Col Jimmy Roberts with Al Read and Elizabeth Hawley during New Year’s at Tiger Tops in 1978.
Little Sangjay was fascinated by the birds: brightly coloured tragopans, garish impeyan monals and strutting Chinese golden pheasants. His small fingers gripped the wire netting of their cage whilst the sunshine lit their feathers.
The speckled grey guinea fowl fussed in the rough grass of Col Jimmy Roberts’ Pokhara garden, and his flock of quail cackled nearby. The fishtail peak of Mt Machhapuchre glowed in the high distance, and the red poinsettia and orange marigolds straggled his land. Over the dry-stone wall, the murmur of Sherpa voices could be heard as they sorted Mountain Travel’s tents and camping gear between treks.
Col Jimmy enjoyed an eccentric retirement, in the same vein that he had lived an unusual life. Raising rare and endangered pheasants became his passion, and he introduced the delicacy of diminutive quail eggs to the finer restaurants of Kathmandu. Next to the trekking depot, his stone house in Pokhara had been built to suit his needs and those of his Sherpa attendants — one open living room, no spare bedroom, and an upstairs loo with the “best view in the world”, as he proudly told Princess Anne during her 1981 visit. Along with the pheasants, a succession of liver and white spaniels were his preferred company.
Unmarried and solitary by nature, Col Jimmy was the only son of a Gujarat headmaster. He returned to South Asia after being sent “home” to school in England (King’s Canterbury, which I never heard him mention) and military training at Sandhurst. The product of a British Army career, he had a distinguished and highly decorated record in India, Malaya and Singapore. He always said that the few women he ever met were limited to the sisters of fellow Gurkha officers.
Instead, Jimmy went climbing. He pioneered Himalayan peaks in the days when access was constrained by tensions between China, India and Tibet, and visits to Nepal were “by invitation only”. As he put it: “At that time, for a mountaineer at least, the lure of Nepal was far more potent than Tibet or Bhutan. And in the mountain book, only the chapter titled ‘Nepal’ remained closed, the pages uncut.”
He became a legendary Himalayan mountaineer and explorer, bagging many first ascents and getting to 50m below the sacred summit of Mt Machapuchre. Disdaining to join John Hunt’s 1953 Everest expedition, which he himself had been shortlisted to lead, Col Jimmy helped with oxygen logistics then preferred to explore alone, making the first ascent of Mera Peak which he dismissed as: “rather over 21,000 feet and not difficult”.
Jimmy first came to live in Nepal when appointed Military Attaché with the British Embassy Kathmandu in 1958, then stayed on. By the time my young boys were enthralled by his extravagant pheasants in Pokhara, Col Jimmy’s mountain days were curtailed by arthritic hips and failing health, and Mountain Travel had joined forces with Tiger Tops. But he could still describe every trek trail, twist, and turn from memory, and was relied on to compose the Sherpa teams as he understood upper Khumbu family dynamics better than anyone.
Without being able to walk them himself, Jimmy devised new circuits such as the Royal Trek for Prince Charles, which I recced for him with Pertemba Sherpa in 1980, and the Prince’s Trek south of Pokhara. His stature in Nepal was secure as the creator of the trekking industry and inventor of the word ‘trek’, derived from a South African Boer word meaning ‘an arduous journey on foot’.
A shy man, often gruff and never profligate with words, his writing surprised with a poetic grace and elegant turn of phrase. The invention of the trekking business was Jimmy’s gift to the Sherpas, the people whom he greatly appreciated for their mountain skills but whose lives he saw as vulnerable from closed trade routes and cancelled expeditions of 1960’s geopolitics. In many ways one could say that Jimmy dedicated his life to the Sherpas, ensuring that change brought them options and livelihoods. He wrote: “A wind blows across the highest of mountains of Asia and rattles the tiles on the roofs of houses in the valleys below. Doors swing open and others slam shut.”
Mountain Travel was registered in 1964, and for four years was Nepal’s only trekking agency. His first trek group were six American ladies to Everest Base Camp in 1965, and he worried about the impacts of expanding beyond his set of camping equipment for eight clients. Today there are 2,500 trekking agencies, nearly 200,000 trekkers and over 2,000 mountaineers annually, and mountain tourism provides income and employment for many more Nepalis.
Jimmy opened up Nepal’s network of trading trails and hill villages to generations of walkers who might otherwise be daunted by the world’s highest mountain range. Debate rages about climbing expeditions, particularly on Everest, but there is no doubt that the country benefits from the royalties received, the jobs created and helicopters hired by this valuable long-staying and goal-obsessed section of Nepal’s tourism market.
It might have seemed like a more innocent age, but in his quiet way Col Jimmy was prescient about the changes to come. Just before his death in 1997 he worried about “dirty campsites and trails littered with rubbish … and crowds of hikers invading the peace of the mountains”. Even then, when Nepal’s visitors numbered a fraction of today, he lobbied for the advantages of quality high-value tourism: “Why are we selling our beautiful mountains so cheap?”
Trekking first brought me to Nepal, and the spirit of mountain hiking is lodged deep in the hearts of my two sons as part of the fabric of their childhood. Without Jimmy, and his stubborn persistence to realize his dream and vision, things would not have been the same.