Himalayan Journal vol.05
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (Lieut.-Colonel B.E.M. Gurdon)
    (HELLMUT DE TERRA Tale North India Expedition)
  7. KULU
    (A. P. F. HAMILTON)
    (Captain G. C. CLARK)
    (G. A. R. SPENCE)
    (Lieut.-Colonel KENNETH MASON)
  14. NOTES



One cannot mention the name of Nanga Parbat without first thinking of Mr. A. F. Mummery, who, accompanied by two Gurkhas, attacked the great mountain in 1895 with incomparable courage and unexampled heroism. Mummery attained the noteworthy height of over 20,000 feet on the north-west side. He was lost on the Diama glacier, and Nanga Parbat claimed him for ever. But his deed will remain in the history of mountaineering as the classic accomplishment of a brave man, which will not be forgotten.[1]Nearly forty years have passed since Mummery's attempt, and as yet none of the loftiest mountains of the earth have been conquered, and few of the thousands of Himalayan and Karakoram peaks. These eternally snow-covered summits, which no human foot has trodden, are the aim and desire of the mountaineers of all nations.

My friend, Dr. Welzenbach, was contemplating an assault on Nanga Parbat in 1930, and had thoroughly studied the problem. His expedition, however, could not then be undertaken, and it was only in 1932 that an attack became possible. While considering the problem, I came to the conclusion that it would be easiest to attack the mountain from the north-east. The conditions we met with have since proved this decision to be right. The southern precipice was already recognized by Mummery as unclimbable; and I had also many doubts about the Diamirai side, where the route must ascend a rocky ridge, and from there to the summit rises a steep enclosed ice-field nearly 6,000 feet high. Contrary to Welzenbach's plan, which was to follow Mummery's route, I decided to make my attack from the north-east, in order to avoid the ridge with its extremely dangerous ice-avalanches and the very long and difficult rock-climb for the porters. On the north-east side there were three possible lines of approach: the North Ridge leading up from the Diama pass; the East Ridge from the Rakiot peak and the northeast side; and a combination of a traverse of the Rakiot glacier with the attainment of the East Ridge, which presented itself to us in the course of the undertaking.

The German-American Himalaya Expedition left Europe on the 28th April 1932. Besides myself, the leader, there were eight of us:

Peter Aschenbrenner of Kufstein, Fritz Bechtold of Trostberg, Hugo Hamberger (expedition doctor) of Rosenheim, Herbert Kunigk of Munich, Felix Simon of Leipzig, Fritz Wiessner of Dresden, and the two American members: Rand Herron of New York and Elizabeth Knowlton of Boston, who accompanied us as the reporter for the English-speaking press. On the boat, the Victoria of the Xloyd- Trestino line, we had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hugh Ruttledge, who gave us an interesting account of his earlier Himalayan expeditions and a letter of recommendation to the finance minister of Kashmir, Mr. Jardine. When we arrived in India we found the hospitality of the English and Indian authorities most comforting. In Bombay we were granted complete freedom from customs-duty for our whole baggage; in Srinagar Major Irvine, Dr. Ernest Neve, and Major Kenneth Hadow, a grandson of the Hadow who in 1865 so tragically came to grief during the ascent of the Matterhorn, assisted us not only with advice, but also with practical help. It was here too that we received permission to enter Ghilas territory through the kindness of the then minister of Kashmir, provided we did not interfere with the inhabitants.

In Bandapur, on the 23rd May, the whole of our baggage was packed on ponies in the extraordinarily short time of half an hour; then began the march up the Gilgit road which connects India with Chinese Turkistan-a very important road, which leads by Gurais and Astor to Doyan at the foot of the Nanga Parbat massif. On the way we had to cross the Tragbal pass (11,586 feet) and the Burzil pass (13,775 feet) with our no ponies; both these passes still lay deep in winter snow. We were very relieved to reach the rest-house of Sirdarkothi on the far side of the Burzil pass. By the side of the foaming Khirim torrent we rode on down the valley. From a short distance behind Godhai we saw Nanga Parbat for the first time. It was the greatest mountain we had ever seen in our lives. The view of the southern wall took our breath away; it is perhaps the most massive and steepest wall in the world. We had to throw our heads back to gaze at the spectacular precipice leading towards the summit, clothed in permanent snow. Any thought of conquering this towering virgin wall of ice from the south side was abandoned; but there was still a north side, which was the goal and hope of our advance.

In Astor, our last stage, Captain R. N. D. Frier met us; Major Gillan, the political agent for Gilgit, had sent him to help us. Captain Frier was an especially valuable companion on account of his knowledge of languages, and his experience with coolies. The friendship of our English comrade, who never failed us at any time during the whole expedition, and who, even under the most difficult conditions, was always punctual according to the plans, went far beyond the ordinary.

A week was passed in Astor while we collected porters and inquired about the route. Owing to the fact that the Kashmir Government had only allowed us to enter Ghilas territory on condition that we did not disturb the inhabitants, we were compelled to traverse the Himalayan ridges at a height of from 10,000 to 13,000 feet. For this reason our approach will rank as one of the longest on any Himalayan expedition up till now.

In crossing the three ridges-the Lichar, Buldar, and Rakiot-we experienced the whole romance of pushing forward in a strange and pathless region. In the lower Buldar camp we decided to make a cut across the Buldar glacier. The new map of Nanga Parbat, which the Survey of India had very kindly put at our disposal, caused us to follow this plan. The Buldar glacier as shown on it caused us to think that the shortest ascent to the mountain led over it; but actually the glacier is shown a good deal too long, and we discovered during our reconnaissance that its surface was composed of broken and quite impassable ice. Above it towered the main summit of the Chongra peak (2 2,360 feet), terribly steep. Any ascent of Nanga Parbat over the Buldar glacier was utterly out of the question.

The passage over the three ridges was successful. From the Lichar valley we crossed the Buldar valley and finally reached the Rakiot valley with the best camp of our whole approach-the 'Meadow in Fairyland'. It lies there in serene charm amongst the light green of the pasture, embroidered with the stars of the edelweiss and surrounded with the trunks of ancient timber-forests. Just like a corner of undestroyed paradise did the fabulous meadow above the glacier snout appear to us, overshadowed by the ice-clad northern flank of Nanga Parbat, and by its three tremendous satellites, Gonalo peak, Rakiot peak, and Chongra.

Four weeks had passed since our halt in Srinagar before the main camp was set up in the Rakiot valley, first at 10,500 feet, and then a few days after, on the 29th June, at a height of 11,800 feet. It was not possible to push on higher owing to the nature of the glacier, which extended to 9,800 feet. This also rendered the ascent more difficult. The loads arrived in the main camp in relays and we could now count them for the first time for a fortnight. It was discovered that ten loads, containing the whole of the kit for about forty porters, had been stolen. We had now only four complete and five more meagre outfits for the porters, a truly desperate situation. Finally, good humour helped us to overcome this blow of fate, which indeed, in its consequences, was the most serious we had yet met and which made an ascent impossible according to our time-table.

On the 30th June the attack began in earnest. Our plan was to force a way over the Rakiot glacier and establish a high camp on its terraces. The site for Camp 1 below a large serac appeared quite near. But the journey there seemed endless and we had at this point our first foretaste of the great scale of this part of the Himalaya. Aschenbrenner and Wiessner remained with six porters in Camp 1 (15,000 feet) to set up Camp 2 on the next day. The rest of us returned to the Base Camp. The way over the broken glacier demanded all our attention. On the next day Wiessner with four Hunza men appeared back at the Base Camp-very much contrary to plan. What had happened? In the night a giant ice-avalanche had fallen in the neighbourhood of Camp 1. The powerful blast had stove the tent in, and cracked the bamboo poles like matchwood. It was difficult to calm the frightened coolies. One porter only was willing to push on to Camp 2. The transport question was becoming serious. After great difficulty we succeeded in quieting the porters to some extent; but they now demanded a very high rate of pay, and we had to swallow the bitter pill and comply! Over and over again we had to learn that our porters of these parts did not possess the same willingness to work nor the same stamina as the porters of the eastern Himalaya. Even the Hunza men, who were attached to us as porters for the higher camp, disappointed us greatly. At first their big powerful frames made a great impression; as far as the Base Camp they overcame all the stages of the approach in the best of form. But they were entirely unserviceable for the high camps: very few emerged from Camp 4; only one reached Camp 6 in good condition. We were, however, dependent on their services, because the reliable and proved Darjeeling porters were all engaged elsewhere.

The attack progressed. Through wild seracs the way led steeply up to Camp 2 (16,700 feet), which was pitched among the weird ice-features of the first great glacier-terrace. Our three tents stood in a hollow; opposite them a roomy ice-cave had been cut. These ice-caves did not prove of much advantage. We did not derive the same benefit from them as my friend, Paul Bauer, had done on Kangchenjunga, where conditions were quite different from those on Nanga Parbat; and contrary to the accepted practice that one should avoid the ice-faces of the great Himalayan giants, we were forced to make our whole ascent over such slopes. Here the icefields, flanked by high ridges, are consequently protected from the wind, and are exposed to irradiation in such a way that the sun burns on them like a concave mirror. The heat was so great in the months of July and August that we could only work till eleven o'clock in the morning. The variations in temperature were great: it was only the matter of a step from the glowing heat of the sun on the glacier to the icy cold of the cave. A stay of a few minutes in that cold shook us to such a degree that we speedily left the cave and sought the tent.

Under these circumstances the tents proved themselves better than the ice-caves. Among other patterns we had the closed Mummery tent, which was exceptionally good. We preferred the larger type to the smaller, as it was not so stuffy. On the 5th July Camp 3 was established. The congratulations of our comrades made us realize how well everything goes with close co-operation and how much each individual can serve a cause; we were all pulling together to erect the high camp; and this period, sometimes of hard exertion, sometimes of enforced idleness, waiting with nothing to do, sometimes in really tight corners, was passed in absolute companionship.

I cannot now think of my friends without mentioning the name of him of whom a terrible misfortune has deprived us for ever-Rand Herron. On the journey home, on 13th October, he fell to his death from the Ghefren Pyramid near Cairo. Throughout the expedition he was an ideal comrade, always fighting in the front line, always striving for our common aim and making sacrifices willingly. He braved all the dangers of the Himalaya; but the 500-foot wall of the Pyramid, built by the hand of man, caused his death. Such was the extraordinary and uncanny tragedy of his end.

Let us return to our work on the mountain. On the 8th July, Camp 4 was built on the second terrace of the Rakiot glacier at a height of 19,000 feet. On account of its exceptionally favourable position we made it the advanced base camp for the great attempt- for the last, hard, decisive attack on the mountain. From this position we could see the whole route down to the base camp and arrange all the climbing parties, an advantage which we later learnt to value especially because the separate camps were cut off from each other for days during heavy falls of snow. Towards the mountain we could see right across the valley, 2,500 feet deep, which was to cost us so much effort. Across it runs the glittering edge of the ridge, which leads to the East Peak of Nanga Parbat.

It was now that the first two climbing successes were recorded by the expedition. On the 14th July Aschenbrenner and Hamburger climbed the westerly Chongra peak, 20,480 feet, and two lays later Aschenbrenner and Kunigk conquered the Rakiot peak, which is 23,170 feet above sea-level. On the 18th July all the attacking party was gathered in Camp 4 and all preparations made lor the great assault. On the same day the period of fine weather srrmcd to break up, and it began to snow. It snowed the following day and the day after. The waiting was terrible; our patience was severely tried. It did not improve the outlook when Dr. Hamberger found that Kunigk had a serious inflammation of his appendix. The word 'appendicitis' has an ominous significance at a height of 19,000 feet! It was only slowly that we realized that, just before the main attack, we must do without our doctor, and one of the cleverest members of the advance party. In the midst of our consternation, the weather cleared. The paralysing time of inaction was over and forgotten; and with renewed power the sun called us to action, to the attack.

On the 23rd July Aschenbrenner, Bechtold, Herron, and I broke through to Camp 5. We had to go without the coolies, all without exception being ill, while not one of us Germans and Americans were ever mountain-sick, during the whole course of the expedition. We four alone, then, fought on. The heavy rucksacks pressed on us, and we could only go slowly in the deep snow, which became worse and worse. The task of finding the track on the steep snow-covered wall, which was built up of debris fallen from the Rakiot peak, became an absolute torment. When at last the next ice-terrace was reached, the route still led on endlessly towards the proposed camp. An 8- metre [feet?] jump over a gaping crevasse brought a longed-for change in the monotony of the climb. At length we reached the chosen place, where we put up Camp 5 at a height of 20,330 feet. So close did the East Peak appear that the hope of reaching the ridge on the next day seemed justified.

But no lucky star shone on the next few days! Under our heavy loads we kept sinking in up to our knees. It required all our energy to find the way at this height. In spite of all our will-power we could not progress with our heavy rucksacks, and we were finally forced to return to Camp 5. Aschenbrenner complained of frost-bite in his toes, and it was quickly decided that he must go down and get them attended to. On account of this another of our best men fell out of the attack.

Now, above all, the problem of the valley must be solved. For weeks it had been occupying our thoughts and endeavours; for weeks we had been studying the region. An avalanche never fell during the whole time, although the seracs looked fierce enough. The very moment, however, when I was on the point of descending into the valley with Bechtold, an ice-tower broke from the ridge, and crashed down the valley in the form of a huge ice-avalanche. Excitement reigned in camp, but we were all the more determined to make a way through the valley; for at each part of the ridge, which we wished to climb, there were no seracs. The path which we had made proved itself to be free from avalanches.

This adventure awakened in us the memory of our great avalanche experience in Camp 3. We were there watching, also about sunset; everything had been arranged for the night in the ice-cave; the snow-covered peaks died out slowly in the light, the shadows on the ice-clad flanks rose higher and higher, the last lingering rays of the sun shone on the summit of Nanga Parbat. Suddenly a thundering crash broke the indescribable peace and calm of the evening, a huge mass of ice came crashing down from the flanks of Nanga's eastern peak, till the ice-blocks reached the glaciers below and were screened from our view by the wave of the avalanche. Then again there was silence-breathless, unearthly silence. Clouds grew up out of the depths as a white vapour and rose higher and higher, till they blotted out the whole mountain. We stood facing the growing apparition as if rooted to the spot. It was only when the oncoming mass of ice, sweeping everything before it, reached our camp and darkened the clear brightness of the evening, that we crept shuddering to the entrance of the cave. It was dark for many minutes. The terrifying storm swept right over us. Everything was covered with a thick layer of ice dust, as if fresh snow had fallen!

On the 25th July, to-day, I am standing quite close to the place where the fall of ice crashed down that time, with Bechtold, the friend of my youth, the most trustworthy companion on all large mountain expeditions. We succeeded in solving the problem of the valley and in breaking through this threatening wall. We quickly reached the seracs. The going was very difficult here. The overhanging walls of ice were as dangerous as the ice-blocks which constantly threatened to collapse. We had to calculate every step of the way beforehand exactly, in order to pass the most difficult places in the shortest possible time. The crossing of the danger zone was successful. It now meant cutting a series of steps up the ice-slope. Step after step we hacked into the hard ice, breathing painfully. At last we stood at the top of the slope, for which we had striven so hard. We established Camp 6 just on the upper edge at 21,650 feet. The ascent through the seracs to the ridge had been found, and the route so arranged that all danger from an avalanche was excluded. It was now only a question of time before we should conquer the East Peak, whence the way to the summit would lie open.

Back in Camp 5 we met Herron, Simon, and Wiessner. They had had no success in getting porters for the advance-guard together. We were, therefore, compelled to carry the loads ourselves, and to make the journey between Camps 5 and 6 three or four times, in order to bring up provisions, tents, and sleeping bags for the attack. In the end two porters reached Camp 6 under Wiessner's leadership.

We now searched for a route beyond this camp to the ridge. The mountain-side, however, although it looked harmless enough, was alive with traps. The powdery snow was bitterly cold and as founda- tionless as flowing sand. Finally Herron alone summed up enough energy to persevere and succeeded in climbing another 330 feet. Simon climbed to help him, but it was impossible to progress farther. The exertion was, however, too much for them and they were eventually forced to return all the way to Camp 4 owing to severe heart-trouble. It is well known that exertion at this height necessitates increased open-mouthed breathing and consequently there is an increased tendency to catch cold. We had brought with us no oxygen-apparatus because of its high cost and transport difficulties. Up to the height of about 23,000 feet, which we had reached, we had never had any need of it.

On the 29th July we tried to traverse the higher part of the valley to reach the ridge. The advance-guard was reduced to Bechtold, Wiessner, and myself. Moving forward in this trackless country was a torment. We waded waist-deep in the snow, and at last gained the height, but at a snail's pace. A single step, then five deep breaths, then another step-in this way we crept forward, with the greatest effort. At last we were only a rope's length away-and then we stood on the crest of the ridge. The happiness of that moment cannot be described. The fight for this ridge had been stern and difficult. Now at last we stood, overjoyed, at its summit in a blaze of light. The ridge led up to the East Peak at a slight incline; the technical difficulties were overcome. From the East Peak an extensive plateau led to the main peak of Nanga Parbat, which we now observed here for the first time. The plateau fell down into the Rupal valley in a perpendicular precipice of 16,000 feet. There was a magnificent panorama of rows of peaks many of which had probably never been seen before. We climbed down to Camp 6 in order to fetch tents, sleeping-bags, and supplies to the ridge on the next day. But one of the porters was mountain-sick, and the other refused to move from his companion's side. At this stage it was impossible to give in. Bechtold and I therefore packed everything cheerfully, and carried up the loads, which were sufficient for four people, by ourselves. The heavy loads weighed us down. Progress was terribly slow. At last, at seven o'clock in the evening, we stood on the ridge. It was bitterly cold. Without a moment's hesitation we set up our small storm-tent on a narrow bridge in a hollow. We fell into a deep sleep without eating, for the first time in Camp 7 (23,000 feet). On the next day we intended to traverse the exposed ridge. In five or six more days of fine weather victory would be ours. In the morning, however, thick banks of mist began to envelop the mountain. In spite of this we tried to go forward; but in vain. Snow set in and drove us back. We squatted in the hollow and waited. The snow continued so heavily that we were forced to descend to Camp 6. An impenetrable mist forced us back twice, until we eventually found the way through the hollow at the third attempt. The tracks of the day before were obliterated. We trudged through the snow up to our hips. We made a direct descent in order not to loosen an avalanche. Once, when there was nothing else to do, we had to cross a crevasse. The suspense was great. We reached Camp 6 dead tired.

The unabated snowfall forced us, on the 1st August, to make the hard decision to evacuate Camp 6 in order to economize provisions in the high camps, which had been so arduous to carry up. The return journey with the sick coolie was especially troublesome, very slow, and full of responsibility. The man was utterly down and out, and he repeatedly fell on the rope and remained lying there for a long time. We had to strain every nerve to get him over the steep icy wall of the valley. Captain Frier met us in Camp 5 with four porters. He only got them as far as this through constant encouragement, and had loyally fought his way through deep snow with them to us. The bad weather continued and drove us right down to Camp 4. The snow-storm and the perpetual misery of the porters were disastrous. Our first big attack on Nanga Parbat had been repulsed.

We waited impatiently in Camp 4 for the sun. Half the porters who had just come up were ill again. In spite of this, when the weather cleared on the 24th August, we planned the second attack; but on the following day a fresh blizzard frustrated our intention. Our spirits were even gloomier than the weather. One day, as the clouds rolled back for a few hours, we looked down into the Rakiot valley, saw the meadows glittering, the smoke from the camp rising up and we gazed longingly at the dark pine-forests; but these delights no longer tempted us, when, after many days, Nanga Parbat raised her head above the clouds, and her summit shone near and clear. In such moments the ennui of waiting left us and our desires were kindled afresh. But snow set in once more, and a new mantle of fresh snow buried the certainty of victory, and robbed us of seeing the summit.

Bechtold, Aschenbrenner, and Simon, who were descending for the homeward journey, advised us to give up. It was hard to separate ourselves from such loyal friends. But Wiessner, Herron, and I wanted to try our luck once more, for the weather cleared at last on the 14th August. To prepare everything for a final attack we had to descend to the Base Camp to procure the necessary provisions for the coolies. A week slipped by doing this. When we were at last ready to set out from the Base Camp on the 28th August, the short spell of fine weather was over. Our ascent was rendered much harder by the fresh snow which had fallen during the last few days. The rapidly steepening route to Camp 2 was especially painful for the coolies in the crumbling powdery snow. The sun burned down on us unmercifully as we tracked our way along the steep slope to Camp 3; and as we reached Camp 4 a blizzard set in. Nearly all our porters complained of being frozen. Nine out of twelve were ill.

For the next few days snow continued to fall monotonously, and we were imprisoned in Camp 4. Camps 5, 6, and 7 could no longer be cleared; with the snow four feet deep and nine coolies ill, we had to give up the last hope of conquering Nanga Parbat. It cost us a sleepless night to reach this decision. The renunciation was hard; the realization of defeat was bitter. With a little more luck throughout we might have won through.

[1] See Himalayan Journal, vol. iii, pp. 1-12.

Nanga Parbat from ‘Marchen Wiese’ Camp

Nanga Parbat from ‘Marchen Wiese’ Camp

West Chongra peak from camp 2

West Chongra peak from camp 2

Rakiot peak and route as far as Camp 7

Rakiot peak and route as far as Camp 7

Rakaposhi from camp 4

Rakaposhi from camp 4

Rakaposhi from camp 4

Rakaposhi from camp 4

Chongra peak from camp 6

Chongra peak from camp 6

Nang Parbat, 26,620 feet from Rakiot peak

Nang Parbat, 26,620 feet from Rakiot peak