ANNAPURNA, KOMPAS.com – Through the bus window one summer, I was blown away by the faint outline of the giant triangular rock and snow, shrouded in vortex clouds and towering over Nepal’s famous Pokhara valley.
Witnessing majestic peaks dominating the city’s bustling skyline is unlike the first sight of the Himalayas I have experienced in my decade-long exploration of the Himalayas, both in India and in Nepal.
I was quite amused because I didn’t have to travel for days to see elusive beauty; I just have to sit on the bus.
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The mountain peak that accidentally occupied my imagination was not the peak of Everest or any of the country’s seven other peaks over 8,000 meters high, but a relatively low peak whose height would easily betray its beauty.
As it turns out, I am not the only one who is obsessed with this peak. Decades before me, another man fell in love with this mountain too – and left a somewhat unique legacy.
Machhapuchhare – which means “fish tail” – is an iconic 6.993 meter high mountain in the Annapurna mountains in Nepal, which is home to three of the ten highest peaks in the world.
However, Machhapuchhare easily caught the eye, thanks to its position away from the much higher peak of Annapurna.
He seemed to be standing alone and looked towering even though his height was lower than other mountain peaks.
The geographic position of the Machhapuchhare peak provides different views from several places. Its stunning vertical relief is unavoidable at any angle or distance.
Towering like twisted twin towers, Machhapuchhare’s double peaks join a sharp ridge and have the same allure as the steep tip of a symmetrical triangle.
After that initial sight, I returned to Nepal several times and always took the time to see my favorite mountain.
Some days I spent in Pokhara, witnessing the sublime reflections of Machhapuchhare on Lake Phewa, others I spent watching the morning and evening suns shine on the spiky peaks that rise above the rural slopes around Lake Begnas.
The next day, I looked at the mountains from the hills like Sarangkot or Astam around the Pokhara valley.
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One winter, I finally climbed to the basecamp from a smaller peak called Mardi Himal under Machhapuchhare.
First undertaken in 2012, the short, five-day 40km ride reaching an altitude of 4,500 meters offers one of the best and closest views to Machhapuchhare.
About 1,000 meters up again to the top of the Mardi Himal is the closest anyone can reach the summit.
That’s because climbing Machhapuchhare is off-limits, something rare in a country like Nepal which has long embraced mountaineering tourism with such enthusiasm that it makes the world’s highest point – the 8,848-meter summit of Mount Everest – overcrowded.
But the reason Machhapuchhare remains a virgin peak – as does the boom in commercial trekking and mountaineering in Nepal today – can be attributed to one person: Lt. Col. James Owen Merion Roberts (1916-1997).
Jimmy Roberts, as he is known, is a British Army officer known for his contributions to the immense mountaineering of Nepal and the Himalayas.
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 for commercial mountaineering and trekking, an industry that has made significant contributions to Nepal’s economy and local livelihoods. .
He not only pioneered the golden age of Himalayan exploration, but also made its beauty accessible to the rest of the world when he founded the country’s first trekking agency, called Mountain Travel in 1964.
He even co-opted and popularized the term “trek”, which became synonymous with climbing in the Himalayas today. Hence, he is remembered as the “father of trekking” in Nepal.
Roberts’ interest in Pokhara and Machhapuchhare began after reading a post from Nepal written in 1936 by a military officer, which wrote about strange mountains and lakeside towns.
“Seeing Pokhara and Machapuchare and the villages where my people lived, and especially the Gurung (one of the main Gurkha tribes in the Himalayas) immediately became my 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 enclosed than Mecca or Lhasa in their heyday.”
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In 1950, he finally saw his beloved mountain up close.
“I was the first Englishman to enter my private Mecca (Pokhara). There is Machhapuchhare shining in the moonlight, a large white pyramid which is very aloof,” he wrote of his important encounter with the mountain.
“So Machhapuchhare to me is an ideal mountain, private but out of this world, unattainable but mine with illogical rights, incubating a country and people who will make up the rest of my life.”
In 1957, after more than 20 years of fixating on Machhapuchhare, Roberts organized the first expedition to the top of the mountain (led by Noyce and followed by several other climbers), which had not been officially climbed until then.
One thing that stands out in Noyce’s record of the climb is that Roberts easily gave up the dream of reaching the summit when logistical problems forced the team of climbers to split in half.
Roberts volunteered to carry the support team while Noyce and the other climbers continued their ascent to the final peak.
They also eventually stopped climbing even higher, only 45 meters below the summit, due to bad weather.
After the expedition, Roberts made a rather unusual request to the Nepalese government: for the summit to be forbidden and thus make Machhapuchhare the peak of the Himalayas that would remain unclimbed forever.
Surprisingly, the Nepalese government complied with the request.
Lisa Choegyal, a writer and veteran tourism industry entrepreneur based in Nepal who has known Roberts personally since 1974, told me, “Jimmy is not a mountain climber with a big ego.”
“Although in this case, it sounds like arrogance if he can’t climb it, he doesn’t want other people to climb it. But it doesn’t really represent a very gentle character in real life.”
Roberts felt a strong kinship with the Gurung, who considered Machhapuchhare a sacred pinnacle.
In addition, residents living in Chomrong, the last Gurung village before Machhapuchhare, are not particularly pleased with foreign climbers trying to climb.
While some mountains are considered sacred to some communities in Nepal, that hasn’t stopped the government from issuing climbing permits, nor has Roberts stopped climbing other mountains.
But perhaps it was his love for the Gurung people and his unshakable charm with mountains that led to Roberts’ unusual request.
Exactly how Roberts managed to get the Nepalese government to agree to his request remains a puzzle today.
However, the sentiment seems to resonate well, with widespread acceptance in Nepal that virgin peaks are illegal to climb.
In fact, Roberts’ association with the forbidden peak has been largely forgotten.
In the last years of his life, “He used to smile saying, ‘It’s great that they are still following my advice that the pinnacle must remain sacred.’ And at that time it was generally accepted that it was sacred, “said Choegyal.
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Today the common sight is that the mountain is sacred and therefore forbidden.
“The summit of Machhapuchhare is not meant to be trampled on; it is only to be adored by the eye,” said Tirtha Shrestha, a long-lived poet in Pokhara, explaining that the local population is of the view that Machhapuchhare should not be opened for climbing.
“Every discourse, not only about Pokhara, but about the beauty of the whole Himalayas, would not be complete without mentioning Machhapuchhare. Its beauty has deeply touched the poets, writers, and artists. In many folk songs, the mountain has been rained with praise. Machhapuchhare, for we, are a symbol of beauty, “he said.
Neither Roberts nor I would agree. So has anyone who has traveled the Mardi Himal or around the Pokhara valley in general.
As I walked through the rhododendron groves in the lower hills, occasionally floating above the clouds to the highest vantage point from which the Annapurna range was fully visible, the tops of Machhapuchhare always dominated the horizon and held me in a strange place.
And its forbidden peak, within its tantalizing reach, somehow makes it all the more attractive.
While it’s never clear why Roberts wants the summit to remain off-limits forever, especially after he himself tried to climb it once and got so close, it’s hard to find fault with Roberts’ steps, given how many places have been ravaged by excessive commercial mountaineering tourism.
It may be quite appropriate that while many other mountains in Nepal generate much-needed income, one lofty mountain remains untainted by human touch and ego, silently watching the world from its sacred and lonely abode.
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