Himalayan Journal vol.04
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (Professor GIOTTO DAINELLI)
    (N. E. ODELL)
    (Lieut-Colonel R. C. F. SCHOMBERG)
  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



MY TAKING part, as geographer and naturalist in the De Filippi Expedition of 1913-14,-the expedition of longest duration, widest organization and largest programme of scientific research ever made to the Karakoram-had left in me such a strong desire to return, that one fine day I worked out a programme for an expedition of my own.

Of course, there was not only my longing to see again those magnificent mountains. There was also the wish to fill in some blanks in our knowledge of the whole region, which had remained with me ever since those long months of travel, when, with the absolute and most complete freedom of action granted me by my chief, De Filippi, I had been able to traverse all the valleys from Skardu in Baltistan as far as the Pangong lake and the high plateaux of Aksai-Chin, and to reach many of the large glaciers of the Karakoram.

But one valley, in particular, had remained outside the area of my travels : the Nubra valley. And at its head there is the gigantic tongue of the Siachen, the largest glacier of the whole range. Nothing was known of the geology of its immense basin, and this gap in our knowledge was of no small importance for the reconstruction of the geological structure of the Karakoram and for the history of its formation and upheaval. There was still the connexion to be made between my researches further east, in the upper Shyok valley and, in the Rimo basin, and those made towards the west by an old pupil ' of mine, Dr. Ardito Desio, in the basin of the Baltoro glacier and the Shaksgam valley(1), and by myself in the Kondus and Saltorti^ valleys. As regards the vicissitudes of a recent geological past, upon' which the shape and peculiarities of existing mountains essentially depend, I wished to have, also for the Nubra valley, confirmation of, the reconstruction which I had already traced for the entire region between the Kashmir basin and the main range of the Karakoram. Moreover, in the Nubra valley there lives a population which I supposed to have different characteristics from those of the remaining inhabitants of Ladakh ; and, by means of anthropometrical measurements, I wished to bring a new contribution to the ethnical knowledge of the region, which was already founded on a solid basis by my former measurements, which amounted to four hundred and fifty. I believed ulso that there might be some difference in the manifestations of life in general, for instance, in that essential element which is given by the characteristics and type of dwelling.

These were therefore the chief lines of my programme : to which evidently the geographer and naturalist traveller would impose no definite limitations, since everything on such occasions is to be collected : minerals and rock specimens, fossils and plants, anthropometrical measurements and meteorological observations. There was another part of this programme which exercised a special attraction. The Siachen glacier could not be called unexplored; but unknown was still its actual connexion with the neighbouring Bimo glacier.

I may be allowed to recite briefly the history of Siachen's discovery and exploration. The upper Nubra valley itself had seen few European visitors and was known to be difficult of access, on account of the numerous fords. Of the old travellers only Moorcroft, in 1821, had reached it, followed by Vigne in 1835, Thomas Thomson and Henry Strachey in 1848, and Drew a few years later[1]. Then we come to recent times, signalled by some unsuccessful attempts, and by two successful ones: those of LongstafE in 1909 and of the Vissers in 1929.

Of the old travellers only Strachey ventured on to the glacier, but even he turned back after about two miles on account of the difficulties encountered on the way. And since his time till Long- staff's visit the Siachen was shown on maps with very modest dimensions, since it appears to anyone approaching from the head of the Nubra to be cut short by a large rocky wall.

It was in 1909 that Dr. Longstaff, coming from the Saltoro valley and ascending the Bilaphond glacier to the top-the Bilaphond La or Saltoro pass-descended another glacier on the far side and discovered that this joined an immense glacier, hitherto unknown. At the time he could not see the end of it and found it difficult to ascertain its general direction. Following Sir Francis Younghusband's suggestion, Dr. Longstafi ascended the Nubra valley a few months later- as soon as the river allowed him to do so-and reaching the Siachen snout, ascended the glacier for a few miles, to a point whence he could recognize in the distance the great mountains which he had seen, a few months before, enclosing the head of his unknown glacier. Thus the immense size of the Siachen was first discovered ; Dr. Long- staff made a sketch-map of it on the scale of 1 : 500,000, which, considering the rapidity of his travels and the huge area of the glacier, is astonishingly accurate in its topography(2).

Dr. Longstafi's tracks from the Saltoro valley were followed in 1911 by the Workmans, who considered the Siachen glacier worthy of a whole expedition. They returned by the same route the following year, 1912, remained on the glacier less than a month and a half, made a good map of it on the scale of 1 : 175,000, and left it again towards the west(s). They affirmed, however, the inaccessibility of the glacier from its tongue, and attempted to find a pass eastwards to the Rimo. Though they were unencumbered by a caravan and had excellent Alpine guides, Rey and Savoye, they were driven back by the difficulties encountered, which they described as insurmountable. In 1929 the VisseTs ascended the glacier from its tongue for some five miles and then left it to explore a large valley draining into the Siachen from the east(4).

Thus I was induced to include in my programme some real exploration, liable to present some difficulties: I planned to climb the entire Siachen glacier from its tongue and to quit it towards the Rimo by way of its affluent, the Teram Shehr, and by that unexplored pass at the head which the Workmans had attempted but failed to reach, taking with me my entire laden caravan.

I should here mention the fact that my expedition was organized on my personal initiative : I did not ask for, nor did I have, any if help from societies or special committees. The knowledge which I had gained of the region and of the people allowed me to do without caravanbashis or interpreters-as I have always done without them- and I managed my men myself. According to my original programme I my companions would have been three; Miss Ellen Kalau, a strong alpinist and ski-runner, belonging to a family of travellers and naturalists, and to whom I intended to entrust the following tasks : secretarial work, the domestic management of the camp, so to speak, and botany ; Dr. Desio, my former pupil, who was already acquainted with the region, and to whom I would have entrusted the geological researches, under my guidance ; and Hashmatullah Khan, formerly Wazir-i-Wazarat of Ladakh, an old acquaintance of mine, who would help me particularly to make the necessary supply arrangements for the coolies, whose food had to be brought up in the shortest possible time. At the last moment Dr. Desio's duties in Italy obliged him to renounce joining the expedition. Hashmatullah Khan showed himself a perfect helper in the tasks entrusted to him ; and Miss Kalau revealed qualities even superior to expectations, guiding' flying caravans to the food and fuel depot on the Siachen, often doing two and even three stages in one day when necessary, without accident or incident along itineraries absolutely new to her.

One characteristic of my expedition was indeed the extreme rapidity of its advance. I left Florence on the 9th of April, 1930, with all my baggage, personal equipment and camp outfit; at Bombay we picked up the provisions, which had been sent ahead from Italy to the Army and Navy Stores, already systematically distributed in boxes on a plan I had worked out. Everything travelled with me to Srinagar. There we halted for a few days to prepare the 180 loads for the coolies. The Zoji La (pass) was officially closed; recent snow-falls and avalanches had blocked it, and no caravan had passed as yet. Mine was the first to do so : and on the 9th May-exactly one month after my departure from Florence-the pass was crossed by my small company and by all the loads. It was by no means an easy matter.

After the crossing, the rate of travel did not diminish. The summer season, suitable for glacier exploration, is short. The Siachen had to be reached before the melting of the snows caused too great a rising of the Nubra waters. Rapid marches, therefore, were made towards Leh, with only one deviation to Timosgam, where I hoped to find some of my old and faithful coolies of sixteen years before, and where indeed I engaged forty permanent coolies for the summer campaign, partly from Timosgam and partly from Tia[2]. At Leh, a few days' halt to give the final touches to my caravan : trustworthy men were sent ahead into the Nubra valley to buy wheat and barley flour, fowls and eggs. At Leh I bought tea, butter and salt, and on the second day I started sending the bulk of my loads to the Chang La, which was still under heavy snow. After five days at Leh I left with the camp and crossed the snow-bound Digar La on foot and under bad weather conditions. In the Nubra valley I picked up the provisions previously ordered there, thus reaching the Siachen tongue, with all my baggage, a caravan of seventy coolies and six-and-a-half tons of food for the men, carried by an additional caravan of ponies and supplementary coolies. On the 9th of June-exactly two months after my departure from Florence-I was heading for my first depot up the glacier. I hope my English colleagues will appreciate this rapidity of execution, which I consider a record !

(*) Himalayan Journal, vol. ii, p. 109; vol. iii, p. 13.

Progress on the glacier was naturally slower : indeed I could not augment my means of transport, and my loads, especially those comprising provisions for the caravan, were very numerous. I kept on bringing forward the camp, and sending back the men, on the same day, to the preceding camp; on the second day the men came up again with other loads and returned immediately; on the third day they arrived again with other loads. On the following day I advanced with the camp. Thus three days were needed for every stage ; but I was able to bring along with me the greater part of my loads, although some had to remain in depot at the mouth of the glacier.

In fifteen days I thus covered about half the glacier, reaching the place where its main affluent, the Teram Shehr, enters from the east. On the junction spur, at a spot well sheltered from the wind but well exposed to the sun, and on ground unusually covered with abundant vegetation of grass, flowers and burtse, I established my base-camp, which, was to remain there for nearly two months. Thirteen coolies were immediately sent back to the Nubra, in order to diminish the number of mouths to be fed; I retained fifty-seven.

There was no lack of work at my base-camp. Flying caravans, led by me or by Miss Kalau, had to make depots of food and fuel on the upper Siachen, and as soon as I had any men to spare, I sent them double-marching down to the snout of the glacier to fetch more loads up by normal stages. On their way up they gathered juniper : old dry trunks of this fuel exist as far as my second camp, fifteen miles from the mouth of the glacier, but only on the better-exposed left slopes.

The base-camp was in a particularly favourable position: at about half-way up the Siachen and near the place where the Teram Shehr flows in from the east and the Lolophond glacier joins from m west, this last affluent descending from the Bilaphond La. imbing the rocks behind my tents for about a thousand feet, I ininated the greater part of the glacier and more completely still mountain circle, from which K8, Twin Peaks, Ghent, Hawk, Group King George, Rose, and the Teram Kangri stand up like real giants, th a beauty never to be forgotten*.

I have already spoken of the advantages coming from the position my base-camp: plenty of sun, perfect shelter from the wind, spring a tor, abundance of burtse, and an extremely rich Alpine flora, which vo Miss Ealau the opportunity to make an ample botanical collec- on, certainly the largest that has ever been brought back from the her regions of the Karakoram. I had already made a collection Alpine flora during the De Filippi Expedition, but this one is rtainly much more abundant and more interesting, because it presents a real oasis of vegetation, completely isolated amidst the rrounding glaciers. The fauna was also extremely rich, both of vortebrates and of vertebrates; amongst the latter the most ttmorous were the Ibex, which approached our base-camp every y, sometimes in herds of several dozens.

This favourable situation owes its existence to a kind of small Ward curve of the mountain ridge, where it descends suddenly just before the Teram Shehr junction. A lateral tongue of the Teram Shehr glucier, in fact, projects into it. This abrupt inward curve of the slope had caused the formation of a small lake between the rocks of the slope and the ice-flow of the Siachen. This small marginal lake was most interesting to watch. Shortly after my arrival its began to rise. It rose for nearly a hundred and thirty feet, obliging me to move my tents higher up the slope. Again it grew while ; then it began to fall as if by leaps, until, on the very last day of my stay, it suddenly emptied itself completely, accom- orashing falls of ice-masses, thus abruptly deprived of the red until then by the water.

My life at the base-camp became somewhat less free from anxiety during the second part. I had established a service of mail-runners, who were to descend every week to the first village in the Nubra valley in order to keep me in touch with the outer world. From the Nubra, where I had left Hashmatullah Khan, I had also arranged for further provisions to be sent to the mouth of the glacier where they could be picked up by my men. But the mail-runners who left on the second week found the Nubra river so swollen and impetuous that they risked their lives when trying to swim it. They returned to the base-camp without clothes, and covered with bruises and wounds. Thus I was definitely shut off from the world, in the middle of the Siachen, and a period of uncertainty began for me.

To return by the tongue of the glacier was now impossible ; to quit it by the affluent leading to the Bilaphond La-the route of LongstafE and the Workmans-was against my wishes. To succeed I must make the crossing to the Rimo, a detail in my programme which remained an uncertainty, since the pass had been unsuccessfully attempted by the Workmans without a laden caravan and with excellent Alpine guides.

All useless loads were now sent back to the mouth of the glacier. Flour and fuel were sent ahead on the Teram Shehr. On the 7th August I moved camp towards our exit from the Siachen. As I had to bring over a ton of burtse fuel with me, there were about three loads for each man, and I was forced to repeat the marching tactics by which each stage required three days. These were later reduced to two, as supplies diminished.

I will here quote what the Workmans wrote about their ascent of the Teram Shehr glacier and their attempt to reach the watershed between the Siachen and the Rimo.

" Seen from the Rose [that is, the Siachen] this glacier [the Teram Shehr] appears to rise gradually lor miles, but in reality its higher part was composed o! three slopes broken by short snow-terraces, and its whole upper area was cleft by crevasses of a size and depth not met with on the Rose or its other large affluents. A wide plateau was finally reached lying at over 18,000 feet. This white sea is cut up by schrunds and chasms running in all directions. Leading the caravan cautiously in and out of this maze, we advanced slowly, until Savoye said the responsibility for him was too great, as the caravan might at any moment become engulfed in this vortex of seemingly bottomless chasms. We had wished to reach the end of the plateau, now quite visible, and see if any possible passage existed leading towards the Nubra and Rimo glaciers, but this was no smooth lustrous expanse, such as are some elevated plateaux in Himalaya, but a mountain-devil's snow-continent set with death-traps to entice unwary men into their pitiless jaws " (5).

(5) Two Summers in the Ice-wilds of the Eastern Karakoram: Fisher Unwin.. London, 1917, page 167.

Added to our uncertainty regarding the route, was the bad weather. For nine days we had snow, thick fog and tempests of wind. But it was necessary to advance all the same, the rise in the Nubra river having left me with limited provisions. Nine days, therefore, we spent trying to avoid, amidst the fog, the more dangerous and crevassed slopes of the glacier, seeking spots where the tents would be least violently shaken by the wind. Yet not the slightest incident occurred, although I could allow my men no day of rest. Through this perseverance came my best reward when, on the tenth day, having arrived just below the pass and overcome every difficulty, the fog lifted and was replaced by perfectly serene and peaceful weather.

The skis we had worn till then brought us nearly to the top of the pass at about 20,100 feet. From there the Rimo descended. I recognized its large basin and the slopes of black schists and pink dolomites. We made a rapid descent down the Rimo and crossed to the northern tongue, whence the Yarkand river rises. Sixteen years before I had found this tongue flattened and easy ; now it was swollen and ended in a vertical wall some hundred feet high. On the evening of the 20th August, when I arrived there, I could find no line of descent, and the whole of the next day was spent in finding a way down, by no means an easy matter, especially for a laden caravan.

The difficulties of the journey were thus over. Near the Karakoram pass I found Hashmatullah Khan with ponies and provisions. Two weeks' marching, across the Depsang and the Saser La, brought mo again to the Nubra valley. Here I had to stop a few days until (til the loads, including those deposited at the snout of the Siachen, Wore collected. I returned to Leh by the Khardung La and, after a (lays' halt, started back by the Stakalung La, the Lachalung La, Baralacha La and the Rohtang pass, arriving after some twenty os at Sultanpur in Kulu. In spite of the difficulties met with, slightest incident occurred to the caravan, nor did I lose a imal or leave behind me a single load.

Briefly these are the results of my expedition. I determined the topography at the head of the Rimo near the Karakoram watershed: topography which I supposed to be different from that represented existing maps. The long glacier assigned by the Indian map as an affuent, from the right, of the Northern Rimo, really forms the chief feeder basin of the Central Rimo; the glacier which, according to De Filippi's map, runs from the south into the head of the Central In reality an affluent of the Siachen, and the pass between the Siachen and the Rimo is about three-and-a-half miles further east.than shown on the Indian map ; the glacier, which the De Filippi map represents as the largest western feeder of the Central Rimo, flows partly into the Rimo and partly into the Siachen, as it descends right on to the broad watershed; the long and narrow glacier assigned by the Indian map to the south of the preceding one, with a direction from north-west to south-east, does not exist: there is only one glacier and a far shorter one, directed from north to south, and flowing towards the Siachen.

I have collected elements-by which I mean observations on rocks and fossils-for the determination of the geological constitution and structure of the Siachen basin : fossils certainly of the Cretaceous, Triassic and Carboniferous periods. I have enlarged the observations on morphology and on the Glacial Period in the Nubra valley and in that part of the Shyok which was still unknown to me. By means of instruments, I have collected elements for the study of the daily course of temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure at the base-camp, at a height of 15,800 feet. And thanks to Miss Kalau, I have been able to bring back a collection of about four hundred and fifty specimens of Alpine flora of the Karakoram.

I have measured a hundred and fifty individuals, in order to extend our anthropological knowledge of the region, already founded upon my previous work; and I have brought back plans of houses and observations on human geography.

If Dr. Desio had been with me, I would have certainly obtained greater results: because the direction of such an expedition, with all the anxieties it entails, takes up a lot of time and energy. But I cannot declare myself unsatisfied, since I only had the help, though most valuable, of Miss Kalau, and of Hashmatullah Khan.

To the pass between the Siachen and the Rimo, reached and crossed for the first time by my expedition, and nameless until now, I have given the name " Italy Col." I hope that the Survey of India will accept it, in recognition of the contribution made by Italian travellers and scientists to the knowledge of the Karakoram.

[1] The upper Nubra valley was first surveyed, though only approximately by Mr. E. C. Ryall, Survey of India, in 1862.-Ed.

(a) Geographical Journal, June 1910, p. 622; map p. 744. (*) Geographical Journal, February 1914, p. 117 ; map p. 148.

*The porters of Timosgam (Timis) and Tia have been found to be the hardiest and most reliable for glacier and mountain travel in the whole of Ladakh.-Ed. HJ

Peak36. Height 25,400 feet. Western Sianchen.Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

Peak36. Height 25,400 feet. Western Sianchen.Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

Crossing the Upper Sianchen Glacier.  Peaks 45 and 44, heights 22,360 and 23,630 feet, in bachground.Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

Crossing the Upper Sianchen Glacier. Peaks 45 and 44, heights 22,360 and 23,630 feet, in bachground.Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

Crossing the Teram Shehr Glacier.Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

Crossing the Teram Shehr Glacier.Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

On the Watershed between the Teram Shehr and Rimo Glaciers.  (The Italy Pass. C. 20,100 feet)Photo. Giotto Dainelli.

On the Watershed between the Teram Shehr and Rimo Glaciers. (The Italy Pass. C. 20,100 feet)Photo. Giotto Dainelli.