"Mountains My Lab" Part 7



Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jul 22, 2019

Jim Milledge has been one of the UK's leading figures in mountain medicine for many years. In 2018 he completed a long awaited memoir - "Mountains My Lab". Although Jim's intention was not to publish the book widely he has granted us permission to reproduce extracts on our blog. Over the course of this year we'll bring you images and text that describe Jim's extraordinary life. 

Part 1 includes an overview of Jim's life. 

Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6 can be found in earlier posts.


Here's Part 7...


In 1955, young men still had to do two years “military service”. That summer, completing my one-year house jobs (my internship), I was called up to join the forces. Having been a member of the University Air Squadron, I went into the Royal Air Force, as a medical officer. Instead of doing the mandatory two years, I elected to sign on for a three year short service commission, hoping that that would improve my chances of getting an overseas posting, foreign travel being then very expensive, especially to the Far East, where I wanted to go.

After a few months spent doing locum medical officer jobs in the south of England, I got news that I was to be posted to Hong Kong. Both Betty and I were delighted but it meant we had to get married quite quickly. This we did on a bright cold day in February 1956 in Kidderminster, her hometown.  Knowing we were to go out to Hong Kong by sea, taking six weeks, Betty suggested that, to save money, we might take this as our honeymoon. I insisted that we should have a proper honeymoon first, so we went to Switzerland for two weeks of wonderful skiing in the Bernese Oberland.


Betty and I cutting our wedding cake, watched by Terry Young, my cousin and Best Man, and Margaret Corsham, Betty's cousin and bridesmaid.


It was just as well that we had not banked on having our honeymoon at sea, as the ship we sailed on, the Asturias, was a very old trooper. Betty found herself on B deck in a cabin with two other women and three children and I was on D deck with three other officers! We spent most of the trip, it seemed, waiting about for each other in corridors with only a few furtively snatched moments to ourselves on the boat deck after dark!


Hong Kong, our first home

Hong Kong was a fascinating place, with wonderful shops and such a variety of eating places; though perhaps not the easiest situation in which to start married life, with a strange, new culture to assimilate. We were to have RAF married quarters but on arrival there was none immediately available. So we had to first find a hotel and then find our own accommodation. However I was given an allowance for this, and the pay was adjusted for the cost of living in Hong Kong and was quite generous. There had been a lot of recent immigration from the China mainland and accommodation was not easy to find. We eventually found a flat in Kowloon; about 20 min. drive from my place of work at Kai Take Air Base and Aerodrome. The flat was, in a Chinese part of Kowloon, lived in previously by Chinese tenants whose idea of house maintenance and kitchen hygiene was rather different from ours. Betty had a tough job cleaning the flat, especially the kitchen with its layer of grease on the walls and we were setting up home for the first time. But we were young and threw ourselves into the life of the community there.

On the RAF side I was one of two medical officers at Kai Tak, the airfield we shared with civilian flights. My duties were mainly work as a GP, though we did have a small sick quarters where we could admit Air Force patients. The forces men were, of course, pretty fit and, venereal diseases apart, had little need of our services, apart from routine annual medical examinations. However, many had their families with them and looking after the wives and children was more demanding and interesting.

On the day we arrived we looked up the people at the Nethersole Hospital, the Mission Hospital on the Island of Hong Kong, where my Uncle Alun had served in the 1940s before and after internment by the Japanese. Ted Patterson was the surgeon there and was overjoyed to learn that Betty was an anaesthetist skilled in the new techniques, which used nitrous oxide, hypnotics, muscle relaxants and controlled ventilation. Up until then, they had used ether, given, under Ted’s guidance, by a junior doctor or nurse. Ether is an explosive anaesthetic and they had just received their first diathermy machine, used for controlling bleeding. When used, it gives off sparks and cannot be used with ether! Betty gave anaesthetics there twice a week for the two and a half years we were in Hong Kong, travelling over on the Star Ferry from the mainland to Hong Kong Island, then taking the tram to the hospital.

Another worthwhile addition to our life was helping in a backstreet clinic in Kowloon run by a wonderful Chinese Christian man, Thomas Wong, who lived with his wife and five children in a tiny area behind the clinic, all contained in a small third floor flat in a tower bock. He relied on volunteer doctors, mostly from the forces. Thomas also tried to teach us Cantonese. These contacts enriched our life with interests outside those of the forces social life, though the latter was also good fun with a pleasant United Forces Club including a bar, restaurant and swimming pool. One incident from there I remember was when ordering a round of drinks I had to ask the Chinese bar man for a vermouth. I thought this would be an unusual order for him so I added, “Ver-mouth, you know?” “Yes Sir” he said. “French or Italian?”. I felt very small!


Tea in married quarters, Kai Tak RAF Station, Hong Kong 1956.


One of the drawbacks of a Hong Kong posting was that, not being allowed into mainland China, forces personnel often felt constrained within the confines of the colony. The nearest place to go for leave, apart from Macau, was Saigon or Singapore and in those days such travel was too expensive for most of us. However, we were fortunate in that, in the twenty-seven months we were there, I managed to get right away five times, four of them with Betty.

First Japanese Trip

The first trip was only a couple of months after arrival in Hong Kong. The Commanding Officer of Kai Tak, Group Captain Tony Smyth, was a mountaineer, and he dreamed up the idea of starting an RAF mountain rescue team. He pointed out that we had a fighter squadron based in the New Territories and if one of the pilots were to bail out and land injured on the top of Ma On Shan, the 3000ft highest hill in the colony, it would be important to have a mountain rescue team to get him out. On this slender argument, he got permission from the Air Ministry to start a team - but with no financial support.

Tony had heard that, with the rundown after the Korean War, there was ex-army equipment to be had in Japan at Iwakuni a hugh US air base in Japan. Including items such as jungle boots, camouflage trousers, jackets and floppy hats with which we could equip out team. So I was told to get myself there and pick them up. Things were much more casual in those far off days. I managed to get a lift in a New Zealand Air Force Bristol Freighter plane from Hong Kong to Iwakuni, the large US base in Japan. The Freighter, one of the first planes to have large front opening doors, which could load a tank if necessary, had a fixed undercarriage and two small piston engines. I had to make myself as comfortable as I could in the hold of this freight plan. It took ages to fly up to Japan, stopping to re-fuel in Taiwan and Okinawa.

Japan, in 1956, was still recovering from the war and was almost a third world country.  What I remember were the terribly potholed roads. It rained quite a bit and one had to have an umbrella as much to protect from splashes as lorries bumped into the potholes, as from the rain itself.

While I was there I visited Hiroshima and the site of the first atom bomb dropped in anger. This was only 10 years after it was dropped. It was a fine summer day and the contrast of the beauty of the azaleas, with the devastation of the site, was intense. I managed to get a lift on a forces air-sea rescue launch back to Iwakuni across the Seto Inland Sea, a lovely trip.

Equipment duly packed up, in two sacks, I returned to Hong Kong by getting lifts from the US Air Force via Clarke Air Base in the Philippines. I spent a night on the base and had my first taste of American cuisine. I was astonished at their 16oz T-bone steaks, the meat overhanging the large plates!

Thailand and South India

One of our extra duties was to carry out medicals for some Hong Kong-based aircrew of civilian airlines. One of these was Air India and we got to know the chief pilot quite well. We could not charge for this service and the RAF billed them, I think, twelve and sixpence (63p) per medical! Even in those days it was a very good price for Air India. So they said they would be happy to offer us medical officers, a couple of complimentary tickets each year,  to anywhere they flew!

Betty and I took them up on this offer and for our first Christmas we flew with Air India to Calcutta and then, on our own, went by train to visit my parents in Neyyore, a town near the very southern tip of India where my Father was working in the Mission Hospital there . En route we stopped off in Bangkok where I had a distant cousin, Jim Sibree, working in import/export. At that time there was very little tourism and we had a wonderful five days doing the sights of that fascinating city. There were few cars and no air pollution in those days. The Buddhist Temples were beautiful, peaceful with few other people about, apart from a few monks. The floating market fascinating; the locals selling all sorts of foods and other merchandise from boats to customers also going around in boats.

Arriving in Calcutta, we went by taxi from Dumdum airport to Howrah railway station through, what I hope, is the worst of Calcutta slums. As we arrived at the station we saw many people spitting, as we thought, blood, and assumed they had TB. Later we understood the red spit was due to chewing betel nut.

Despite nine months in Hong Kong, we were in considerable culture shock and just wanted to get on the train and out of the dreadful place! I have since come to appreciate and love India and have no such problems now, but remembering that time, I can understand how people can be completely overwhelmed by suddenly being confronted by third world poverty, crowds and smells.

Once on the train, sharing a first class compartment with a delightful Brahmin couple, we were fine and enjoyed the two nights and days’ journey to Madras and a further 24 hours to Trivandrum where my parents met us. It was good to have two weeks with them, seeing something of their life and work in the mission hospital and community of Neyyore. This was the place where Howard Somervell had worked after the two Everest expeditions in which he was involved (1922 and 1924). My father took over from him, with a six-month overlap in 1951 before Howard went to be Professor of Surgery in the Christian Medical College & Hospital, Vellore (where we later worked).

Kinabalu Expedition

By the summer of 1957 the Kai Tak mountain rescue team had pretty well exhausted the rather limited climbing possibilities of Hong Kong, although it was great fun going out on exercises or finding and trying climbable crags. Since then a lot more rock climbing has been found and I was surprised to find a climbing guide published in the ‘70s, in which a “Milledge Buttress” is described, not far from our base at Kai Tak. I’d quite forgotten that I had discovered this!

So, Tony Smyth suggested an expedition. The objective was an ambitious one: to make a new route on Mt Kinabalu (4,101 m) in North Borneo (now Sabah). The only route at that time was an easy one, first climbed in 1840, but our aim was to make a new route from the other side of the mountain, starting in Kota Belud.

The team consisted of Group Captain Tony Smyth, leader; four mountain rescue team members all of whom had had quite a bit of climbing experience and myself, as medical officer. At the last minute there was room on the flight for Betty to come as well and she travelled with us as far as the last town, Kota Belud, where she stayed with the young British District Officer and his wife. We flew out from Clark Air Base to Labuan and on to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), then by Land Rover to Kota Belud. From there we started trekking with 17 Dusun porters. For the first ten miles, we were on a good jeep track and Betty came this far with us on a pony, then turned back. We then got onto small paths in primary jungle. This was my first experience of this ecosystem and very exciting. There were all sorts of huge trees, unknown to me with vines and creepers. There were few if any animals to be seen, but plenty of leeches. When the tropical rain came in the afternoon it was not so good but after an hour or so it stopped, the sun came out, the jungle steamed and we dried out. There were no places to but food or drink and we carried and cooked our own food, as did the porters.

We stopped in a village for the night and were invited to sleep in the long house on stilts. The second day was similar though the paths got smaller and we reached the last village. I was amazed to find how clean the villages were. Of course in those days there were no plastic bags and any bottles or tins were few and valued as vessels. Also it seemed that the pigs were responsible for the lack of human waste. The euphemism for going to the toilet was, “I’m just off to feed the pigs”!

Next day following the river we found progress was, if anything, even slower as we crossed and re-crossed the stream, clambering over boulders and wading through pools against quite a fast flow. At the end of the day, having made camp, we held a council of war. We had only come about three miles that day and calculated that at this pace we would only just get to the foot of the mountain when it would be time to turn back! But if we retreated now, we could march round the mountain and just have time to get up and down by the ordinary route. Tony Smyth was for pressing on but was out-voted by the rest of us. To his credit he accepted the vote of the majority, rather than pull rank. The next day we turned tail, back to the last village and over the next three days of hard walking we got ourselves round and up to a pass where the Kinabalu trail started. Unfortunately Tony was unwell, (though not incapacitated. I don’t know what was wrong, but perhaps he was just fed up with the trip and wanted out). He decided to go down and get started back. His going ahead would smooth arrangements for our return but it was disappointing for him.

The tourist route up Kinabalu is now very well worn path but still a great trek. The only difficulty is the altitude, but we were well acclimatised by now so we had no problems. The path leads up through primary jungle, then through fern forests with wonderful pitcher plants, then shrubs and finally bare slabby rock set at an angle which just allows enough friction to get one up. There are no handholds! I understand there is now a fixed rope as a hand rail, on the steepest places.

We had one night in a cave at about 3000m and the next day made it to the summit. Then, all the way down plus a few miles along the jeep track before making a bivouac in an isolated store hut we found. The next morning most of the party and porters were very tired and stopped at a village a few miles down the track. We were expected back at a spot called “Mile 10” that day so I pressed on with one strong porter to cover the 18 miles to the rendezvous where Betty met me with a jeep.

The next day we all assembled at Kote Belud and set off for Labuan by jeep and train via the port of Weston. Because of delays in getting a launch from Weston to Labuan, we missed our flight and had to spend three days at Labuan. But were well entertained by the District Commissioner there and had some superb snorkelling on the coral in the lagoon; probably the best I have ever had. 

First Nepal trek

Towards the end of 1957, back in Hong Kong, we saw a small paragraph in the newspaper, which said that Nepal had opened its borders to tourists. Before that, Nepal had been closed to almost all foreigners except large nationally organized mountaineering expeditions such as the French Annapurna Expedition in 1950, the Swiss to Everest in 1952 and the British Everest Expedition in 1953. Actually, only the valley of Kathmandu was opened but we did not realise that. We met a couple of Gurkha officers who, with special permission and as part of their duties, had done some trekking in Nepal, visiting the home villages of some of their Gurkha soldiers. They gave us the idea of doing a trek and since time was limited, we decided to trek from Kathmandu to Pokhara and then to fly back from there to Kathmandu. This was long before the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara was built. It was also before trekking became popular and trekking agencies and lodges for trekkers were established.


First Nepal trek, Kathmandu to Pokhara with our two porters, March 1958.


We were in touch with the small group of missionaries in Kathmandu who had themselves only been allowed in to Nepal about three years before. They had established a hospital in Kathmandu in an old Rana palace, Shanta Bhawan, and were now just establishing a station at Ampipal, a village halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. We decided to visit this place and to go north up the ridge on which it was situated, as far as we could, possibly to a pilgrimage site of some lakes at about 4,500m. We could allow ourselves 12 days for this trek.

We were able to get courtesy flights again from our Air India contacts, which took us to Calcutta. From there we hoped to get flights to Kathmandu but there was only one seat. Betty took that and I took the train from Calcutta to Raxaul on the border with Nepal, which included a crossing of the Ganges by steamer. Early the next morning I took the little train from Raxaul to Simra in the Nepal Terai. From there I was able to get a flight for the short hop to Kathmandu on a Dakota freighter plane with local Nepalese, some freight, chickens and goats.

In Kathmandu, members of the United Mission to Nepal including the American couple, Bethel and Robert Fleming, looked after us. Bethel was a surgeon and senior doctor at the hospital and Robert, a teacher, was best known as an ornithologist. He and his son wrote the first book of birds of Nepal and I still have a copy as one of my most treasured possessions.

The only foreign people to be found outside Kathmandu were on fully-fledged mountaineering expeditions. With no tradition of trekking for tourists, we were told that it was very unlikely that we would get government permission to go out of the Kathmandu valley.

However, after an initial setback we suddenly were given permission from the relevant officer in the old Singha Durbar, the incredible old Rana palace that was then the Whitehall of Nepal. To find porters for our trek we were directed to a shop in the bazaar, which acted as an agency for porters for merchants. There we met Man Bardur Traukuri and Man Jar Tumang who were to become our two porters. We had no common language so through the shopkeeper we explained what we wanted to do. They knew the trail to Pokhara but not, of course, the part north to and beyond Ampipal. We arranged for them to come to Shanta Bhawan the next morning and Dr Fleming kindly took us to the end of the road, still within the valley, by jeep, and there we started trekking.

This path, being the main road from Kathmandu to Pokhara, was quite busy with porters and travellers, who were mostly Nepalese but a number were Tibetans and some, Indians. The Tibetans were especially intrigued by Betty, who was probably the first western woman they had seen. They were amazed at the hair on her arms and could not resist tweaking it.

The trail wound up out of the Kathmandu valley and eventually to a pass at just over 2000m from which we had fine views of the Ganesh and Annapurna ranges to the west. Our route lay west across the grain of the country, up over passes, down into the next valley, across the river and up again.

 It was March, which is a fairly dry month being the early pre-monsoon season. We were not able to take a lot of food with us but knowing we would pass through villages, hoped to buy food on the way. However, food stores from the previous year were in short supply, so towards the end of the trek we got quite hungry. On two occasions we managed to buy a chicken and when crossing one of the rivers we saw a man catch a good-sized fish and bought it from him. Our porters were attentive and helpful but of course we “did for ourselves” as far as provisions and cooking were concerned, unlike the luxury of more recent expeditions and treks where there have been a whole team of Sherpas looking after us.

The valleys could be quite hot, but the ridges and passes, delightfully cool. The woods, mostly of rhododendron trees, were in full flower. In my subsequent 16 visits to Nepal I have never seen a better show of these lovely flowers; whole hillsides were a blush of red.

It was a five-day trek to Ampipal where we stopped for a night at the recently established mission station, where the missionaries were still building their houses and some were still sleeping in tents. We were welcomed as the first outsiders to have visited this little community where they were starting a school and clinic. Ampipal was a half-day trek north of the main trail, situated on a ridge with fine views to the north of the Buddha and Himal Chuli mountains.

After a night with these kind folk, we headed north along the ridge for two days, and on the third, tried to reach the pilgrimage site of Panch Pokhari (‘five lakes’ – one of many such named in Nepal). We had beautiful walking, past little villages with terraces dropping below us. Then up through rhododendron woods with tree orchids to our “assault” camp above the tree line. Our “assault day” was hampered by snow and mist, but we reached a little peak on the ridge at about 4500m and, having done so, retreated to our tent and porters.

This had been Betty’s first taste of snow climbing and was not too pleasant as the snow was wet and quite deep in places. We had one ice axe between us and a short length of rope. But given the conditions we were quite pleased with our day and had reached a new high altitude for both of us.

A further day’s trek got us back to the main trail and three more days brought us to the city of Pokhara. On our last morning we awoke to a perfect day and the incredible view of Annapurna and Machapuchari from our camp south of Pokhara. A pleasant morning’s walk brought us to the town and in the afternoon of that day we flew back to Kathmandu and to our friends at Shanta Bhawan Hospital.

Second Japanese Trip

We were due to return to UK and I was to be demobilised in September 1958. In the few remaining months in Hong Kong we were keen to get in one more trip and found a freighter firm, which offered 50%, discount to forces personnel on their tramp steamers. So we booked a return passage to Japan. This was a delightful if slow trip. The vessel had only four passengers, two young English men, and us. They were very good company. We had our meals with the ship’s officers as we made our leisurely way taking a week to reach Yokohama. At noon each day all the deck officers “shot the sun”, that is, took sextant readings of the height of the sun above the horizon, from the bridge. I learned to do this as well. The average of these readings was used to fix our position. Each evening before dinner we gathered in the Captain’s cabin for drinks. After the first drink he would observe, “No bird can fly on one wing” and press a second generous sherry on us.

Once in Japan we had the choice of staying on the ship and using it as a moving hotel, as it visited various ports, or leaving it, re-joining it later. We did both, leaving it at Yokohama to visit Tokyo and the Mount Fuji area and using it as a hotel in Kobe making day trips to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. It was early summer and Japan was very beautiful. It was cherry blossom time. Near Fuji we stayed in a Japanese Inn enjoying the, traditional life-style: food, baths and dress. On entering the Inn, one took off ones shoes and jacket and were given a Kimono (like a silk dressing gown) to wear. The rooms had rattan floor coverings and no other furniture. Meals were brought to the room by small Japanese waitresses in traditional dress and served on the floor at which one sat cress legged. In the evening futons (thin matrasses) were brought in and unrolled on the floor. We enjoyed the Japanese baths at which one first soaped and showered thoroughly before stepping into the large communal bath. It was “mixed bathing” though in an increasing number of places and public baths the sexes were separated.

The season for climbing Mt. Fuji had not started but we managed to make the ascent from the small timber hotel at the road head reached by bus. We had the mountain to ourselves. However, coming down we had to walk the eight miles or so from the hotel back to the town as no buses were running.

Farewell to Hong Kong and the RAF

A month or two before we were due to leave Hong Kong, the Wing Commander medical officer, my boss, interviewed me and urged me to sign on with the RAF with a permanent commission. I had enjoyed my time in the services and was very tempted to do so. But I reckoned that I had been very fortunate in my posting for most of my three years and other postings might not be so enjoyable.  More importantly, I did not think that, in the long run, forces medicine would be really satisfying, so it was “thanks but no thanks”.

Our return to UK was much more enjoyable than the passage out. We were on a new troop ship, the HMS Devonshire, with a nice two-berth cabin to ourselves. In Singapore we had able to visit a wonderful aviary with free flying tropical birds. In Sri Lanka we had splendid swimming at the lovely Mount Lavinia beach resort.  The Suez Canal was interesting as was Port Said with the “Gully-gully” man who came on board with his incredible tricks to entertain us. Then, cruising through the Mediterranean with sighting of Crete and the rock of Gibraltar.  So four weeks on board were delightful, with good food and plenty of interesting company.

Back home, a GP in Lymington, Dr Webb-Peploe, for whom Betty had done a locum job some time before, offered her an assistantship in general practice for a year and got me a job as a house officer with a local physician at the Royal South Hants Hospital in Southampton. So we came out of the RAF and into jobs without a break!


1 thought on “"Mountains My Lab" Part 7

John Laughlin commented 4 weeks ago
Loving these excerpts! Keep them coming

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