The Story of Nanda Devi: Irresistible Will Meets Immovable Goddess

The state of Uttarakhand in northern India is often referred to as Devbhumi, which means ”Land of Gods.” Besides numerous Hindu and Buddhist temples and pilgrimage centers, the region contains many high peaks that belong to the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya.

Since the 19th century, these beautiful mountains have attracted mountaineers. Its high 6,000’ers and 7,000’ers include Thalay Sagar (6,904m), Changabang (6,864m), Kalanka (6,931m), Dunagiri (7,066m), Trisul I (7,120m), Abi Gamin (7,355m), Kamet (7,756m), and others.

All have an exciting climbing history, where exploration, difficult technical climbs, and tragedies and successes have enriched the history of mountaineering.

Trisul 7,120 m, Kalanka 6,931 m, Dunagiri 7,066 m, and Hardeol 7,151 m.

Clockwise from top left: Trisul 7,120m, Kalanka 6,931m, Nanda Devi 7,816m, and Dunagiri 7,066m. Photos: Harshit Sr, Mechsourar, Wikimedia, and Peakvisor.

Nanda Devi and Sunanda Devi

Amid these towering mountains are two breathtaking peaks that have captivated explorers and climbers for over 190 years, Nanda Devi and Sunanda Devi.

Nanda Devi is the second-highest mountain in India after 8,586m Kangchenjunga, and the highest one that is located entirely within the country.

The ”Blessed Goddess,” 7,816m Nanda Devi also has a lower, eastern summit, called Nanda Devi East ( 7,434m), or Sunanda Devi. A ridge almost three kilometers long and nearly 7,000m high connects the two summits.

Nanda Devi itself rises more than 3,300m above its southwestern base.

The goddess Nanda (Devi means ”goddess”) is the most important of the Hindu deities in Garhwal. ”She permeates the whole area,” wrote Hubert Adams Carter, an American mountaineer and former editor of the American Alpine Journal, in 1977. “In the region, drained by the Rishi Ganga and the Dhauli Ganga, every nook and cranny seems in one way or other to be dedicated to her. The highest and most impressive mountain of the region, Nanda Devi, bears her name. Other peaks too bear her name.”

Nanda Devi East, also known as Sunanda Devi.

Nanda Devi East, also known as Sunanda Devi. Photo: The Himalayan Club


Difficult to access

The river Rishi Ganga begins with the glacier called Uttari Nanda Devi. The Dakshini Nanda Devi Glacier also feeds it. Rishi Ganga flows through the Nanda Devi National Park and then into the Dhauli Ganga River. Established in 1982, Nanda Devi National Park has an Inner and an Outer part. High ridges surround both, and access to the basin known as the Sanctuary is very difficult, through complicated glaciers.

Nanda Devi Sanctuary sketch map.

Nanda Devi Sanctuary sketch map. Photo: Wikipedia


The other mountains of this region that bear the name Nanda include 6,611m Nanda Khat (which according to Carter means “the bed of the goddess Nanda”); 6,861m Nanda Kot, ”the fortress of the goddess Nanda”, located just outside the ring of peaks that enclose the Nanda Devi Sanctuary; and 6,309m Nanda Ghunti, “the headdress of the goddess.”  Other peaks also belong to the kingdom of Nanda, and ”serve her.”

Early explorers

Foreign exploration of this region started in 1830 with  G. W. Traill, the first commissioner of Garhwal and Kuamon. He approached the Nanda Devi group from the east up the Pindari Glacier, then crossed a high col on a ridge that joins the Nanda Devi Massif to Nanda Kot. Today, this 5,312m col is called the Pindari Kanda Traill’s Pass.

Twenty-five years later, the Schlagintweit brothers made some methodical explorations and boldly attempted to climb Kamet.

Traill's Pass.

Traill’s Pass. Photo: Tripxoxo


William Woodman Graham

In 1883, British mountaineer William Woodman Graham made two expeditions to the Nanda Devi massif. Accompained by Swiss hotelier Emil Boss and Swiss guide Ulrich Kaufmann, Graham set off for the Garhwal Himalaya in June of that year.

They could not penetrate the Inner Sanctuary, but Graham decided to attempt 7,066m Dunagiri, eventually reaching 6,920m. Later he claimed to have also climbed Changabang. But according to his descriptions, he likely mistook the peak that he climbed. It was really not Changabang.

It is important to note that Graham was the first person to go to this region purely for mountaineering. He and his guides climbed Kabru (7,338m), possibly that year — an altitude record at the time.

Anyway, Graham’s climbing career is full of interesting details. He was a real adventurer and did not like to publicize his climbs.

In the autumn of 1883, Graham returned to Garhwal and penetrated the gorge by a roundabout route. Once again, the terrain blocked him and he could not continue toward the summit of Nanda Devi.


Longstaff’s love affair

In 1905, Tom Longstaff and the Brocherel brothers attempted to climb Nanda Devi from the east. They reached a col, later called Longstaff Col, but failed to summit. Longstaff and the Brocherels could see the two summits of Nanda Devi, but according to Longstaff, the descent toward the inner basin was too dangerous.

Longstaff fell in love with Nanda Devi. Two years later, he returned to follow in Graham’s footsteps. He didn’t succeed that time, either. In all, he visited the Garhwal Himalaya on six different occasions.

“Neither the primitive immensity of the Karakoram, not the solitary domination of Everest, nor the beauties of the Hindu Kush, can be compared with the Garhwal [Himalaya],” he enthused.

Doctor Tom Longstaff.

Tom Longstaff. Photo: Wikimedia


Shipton and Tilman

The same style, elegance, courage, and authenticity also marked Eric Shipton, one of the greatest mountaineers of all time. Famously, he wrote Blank on the Map (published in 1938), after his 1937 expedition to K2.

Three years earlier, in 1934, Shipton had attempted Nanda Devi. His partners included the illustrious Major Harold William (Bill) Tilman, and three Sherpas, Ang Tharkay, Pasang, and Kusang Sherpa. The five men managed to breach the gorges of the Rishi Ganga river, finally reaching a verdant oasis that he later named the Sanctuary. With the arrival of the monsoon, they had to turn around. Later that same year, they returned to explore more of the Rishi Ganga.

Nanda Devi.

Nanda Devi. Photo: Dreamstime


The first ascent of Nanda Devi

In 1935, Shipton and Tilman made a reconnaissance of Everest with a view to returning the following year. But after 1935, the two men’s paths diverged. Shipton focused more on Everest, while Tilman decided to return to Nanda Devi. He brought six companions, three British and three Americans.

On August 29, 1936, Bill Tilman and Noel Odell managed to make the first ascent of the main peak of Nanda Devi (7,816m) via the southwest ridge. Odell had been on the 1924 Everest expedition, where Mallory and Irvine perished. On that occasion, Odell spent two weeks above 7,000m, and twice he reached above 8,160m without bottled oxygen.

The Rishi Ganga gorge.

The Rishi Ganga gorge. Photo: Retrotexts


When Odell and Tilman climbed Nanda Devi, that — plus those elevations reached on Everest — were the highest points ever attained. Nanda Devi also became the world’s highest summited peak. The team included Charles Houston, who had earlier reconnoitered the route. During the climb, he fell ill and could not join the summit team.

”It was difficult to realize that we were actually standing on top of the same peak which we had viewed two months ago from Ranikhet, and which had then appeared incredibly remote and inaccessible,” wrote Tilman in his book, The Ascent of Nanda Devi. “After the first joy in victory came a feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed.”

Shipton said later that the first ascent of Nanda Devi, in good style and without bottled oxygen, was the most outstanding climbing achievement of that era. He also regretted that he had wasted so much time on the Everest project.

The Shipton-Tilman 1934 Nanda Devi Sanctuary expeditions. Hauling loads below Pisgah buttress in the Rishi Ganga gorge.

The Shipton-Tilman 1934 Nanda Devi Sanctuary expeditions. Hauling loads below Pisgah Buttress in the Rishi Ganga gorge. Photo: Wikimedia


The first ascent of Sunanda Devi

Sunanda Devi (Nanda Devi East) 7,434m, was first ascended on July 2, 1939, by two members of a Polish party, led by Adam Karpinski.  Jakub Bujak and Janusz Klarner summited by the south ridge, via the Longstaff Col.

Nanda Devi Unsoeld, on the approach to the Base Camp of Nanda Devi in 1976.

Nanda Devi Unsoeld approaches the Base Camp of Nanda Devi in 1976. Photo: Climbing journal of John Evans


Willi Unsoeld, Tom Hornbein’s partner on their legendary 1963 traverse of Everest, named his daughter after Nanda Devi. But it did not turn out well when Nanda Devi Unsoeld attempted to climb her namesake mountain in 1976. She died of altitude sickness at the age of 22.

In the 1960s, the peak was the site for a secret CIA mission. Cooperating climbers placed a nuclear-powered telemetry relay listening device on the mountain. An avalanche later swept it away.

Climber Mark Thomas approaching the ice barrier at 6,100 m on the northeast ridge of Nanda Devi East in 2015.

Mark Thomas approaches the ice barrier at 6,100m on the northeast ridge of Nanda Devi East in 2015. Photo: Martin Moran


The 1951 expedition

Perhaps the most memorable of all expeditions to Nanda Devi was the 1951 French attempt. It raises a multitude of questions: What are the limits of our willpower? How can order and precision animate a crazy idea? What happens if only you really believe in something and everyone else says it’s too dangerous?

Here is the story of Roger Duplat and Gilbert Vignes.


Map. Photo: Jacques Languepin


The goal

In the summer of 1951, a French party set out to climb Nanda Devi by its southern spur. Their plan was to reach the main summit, then make a first traverse of the almost three-kilometer arete to Nanda Devi East. From the summit of Nanda Devi East, they would descend the southeast spur to the Longstaff Col.


The team

The Section Lyonnaise of the French Alpine Club organized the expedition, under the leadership of Roger Duplat. He was “the soul of the team and…a leader with an invincible will,” the president of the French club later called him. Duplat did not seem so strong at first sight but behind his studious look was a determined climber undeterred by difficult goals.

Roger Duplat, leader.

Roger Duplat. Photo: The Himalayan Journal


The strong French party also included Louis Gevril, Alain Barbezat, Louis Dubost, Paul Gendre, Jean-Gilbert Vignes, cameraman/climber Jacques Languepin, and the doctor, Louis Payan. The support team consisted of sirdar Tenzing Norgay — yes, that Tenzing — and Ang Dawa, Dawa Norbu, Pa Norbu, Sarki, Da Namgyal, Gyalzen, and Panzi Sherpas.

All these Sherpa were likewise strong. Three had already been on the successful 1950 Annapurna expedition. Tenzing Norgay had been in the Garhwal Himalaya with Shipton and also worked on the 1938 Everest expedition. He would climb Everest with Hillary two years later.


Progressing upward

The expedition reached Base Camp around June 10, 1951.

On June 19, five men went up to about 5,800m to acclimatize on the ridge joining Nanda Devi East to Nanda Khat.

On June 25, part of the team, with Sarki Sherpa, went up to Camp 1. Most climbers did not spend much time acclimatizing, preferring to work on the route itself. Duplat spent only five days acclimatizing; others, an average of 10 days.

Roger Duplat ”was feverish, resolute, and never let up for a moment,” wrote Languepin in his book, To Kiss High Heaven: Nanda Devi.

The team installed Camps 1, 2, and 3 near the same spots that the 1936 expedition had. They also carried three tents to the Longstaff Col, where they later planned to descend.

Looking south from Longstaff Col. 1951.

Looking south from Longstaff Col, 1951. Photo: The Himalayan Journal


Duplat’s determination

Duplat was absolutely determined to climb first Nanda Devi West (Main), then traverse and summit Nanda Devi East. Twenty-three-year-old Gilbert Vignes decided to go with him.

The Sherpas would accompany the two French climbers to Camp 4. From there, the duo would push to the summit of Nanda Devi West, then continue.

Nanda Devi massif.

Nanda Devi massif. Photo: Travelride


The push begins

Duplat and Vignes decided not to take a radio with them, to save weight. Duplat detailed their kit: ”No radio, a tent, normal clothes and sleeping bags, camera, medical box, ten pitons, two pikes, one hammer (to abandon if necessary).”

“The morale is remarkable,” he added. Duplat had pain in one foot, and his teammates kept advising them not to attempt it. Before leaving, Duplat wrote a letter to Tilman that grandly stated, as recorded in Lannguepin’s book:

”Whatever the outcome of the battle, we shall be among the true winners because we shall have killed doubt.”

On June 26, 1951, after 16 hours of climbing, Duplat, Vignes, and two Sherpas arrived at Camp 2. The weather was perfect, even a bit too warm. Duplat started to have a slight headache.

Two days later, on June 28, they passed through Camp 3 and pitched their bivouac above Camp 4, at about 7,225m. Duplat kept a fast pace. Maybe too fast.

Members of the expedition-Standing left to right: Alain Barbezat, Roger Duplat, Paul Gendre, Louis Payan, Louis Gevril. Seated left to right: Jacques Languepin, Gilbert Vignes and Louis Dubost.

The members of the expedition. Standing, left to right: Alain Barbezat, Roger Duplat, Paul Gendre, Louis Payan, Louis Gevril. Seated: Jacques Languepin, Gilbert Vignes and Louis Dubost. Photo: Jacques Languepin


Duplat and Vignes continue alone

From here, Duplat and Vignes wanted to continue alone. They sent the two Sherpas back to Base Camp, with a note from Duplat that said, ”Expect to be on summit by noon –- bivouac below eastern summit –- sleep at Col Longstaff. From our camp above [C4], we send down Ang Dawa and Norbu, both ill. Help them, please…Gil and I are suffering from severe headaches but otherwise, all goes well. Camp about 7,500m. Roger.”

Tenzing Norgay.

Tenzing Norgay. Photo: Rolex Magazine


Last seen

As the later report states, the climbers were moving up rapidly, unroped, and without crampons.

”They (Duplat and Vignes) were last seen from Camp 3, at about 2 pm, still moving toward the summit. Then the mist enshrouded them.”

On June 30, one of the team members, Gevril, climbed to the bivouac site of Camp 4 and searched the long arete. He could not see Duplat and Vignes anywhere.  On July 2, Tenzing Norgay and Louis Dubost climbed the Polish route to Nanda Devi East, trying to spot their missing companions. They summited Nanda Devi East on July 6, but the tired climbers found no trace of Duplat and Vignes.

Years later, the now-famous Tenzing Norgay was asked which mountain was his most difficult. Nanda Devi East, said Norgay.

No clues

Duplat and Vignes had disappeared. One of the team members, Gevril, suggested that the duo may have fallen to their deaths after a cornice broke. There was a rockfall when they were around the higher camps as well.

Whether or not they reached the summit will remain a mystery.

Earlier, Roger Duplat had written a poem, published in Langepuin’s book. It went, in part:

”If one day I die in the mountains,

It is you, my old rope comrade,

To whom I write this testament.

”Take my ice axe

I do not wish it to die of shame.

Take it to some grand face

And stick it on a little cairn which you have made

For it alone.”

”And for you, here is my gift:

Take your hammer and may your blows in the gneiss

Shake my corpse with shivers of joy.

Make a loud noise on the wall and on the crest

For I shall be with you…”

Climbers waiting at Camo 3 on July 3, 1951.

Climbers wait at Camp 3, on July 3, 1951. Photo: The Himalayan Journal


The first traverse of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East finally took place in 1976. A 21-member Indo-Japanese team approached the south ridges of both peaks, Nanda Devi and Sunanda Devi, simultaneously. Yoshinori Hasegawa and Kazushige Takami of Japan traversed westward to join Yasuo Kato and Masashi Teramoto on the main summit.

Photo taken by Oshighproduction during the 2019 ascent of Nanda Devi East, carried out by members of a Polish expedition on the 80th anniversary of the first ascent of Nanda Devi East. On June 27, 2019, Jaroslaw Gawrysiak and Wojciech Flaczynski topped out on the east summit.

Taken, during the 2019 ascent of Nanda Devi East by members of a Polish expedition, on the 80th anniversary of the first ascent of Nanda Devi East. On June 27, 2019, Jaroslaw Gawrysiak and Wojciech Flaczynski topped out on the east summit. Photo: Oshighproduction

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.