Obituary: Lt-Col James Roberts
Wednesday 26 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.
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