Through a bus window one summer I remember marveling at the faint outline of a giant triangular mass of rocks and snow, shrouded in a whirlwind of clouds for a brief minute, towering over the famous Pokhara Valley in Nepal and its eponymous city. Seeing a towering peak dominating the skyline of a bustling city was unlike any other first glimpse of a Himalayan mountain I had experienced during my ten-year exploration of the Himalayas, India or Nepal. . I was quite amused that I didn’t have to walk for days to get a glimpse of the elusive beauty; I just had to sit on a bus.
The mountain that inadvertently captured my imagination was neither Everest nor any of the country’s other seven peaks that are over 8,000m high, but a relatively low peak whose height would easily betray its beauty. It turns out that I wasn’t alone in my obsession. Decades before me, another man also fell in love with this mountain – and left a rather quirky legacy.
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Machhapuchhare – which translates to ‘fish tail’ – is an iconic 6,993m mountain in the Annapurna Range in central Nepal, which contains three of the world’s 10 highest peaks. And yet, Machhapuchhare effortlessly steals the show, thanks to its position away from the much higher peaks of the Annapurna Range, where it stands in isolation and looks tall despite its more modest height.
The peak’s geographic position provides an easy view of its various profiles from several locations, and the stunning prominence of its vertical relief is unmistakable from any angle or distance. Rising like twin spiers twisting into each other, Machhapuchhare’s double peak is joined by a sharp ridge and has as much appeal as the steep, symmetrical triangular tip – its other profile.
After this first sight, I returned to Nepal several times and always took the time to see my favorite mountain. A few days were spent in Pokhara, watching the sublime reflection of Machhapuchhare in Lake Phewa. Others were devoted to watching the early morning and late evening sun casting glorious light on the sharp peak towering over the rural slopes around Lake Begnas. The other days I would look at the mountain from ridges like Sarangkot or Astam around the Pokhara valley.
Turns out I wasn’t alone in my obsession
One winter I finally walked to the base camp of a smaller peak called Mardi Himal under Machhapuchhare. Established in 2012, the five-day 40km short trek reaches a height of 4,500m and offers one of the most beautiful and closest views of Machhapuchhare. Another 1000m higher to the top of Mardi Himal is the closest anyone can reach the top.
This is because the climbing of Machhapuchhare is prohibited, a rarity in a country like Nepal which has embraced mountain tourism with such enthusiasm that even the highest point in the world – the 8,848m summit of Mt. Everest – is overcrowded. But the reason Machhapuchhare remains a pristine summit – as well as the explosion of commercial trekking and mountaineering in Nepal today – can be attributed to one man: Lt. Col. James Owen Merion Roberts (1916-1997) .
Jimmy Roberts, as he was popularly known, was a famous British Army officer whose contributions to mountaineering in Nepal and the Himalayas run deep. Roberts was appointed Nepal’s first military attaché in 1958. He used his position, passion and knowledge of the Himalayas to open up the country’s remote mountains to commercial mountaineering and trekking, an industry that has continued to contribute. significantly to Nepal’s economy and local livelihoods.
He not only started a golden age of Himalayan exploration, but also made its beauty accessible to the rest of the world by founding the country’s first trekking agency called Mountain Travel in 1964. He even co-opted and popularized the term “Trek”, which today has become synonymous with hiking in the Himalayas. For this, he is always 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 about the mountain and a curious town on the shores of a lake. “To see Pokhara and Machapuchare [sic] and the villages in which my men lived, and in particular the Gurungs [one of the main Gurkha tribes in the Himalayas] quickly became an obsession, “wrote Roberts in the preface to Wilfrid Noyce’s book Climbing the Fish’s Tail.” But at that time, the interior of Nepal was a forbidden land, more firmly closed than Mecca or Lhasa in their heyday. . “
In 1950, he finally saw his beloved mountain up close. “I was the first Englishman to enter my private mecca [Pokhara]. There was Machapuchare shining in the moonlight, a large, incredibly distant white pyramid, “he wrote of his seminal meeting.” So Machapuchare became for me the ideal of a mountain, a personal possession yet out of this world, inaccessible but mine by illogical right, ruminating on a country and a people that would shape the rest of my life. “
In 1957, after more than 20 years of fixating on Machhapuchhare, Roberts organized the first mountaintop expedition (led by Noyce and joined by a few other climbers), which had not been officially climbed until then. One thing that came out of Noyce’s account of the climb was how easily Roberts gave up on his summit dream when logistical issues forced the summit team to be reduced to two. Roberts volunteered to take down the support team as Noyce and another climber moved forward with the final push to the top. They too ended up giving up the ascent, only 45 meters below the summit due to bad weather.
After the expedition, Roberts made a rather unusual request to the Nepalese government: to have the summit restricted and thus make Machhapuchhare a Himalayan summit that would forever remain non-existent.
Surprisingly, they obliged.
Lisa Choegyal, a writer and veteran Nepal-based tourism industry professional who had known Roberts personally since 1974, told me, “Jimmy was not a mountaineer with a huge ego. Even though in this case it looks a bit like pride that if he couldn’t climb it, he didn’t want someone else to climb it. But that doesn’t quite represent the very sweet character he was in real life. “
Roberts felt a strong kinship with the Gurungs, for whom Machhapuchhare is a sacred peak, and the residents of Chomrong, the last Gurung village before Machhapuchhare, were not particularly happy with foreign climbers attempting to climb it. However, several mountains are sacred to several communities in Nepal, and this has not stopped the government from issuing climbing permits, nor has it stopped Roberts from climbing other mountains. But perhaps it was his love for the Gurung people and his unwavering enchantment with the mountain that led to Roberts’ unusual request.
Its forbidden top, close at hand, made it somehow more attractive
It remains a mystery exactly how Roberts managed to get the Nepalese government accepted. The sentiment, however, seems to have resonated well, with widespread acceptance in Nepal that virgin woodpecker is illegal to climb.
In fact, Roberts’ association with the peak being out of bounds has been largely forgotten. In his later years, “He used to say with a smile,” It’s very good that they still took my advice that the summit should be sacred. “And at that point, it was sort of generally accepted that it was sacred,” Choegyal said.
Today, the dominant opinion is that the mountain is sacred and therefore forbidden. “The peak of Machhapuchhare is not meant to be stepped on; it should only be worshiped by the eyes,” Tirtha Shrestha, a poet and longtime resident of Pokhara, told me, explaining that locals believe that Machhapuchhare should not. not be open for climbing. “Any talk, not only about Pokhara, but about the beauty of the whole Himalayas, would be incomplete without mentioning Machhapuchhare. His beauty has greatly moved poets, authors and artists. In many folk songs, the mountain has been showered with praise. Machhapuchhare, for us, is the epitome of beauty, ”he said.
Neither Roberts nor I would disagree. Neither person who participated in the trek of Mardi Himal or near the valley of Pokhara. As I walked through rhododendron groves in the lower hills, sometimes floating above the clouds to the highest vantage point from which the Annapurna Range is fully visible, the Pinnacle of Machhapuchhare has always dominated the horizon and held me in a strange hold. And its forbidden top, close at hand, made it somehow more attractive.
While it was never clear why Roberts wanted the summit to remain unbreakable forever, especially after he himself tried to climb it once and got very close to it, it’s hard to find fault with the move. of Roberts, seeing how many places have been ravaged by overtourism and trade. mountaineering. It is perhaps rather fitting that although Nepal’s many other mountains generate much-needed income, one sublime mountain remains untouched by the touch and ego of humans, quietly surveying the world from its sacred and solitary abode.
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