J. O. M. Roberts
Lieutenant Colonel James Owen Merion Roberts MVO MBE MC (1916–1997) was one of the greatest Himalayan mountaineer-explorers of the twentieth century; a highly decorated British Army officer who achieved his greatest renown as "the father of trekking" in Nepal. His exploratory activities are comparable to those of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman.
Born in England, Roberts spent his early life in India, where his father was a headmaster. After attending Sandhurst, he was commissioned onto the Unattached List for the Indian Army in August 1936 as a 19-year-old subaltern to satisfy his ardent craving for mountaineering. After a probationary year attached to a British Army regiment in India, he was posted to the 1st battalion, 1st (King George V's Own) Gurkha Rifles in November 1937.
His first major expedition was in 1938 to Masherbrum, 7890 metres, in the Karakorams: the weather was bad, the attempt was unsuccessful and J.B. Harrison and R.A. Hodgkin got severely frostbitten. Roberts himself suffered at high altitude and suffered mild frostbite.
He tried to join the post-monsoon 1939 Everest expedition led by Bill Tilman, but the attempt was called off. That year, he recorded the first of his many first ascents, that of Guan Nelda, 6303 metres (now called Chau Chau Kang Nilda) in the Spiti Himalaya. The ascent was remarkable for something which became a Roberts hallmark: he climbed without any other "sahib" for company, accompanied only by his Gurkhas. In this he was the true successor of the legendary Dr. A. M. Kellas who had climbed in the same fashion in Sikkim before 1914.
He was selected for the abortive 1940 Everest expedition.
The second major first ascent by Roberts was the 1941 climb of the ca. 21,148-foot peak he named White Sail (also known as Dharmsura) in the Tos Glacier of Kullu Himalaya.
After serving with the 1st battalion, 1st Gurkhas in North Africa, he returned to India and joined the 153 (Gurkha) Indian Para Battalion. He was dropped into North Burma on 3 July 1942 at the head of a small force to survey the Myitkyina area and then march 150 miles North to Fort Hertz. Roberts's party reached Fort Hertz in early August and discovered it was still in British hands. On 13 August, a party led by Capt. G.E.C. Newlands of 153 Para dropped in on Fort Hertz with engineering supplies and the hitherto-unusable airfield at Fort Hertz was made operational by 20 August. Roberts and his men were extracted around that date. For this operation he was awarded the Military Cross.
As Major commanding 'A' Company of the 153 (Gurkha) Para Battalion, he took part in the 50th Para Brigade defence of Sangshak in 1944 against the Japanese thrust towards Kohima. The defence of Sangshak was portrayed by some in the Army High Command as not having been exemplary and Brigadier Hope-Thompson, in local command, took the punishment for that. However Slim, the 14th Army Commander personally sent a dispatch praising the bravery of those involved in the six days and nights of hand-to-hand fighting by a force outnumbered by 18 to 1. In fact the action is noted for the highest number of awards for gallantry issued by the Indian Army for a single action. Roberts fought well. The book about the battle by Harry Seaman has a photograph of him.
He led the first combat paratrooper jump in Southeast Asia on 1 May 1945, dropping with a battalion-size force at Elephant Point, South of Rangoon as part of the operation to capture that city, and was mentioned in Despatches.
After the war he transferred to the British Army's Brigade of Gurkhas and was posted in Malaya until 1954. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in May 1955 for service in Malaya and made Member of the Royal Victorian Order in 1961.
Postwar climbing career highlights
- 1946 Eastern Karakorams, reconnaissance (sometimes abbreviated recce) of the Saser Kangri massif. First ascent of Lookout Peak, c. 20,150 feet (6,140 m), and Stundok Peak, c. 20,012 feet (6,100 m). His recce report was the basis on which the successful 1973 Indian expedition to Saser Kangri I, 7672 metres / 25170 feet, opted for a change of approach route from West to East that turned out to be the key to success.
- 1950 The most glorious chapter in Roberts' mountaineering career began with the opening up of Nepal in the 1950s. Roberts was asked to join a team led by Bill Tilman to the Annapurna massif in 1950. The expedition was 'ill-organised and badly led' and failed to climb even Annapurna IV, but Roberts saw a lot of the Nepalese mountainscape, seen earlier by only very few people like Toni Hagen and Oleg Polunin. The vale of Pokhara came as an Elysian discovery to Roberts. The same year saw the opening of the successful campaign against the 8000 metre peaks with the French achieving the ascent of Annapurna I.
- 1953 Roberts hoped to be invited to join the 1953 Everest team, but found his hopes fulfilled in a disappointing fashion, being asked to organise the transport of oxygen cylinders to Base Camp. Allowed to depart thereafter, Roberts put the time to good use, exploring three valleys lying South and South-west of Everest, and making the first ascent of Mera, 6654 (6456?) metres on 20 May 1953 with Sen Tensing.
- 1954 First ascent of Putha Hiunchuli, 7246 metres, in the Dhaulagiri group with Ang Nyima on Nov.11 during recce of the massif with G. Lorimer.
- 1956 Reconnaissance of Machapuchare
- 1957 Leader of expedition to Machapuchare (The Fishes' Tail), 6993 metres, the only officially recorded attempt. The summit team stopped some 150 feet (46 m) below the summit due to lack of time, so the peak is generally regarded as unclimbed. No further expeditions are allowed as this superbly beautiful peak is considered holy. Fluted Peak (21800 ft) was first climbed by this expedition.
- 1960 Leader, of the Army Mountaineering Association Annapurna II expedition, 7937 metres: first ascent achieved. This was Chris Bonington's first major Himalayan summit.
- 1962 Leader, Dhaulagiri IV, 7660 metres, expedition: reached 6400 metres on masking peak Dhaulagiri VI.
- 1963 Transport Officer, American Mount Everest Expedition
- 1965 Joint Leader, Dhaulagiri IV expedition
- 1971 Joint leader with Norman Dyhrenfurth of the International Everest Expedition that ended in disaster and the death of Indian member H. V. Bahuguna on the West Ridge.
In 1995 he was given the Back Award (instituted 1888) by the Royal Geographical Society.
Roberts founded the first trekking and mountaineering outfit Mountain Travel Nepal in 1964 to offer the opportunity for wealthy travellers to enjoy the experience of trekking or climbing in Nepal without problems. His trained Gurkha/Sherpa teams, took care of transportation, camping and local liaison, leaving trekkers free to enjoy the thrills. The first trek he managed was one by three elderly ladies to Everest Base Camp in 1965. He is known and revered as "the father of trekking in Nepal".
He acted as bird-collector for the British Museum during the 1950 expedition, and maintained an aviary in Pokhara where he bred pheasants. He died at Pokhara on 1 November 1997.
- London Gazette 28 August 1936
- Indian Army List October 1939
- London Gazette 29 September 1942, page 4209
- London Gazette 27 May 1955
- London Gazette 14 March 1961
- Roberts, J.O.M. "Round about Dhaulagiri" (PDF). Alpine Journal. Alpine Club. Vol 60, Pages 248-256. Retrieved April 24, 2016.
- Climbing the Fish's Tail by Wilfrid Noyce, William Heinemann Ltd, 1958
- Americans on Everest, James Ramsay Ullman, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1964
Obituary on Action Asia web site