Obituary: Lt-Col James Roberts

James Owen Merion Roberts, army officer and mountaineer: born 21 September 1916; MC 1942; MBE 1955; died Pokhara, Nepal 1 November 1997.

The soldier and Himalayan explorer Jimmy Roberts died, aged 81, at Pokhara, the Nepalese hill station which had been his home for the last 22 years. His ashes, as he had requested, were scattered in the Seti Khola which flows down from the "Fishtail" mountain, Machapuchare. In 1956 he was the first to explore the approaches to this peak, discovering the Annapurna Sanctuary; his route is now a well-worn trail, familiar to some of the many thousands who have experienced the organised Himalayan treks which he pioneered in the Sixties.

Roberts was born in India in 1916. After his English education at King's School, Canterbury and Sandhurst, he returned to India at the first opportunity, joining the 1st Gurkha Rifles with the specific intention of devoting his life to Himalayan mountaineering and exploration. Building on his alpine experience, he spent leave weekends exploring the Dhaular Dar mountains above Dharamsala, then, in 1938, joined his first serious expedition to the unclimbed peak of Masherbrum (7,821m). One of his companions recalls Roberts producing a bottle of Green Chartreuse to accompany the evening curry.

During the Second World War he commanded 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion in the first operational drop in Burma, winning the Military Cross. Two years later, in 1944, he was mentioned in despatches at the battle of Sanchak, where the tide turned and the Japanese advance on India was halted.

After the war he again distinguished himself in Malaya. Meanwhile, he had made good use of precious leave, especially in 1941 when he made the first ascent of Dharamsura (6,446m) in the Kulu region north of Simla. There are few mountainous corners of British India he did not visit, as the current Himalayan Journal editor, Harish Kapadia, observes: " There are so many areas where I have had to refer to him: he was the first to enter Spiti, first to explore Saser Kangri (in 1946), first since the last century to the Saser La."

With that thirst for new horizons and his affection for the Gurkhas, it was inevitable that Roberts would be one of the first to explore the mountains of Nepal, when the kingdom first opened its doors to foreigners. In 1950 he joined Bill Tilman's exploration of the Annapurna massif. He was only a reserve for the 1953 Everest expedition but subsequently teamed up with two of its members, Wilfrid Noyce and a fellow Gurkha officer, Charles Wylie, to attempt Machapuchare.

For several years Roberts had gazed at this stunning Nepalese summit from across the Indian border at his recruiting station in Lehra. In 1956 he reconnoitred the approach, and the following year, with Wylie, he led the attempt on Machapuchare itself. David Cox and Wilfrid Noyce, both married men, turned back just short of the summit late in the day, with bad weather approaching, and the final hundred metres or so remained untouched. Afterwards, in a controversial move, Roberts persuaded the Nepal government to declare Machapuchare out of bounds - one inviolate Himalayan summit which should remain for ever unclimbed.

In 1960 he led a happy and harmonious Joint Services team to make the first ascent of Annapurna II (7,937m), putting a young Chris Bonington on his first Himalayan summit. Three years later he organised the logistics for the brilliant American Everest expedition which made the first ever traverse of the world's highest summit. The man in charge, Norman Dyrenfurth, favoured a gentle, democratic leadership style, which only just held the Americans together. In 1970 it proved disastrous in a heavily publicised attempt on the unclimbed South-West Face. Ill-health forced Dyrenfurth to abandon the expedition, along with several disenchanted Europeans, leaving his co-leader Jimmy Roberts to pick up the pieces.

As the film cameraman Ned Kelly recalls, "Jimmy wouldn't put up with any nonsense. He was very much in charge, despite continual pain from his arthritic hips, and the Sherpas worshipped him."

That affinity for the Sherpas, Gurkhas and other hill tribes was one of the draws that kept Roberts in Nepal after retiring from the post of military attache in 1962. His lasting achievement was the pioneering of organised mountain "treks", starting in 1964 with his own agency, Mountain Travel.

He was also instrumental, in the late Seventies, in persuading the Nepalese government to allow climbers to attempt some of the most spectacular peaks of around 6,000 metres with the minimum of bureaucractic obstacles and unnecessary expense - an initiative for which I and many other mountainers remain grateful.

After selling Mountain Travel in 1975, Roberts retired to Pokhara. There, in sight of Machapuchre and Annapurna, with his famous collection of Himalayan pheasants, and the quails whose eggs supplied the Yak & Yeti restaurant in Kathmandu, he entertained friends from all over the world. They all talk of his reserve, but also of his charm, ironic humour, forthright opinions and the occasional distant look which betrayed his undimmed love for the greatest mountain range on earth.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all