C. R. Cooke

C. R. Cooke

Lieutenant-Colonel Conrad Reginald Cooke, OBE (31 August 1901 – 27 December 1996) was an English early Himalayan mountaineer. In 1935, alone and without oxygen, he reached the summit of Kabru North. His achievement remained the highest solo climb until 1953.


The following obituary was printed in The Times on Saturday 4 January 1997 and reproduced by kind permission of the author, Marjorie Pointon:

Early Himalayan mountaineer and first to conquer Kabru

Reggie Cooke has died aged 95. His successful ascent of Kabru (24,075 ft), reaching the summit alone and without oxygen, was a world record for 18 years. This endeavour alone places him among the ranks of the finest mountaineers of his day.

Born in Mussoorie, India on 31 August 1901 to Daisy (nee Clarke) and Conrad Allan Cooke, he was educated at Haileybury College. Cooke obtained his engineering diploma at City & Guilds in 1922. Wireless telegraphy was in its infancy and during this time and his apprenticeship with Mather & Platt he and his friend, Humfrey Andrewes made 2 receivers. After a training period with the British Post Office he sailed for Bombay in 1925 to join his parents and start his first job with the Indian Post and Telegraphs, Ajmer.

His first priority was to set us a wireless transmitter. He applied for a permit and was allotted the call sign 2HP. This was the first amateur radio in India and, as his enthusiasm and expertise became known, he was asked to design, build and install wireless receivers, including one for the Gaekwar of Baroda and more importantly the first short-wave wireless link between India and Burma.

Life in India afforded Cooke unique opportunities for sport and leisure. He hunted big game (which he later came to abhor) and travelled through the jungle on elephants to inspect the telegraph lines. He learned to fly and together with his wife, Margaret, whom he married in Calcutta in 1930, bought a De Havilland Gipsy Moth (G-ABYI) and piloted it without navigational aids from Brooklands to the Isle of Wight, Devon and Scotland. It was dismantled and shipped back to India but, once there, the distances between refuelling stops proved too great and the plane was eventually sold to the Bombay Flying Club.

Climbing became his passion. In 1926 Cooke joined forces with Wigram Battye to climb Kolahoi (17,799 ft), sometimes referred to as "The Kashmir Matterhorn". Cooke recalls, "Kolahoi, by today's standards, is an easy climb, just a good long exhilarating snow and rock scramble culminating in an airy knife-edged summit ridge." Their climbing equipment was the bare minimum - Battye's Meade tent, an ice-axe each, a couple of lengths of Alpine Club hemp rope, 2 bedding rolls and an iron charcoal-burning stove. From the Korapathar Pass at 11,668 ft a break in the rain clouds revealed the first view of Kolahoi - snow blowing across its rocky flanks and crags and the summit lost in the clouds. Cooke remarked, "Small hopes of our getting up there!"

They climbed the Hari Gati Pass at 12,799 ft and set up Base Camp at the northern end of Har Nag lake, moving on to Camp 3 at 14,700 ft. By midday the next day they had roped up for the climb proper and the rockwork, without pitons, called for a certain modicum of care from these novices. On the left of the East Ridge the south face fell away at an average angle of over 50 degrees, while over on the north face one looked almost vertically down a succession of precipices dropping some thousands of feet to the Kolahoi Glacier below. Cooke writes, "We moved one at a time belaying as we advanced. Small detours had to be made to avoid a tall gendarme and stretches of snow-capped ridge hiding dangerous cornices overhanging the precipitous north face, with extra caution at the top of a small steep couloir because of the danger of wind-slab which could slide off and take us with it." Progress was slow - in 9 hours they ascended 1500 ft. They decided to risk the couloir before dawn the next day when the snow would be frozen and less likely to avalanche. The clouds were moving up rapidly, pouring over the passes and piling into the valleys.

The broad rock face fortunately proved to be easier than expected; the going took them along the extreme edge of the main arete, astride it sometimes with a leg dangling on either side, and so on up close to the snowcap at the summit. From this point the giant cornice could be seen to advantage, huge icicles - the fingers of a dead hand - hanging over the north face. On 30 yards and they stood at the top and photographed each other. They didn't stop to take in the wonder of the situation, the weather was closing in. Luck had enabled them to snatch the last opportunity before the monsoon. It was only the second ascent of Kolahoi.

On leave in 1927 Cooke went trekking in the remote Kingdom of Sikkim in the Eastern Himalayas. An accomplished artist, he sketched the birds he saw, a talent possibly inherited from his great-grandfather, E W Cooke RA, the marine artist. He also sent home beetles, one of which was named after him - Chlaenius Cookei. Later, he collected, with special permission, over 3,000 specimens of butterflies. These expeditions were to give him his first tantalising glimpse of Kabru.

In 1935 Cooke was introduced to Gostav Schoberth of Siemens (India) Ltd, an experienced mountaineer, who suggested they should attempt Kabru. Little was known in the early 1930s about conditions at over 22,000 ft. Cooke researched previous high altitude expeditions and planned for temperatures of -30C and winds gusting to 100 mph. He made fur-lined helmet and gloves and 2 windproof suits, while the durzis ran up some eiderdown sleeping bags. He designed a close-shielded cooker with 2 nesting pots inside nesting screens and a primus with a high altitude burner, which stayed alight under adverse conditions. Enough clothes were bought from Calcutta market to kit out 40 coolies and the packages and bags occupied 2 compartments on the little Siliguri hill railway. Ang Tharkay, the most famous of the Everest Tigers, met them in Darjeeling and took over as sirdar (leader) of the expedition. Tensing Norgay, later of Everest fame, joked that as the youngest he was made to carry the heaviest load.

Cooke writes, "Base Camp was on the left lateral moraine of the glacier and boxed in on three sides by mountains. To the west, towering above us, the east face of the Rathong Peak, to the east steep snow slopes led up to The Dome and to the north the 4,000 ft Kabru ice-fall, one of the greatest in the world. A labyrinth of seracs, leaning towers, pale grey walls of ice and blue ice-caverns. The broad upper hanging glacier is a mile wide and visible from Darjeeling 40 miles away." They climbed a small ice-fall and crossed the upper slopes of a tributary glacier to gain access to a shoulder of the Dome bivouacing a third the way up on 29th October.

Cooke continues, "Camp 1 was set up at 17,500 ft on an ice terrace at the business edge of a small hanging glacier 100 ft thick with an ice cliff outside the tent door. (PH39) We could feel the glacier moving underneath us as we lay in our sleeping bags. The temperature was -5F. For several days we cut steps up the first ice wall and bivouaced amongst the seracs until establishing Camp 4 at 20,000 ft." The wind was vicious and before dawn the tent blew down round their ears. Camp 5 at 21,100 ft (PH40) was on a flat floor at the bottom of an old snow-bridged crevasse. The glacier was moving, but that night they escaped the high winds which boomed overhead high across the gap above.

Camp 6 on 16 November saw their highest bivouac level with the foot of the topmost icefall. The night temperature dropped to -12F. Schoberth was unwell and the expedition halted. On the 18th a fresh start was made 1 hr after sunrise, Cooke went on alone. The snow was pressed so hard by the wind that it was impossible to kick steps in it and the crampons would not bite. Cooke had to cut steps for 700 ft to the ridge where he came upon a unique isolated field of firn nearly 24,000 ft above sea level, extending a mile north/south and half a mile east/west. Unseen from below the whole area was covered with broken wind slab undercut by wind-driven ice into elongated marble-topped tables - cracked and tilted at crazy angles.

Cooke traversed the first and second summits and made for the farthest one reaching the top sooner than expected. He looked down a gaping abyss to the Talung Glacier below. He took 40 panoramic photographs, which were used by Capt R A Sams for details for his map, the Survey of India sheets 78 A/NE and 77 D/SE 1939-40. He stood on Kabru North Summit. It was the world's highest solo ascent and remained so for 18 years.

He debated whether to attempt South Kabru, but energy had to be conserved for the return to Camp 6. He started to retrace his tracks until he decided upon a steep, direct short cut falling away from the summit ridge. Forgetting the hardened snow he lunged down with his heel but the spikes failed to bite. His heel shot forward and he slid down on his back gaining speed. A protruding rock catapulted him round head first and a second somersaulted him over at an appalling pace. Using his ice axe as a brake, he hung on to the head with both hands at the level of his cheek - the pace still accelerated. Suddenly he hit a large projection of firn covered rock and lay in shock fighting for breath for a quarter of an hour. He then proceeded down more cautiously. He noted, "that the projection topped a band of near vertical rocks above a big drop, which must have proved fatal." The fall had been seen in the camp below, but soon he was "consuming glorious tea and hard-boiled eggs". The march back to civilisation in glorious weather was bliss. The news preceded the climbers and was announced in the Daily Telegraph of 4 December 1935.

Cooke had long term designs on Everest. Further minor climbs were followed by a fortnight in the Alps and the ascent of the Dom Peak. This was in preparation for a reconnaissance of Kanchenjunga with Capt and Mrs John Hunt in 1937 (later Lord Hunt). He became a founder member and vice-president of the Mountain Club of India, which later evolved into the Himalayan Club. Between 1921 and 1938 there were 7 attempts to climb Everest. General Wilson, chairman of the Himalayan Club informed Cooke that he had been chosen to lead their reconnaissance and possible assault on Everest for 1940. Two hundred letters were written and plans were under way. But, suddenly rumours of impending war began to rumble across the world and within a few months his life dream was shattered.

The early part of the war saw Cooke commissioned into GHQ, Delhi. In 1942 he was sent by flying boat to Cairo, to work out schedules of requirements of telegraph lines and equipment for General Wavell's operations in East Africa and Egypt. This was followed by command of No 2 Battalion, Indian Signal Corps, on the Burma front against the invading Japanese.

As additional Chief Engineer Telegraphs, Cooke was responsible for the post-war Telecommunications Development Plan for the whole of the sub-continent, for which he wrote the official manual. After partition he joined the Pakistan Government as Chief Engineer Post and Telegraphs. He forged the sole link radio between East and West Pakistan and built up the organisation and administration for a nation of one hundred million people. He was awarded the Burma Star and appointed OBE.

In 1948 he returned to Britain and started Westcliffe Engineering in Stanstead Abbots, Herts to work on some of his ideas. He made and supplied to his own original design, 20 of the high altitude cookers to the Everest Expedition of 1953. In his retirement his skills were used for silversmithing which he displayed in Oxford, and he then returned to painting and exhibited miniature portraits at the Mall Galleries, London 1982. His autobiography "Dust and Snow: Half a Lifetime in India" was first published in 1988.

His first wife died in 1972. In 1974 he married Nancy Abercrombie Mortimore (nee Kennedy), widow of Lieut-Col W G Mortimore of the Rajputana Rifles. She died in 1984. He is survived by his three daughters.

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