days later they camped further west in search of something a little harder when, “as if in answer to our prayer, the sight of a great mountain completely filling the head of the valley surprised and delighted us.” It was Yangra, and that early dawn view convinced Tilman the southwest ridge offered a straightforward route to the summit, if only they could reach it. Alas, when they got closer they realised the only way onto the southwest ridge was by a rock buttress which could only be approached by crossing two icefalls. It was a bit like spotting a spare seat on a crowded train only to find it’s next to a big hairy biker wearing deodorant that smells like a baboon’s anus. “On such a dismal scene … I was ready to turn my back,” Tilman concluded in disgust. Paldor was to prove their only mountaineering success. They returned to the Langtang Valley and tried to climb Ganchenpo, a fluted peak above Langshisa, but decided the route required too much step-cutting to be practical (coincidentally I believe this mountain may have been climbed for the first time as late as 2011 by Mila Mikhanovskaya, Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Ongchu Sherpa, all of whom I was on Everest with the following year).

They returned to Kathmandu over a high pass which now bears Tilman’s name and through Helambu, a region of low level hills immediately north of Nepal’s capital. The expedition hadn’t been a roaring success in mountaineering terms, so perhaps it was a good thing he took scientists with him, as they discovered much.

Tilman wasn’t finished with Nepal, and a few months later he returned to explore the Annapurna region. His limited climbing success in Langtang hadn’t deterred him, for this expedition included an attempt on the world’s 8th highest mountain, Manaslu. You can find out how he got on in the next post in this series.

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11 thoughts on “Tilman’s expedition to Langtang

  • February 4, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Incidently, Gangchempo ( ‘Fluted Peak’ ) was actually climbed by two well-known Americans in 1971 via its western flank.

    Tilman did indeed claim Paldor, a beautiful little peak, but his description of the climb, in mist up and down from a yak pasture, doesn’t fit Paldor. The mountain rises above several smallish glaciers within a cirque of smaller peaks, some of them quite attractive. Tilman was a fast mover but even he didn’t run up steep snow slopes or sharp snow/ice arêtes. Having beefed up on Tilman’s trip and having discovered that the area had hardly been visited since,( except to the manganese mine on the Tiru Danda ) Ian Howell and I thoroughly explored the area in 1974, we surveyed a kamkarte map and climbed almost everything that looked interesting and we traversed Paldor, S.Ridge > E.Ridge, which we assumed, of course, was no longer virgin. Later we looked round the far side of the mountain and went very high on the W. Ridge – much rockfall. Only then did we realise that Tilman’s write-up just didn’t fit. Three years later I returned, leading the first ever ‘climbing trek’ in Nepal for the U.S.outfit Mountain Travel. Although we retreated from high on the easiest ridge of Paldor itself due to dangerous avalanche conditions, we repeated many of our 1974 scrambles and I can only say that my experience only confirmed our suspicions. Be that as it may, Tilman was an honourable man and one of my heros.

  • February 4, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks, John, really interesting to know. I noticed there were a few of your photos of Langtang in my copy of Tilman’s Seven Mountain Travel Books. I expect you’re probably right about him being mistaken, which means you may be able to claim the first ascent. Belated congratulations! Paldor is a mountain well within my own capabilities, and I hope I will be able to see for myself one day.

  • February 6, 2015 at 8:42 am

    Hi Mark, many thanks for that great trip down memory lane. I recall reading Tilman’s books as a lad and been fascinated by his mountain adventures, which often put exploration ahead of getting to the top. Coincidentally another great inspiration at that time was John Cleare’s beautifully-photographed ‘The World Guide to Mountains and Mountaineering’, which we had in our school library and provided many hours of enjoyment – usually whilst I was confined to the library to do a detention! I hope John reads the follow up posts as I’d like to thank him for producing such a great book. Two legends in one post Mark, that’s really going some! 🙂 All the best, Matt.

  • February 6, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Thank you Matt for those kind words ! Very much appreciated.
    I too used to hide away in the school library but it was Whymper’s ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ that inspired me. THE all-time classic. A little before your time I think ?
    At the risk of sounding like a salesman, two of my other books might also interest you – both out of print but obtainable and often found in libraries – ‘Mountains’ / MacMillan 1975 and ‘Distant Mountains’ / Duncan Baird / Discovery Channel 1999.
    Good Luck

  • February 6, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    You’re most welcome John! Now that I’m all grown up (ahem!) I have my own mountaineering library (which is much better than school’s), complete with copies of ‘The World Guide to Mountains and Mountaineering’ AND ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’. I say library in the loosest sense of the word as the books are still in a packing case due to a recent return to the UK from overseas. I shall certainly look our for your other titles – once I’ve acquired a new bookcase, of course! 🙂 Best wishes, Matt.

  • May 3, 2015 at 11:10 am

    The J. S. Scott (better known as Hamish) who accompanied Bill Tilman in 1949 had a very successful career – but as an ichthyologist and ecologist. From the late 1960s until his death about 40 years later he lived in St. Andrews, NB, Canada, working at the marine biological station. He found Bill Tilman rather a forceful personality, which is not surprising. In the middle 1990s Hamish Scott returned to Nepal for the first time since 1949, trekking from Lukla to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patar. As one might imagine, his co-trekkers were in awe of someone who had hiked in Nepal in 1949. Meanwhile one overwhelming memory of the 1949 trek was the matter of the LEECHES. He says most of the porters, and the expedition participants, lost between 5 and 10 lb due to blood lost to the leeches – and Hamish was not kidding either.

  • May 3, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    That’s a lovely story, Tom. Thanks so much for sharing. I also remember the leeches from a June trek I did in the Langtang region one year at the very start of the monsoon. I frequently took my socks off at the end of the day to discover blood all over them, but 5lb to 10lb of it? I don’t think we had it as bad as Tilman and Scott.

    Thoughts are with everyone in the Langtang area at the moment. This was one of the parts of Nepal hit the hardest by last week’s earthquake. Langtang village itself was wiped off the map, hundreds were killed and around 70 trekkers are still missing, presumed dead. A group of scientists who carried out work there have now set up a fund to help the rebuilding: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/nepal-earthquake-rebuild-langtang

  • January 12, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    Thank you, Mark, for this article about this almost forgotten page of mountaineering history. Tilman’s (and Tenzing’s) Langtang and Ganesh tour was underestimated from the beginning, because no prominent aims were achieved (Paldor or not).
    But it was a real pioneer tour in the fashion of the 1934 Garhwal exploration, regarding that the whole region was unexplored and neither the liasion officer nor the two scientist accompanied the climbers to the remote regions.
    After re-reading Tilman’s book “Nepal Himalaya” I got to learn that the only spot from where Tilman and Tenzing had a view of Shisha Pangma must have been Yala Peak (5520m). I climbed the rigde from Yala Peak to upper Yala Peak (5749m) in 1991, and Shisha Pangma became visible not before Yala Peak. Thus it was a pleasure to realize that the first summiteers of this nice small peak were famous Tilman and Tenzing.
    Regarding Ganchenpo, I must object to your opinion. In 1999, after crossing Ganja La and climbing Naya Kanga, I met a swiss group at Kyangjin, who were not successful on Ganchenpo, but complained that their lead sherpa had made a dash to the summit after fixing ropes. But this was most probably not the first ascent.
    Let’s hope the Langtang Valley can be inhabited once again, without extreme landslide danger. I’ve lost many friends there.

    The second scientist of the 1949 party, Oleg Polunin, also became famous:
    “The Flowers of the Himalaya” by Polunin and Adam Stainton is a standard book on Himalayan botany (also forgotten?).

  • January 13, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for this little snippet, Ulrich. I actually have Polunin and Stainton’s Concise Flowers of the Himalayas on my bookshelf. I didn’t realise it was the same Polunin.

  • June 12, 2017 at 11:52 am

    A fine article written with fondness for Bill Tilman. His comments about the Yeti are hilarious and if you have read Jim Perrin’s Shipton and Tilman , you will understand the on-going conspiracy between them in feeding the world’s appetite for Yeti news. This was always funny but the mystery was kept alive. There might be funnier people but to my mind, no travel writer can put it on paper better than Bill Tilman

  • November 1, 2022 at 2:44 pm

    Mark. I enjoyed your piece. I did a short trek to Lantang a few years ago, and this October went to Kyanjin Gompa, then Gosaikunda to Sundarijal
    Early October was horrendous rain, landslides etc
    I think I have all of Shipton’s and Tilman’s mountain books. I’ve been tracing Tilman’s route on modern maps. Nepalese trekking maps are not very accurate !. I’m 75 but will be back in Nepal next spring !

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