Expedition World

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Annapurna Trekking Guidebook

News just in, too late for the Annapurna trekking guidebook, while staying in room 823 of the Kathmandu Guest House! 

This scoop can now be released to the wider public. We are pleased to enlighten our readers about a distinctly curious story that came to light after our reconnaissance for the Annapurna Circuit trek. It concerns a mountain in Upper Mustang.

Boudhanath stupa in 1975

The Mysterious Mountain of Upper Mustang

Those of you with a keen eye on the trail and the Annapurna trekking guidebook text will perhaps have been puzzled by the reference to four peaks – Rum, Dum, Tara and Rara – as well as to the mysterious distant peak behind them, climbed ‘just once’. For equally mysterious reasons, and because of constraints on paper, the explanation was left in the ether for readers to ponder.

See the Annapurna trekking guidebook text, page 123, a few paragraphs after the description about descending from the Thorong La pass:

  The peaks of Rum, Dum, Tara and Rara (from left to right)

"be sure to stop for a rest out of the wind and admire the wondrous panorama on display – the amazing changes in the landscapes across the Kali Gandaki Valley of Eastern Dolpo and Upper Mustang. The mood lightens as dramatically as the view offers its drama. Slightly to the northwest you can see four snowy peaks in a roughly symmetrical line, although they are not shown on any current Nepalese map. Roughly translated, they are named Rum, Dum, Tara and Rara. The distant peak behind them is rarely visible, save on the most sparklingly clear days – and, according to trekking folklore, has been climbed just once."

Here is the missing link:

Even today the region northwest of the Mustang Khola and its tributary, the Narsing Khola, is remote. However, in 1933 information came to light that partially explained a long-standing mystery about a mountain in Upper Mustang. Nepal was generally closed to foreigners before 1950, with only a few intrepid colonial spies managing clandestinely to cross its forbidden frontiers. By any standards, Upper Mustang was lost in a mediaeval soup completely unknown to any foreign powers. The Indian pandit (a British-employed spy) Sarat Chandra Das managed to map the adjacent lands of Tibet beyond the northern borders of Nepal in the 19th century using, amongst other devious gadgets, an instrument disguised as a prayer wheel. Surprisingly, it proved reasonably accurate.

Our story dates back to 1921, when permission was finally obtained by the Royal Geographical Society for a British reconnaissance and climbing expedition to Mount Everest from the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. Permission was granted by the highest authority in Lhasa, the 13th Dalai Lama. Led by General Bruce, the expedition left from Darjeeling with an army of Sherpas and climbers, including Lieut. Col. C K Howard Bury DSO and the young George Leigh Mallory. The expedition hardly managed to locate a base camp for its short-lived attempt, such was the complex nature of the northern foothills and glacial valleys. On the third subsequent expedition George Leigh Mallory and Sandy Irvine were lost on the upper shoulder of the North-East Ridge when clouds swept in. The mystery as to whether they actually summited Everest in 1924 remains tantalisingly unknown to this day, despite the body of Mallory being located recently. 

The British attempted many times to conquer Everest, but the gods would not allow it and eventually Tibet was closed to climbers. It was, however, during one of these subsequent attempts on Everest that two climbers and a number of porters went missing en route in very odd circumstances, along with a few cases of champagne and caviar – there were no maps (or Cicerone guidebooks) in those distant days.  They crossed the bleak plains of Tibet from Shegar Dzong via the Tingri plains, and ventured west beyond Shishapangma. With Ganesh Himal on their left, they staggered on into the foothills of the Damodar Himal peaks. Just as they seemed hopelessly lost, the clouds parted to reveal a fantastic landscape of contorted turrets, canyons, organ pipe towers and murky defiles. Somehow they found themselves in the lower reaches of the Narsing Khola of Upper Mustang.

Captain Digby Pritchard-Smythe and Colonel Blushforth ‘Snail’-Jones, along with their porters and porters’ porters and their organic gardener Wilfred Charles, still with copious amounts of champagne and mountains of best Russian caviar, picked out the virgin summit, now fondly named Dum Noodle after its finely fluted organ-pipe features. Apparently Smythe and Jones set off on an attempt on the North-West Ridge on 18 March. However, first they had to cross woodworm-infested log bridges traversing the silken strands of the Mustang Khola. They climbed and picked their way steadily but precariously through the organ pipe turret bands. Higher up the route, they avoided a frenetic ‘yak yak yak’ attack.

At camp II atop the cheesy Cauliflower Ridge, Jones consumed a whole bottle of champagne before slipping into a cosy crevasse for the night. Their Sherpa later exchanged another bottle of champagne in his rucksack for some local rakshi in the hope of avoiding the inevitable delay to the morning’s climb. Blizzards in the afternoon forced further delay, so camp III was set above a gaping chasm above the worm-eaten Dum Noodle Glacier. Next morning, beyond the yellow rock band, they encountered the now extinct Leaping Snow Leopard and Twittering Vultures addicted to human flesh (and caviar). After Camp III, where they bade farewell to their plucky Sherpa, the hardy pair bivouacked the next night in a deserted snow leopard hole at 21,000ft, eating caviar to sustain their spirits before the final summit bid. They summitted Dum Noodle at 11.59½ am on 01 April 1930.

The climbers never returned to Blighty (nor did any champagne), and they were not heard of again until a note and rough sketch was delivered to the British attaché in Kathmandu in 1933, scribbled on tatty rice paper and evidently originating from a cave monastery north of Lo Manthang. It read: 

Bagged the summit but please send more caviar, champagne and noodles 

– yours, Lama Anagarika Smythe and Mystic Gyalzen Blushing Jones.”  

We can only surmise that they had returned safely down the mountain and encountered a holy lama. Evidence suggests that they lived in hermits’ caves and found a way to 'enlightenment'. They also seem to have survived for a very long time isolated from any other mountain people, far away from the real world and all its tribulations. Today, of course, electricity and modernity are creeping along the Kali Gandaki at a rapid pace, so who knows how the story should end?

Postscript to the above story

Bizarrely, while excavating and constructing the new wing of the Kathmandu Guest House in 2012, a text and drawing of Dum Noodle (as seen on the left) was discovered, buried exactly below the auspicious site of what would become Room 823. 

Even more strangely, the text read: 

“Internet connection has caved in and failed here. Please order online more noodles and champagne – to be delivered next Wednesday between 2.00pm and 4.00pm. Thank you.”

From such lofty spires do the horizons between reality and that which is of the esoteric merge, making the ultimate truth elusive…

A little-known ancient Himalayan sage, Swami Kailash of the Durkan-pa sect

At altitude, truth is stranger than fiction!

Please address any comments or further background on the above (in triplicate with six passport-size photos please) to Siân and Bob, Kathmandu Guest House, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal but NOT to Cicerone, its employees, editors, copy editors, proof readers, proof readers’ porters or any other person deemed not responsible for the above story.

But if you have some genuine input for the book, please keep us up-to-date at [email protected]