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53 – The man who led India’s first climb expedition on Mount Everest

Padmshree winner Brig. Gyan Singh (right) with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Tenzing Norgay (left). at HMI, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. With a model in full mountaineering gear for an Everest climb. Darjeeling, West Bengal. 1961

Image and Text contributed by Soni Dave, New Delhi

Born on April 12, 1918 in the Mainpuri Dist. of Uttar Pradesh, Brigadier Gyan Singh, whom I fondly call Gyan Uncle, was a man of many many accomplishments and huge influence. He was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in June 1940. In 1947 he set up the Army Ski Training School in Gulmarg, Kashmir, which is now the High Altitude Warfare School. In 1959 he became the second principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling established in 1954. He took over from Major N.D. Jayal who was the principal from 1954 to 1958.

And the best part, in 1960, he led the first Indian attempt to the Mount Everest. Unfortunately, the expedition was short of the summit by 200 meters when they were forced to return due to very bad weather.

He was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1961. And then was the first principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering set up in 1965 to honour the great desire of Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, who was an ardent mountain lover. In 1979 he founded the National Adventure Foundation and set up a chain of adventure clubs throughout India. He was also awarded the IMF gold medal in 1993 for his outstanding contribution in the field of mountaineering. ‘Lure of Everest‘,Peak to Peak‘, are some of the books he wrote.

The above is information readily available on the Internet. But I have a few personal words on the man I knew as Gyan uncle. Gyan Uncle was my mother’s brother, one of 5 siblings. Three elder brothers followed by two younger sisters. Gyan uncle was the second eldest. I consider myself fortunate to have spent long periods with him in the late 70’s early 80’s. He was in Delhi very often those days in connection with setting up the National Adventure Foundation. When in Delhi he always stayed with us. For me, in my early 20’s, he was a ready role model of optimism, work ethics and good cheer. He described it very well when he said that he ‘had a very bad memory for unpleasant things’. And so that’s how he lived his life. Always in the present moment. He was a man of action. Always doing something and doing it well.

His own family life however was turbulent. He had 3 sons and a daughter. He lost his eldest son, Mahinder, to a fire accident. His third son, Ravi, lost his life to an overdose of drugs. Ravi’s drug addiction had been a matter of great concern to his father who tried his best to help his son overcome it. He also admitted him to a de-addiction center after-which when he took him home he encouraged him to write about it. It turned into a book called ‘I was a Drug Addict’. However before it could be published, Ravi, unable to deal with issues, returned to his world of fantasies, and we lost him to an overdose. The last chapter of the book was written by a heartbroken grieving father. The book was published posthumously in 1979. To watch him mourning and then recover from such great losses were valuable life lessons. In 1979 he focussed all his energies on starting the National Adventure Foundation.

When I talk about him, how can I not talk about his great sense of humour and comic timing. There was never a dull moment. Quick wit and repartee would fly! Being around him was uplifting. And he was charming charming charming ! He won hearts so effortlessly. He passed away in 1997 at the age of 79. We still talk about him. Tell the children stories about him.. Nearly all those stories are accompanied by loud laughter! What an accomplishment! What a life!

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Responses (7)

  1. Rinchen Tshering says:

    Soni

    Well written post and tugged a chord somwhere within. Firstly remember hearing about him so much from Adit. Happy to know that even the kids have some memories of him. Secondly I remember reading Ravi’s book in college days. We did have some friends in SRCC who knew him in Mayo. Years later when I was posted to Goa and the first time I saw Anjuna beach it instantly reminded me of Ravi n what he had written. The book being available in the officers mess of Assam Rifles HQ in Shillong as someone commented (Adit didn’t u spend a chunk of your childhood in its vicinity growing up in Shillong?), seeing Brig. Gyan Singh’s memorabilia at the HMI Darjeeling etc as a kid and not knowing I would hear more about him later etc. As I said it’s all so poignant. God bless his soul for giving so much joy to all he knew and even to those he didn’t.

  2. Mrudula Prabhuram Joshi says:

    I was in Darjiling on the 29th of May, 1961. Although our party did not know that it was the 8th anniversary of the First Victory of Everest by Sherpa Tenzing and Edmund Hillary which was being celebrated at the Institute of Mountaineering there, we happened to visit the place, as tourists, just when the function was going on. We waited till it concluded and then met Sherpa Tenzing himself and Brigadier Gyansing, both of them ” Humility Incarnate ”. They not only welcomed us and talked ever so gently without boasting about their achievements, we were thoroughly astonished when Brig. Gyansing himself took us around the entire campus and told us the interesting stories attached to each and every exhibit shown there.What a great piece of luck! I still cherish this memory along with his autograph which I took there, preserved very carefully to this date.

  3. Rishi says:

    Inspiring. Uplifting. Loved the Quote.

  4. Dhruv says:

    Absolutely love this. I’m filled with pride when I see this post and the comments below. He’s still missed dearly by all of us in the family.
    This is an amazing website.

  5. Adit Dave says:

    I really enjoyed reading Soni’s essay about this wonderful man whom we called “joker nana”. Brig. Gyan Singh had a wonderful sense of humour and his very presence was uplifting. It was a privilege, and indeed, an honour to have known and interacted closely with Gyan Uncle.

  6. Dev says:

    A lovely post this. As a fauj born child (1961 born) growing up in Army Cantonments Brig Gyan Singh was a childhood hero. I remember seeing a documentary on India’s Everest heroes in Mercury Theatre Mhow (it was then the official auditorium cum theatre of the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering, MCTE). One of the Brigadier’s books was published by, if I remember correctly, National Book Trust. Its hindi translation was a supplementary reader for us in Class VII or VIII when I was a student of Kendriya Vidyalaya, Alwar (Rajasthan). Some of my senior friends were the contemporaries of his son Ravi at Mayo College, Ajmer. And I did read his book “I Was A Drug Addict” just after it was published in 1979 – a copy was available in the Officer’s mess library of HQ Assam Rifles, Shillong. It was a very honestly written book and I am sad that it is just not available any more as it can be a good source of information and also for motivating youngsters. Thanks for this lovely post. Regards, Dev.

  7. Loved the quote ‘had a very bad memory for unpleasant things’.
    Truly an amazing life. Curious to know more about him and the way he dealt with his son’s addiction. The interesting part for us is that he published a book on his son’s addiction. This can be so inspiring to a lot of people!
    We at My Life Chronicles take up projects to chronicle lives and events in the form of books and videos. Love the Indian Memory project!

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