Book Talk: Nanda Devi, The Tragic Expedition

It is rather unfortunate that certain level of dissention, squabble and recriminations have mostly been a constant feature of high-altitude mountain climbing expeditions the world over. And out in the Himalayas, when climbers along with their support staff are cramped together in below freezing conditions for months, even a small misjudgement, often due to miscommunication, can provoke tragedy leading to discord among them.

In 1976, John Roskelley, the author of Nanda Devi, The Tragic Expedition joined a group to climb the mountain Nanda Devi (7816m), located in the Indian Himalayas, to celebrate fortieth anniversary of its first accent by Tilman and Odell. Published first in 1987, almost a decade after the expedition got over, the book is the expedition account full of strong emotions, conflicting ambitions and often misplaced dedication; combined with tragedy and success.

Just as most such large scale expeditions of recent age, this Nanda Devi assignment was said to be a fractious one. Much before the expedition started, the climbers had started to lose faith in the twin command of Ad Carter and Willi Unsoeld. Within the first few days of the trek up the Sanctuary, the group became divided into two factions – team A and B. One was made up of handful of those whose almost exclusive focus was on reaching the summit by a demanding new route. The other seemed to be going more for the experience, to have a good time in the Himalayas. Through the book, mountaineer John Roskelley has just plainly acknowledged himself to be belonging to the first category.


The expedition organiser Ad Carter, who also happened to be the member of the original 1936 team, is joined as co-leader by the legendary mountaineer Willi Unsoeld along with his daughter as a group member. Willi was so fascinated by the beauty of the Nanda Devi that he decided to name his daughter for the mountain he considered the most beautiful in the world. Even as Nanda Devi Unsoeld was inexperienced as a mountaineer or a climber, still Willi though she was very much capable of summiting the peak.

Even though, it was the seventh successful summit attempt at the peak, the expedition was able to claim for the first attempt through Nanda Devi’s Nortwest Face. The twelve member Indo-American team – mostly due to persistence of Roskelley, Jim and Louis – had succeeded in forging a difficult new route to the summit. Unfortunately, Devi, aged 22 years, succumbed to illness at camp IV while on her way up.

Supposedly an expedition account, the book is mostly centred on Roskelley himself, who determinedly kept the group moving and summited along with two other accomplished mountaineers. Throughout the narrative, Roskelley is seen outspokenly criticizing, often untactfully, the expedition organisers as they had allowed a few unqualified climbers to participate in a technically difficult Himalayan ascent. The first conflict popped up at Dibrugheta, a camping site in the outer sanctuary when Marty was ill and Dr Jim advised evacuation. Willi, the leader wavered and reluctantly agreed to an evacuation. Later having assessed her deteriorating health, Dr Jim constantly advised Nanda Devi Unsoeld against going higher up. But Willi was still indecisive and Devi kept ignoring Jim’s as well as advises of other experienced climbers. The book reinforced author’s reputation of being an uncompromising climbing critic and a professional mountaineer.

The account seems a worthwhile read for someone who either wants to climb the peak through this particular route or is interested in knowing what might have went wrong in that particular expedition. The book rather conveys how not to manage an expedition of this nature and scale. With a legendary peak like Nanda Devi that once drew the interest of mountaineers from the entire western world, the author could have been much more expressive. Maps, trek information, more photographs, general visualisation of the sanctuary should have been included too.

With nearly 230 pages, this edition of the book unfortunately continues to be out of print for a long time now. Amazon might help! I bought a used edition of this book at a discounted price from a local library-cum-store.

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