78. Plumbing in the Himalayas during 1950-1960 CE
OCT. 6, 2023
We’re climbing to the top of the world and visiting the Himalayas to discover plumbing. Find out what to do with the little spade in a Tibetan toilet. Learn the story of the hidden hero of the first successful Everest expedition. And discover one naughty Lama’s remarkable secret.
The Himalayas is, famously, a mountain range in Asia, or more accurately across Asia. The name Himalaya comes from the Sanskrit words for “snow” or “frost” and the word for “dwelling”, so it’s actually the home of snow.
Depending on where you draw the start and the end, the Himalayas feature as part of a number of countries, usually including Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal as well as the much larger India, China and Pakistan but sometimes also adding in Afghanistan and Myanmar on either and of the crescent, depending on where exactly you draw the beginning and ends of the range.
Geographically, well, what do you think – correct, it is mountainous, because it’s made of mountains BUT its’ not all snowy peaks and freezing winds. In fact you can have quite lush, warm, fertile foothills, as well as the classic mountain that springs to mind.
This is due to a factor we don’t often think of. On this show we often talk about latitude and longitude and how it affects the climate. In the Himalayas even more than most other places, as well as latitude and longitude, you need to consider altitude.
In the warmth of the foothills you can enjoy 30 °C (86°F) summers and average winters at around 18 °C (64°F), but go up and up and in contrast, when you travel up to the zones above 4,880 m (16,000ft) it is always below freezing and permanently covered with snow.
Size for a mountain range is always going to be a bit of an approximation, as there’s not a clear border with ‘Himalayas starts here’ on it. That said, the range runs for a length of 2,400 km (1,500 miles) and has a width varying from 350 km (220 miles) to 150 km (93 mi) with an approximate area of 595,000 square km (230,000 square miles).
Population is obviously a bit challenging as well– Wikipedia quotes a source that says 53 million people, I found a 1987 conference paper that said 33 million. Ed Douglas’ book Himalaya, a Human History says 50 million let’s say that.
It doesn’t have a flag as such, but if you visit the Himalayas, in particular Tibet, you might spot a string of flags set out like bunting along a ridge or across a field or sometimes strung vertically. These are little square or rectangular flags with colours in sets of five, blue representing sky and space, white for air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green is water and yellow for earth.
On the flag you’ll also find some writing which are mantras, like prayers or chants, but also a picture of a horse. This is a Lung Ta or wind horse, a symbol of the human soul.
Now when you’re putting up your prayer flags, there is a specific order in which you’re supposed to hang the colours. But much more important than that is to hang them with positive intent. They are hung high and supposed to flutter in the air because they are intended to spread their blessings on the wind to everyone.
As with the flag, there is not really a Himalayan national anthem. With bits in Tibet, China, Nepal and India, a unified song for everyone is pretty much out of the question. So for the show, I’m going to play you the song “Himalayas” by Stewart Copeland, drummer of the Policy, and Ricky Kej from the 2021 album Divine Tides.
And as for national animal I’m going to go for the Yeti, also known as the abominable snowman. This is a large, ape-like creature, spotted from time to time in the Himalayas. Tibetan lore actually says there are three main types of yetis.
o the Nyalmo, has black fur and is the largest and fiercest, standing around fifteen feet tall
o the Chuti, which stands around eight feet tall
o and the Rang Shim Bombo, which has reddish-brown fur and is only three to five feet tall – which is pretty cute and I want one
The Himalayas is home to 9 out of 10 of the highest peaks in the world including of course the tallest—the famous Mt. Everest.
This was named Everest by The Royal Geographic Society based on the recommendation of the British Surveyor General of India, a man who had been hired by one Sir George Everest, his predecessor as Surveyor General. Which is one way to say ‘thanks for the job’.
Sir George Everest himself had no connection to Everest, never even saw it and actually objected to using his name on the grounds that as a word it was not easily pronounced or written in Hindi. It didn’t make any difference, the surveyors claimed they could not find a consistent local name for the place, so from 1865 it was officially Everest.
Although it’s unlikely that made any difference to the locals, who in Tibet at least, call it Chomolungma, meaning "Goddess Mother of the World.
Everest’s summit is 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level, which brings us to the question, who is the person who has stood highest on Earth?
It’s a trick question, it is whoever happens to be on Everest right now. Because Everest is growing at about 4mm a year.
The Himalaya contain the world’s third largest deposit of ice and snow on the planet, giving it a common name of “The Third Pole.”
In fact, the whole Himalayas is in motion, with a combination of ongoing pushing together of the plates causing the mountains to rise, but also earthquakes, erosion and other geological instabilities cause them to sink as well,
in 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake caused one region of the Himalayas to sink by nearly two feet.
That said, other mountains are growing faster, Nanga Parbat in the Pakistani Himalayan range is growing at a rate of 7mm per year, so in just a quarter of a million years, all other things being equal, it could overtake
History of the Himalayas
70 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous, the Indo-Australian Plate – the tectonic plate that India was sitting on, was hurtling Northwards at a speed of up to 15 cm (5.9 in) per year. Speeding and out of control, a crash was inevitable, and what we now know of as Asia was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After about 20 million years, boom, the very very low velocity crashed happened. Where the Indian Plate hit the Eurasian plate and they formed a thrust fault. The rocks crashed together and crumpled together and upwards, forming a mountain range – the Himalayas.
Hang around for another 70 million years and - enter early man – but not the early man we usually talk about.
I think we’ve previously met the Denisovan’s, a now-extinct sub species of humans. There are only 8 known Denisovan finds in the world and one of these is a bit of a jawbone found in a cave in Tibet. This suggests that these early humanoids lived at altitude, in the Himalayas around 160,000 years ago.
Now normally I’d have a scamper through the country’s history, but things get complicated because the Himalayas are a considerable barrier – so the history of the North side, heavily influence by mongols and the Chinese would be quite different to the history of the South, where the dominant power is India.
So I’m just going to give you an extremely brief overview.
In short, North of the wall from the 7th to the 9th century the Tibetan empire is a substantial power in the area. Mongols arrived for a bit, as did the Chinese. In the 14th century Tibet became independent which it remains until the 17th century. This is when the senior lama, the Dalai Lama, became the head of state of Tibet.
In 1720 the Qing dynast from China moved in and with various back and forth, including an invasion by the British and a bit of independence.
But eventually and to this day Tibet is established as a part of China, although this is disputed by many, including the Dalai Lama, who remains the leader in exile of Tibet.
On the South side of the mountain range, find and replace China for India as the main large imperial power.
In the 4th Century the Gupta empire was the big name in town. Then various competing kingdoms emerge, spread and fade. The British East India company arrives in India and start to meddle with everyone. Then everyone gets fed up with the British.
In 1947 both India and Nepal become independent, whilst Bhutan was independent the whole time.
Now India bicker with Pakistan in Kashmir, whilst Bhutan minds its own business and Nepal plays host to an endless stream of aspiring Everest conquerers (which you can also get to from Tibet).
And throughout this coming and going and fuss, the mountains of the Himalayas stand there, wondering what all the fuss is about.
When in 1953 the mightiest mountain of all, Everest, was conquered, the mountain wondered to itself, Conquered, how was I conquered, I am still here and will be long after you are gone.
The word plumbing comes from Latin plumbum meaning “lead,” which is why the symbol for lead on the periodic table of the elements is “Pb.”
And it’s that way because lead was the material used for the early plumbing systems of the Roman Empire. I suspect you are aware that lead in water is not actually a great idea – lead poisoning can cause irritability and fatigue, abdominal pain and vomiting, and developmental delay and learning difficulties among other things.
In fact there is a theory that lead poisoning was a contributing factor to the downfall of the Roman Empire.
But, I have to tell you Ryan, in 2014, French researchers carried out a study that found that although Roman water could have had as much as 100 times lead than local spring water, it concluded that this wasn’t enough to have caused serious health issues.
Nowadays plumbing is more commonly done with plastic
Famous plumbers include Super Mario who was not originally a plumber – he actually started out as a Carpenter in the game Donkey Kong. When the game Super Maro Bros came out, it featured underground pipes, so he was made into a plumber.
And of course you’ll know Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher aka “Joe The Plumber”. He was the guy who became famous during the 2008 U.S. presidential election where he became a symbol of the ordinary American.
Also in American Politics we had the White House Plumbers, a group formed by Richard Nixon to prevent the leaking of information to the media, who were made famous when two of the so-called-plumbers, G Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt organised a break in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate hotel, triggering one of the biggest scandals in American Political history
But we need to define plumbing for this show. One dictionary defines it as “the system of pipes, etc. that supply water to a building”. But it is also used as a humorous euphemism for the excretory, urinary, or reproductive systems, "maybe I should talk to my doctor about my plumbing"
So for the purposes of this episode, I’m going to consider plumbing to include ‘managing water’ as well as ‘things that move fluids around in pipes’.
Plumbing in the Himalayas in the 1950s
And we’re here to talk about plumbing in the Himalayas in the 1950s.
Of course, water is a vital resource everywhere. Difficult to generalise for the whole of the area’s plumbing, but we can make some general points.
In the high Himalayas, modern plumbing, pipes and taps, is likely to be a rarity. In Tibet, many households even today have neither electricity nor modern plumbing – so we can imagine it is much the same as it was in the 1950s.
And we can be certain they would not waste large amounts of perfectly good water just to flush a toilet.
In fact, in one blog I found called Shadow Tibet, Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu talks about a conversation about Tibetan toilets he had with his uncle.
In it, he mentions that when you go into the toilet in a traditional Tibetan home, you will might find in the room a bucket of ash with a spade in it.
He explains: “The toilet in most traditional Tibetan homes were on the second floor (or higher) and always at the back of the house”.
Why the back? “which would be north-facing and the coldest side of the house.” Which would help reduce odours from your output.
“So you did your business through the hole in the floor and the waste dropped directly into the collection room below –– with no intervening pipes or any mechanism”
“You used the spade to pick up the ash and spread it through the hole after you finished. My uncle Tomjor-la maintained that the “secret” of the Tibetan toilet was essentially the ash from the household kitchen fire.”
Wood ash is known to have deodorising and disinfecting properties – it’s recommended for washing your dog with if it’s been skunked - , and although Norbu doesn’t specify, presumably the mix of waste and ash could be collected from the room below, ready to use as fertiliser, much as we discussed in our Scotland episode
This, ‘long drop’ approach is taken to the extreme in the Potala palace, one-time winter palace of the Dalai Lama, in the Tibetan fortress of Lhasa. This toilet has a drop that I’ve seen quoted between 10 and 60 metres, either way making it possibly the deepest (tallest?) toilet in the world. And then you could just leave the results at the bottom for the wind and rain to wash away – which is one way to save water.
Plumbing at 26,000 feet (8,000 metres)
This next story is about plumbing on a much more personal scale. The Himalayas is famous for its mountains, and where there are mountains, there are mountaineers.
In mountaineering, there is the idea of an eight-thousander. This is a peak that stands over 8000 metres tall, 26,247 feet above sea level.
At present, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) recognises just 14 mountains to be eight-thousanders and ten of these are found in Nepal alone.
But why is this height so significant?
Well, the bit of a peak above 8,000 metres is also known to climbers as the Death Zone. This is the altitude above which the Oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.
The concept was identified in our time period – in 1953 by a Swiss doctor, Edouard Wyss-Dunant, although he called it the lethal zone, which isn’t much friendlier. He drew his conclusions after leading a failed Swiss attempt on the summit of Everest in 1952.
This problem was the underlying issue that gave rise to one of the great debates of mountaineering that was still raging in the 1950s– the use of oxygen whilst climbing to combat the problems of low oxygen at altitude.
At this time, particularly in Britain, mountaineering had been dominated by something of a gentleman-amateur philosophy, where pluck and vim and determination took the place of practice and professionalism and science.
The Alpine Club, the main mountaineering society at the time had a blackballing system in place for members applying, which was a system that just happened to ensure ‘the wrong sort’ didn’t get in.
In fact, one Vice-President is said to have been speaking to a new member and pointed to a street sweeper outside and said “I mean, we would never elect that fellow even if he were the finest climber in the world.”
On top of that, Leslie Stephen, one time president of the Alpine Club said in 1924 “True alpine travellers loved the mountains for their own sake and considered scientific intruders with their barometers and their theorising to be a simple nuisance.”
One result of this attitude was a reluctance to use oxygen in the mountains even though there had always been a strong suspicion among some climbers that it would be beneficial. It just wasn’t considered sporting.
By way of example - a man called Sandy Irvine was selected for a 1924 expedition to Everest. He said, “I really hate the thought of oxygen. I’d give anything to make a non-oxygen attempt. I think I’d sooner get to the foot of the final pyramid without oxygen that to the top with it.”
His job - he was in charge of the oxygen. Although to be fair I believe he did a good job, making a number of improvements to the apparatus despite all that.
Sadly, on that attempt both he and the expedition leader, George Mallory, perished.
So, although opinions were mixed, in the 1950s using oxygen was definitely not a new concept, but was viewed with suspicion. But when a Swiss attempt on Everest in 1952 (which did use oxygen but it ran out on the way) got the nearest anyone had ever done to the summit, British climbing realised they were running out of time to get to the top first, so they’d better start being a bit more professional. And that meant taking a more scientific approach and using oxygen.
So an expedition was planned for 1953, led by Colonel John Hunt and featuring the New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary, as well as a fellow leading the local sherpas, a chap named Tenzing Norgay.
Now you may have heard some of those names, but you are less likely to have heard of another member of the expedition, Griffith Pugh. He was a doctor and a scientist and an absolute believer in the use of oxygen at altitude.
He examined the belief that the weight of the equipment to supply oxygen more than counteracted the benefits of the oxygen itself and came to the conclusion that whilst that had been true, the problem had been simply not enough oxygen – and he prescribed a much higher flow of gas.
As an aside Pugh conducted much more than just oxygen experiments. He worked on and improving the designs for a great deal of the equipment they used, from the boots on their feet to the stoves they used to melt snow for water.
But back to oxygen, he fought to ensure oxygen was taken on the mission despite the doubts of some of the climbers. Over time, during the assault on Everest, the other climbers were won over to the idea as well, as they discovered how much more energy and strength they had when plugged in.
But there was still one outstanding question, and it was a question of plumbing.
Oxygen for breathing can be supplied in either closed circuit or open circuit systems.
In open circuit, the climber breathes in normal air, but it’s supplemented with a oxygen from a tank. It’s then breathed out into the atmosphere.
The closed circuit approach the climber breathes basically directly from the tank, with a full face mask preventing outside air getting in. When they exhale, the breath goes back into the system and is passed through a canister of soda lime powder which absorbs the carbon dioxide and any remaining oxygen goes back into the system.
So, did you know that during the 1953 expedition to Everest, there were actually two separate attempts on the summit?
The first was made by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, using the closed-circuit sets which Bourdillon favoured, possibly because they had been developed by his father. They planned to go up and down the slope in a single go, with no stopping to camp on the way.
The second attempt was Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who were to take the open-circuit oxygen and set up a high camp about two thirds the way to the summit for an overnight stop.
Going first, Evans and Bourdillon. They struck up the snowy slopes and headed for the top.
But, as you probably haven’t heard of Evans and Bourdillon, you probably already know they did not make it. One of the oxygen sets malfunctioned – technical issues had been problematic with the closed systems - and they were forced to give up at 8,754 meters, 28,720 feet. For context, they had made it higher than anyone ever had before, and were just 100 meters (328 feet) short of the summit.
Close, but no cigar.
So then, Hillary and Tenzing set off with their open circuit oxygen sets. Chugging huge amounts of liquid to offset the dehydrating effects of the effort in the dry air at altitude (another recommendation from the medic and scientist Griffith Pugh), they kept going.
And kept going.
And kept going.
Until, on 29th May 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest - and the history books.
Plumbing-wise, it was a victory for open-circuit oxygen, a victory that as far as I can tell continues to this day, with the vast majority, if not all climbers using open circuit systems
But as a sad post-script, Griffith Pugh, the oxygen evangelist and scientific powerhouse who did so much to ensure the Everest expedition had a sound scientific underpinning, was somewhat ignored after the successful climb.
Expedition leader Hunt said afterwards, “No one will want to hear about the science. The spotlight must be firmly on the human aspects of the achievement.”
It probably didn’t help that Pugh was something of a difficult character and a bit of an oddball too, but still, he deserved recognition for his contribution.
Which is why I heartily recommend the book from which I got most of this information. It’s called Everest – The First Ascent: the untold story of Griffith Pugh, the man who made it possible. It’s written by Harriet Tuckey, and I’m confident she knows what she’s talking about because she is also Griffith Pugh’s daughter.
And that is the tale of open and closed circuit oxygen in the conquest of Everest, or to put it another way, plumbing in the Himalayas in the 1950s.
The Third eye
In 1956, a book was published in the UK entitled The Third Eye, subtitle “The autobiography of a Tibetan Lama”.
On the cover of the book, the author’s name was given as Lobsang Rampa, the Tibetan monk in question. The book tells of his life high in the Himalayas, and how he became a Lama.
Rampa starts life in Tibet as the son of an aristocrat. He spends his childhood – kite flying and stilt walking and riding horses, albeit not very well. And one day he is sent off to study as a priest.
His talent was clearly noticeable and he was selected for special monk training. And not just training either – on one particularly memorable occasion he is taken to have his Third Eye opened, which in this case means having a hole drilled in his skull.
This seems to do the job - after the operation he finds he is able to see people’s auras.
He then talks about Tibetan beliefs, and various psychic powers that come with the third eye, including telepathy, aura viewing a bit of levitation. And, of course, he talks about the time he encountered a yeti.
The book was published, and it became a best seller, shifting half a million copies in two years.
But not everyone was so taken with the supposedly factual book, possibly due to the amount of magic and yetis surpassing what you might expect in a true story.
One Tibetan scholar opened his review with “This is a shameless book”.
Another, Austrian Tibetologist Heinrich Harrer also hated it. Harrer had written his own book about his experiences, titled ‘Seven Years in Tibet.’ Which later became a movie with Brad Pitt.
He hated Lobsang’s book - so he wrote a review so scathing that the publisher threatened to sue for libel. But he wasn’t done. He also commissioned a Private Detective to look into the author.
That detective discovered that the author was not a monk. Nor was he Tibetan. Nor was he called Lobsang Rampa. Nor was there any evidence that he had ever left the UK.
He was, in fact, the son of a Devonshire plumber, named Cyril Hoskins. Actually, I’ve seen him described as a plumber, a plumbers apprentice and the son of a plumber, so I’m not sure exactly the relationship, but I’m certain there’s a plumbing connection.
The story became national news, with headlines such as “The full truth about the bogus Lama”.
So what did Cyril say. It’s a fair cop? Of course not. He explained that sure, he wasn’t really a Tibetan, but what had happened was that his body had been taken over by the Tibetan monk's spirit after he fell out of tree.
Unrepentant, he went on to write several more books, the exact number varying depending on whether you count Living with the Lama, which you might not count because it was apparently dictated to Rampa by Mrs. Fifi Greywhisker, who was of course his pet Siamese cat. You might also not include the one entitled “My Visit to Venus”, which was based on his manuscript although not actually written by him and details his adventures travelling to other planets.
His last book was Tibetan Sage published in 1980, so he really stuck to his story
Shortly after which, on 25 January 1981, at the age of 70, Lobsang Rampa, aka Cyril aka Doctor Carl Kuon Suo, passed away.
Although we shouldn’t be sad because, presumably, it’s just a matter of time before he joins us again in another reincarnation.
And there it is – a plumber, in Tibet, in the 1950s, sort of.