Himalayan Journal vol.04
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.04

Publication year:
1932

Editor:
Kenneth Mason
Index
  1. ON ANCIENT TRACKS PAST THE PAMIRS
    (SIR AUREL STEIN)
  2. THE FIRST ASCENT OF KAMET
    (CAPTAIN E. ST. J. BIRNIE)
  3. AN EXPLORATION OF THE ARWA VALLEY, BRITISH
    (CAPTAIN E. ST. J. BIRNIE)
  4. MY EXPEDITION IN THE EASTERN KARAKORAM, 1930
    (Professor GIOTTO DAINELLI)
  5. SKI-ING IN THE HIGH EASTERN HIMALAYA
    (ULRICH WIELAND ?)
  6. BY SHONTHAR GALI TO RAMA, ASTOR
    (CAPTAIN J. BARRON)
  7. THE SHYOK ICE-BARRIER IN 1931
    (CAPTAIN C. E. C. GREGORY)
  8. A FRONTIER TOUR
    (LIEUT-COLONEL J. R. C. GANNON)
  9. HIGH ALTITUDE AND OXYGEN
    (N. E. ODELL)
  10. SUB-HIMALAYAN DIETETICS
    (Dr. C. STRICKLAND)
  11. THE TSARAP VALLEY, EASTERN LAHUL
    (LIBUT.-COLONISI, C. H. STOCKLEY)
  12. PEAKS AND PASSES OF THE T'lEN SHAN
    (Lieut-Colonel R. C. F. SCHOMBERG)
  13. THE FIGHT FOR KANGCHENJUNGA, 1931
    (PAUL BAUER)
  14. Lhonak, 1930
    (G. B. GOURLAY)
  15. A Journey in Upper Kumaun and Garhwal
    (Lieutenant HUGH ROSE)
  16. Expeditions
  17. In memorium
  18. Notes
  19. Reviews
  20. Correspondence
  21. Club Proceedings

THE FIRST ASCENT OF KAMET

CAPTAIN E. ST. J. BIRNIE

IN VIEW of Mr. F. S. Smythe's projected expedition to climb Kamet many details of previous attempts on that mountain have already appeared in The Himalayan Journal(1); it is therefore unnecessary for me to describe these attempts or the reasons which caused their ultimate failure to reach the summit. It is sufficient to say that practically every approach to the mountain had been carefully explored. To Mr. C. F. Meade must be given the credit of finally establishing the route up the East Kamet glacier and of proving the summit to be accessible, provided that a camp could be established on the col dividing Kamet from Eastern Ibi Gamin and that sufficient stores could be dumped there to allow for adverse weather delaying the attempt. Smythe accordingly selected this route for his attack and was enabled to get much valuable advice in London on the conditions prevailing in Northern Garhwal from General the Hon. C. G. Bruce and from Mr. Ruttledge who had served for many years in that district.

After months of organization the party was completed as follows : Mr. F. S. Smythe (leader), Wing-Commander E. B. Beauman, Mr. R. L. Holdsworth (who is probably better known as a ski-er than as a climber), Dr. Raymond Greene, Mr. E. E. Shipton and myself. All except myself had considerable experience in the Alps and Shipton had made the first ascent of Mount Kenya in thirty years. Because I was the only Urdu-speaking member of the expedition, the general arrangements of the porters and transport were allotted to me; Greene had his hands full with his medical work; Holdsworth was our botanist, while Shipton had the very thankless task of mess president.

By the 17th May we were all assembled at Ranikhet. Ten of the Darjeeling "Tigers " had been summoned to accompany us(2). These men, all of whom had fine records with other Himalayan expeditions, were to act as our personal servants and later were to be employed as porters at the highest camps. In addition, two Gurkha lance- naiks, Randoj Kan and Budibal Guru, were lent to us very kindly by the 3rd Gurkha Rifles to assist in the general supervision of the camps and transport. Their smartness and splendid sense of discipline proved of the utmost value. The well-known Everest porter Lewa acted as our Sirdar.

(1) Himalayan Journal, vol. iii, pp. 122-125.

(2) Lewa, Achung, Nima Tendrup, Nima Dorje, Nima, Ondi, Pasang, Ang- Nerbu, Nerbu, and Dorje.

Kamet is situated in the northern extremity of British Garhwal in the United Provinces of Agra and Oude and about a hundred and fifty miles from the hill-station of Ranikhet. After motoring fifty miles we spent fourteen days marching through the most beautiful valleys, the hillsides being covered with flowers. Crossing the Kuari pass on the 28th May, we obtained a magnificent view of the Badri- nath range ; Kamet, a splendid rock peak when viewed from this side, now stood out as the king of all these monarchs. Two deep gorges pierce these mountains, the Badrinath gorge, through which flows the Alaknanda river, most sacred of the Ganges tributaries, and the Dhauli gorge. Our route lay along the latter.

The nature of the valleys now changed completely. Huge rock clifis, devoid of any vegetation, rose for thousands of feet above the track which skirted first one and then the other side of the river, sometimes on a level with it and sometimes perched hundreds of feet above the torrent. On the 2nd June we reached the mountain villnge of Niti, the last on the route to the East Kamet glacier. Changing all our porters here, and substituting yaks for many of them, we left Niti on the 5th and two days later established our base-camp on moraine below the junction of the East Kamet and Raikane glaciers at a height of approximately 15,350 feet. The wood level was about three hundred feet lower. Beauman and Shipton now busied themselves with a complete reorganization of the stores. Food for the porters and all the loads for the higher camps, consisting of tents, personal equipment, climbing and cinema apparatus, etc., were made into loads of approximately fifty pounds each. Six of the local porters(3) were selected to strengthen our " Tigers " for the high camps and were issued with woollen cardigans, Balaclava helmets, gloves, ice-axes and snow-goggles, in addition to woollen climbing- suits and properly nailed Alpine boots.

On the 8th June the organization for the attack on the mountain was completed. Smythe, Holdsworth, Greene and Shipton left to establish Camp I at approximately 16,800 feet. There was still a good deal of snow at this height so that an easy, though devious, route was found through the mass of moraine hillocks which form this lower portion of the glacier. Beauman very generously stayed behind with me as I was unwilling to start until the last of the loads for the higher camps had left the base. That evening twenty-five porters returned with the news that Camp I had been established. Smythe had kept twelve of the equipped men and pushed on the next day to-Camp II, the site of which proved to be a long way up the glacier which becomes very narrow between these camps. To the south runs the long ridge which culminates in the beautiful Mana peak. Its precipitous cliffs are plastered with enormous ice walls which overhang the glacier and from these walls ice avalanches thunder almost continuously throughout the day. A very careful study of the ground by Smythe and his party resulted in a safe route being stamped out for the porters.

(3) Kesar Singh, Naitar Singh, Kalu, Gian Singh and Thelu, from Bompa Qamiftll and Malari near Niti; and Chonu from Mana village.

On that day Beauman and I were faced as we were leaving the base-camp with four or five cases of impending snow-blindness amongst the porters. These cases appeared to be confined to a certain section of the men who had already attempted to spread disaffection and I was very glad to have the excuse to dismiss them at once. With these men gone we were now left with as fine a body of local porters as any expedition could wish for. On the 10th June Beauman and I joined the rest at Camp II at a height of 18,600 feet. Smythe considered this to be a suitable altitude at which to acclimatize, for already some of us were feeling the effects of the height and suffering from sharp headache and loss of sleep at night. The porters were equally affected so that it was decided that we should spend some days here. There was, however, plenty to do, and this period enabled the lower 1 camp porters to bring up an ample amount of juniper fuel and to stock Camps I and II with sufficient food to last them for a fortnight. As most of this had to be taken higher, Camps I and II would later have to be replenished from the base. In the meantime the route to Camp III at 20,700 feet was reconnoitred by a party under Smythe and on the 13th all members of the expedition started for the site of this camp on the higher Kamet glacier, which was connected with the lower glacier by a very steep though not difficult snow gully. After accompanying the rest for half the distance I returned to Camp II in order to continue the supervision of relaying loads to Camp III.

The weather now changed for the worse; thick mists covered the mountains and snow storms became frequent. On the 14th I joined the others at Camp III. I started in a blizzard and the storm continued throughout the day. In the thick mist and driving snow I missed camp, climbing several hundred feet above it. A temporary clearing of the mist disclosed its position and I was soon surrounded by our wonderful Sherpa and Bhutia porters, who pulled off my boots, rubbed my chilled feet and hands and supplied me with hot tea so that all discomforts were forgotten in a few moments.

We were now faced with a thousand-foot wall of rock capped by an ice dome of some three hundred feet in height. Although Meade had eventually found a route up this rock face, it was the inability to carry loads up it which had primarily caused his failure to conquer Kamet. It was now therefore our task to establish a route suitable for load-carrying men.

Smythe wished first to reconnoitre the snow couloir south of Eastern Ibi Gamin but soon found this route too dangerous, consisting as it did of about a foot of avalanche snow on ice. Splitting into two parties on the 16th June, we made a second reconnaissance of the rock face, both parties eventually emerging on to the steep snow just below the final ice dome. Neither route, however, was considered practicable for porters, but on the downward journey an easier way was found and we set to work immediately to hammer pitons into the rock and place fixed ropes on all the most dangerous pitches.

We returned that evening well satisfied with our day's work. On the 17th Smythe, Shipton and Lewa climbed to the top of the rock cliff and commenced the laborious work of cutting steps up the steep ice dome. I was deputed to take four men up the same route to deposit four rucksacks of food as near as possible to Camp IV. The men very quickly gained confidence in the handling of the rope and we eventually dumped our load of food on the rocks at the foot of the ice slope. Sending three of the porters down I waited with the Sherpa Nima for Smythe and Shipton to reappear, and then scrambled down ahead of them with Nima. Shipton unroped and passed us into camp at a great pace. This was a most enjoyable day of mountaineering, but we were beginning to feel the strain of climbing at these heights.

Casualties amongst our Sherpas now caused some anxiety. We had only sufficient men to allow Smythe and Shipton to establish Camp IV at the top of the ice dome at approximately 22,000 feet on the 18th June. Holdsworth, who had been temporarily a little unfit, gallantly carried a load up for them, returning that evening to Camp III. Smythe and Shipton were also carrying extra weight. On the same evening, however, I was able to replace two sick men by fitter men from below, and with porters Dorje and Ondi fit again our position was greatly improved.

Beauman was unfortunately feeling the altitude considerably, but made a very fine effort on the 19th in reaching Camp IV with the rest of us. At the first fixed ropes we found the two local porters, who had replaced the Sherpas, nervous and refusing to go on. Holds- worth and I roped up with them and they were soon going along splendidly and eventually returned alone to Camp III. This was the turning-point with the locally recruited porters, who after a rather shaky start now gave sterling work to the expedition.

On the 20 th June Smythe, Shipton and Holds worth reconnoitred the route to Meade's Col and established Camp V just below it at 23,300 feet on a large snow-field. The final plan of attack evolved at Camp IV was that, weather permitting, these three would retain only Lewa and Nima Dorje and with them would attempt the summit on the following day. While this attempt was being made Beauman, Greene and myself, with the two Gurkha N. C. O's and five porters, would move up to Camp V in support, the whole party camping there on the 21st. The second attempt by the rest of us would be made if possible on the 22nd.

A heavy snow storm at Camp IV delayed our start, but the climbing party above us were able to get away by 8 a.m. Smythe chose the north-east edge of the north face for his attack. Half concealed and deep crevasses lie across this face, but otherwise as far as a point four hundred feet below the summit no great technical difficulties are encountered.

At about 11 a.m. the clouds cleared a little and a thrilling sight was revealed. Two thousand feet above us five small dots appeared, seemingly stationary, so slow was their progress. Through glasses we could see that they were roped in two parties. By 2 o'clock they had reached the rock point four hundred feet from the summit ridge ; here Nima Dorje, carrying the cinema apparatus, collapsed. He had done splendidly but was too tired out to continue further. Lewa took up his load. The final pitch called upon the last reserves of the climbers ; the slope steepens considerably and was covered with a thin layer of snow on ice ; practically every step had to be cut, a great strain at that altitude. The consequent lack of oxygen was now beginning to hamper the party seriously. Taking the lead in turn, the climbers at last surmounted the summit ridge after two-and-a- quarter hours from the rock. The highest point of the ridge still lay a hundred and fifty yards to the west. This ridge to the summit is extremely narrow with only just enough width to walk singly along its knife-like edge. To the north the slope falls steeply to Meade's Col, but the southern slope falls quite gently for some thirty feet to the topmost rocks of the magnificent southern rock precipice of Kamet. After spending twenty minutes on the top taking photographs Smythe, Holdsworth, Shipton and the porter Lewa commenced their downward journey. Their difficulties were far from over. After negotiating the difficult topmost pitch, they found that the hot sun had melted the snow to such a condition that with every step they sank into the snow up to their knees. Lewa eventually was forced to abandon the cinema apparatus which Smythe then carried for some distance, but was himself forced to leave it in a position about a thousand feet above the camp. It was a very tired but jubilant party that returned to camp that evening. After a few cups of hot tea all but Lewa recovered immediately ; he, poor fellow, was exhausted and badly frostbitten. Every endeavour was made to restore the circulation to his feet and finally he was given a sleeping-draught. It was all we could do for him. The stars were out that night, clear and bright with Kamet's snows pale against the deep sky. Kamet was conquered at last, but had already left her mark on one man, the hero of expeditions to still greater giants than herself.

There was no question of a further attempt on the mountain the next morning ; we were all too busy attending to Lewa's evacuation. The porter Dorje put up a splendid performance in voluntarily retrieving the cinema apparatus after repeated attempts to persuade the other porters to do so had failed. Seeing Lewa's condition they were now convinced that the God of Kamet was determined to wreak his vengeance on anyone daring to violate the sacred snows lying on his summit. According to local tradition a golden castle existed there in which he lived. That day Kesar Singh, one of the locally enlisted porters, arrived in camp unexpectedly with some letters. We determined to take him with us on the second attempt which was now arranged to take place on the 23rd. Another perfect night was followed by a brilliant dawn.

Greene, the porter Kesar Singh and myself started at 6-45 a.m. on our attempt. Beauman, though far from well, had reached Meade's Col, but was unfortunately quite unfit to go further. Our route followed exactly that of the first party, the steps they had made being of great assistance to us. As we rose above the Ibi Gamins, the most wonderful view was disclosed. To the south-east only those peaks of approximately twenty thousand feet and over broke through the ocean of clouds, but to the north and north-east the vast plateaux of Tibet, brown in colour, proved an attractive contrast to the snows around us. Far away to the north-west a magnificent range of snow-covered mountains, the Karakoram, came into view.

The summit was reached in approximately the same time as that taken by the first party. Greene achieved a great personal effort in getting there as he was far from well at the start, though he recovered en route. On returning, Smythe and Holdsworth met us some way above camp with a very welcome bottle of rum and some chocolate, and assisted us into camp.

It blew a gale that night, but it mattered little; our retreat was now inevitable, our objective had been reached and our rations at the highest camps were exhausted. In three days the whole party was again concentrated at the base-camp, all loads from the high camps being evacuated there on the fourth day. Deterioration had certainly set in, but four days' rest in perfect weather at the base recovered us all and we started back for Niti fit for the six weeks' exploration of the Badrinath range which we had before us.

Looking back on the period spent above 15,000 feet (18 days), on the East Kamet glacier and above, it is interesting to note that owing to our slow advance none of us were ever very seriously affected by the altitude ; one or two of us failed to sleep for the first two or three nights for want of breath, but this soon passed off, and for the sixteen days we were above 18,600 feet we slept perfectly. Breathing while climbing was also much easier than I had expected. Above 24,000 feet it was found that two long breaths to each step were sufficient to keep us going steadily. The effects of altitude, of course, became increasingly difficult for every thousand feet above that height, as was experienced by the Everest parties. The most impressive thing was the incredible decrease in one's pace. This varied as to whether we were on a ridge or on a glacier or snow-field. In the latter two cases (as, for instance, the approach to Meade's Col) we found that glacier lassitude practically stopped us dead. This lassitude is caused by the atmosphere, resulting from a hot sun beating down on a snow-field, and has a most demoralizing effect. Although the early mornings would find our tents covered in frost and our boots frozen, yet our warm sleeping-bags never gave us a cold night.

The use of ski by Holdsworth was fully justified. As far as Meade's Col he was able to use them throughout practically the whole route, with the exception of the rock face between Camps III and IV and by ski-ing at 23,500 feet he must surely have created a record for high-altitude ski-ing. Furthermore, on the descent he was able to take his frostbitten feet in one day from Camp III to the base, whereas others similarly affected, but not so fortunate, were compelled to drag them down in two rather long and tiring marches.

Lewa was with difficulty carried to the base-camp and later evacuated to Joshimath where he was splendidly looked after in the excellent little hospital there. Although he has since had all the tops of his toes amputated, those who know him will be delighted to hear that he will almost certainly be fit to climb again.

The success of the expedition was due in no small measure to the great help we received from all our friends in Ranikhet, and especially from Mr. Stifle, the Commissioner, who was untiring in assisting us. In addition we were fortunate in that our objective lay in the Province of our President, H. E. Sir Malcolm Hailey, who showed the greatest interest in our attempt. As usual Colonel H. W. Tobin worked hard behind the scenes in selecting our " Tigers " for us, and Mr. G. B. Gourlay, though himself forced to refuse an invitation to join the expedition, was invaluable in the assistance he gave us in the preliminary preparations in Calcutta.

KAMET, 25447 FEET, ( TELEPHOTO FROM CAMP IV ) Photo.Capt. E.St. J. Birnie

KAMET, 25447 FEET, ( TELEPHOTO FROM CAMP IV ) Photo.Capt. E.St. J. Birnie



Mana peak, 23,860 feet, from near Camp V, 23,200 feet. Photo.Capt. E.St. J. Birnie.

Mana peak, 23,860 feet, from near Camp V, 23,200 feet. Photo.Capt. E.St. J. Birnie.



Reconnaissance of Route between Camps III& IV. Photos. Capt, E. St. J. Birnte.

Reconnaissance of Route between Camps III& IV. Photos. Capt, E. St. J. Birnte.



Dr. Greene on summit of Kamet. Photo. Capt, E. St. J. Birnte.

Dr. Greene on summit of Kamet. Photo. Capt, E. St. J. Birnte.



EASTERN APPROACHES TO KAMET

EASTERN APPROACHES TO KAMET