SFAR in the service of scientific research
Excerpt from: Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, 1939 to 1970. Published in Zurich in 1972
At the instigation of the Foundation for Alpine Research, the well-known Swiss geologist Arnold Heim undertook an exploratory flight above the central Nepalese Himalayas in the autumn of 1949. Let’s read what he himself wrote in his report of this event:
"On 17th October 1949, we flew in a new twin engine Dakota (Douglas type) from Delhi to Lucknow. ... it was 5.08am. I had set the course at E 23° N in the direction of Butwal at the foot of the mountains, 280 kilometres over the plain, then in a north-north-easterly direction over Tansing and following the Gandaki valley to Tibet.
In front of us to the east lie black stratus clouds. The foothills of the Himalayas are still partly covered in cloud, but the highest summits are clear, with the exception of a white cloud on Dhaulagiri to the left. We are flying between this eight-thousand-metre mountain and Machapuchara opposite at something over 4000 metres. The Gandaki and its gorges are still cast in deep shadow. To the left, the corner pillars of the Dhaulagiri stand powerfully before us. The strata generally drop about 30 degrees to the north-north-east and seem to consist of old gneiss, overlaid by slates with folds. Between the gneiss and the Siwalik, which are unfortunately not clear, stretches what is probably the largest overlaid surface on Earth. I am sitting with photographic and cinematic equipment, next to the pilot. The plane is flying too fast for systematic observations, and we are too low. I ask in vain for the pilot to go higher. He has not set the oxygen equipment into operation, probably deliberately, and may not fly the plane higher than 4500 metres himself without oxygen. We think we are already at the Tibetan border before 6am, and fly close above a wide, desolate plateau with shallow glacial lakes, where herds of yak and klangs (wild donkeys) are grazing. My aneroid indicates 4500 metres. In front of us flows a forked river, which might well be the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), and north-east in the far distance rises an unknown peak of about 7000 metres height, on the Trans-Himalayan mountain ridge. Turn around! We do not have a permit for Tibet. The summits are only just appearing with full clarity. The highest summit of the Machapuchara only just reaches up above the lower peaks. The Dhaulagiri, mighty, but with less ice, and with just a small hanging glacier to the east, now stands cloudless before us, with the Dhaulagiri Himalaya, as a westerly continuation of the series of peaks. Now we are again obstructed by lower clouds, until we glide over the Indian plain, and land near Lucknow after an almost four-hour flight and close to 1000-kilometre journey.
This was a first, and only partially successful, test flight. The Dakota, with its tiny circular windows, is not really suitable. The view from the co-pilot’s seat is also one-sided and restricted between the propeller, wing and tail. The cloud cover was a problem in the foothills of the Himalayas. The pilot did not fly high enough for me to observe or photograph the Annapurna Himalaya or Tibet.
Nothing could be deduced from the remarkable appearance of the exotic blocks that we discovered in the Tibetan border mountains next to the Garhwal Himalaya, but I probably recognised white limestone strata and grey-brown slate dropping northwards. These probably belong to the Triassic and Jurassic periods. An expedition on foot would certainly lead to magnificent results, after which further observation flights would be all the more valuable. Hardly any other profile in the Nepalese Himalayas promises such good geological insights as that selected (and now over-flown) for the planned expedition, from Butwal via Tansing and the Kali Gandaki between the above-named eight-thousand-metre and on to Tsangpo. No other area can be travelled along its whole length by beasts of burden, and no crossing to Tibet and the Trans-Himalayas with such a low watershed is known."
Any available photographs and maps are very important when mountaineers and scientists open up a remote mountain region. The requirements for the quality of the documentation alter, depending on the aims of the expedition as a glance through the maps published by our organisation will demonstrate.
Simple ridge line maps are available at a small scale for the Himalayas and the Andes. These are useful to mountain climbers for rough orientation, and provide a general impression of the morphological structure of large mountainous regions. Ridge line sketches are clear and easy to read. They are also included as excerpts with expedition reports in Mountains of the World.
When its activities began, the Foundation provided support in the form of considerable financial backing for the topographical mapping of selected mountain areas that were of interest to mountaineering expeditions. The maps of the Sikkim Himalaya (1:150000), Garhwal Himalaya East and Garhwal Himalaya West (1:150000), Jongsang-Nupchu (1:150000), Rataban-Kosa (1:50000) and Abi Gamin (1:150000) in particular have received special attention. They were withdrawn from sale in 1959, at the request of the Indian government, so that they could not be used by the Chinese troops who were advancing against India at that time.
Whereas the high quality of Swiss maps was presented to visitors from home and abroad at the time the Foundation was established, at the Regional Exhibition in 1959, certain Special Swiss services in the mapping of mountainous regions received particular international attention after the Second World War.
The Foundation contributed to the production and publication of the Andes Map by Ernst Spiess (1965). This map covered the area involved in the expedition to the Andes in 1959, organised by SAC and led by Ruedi Schatz (Panta, Cordillera Vilcabamba, 1:25000).
The map of the Mount McKinley massif in Alaska was without doubt a high point in Swiss cartography.