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A History in Images: On Nanda Devi

The Mountain, The Goddess & The Tribute

In 1976 Lowe Alpine Systems agreed to support an expedition to climb Nanda Devi - a beautiful, spiritual and remote mountain in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas, Northern India.

The team attempting the climb was made up of American and Indian mountaineers and their plan was to make the fourth ascent of the mountain via a challenging, unclimbed route from the north. The team was made up of eleven Americans and two Indian climbers, included in that number was John Roskelley and the father, daughter team of Willie & Nanda Devi Unsoeld.

The plan to climb the mountain was hatched in 1974 when Devi Unsoeld and Hubert Ads Carter spoke about bringing a team together to climb the mountain in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first ascent in 1936. Nanda Devi Unsoeld was named after the mountain, her father having promised to name is first born daughter after catching a glimpse of it during a previous expedition to the area in 1948. Devi had always felt drawn to the mountain she was named after and felt compelled to bring together a team to climb it.

Nanda Devi (the mountain) is incredibly beautiful, it sits at the heart of a sanctuary that today, is closed to both climbers and locals alike. Nanda Devi is considered the holiest mountain in the region, its name meaning bliss giving goddess in Sanskrit. It also has a very fragile eco-system and the sanctuary is famous for meadows carpeted in wildflowers. The sanctuary was not officially closed until 1983, but even in 1976 it was very difficult to obtain permits to access the area. However, the team were successful, and in 1976 they set about forging a route toward the mountain, establishing a base camp at 4,400m. The approach to the mountain was tough and their chosen route up the peak looked even harder than they had imagined. The team made adjustments but continued with their preparation to climb the route and set about making forays up the mountain to set up camps and ferry loads in preparation for a summit bid.

What happened over the next few days is the stuff of mountaineering legend. Immortalised in a book by expedition team member John Roskelley - Nanda Devi - The Tragic Expedition' - it is a tale of high-altitude struggles, summit fever, success and eventually tragedy.

A trio of American climbers from the team, John Roskelley, Jim States, and Lou Reichardt reached the summit of the mountain on Sept 1st, 1976, 40 years and four days after the first successful expedition. They returned to camp 4 triumphant and, having fixed ropes and cleared the way for the next team, felt confident that the less experienced climbers would have no problems reaching the summit. It was not to be. Devi became ill at camp 4, suffering from acute dysentery. Bad weather pinned them down and as she rested her strength returned, once the storm passed she and the other members of the team felt ready to make a bid for the summit. As they prepared to set off Devi took a turn for the worse, she sank rapidly and died within 10 minutes.

A lifelong obsession with the mountain that had given her a name had ended in the most tragic way imaginable, she passed away with her father by her side and her body was committed to the snow on the mountain that bore her name. The porters in the team had already decided Devi was the human incarnation of the goddess during the expedition, her vibrant blond hair, her command of their language, and of course her name had led them to that conclusion, her passing only strengthened their resolve.

The 1976 expedition to Nanda Devi will always be remembered for its tragic end. A visceral and powerful story that seems in retrospect, almost unbelievable. When the team returned from the expedition the photographs taking during the expedition were sent to Lowe Alpine and remained archived until they were retrieved and digitised this year.

After speaking with Jeff Lowe & Connie Self about the expedition we uncovered a little-known fact about Lowe Alpine's history and the importance of this expedition in our heritage. During the years prior to, and proceeding the expedition Greg Lowe had been tinkering with ideas around making a line of backpacks designed to fit the female body shape much better than the unisex packs available at the time. Shortly after this, Lowe Alpine released the first ever female specific pack range - It was called the Nanda Devi range in tribute to Nanda Devi Unsoeld.

Today, 50 years later, we still call our female specific packs ND (Nanda Devi). The reason why we call it this has, over the years been a topic of much debate. So it is a great honour to have uncovered the truth behind the name. A pack range named in tribute to an incredible woman who lost her life trying to climb a mountain that captivated her being and bore her name.

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