Himalayan Journal vol.09
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (H. W. TILMAN)
  6. The Ascent of Siniolchu and Simvu North Peak
    (Dr. Karl Wien)
    (H. W. TILMAN)
    (LIEUT. J. R. G. FINCH)
  16. NOTES



For some years the French Alpine Club had been making plans to send an expedition to climb one of the higher Himalayan peaks. Gasherbrum I (26,470 feet), the 'Hidden Peak' of Conway, was finally selected as the goal of the French expedition, the members of which, with their equipment, arrived in India at the beginning of April 1936.

The party consisted of M. de Segogne (leader), MM. Allain, Charignon, Leininger, Neltner, Deudon, and Carle (climbers), Arlaud (doctor), Ichac (photographer), Azemar (secretary), and myself (liaison officer). All the climbers had had considerable experience in the Alps and elsewhere in Europe, but none of them had ever visited India before. Practically all the equipment and stores were brought from France, the total weight being about eight tons. It was decided to take thirty-five Bhutia and Sherpa porters; these were recruited at Darjeeling by Mr. Kydd, the local Himalayan Club representative, and sent by him to meet the party in Kashmir.

The expedition, with its baggage carried by 500 coolies, left Srinagar in parties of about a hundred on successive days, during the third week of April. The Zoji La had to be crossed, as a preliminary canter, and a good deal of difficulty was experienced owing to the abnormally heavy snowfalls late in the year.[1] After crossing the pass, the Indus valley route to Skardu was followed. This portion of the journey was considerably the easiest, because the loads could be carried on ponies. At Skardu we were pleased to find that the Wazir Wazarat, Rattan Singh Rao, and the tahsildar, Th. Dalip Singh, had made the most excellent arrangements for the provision of coolies onwards as far as Askole.

From Skardu we crossed the Indus in the antiquated ferry-said to be the identical boat introduced in the days of Alexander the Great, slightly repaired from time to time!-and proceeded up the Shigar valley as far as its junction with the Braldu. From this point to the Base Camp, a distance of about a hundred miles, no road or path exists, and one uses different routes according to the amount of water in the Braldu river. When we arrived, at the beginning of May, there was little water in the river, and we were able to followthe bed, or close above it, for the whole distance; on our return journey, however, in July, we had to climb several shoulders of 2,000 or 3,000 feet in order to avoid impassable cliff walls.

Crossing a rope-bridge spanning the Braldu river. The bridge ropes are constructed of intertwined twigs and are anchored to stones at each end

Crossing a rope-bridge spanning the Braldu river. The bridge ropes are constructed of intertwined twigs and are anchored to stones at each end

The cliff on the return journey along the Braldu river below Askole

The cliff on the return journey along the Braldu river below Askole

At Askole, the last village on the route, we halted for three days to reorganize our packing, and to collect fresh coolies. The people of the Braldu are extremely pleasant, hospitable, and full of humour, but they are so independent that they are a tremendous worry as coolies. One day they work witH a will, but the next, for no apparent reason, they refuse to work at all.

The march, so far, had been approximately 300 miles, and had occupied, including halts, nearly a month. We still had over 60 miles to cover, including about 35 up the Baltoro glacier. Since there were no more villages, it was necessary from now on to carry rations for our 500 coolies, in addition to all our own loads. We therefore left Askole with the amazing number of 670 coolies, all marching in one party! These numbers were gradually reduced as the food was consumed, and we reached the Base Camp with just under 500.

The views up the Baltoro glacier were magnificent, peaks towering up 10,000 feet above us on either side for the entire distance. We passed within a few miles of Masherbrum, the Muztagh Tower, K2, the 1 Gasherbrums, and other well-known peaks, all of them superb. The glacier itself, however, is truly exasperating; it is covered with heavy moraine, is extremely uneven, and is badly cut up by crevasses.

The Base Camp was established on the 26th May, at a height of about 16,500 feet, near the top of the Baltoro glacier, at the foot of the 'Colden Throne', and at a place from which the whole route to be followed up the mountain could be seen. All but a few of the coolies were paid off and sent away, leaving 11 Europeans, 35 Sher- pas, 5 Kashmiris (shikari and servants), and 20 Baltis in the camp. We had provisions for a stay of about six weeks, although it was hoped that the mountain could be climbed and that we should be away from the Base Camp in from thirty to thirty-five days.

The route which it was decided to take led up a rocky ridge at an average slope of about 45 degrees to the south peak of the mountain (about 23,500 feet), thence along an almost level razorbacked ridge for about a mile, and up the 3,000 feet of the pyramid- shaped peak itself. The reason for the choice of this difficult ridge was the danger from avalanches and stones on the steep, long snow- fields which were the only means of reaching the ridge.1
1 The route chosen was apparently by one of the rock ridges, shown in the fourth illustration, to the great southern shoulder, which appears in the photograph as a summit near the centre, clear of cloud. From the map made by photography on the Duke of Spoleto's expedition in 1929, the height of this shoulder is 7,069 metres (23,194 feet), and involves a climb of about 1,600 m. in 1*9 km. From this shoulder, called by Captain Streatfield the 'south peak', the ridge falls at first to the 7,000-m. contour, and then rises, gently at first, then more steeply, to another shoulder at 7,504 m. (24,620 feet). The distance between the two shoulders is about ij miles. Soon after this the south ridge joins the main south-east ridge falling from the summit of Gasherbrum I, which has an average slope of approximately 1 in 3 over a distance of about a mile. I saw this main south-east ridge in profile from an altitude of 20,000 feet from the north-east in 1926, and it did not look technically difficult. In my opinion the summit can only be reached from this direction, for the mountain falls steeply on the northeast face to the Urdok glacier, and its north-west ridge is precipitous to the saddle at about 22,000 feet between it and Gasherbrum II. That part of the route which is^covered in cloud in the accompanying illustration is shown more clearly in a very similar photograph in De Filippi's Karakoram and Western Himalaya (1912), p. 297. On both, however, the rise between the two shoulders is masked by distortion due to the low altitude of the station of observation.-Ed.

The climb up to the ridge was throughout difficult and dangerous, as the rock is all extremely rotten shale, which is liable to break away at the smallest provocation. The climber must always be ready for stones falling from above, and each hand- and foothold must be very carefully tested. In some places use was made of small snow couloirs in order to avoid the rock, but it was found that there was so much ice to be crossed in these couloirs that one was often driven back in desperation to the rocks.

As a preliminary to the climb, Camp i was established on the glacier at the bottom of the ridge and used as an advanced base. The Balti coolies were employed for carrying stores, &c., as far as this camp, and the Sherpas were engaged on the supply of the higher camps. It was found that, although the Balti is an excellent man on steep cliffs and has great endurance, he is useless on bad rock or on snow, because he is terrified of both. Some of the Baltis did, in fact, ascend several times to Camp 2, but they took a very long time over the journey and hated every minute of it. The Sherpas, on the other hand, almost all untried men, worked excellently on the dangerous rocks, to which they were unaccustomed; they adapt themselves quickly to new types of terrain, and seem to have no fear or nerves.

Actual climbing was started on the 30th May, but it was not until the following day that Camp 2 was established at about 19,000 feet on a narrow rocky ridge. From then on progress was fairly steady until Camp 5 was established at about 22,000 feet on the 20th June. The climbing, throughout, had been difficult and the progress slow. Much use was made of fixed ropes to assist the porters, and all this took time. Many of the places climbed would have been practically impassable for a laden man without this form of assistance. So steep and rugged was the higher part of the ridge from Camp 5 to the intended site of Camp 6, at about 23,000 feet, which was reache but where no camp was actually established, that fixed ropes had to be used for the entire distance.

Paiju peak, 21,650 feet, north of the snout of the Baltoro glacier

Paiju peak, 21,650 feet, north of the snout of the Baltoro glacier

Gasherbrum I, Lord Conway's 'Hidden Peak’  26,470 feety from a point on the Baltoro glacier about 3 miles distant

Gasherbrum I, Lord Conway's 'Hidden Peak’ 26,470 feety from a point on the Baltoro glacier about 3 miles distant

A view near the top of'Conway's Saddle'

A view near the top of'Conway's Saddle'

A large powder-snow avalanche falling from the ‘Colden Throne' towards the Baltoro glacier, photographed at a distance of half a mile

A large powder-snow avalanche falling from the ‘Colden Throne' towards the Baltoro glacier, photographed at a distance of half a mile

Nearly every expedition which does not reach its objective in the mountains can claim that it has been defeated by the weather. Certainly on this occasion the goal appeared to be extremely close when the misfortune of the monsoon-or something very like it- overtook us three weeks before we expected it. So far as could be seen from the point reached and the surrounding hills, the remainder of the ascent should have been comparatively easy and might well have been dealt with during the ten days which we imagined we had still in hand after establishing Camp 6.

Throughout the time spent on the glacier the weather was variable. From the 26th May until the 21st June the days were usually brilliantly fine, with a bad day, generally accompanied by a slight fall of snow, about once a week. From the 22nd June, however, the weather was indescribable. It scarcely ceased from snowing for ten full days and nights, and it was impossible for the climbers and porters in the higher camps to descend to the comparative comfort of the Base Camp. During the earlier period of fine weather the sun was hot during the day, and there were about 30° F. of frost at night; if there was a fall of snow, the heat of the sun by day and the intense cold at night soon consolidated it.

During the stay at the Base Camp several ski excursions, mainly up the glaciers, were made by Dr. Arlaud, M. Ichac, and myself. Some extraordinarily fine views were obtained and the runs down were, in most cases, unequalled by anything I have seen in Switzerland. The trouble, however, at this altitude is that if one takes even a comparatively gentle toss one is prostrated by lack of breath for some minutes. The highest point reached on ski was just above Conway's saddle, a height of about 22,200 feet. The skis used were of a specially light pattern made from contre-plaque (three-ply) hickory, and were found most serviceable.

All the tents were made from the very finest balloon fabric. For the Base Camp the climbers' tents were double-fly, about equal in size to the well-known government 160-lb. tent, but weighing only 20 lb. The tents for the porters were of about the same size, but single-fly and weighing about 15 lb. All the high-altitude tents were double-fly, with a fixed floor, about six feet long, four feet wide, and three and a half feet high at the ridge; they weighed about 8 lb. All tent-poles were made of jointed aluminium tubes, but this material is not sufficiently strong to withstand the weight of a heavy and continuous snowfall.

Cooking was carried out on petrol pressure stoves, very similar to the Primus, using saucepans with clamped-on lids to allow the contents to be cooked under pressure, so that the correct sea-level boiling-point could be maintained. Except for an occasional sheep sent up from our grazing-ground, twenty-five miles away, all food was tinned or dried, helped out by a liberal supply of vitamins A and B in tabloid form. As Dr. Arlaud is a specialist in dietaries and an excellent cook himself, the feeding was excellent; the clean bill of health of the expedition is a great credit to him.

Communication with the outer world was maintained by an expedition postal service to the nearest post office at Shigar, a distance of 120 miles. Intercommunication between camps was carried out by radio-telephony; the sets were the standard French army ones, with a range of about four miles, and worked excellently under all sorts of weather conditions.

Few expeditions to the mountains pass off without an accident of some kind; this one was no exception. After the ten days of almost continuous snow, two Sherpas were descending from Camp 3 to Camp 2; in trying to take a short cut across a dangerous slope they slipped and started a small avalanche which quickly gathered force and carried them down for the amazing distance of 1,800 feet to the main glacier below. By a miracle they were seen by a party on the glacier and were dug out. By a still greater miracle neither of the men was killed and neither had any bones broken. They were, however, both badly concussed and bruised, and one of them had to be carried the whole distance back to Srinagar.

The climbers are not unduly depressed by their first defeat, and have returned to France determined to make a further attempt on the Hidden Peak of Gasherbrum, or on another of the Himalayan summits, within a year or two.

[1] With due respect, I maintain that these abnormally heavy snowfalls in April are the rule. See Himalayan Journal, vol. viii, pp. 86-91, and Figs. 21-30 printed with the paper.-Ed.