Himalayan Journal vol.20
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.20

Publication year:
1957

Editor:
H. W. Tobin
Index
  1. THE SWISS EXPEDITION TO EVEREST AND LHOTSE, 1956
    (ALBERT EGGLER)
  2. THE ASCENT OF MANASLU
    (YUKO MAKI AND T. IMANISHI)
  3. AUSTRIAN KARAKORAM EXPEDITION, 1956
    (FRITZ MORAVEC)
  4. THE MUZTAGH TOWER
    (GIJIDO MAGNONE)
  5. MACHHAPUCHHARE
    (MAJOR C. G. WYLIE)
  6. RENEWED ATTACK ON RAKAPOSHI
    (HAMISH MACINNES)
  7. THE GERMAN NEPAL EXPEDITION, 1955
    (HEINZ STEINMETZ)
  8. EXPEDITIONS TO THE RATANG AND PARBATI REGIONS, 1955 AND 1956
    (P. F. HOLMES)
  9. MOUNT CHAMLANG SURVEY EXPEDITION
    (N. D. HARDIE)
  10. TWO VALLEYS IN NAGIR
    (C. H. TYNDALE-BISCOE)
  11. A BINGER HIMALAYAN EXPEDITION, 1956, TO BARA SHIGRI GLACIER
    (JOYCE DUNSHEATH)
  12. CAMBRIDGE EXPEDITION, 1956, TO THE ELBURZ MOUNTAINS, IRAN
    (J. G. R. HARDING)
  13. NOTES AND EXPEDITIONS
  14. IN MEMORIAM
  15. REVIEWS
  16. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1956.

THE MUZTAGH TOWER

GIJIDO MAGNONE

We acknowledge our thanks to the Editors of ' LA MONTAGNE ET ALPINISMS ' for permitting us to use this article. The translation is by A. K. Rawlinson.

-Editor.

at the north-west end of the Himalayan chain lie the Karakoram mountains; with the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs they form the geological heart of Asia. It is a savage, outcast region which has always stood as a formidable rampart between men. In the very heart of the Karakoram, the basin of the Baltoro glacier, some forty miles long, has no rival. Nowhere else is there such an assembly of giant peaks. Around K2, 28,250 ft., the highest, are eight peaks over 25,000 ft. Yet it is not the highest mountains that are destined to make this region a Mecca for mountaineers of the whole world, but rather the formidable bristle of spikes and towers which stand at the entrance of the glacier.

To anyone who has had the opportunity to admire the wonderful photograph taken in 1909 by Vittorio Sella, the Muztagh Tower must have appeared the symbol of inaccessibility. Its 23,800 ft. of vertical walls presented climbing problems of a different order of severity from the 'eight-thousanders'. Yet while the conquest of the fourteen highest summits of the earth is still not completed, the Muztagh Tower has been conquered. In the month of July 1956, a British expedition and a French expedition saw their efforts crowned with success and eight men reached from two totally different sides of the mountain the summit of this peak which appeared impregnable.

21 May, 1956. Rawalpindi. 4 a.m. The night has been stifling, a May night in North Pakistan, where the thermometer stays between 110° F. and 120° F. With the first glimmerings of the dawn a thin orange glow outlines the mountains of Kashmir and is the harbinger of a new day of torrid heat. Damp with sweat, four mountaineers, a doctor and a Pakistani officer are waiting patiently on Rawalpindi airfield for the combination of good weather, airline company orders and the goodwill of the gods to open the gates of the Himalaya, or rather to allow the aircraft to take off for Skardu with the French Karakoram Expedition and its three tons of equipment.

We are a small but solid party: Andre Contamine, instructor at the Ecole Nationale de Ski et d'Alpinisme, Pastor Paul Keller, Robert Paragot and myself-we form the assault parties. Dr. Francois Florence will in principle be watching over our health, but I fully count on him to play an active part at decisive moments. The Pakistani Government have attached to us Captain Ali Usman, an officer of the 18th Punjab Regiment, who is to act as our interpreter with the local authorities and smooth our way through the formalities, of which there is no lack.

In the fortnight since we arrived at Karachi we have had to make a bewildering number of applications: transport, customs, authorizations, such a lot of problems the solution of which requires rubber stamps and dozens of signatures going on until the last square centimetre of paper is completely black.

At last even in Asia all is settled, our patience is rewarded, and the Dakota takes off uneventfully, rapidly gaining height in the direction of the mountains. Soon the machine is zigzagging in a labyrinth of valleys between peaks that shut in the horizon on all sides. The Indus winds its way like a snake at the bottom of an abyss, while above are unfolding the formidable ridges of Nanga Parbat. The aircraft hops over the cols, grazes gigantic precipices, and dives abruptly'between two walls. In an enormous cloud of dust we touch down on the airfield at Skardu, less than an hour and forty minutes after our departure.

24 May. Skardu. We are installed in the guest-house put at our disposal by the Political Agent. We have been so absorbed in the organization of our caravan that we have scarcely" seen Skardu. Anyway, there is nothing of interest in this little township, capital of Baltistan, at the junction of the Shigar and the Indus. Save for the freshness of its orchards, it has nothing to offer the visitor; a rudimentary hospital, the bazaar, a few bungalows scattered over the fields, are all there is to it.

In four days we have chosen and engaged 120 porters, divided the loads, bought provisions, arranged postal relays. Each man has a specific job. Keller's is the most laborious; he is responsible for porterage. The local people are impressed by his height (6 ft. 2 in.) and his strength ; and his way of dealing out loads with one hand is so persuasive that it silences all objection on the part of the coolies. I have entrusted the commissariat to Contamine, a thankless labour that often makes the man in charge the focus of general discontent, the tastes of the sahib and the enormous appetite of the Hunza being very difficult to satisfy. The bizarre disposition of the rations further complicates his task: it is a lucky dip which causes him much perplexity. On some days 20 lb. of sugar and liver salts are all he has to feed us on; on the next day nothing but milk powder and canned fish. His frequent contacts with the cooks have at least one interesting result: each day they are improving his knowledge of Urdu, though not, unfortunately, the cooking of the macaroni.

Paragot was at first a little overwhelmed by the amount of gear and equipment to be distributed, but he quickly got organized and now everything is in perfect order. His one black spot is Yousef, his Hunza, who is strong as an ox but of a disarmingly rustic simplicity of mind; to open and close boxes requires the full mobilization of his intellectual faculties;. at moments he is so clumsy that Eobert is exasperated and snatching the pincers and hammer does the work himself.

Ever since our arrival Florence has been pestered by numerous visitors more or less official. They come to ask for his advice and medicaments for illnesses past, present and future, for themselves and their relations, not excluding second cousins twice removed.

For my own part I am content to supervise, being completely absorbed by unending calculations. I must decide how much food to buy at Askole, how many supplementary porters to engage to carry the food for the expedition porters, and how many other porters to carry food for the men carrying food for the supplementary porters, and so on. What bad luck that there is no one from the Polytechnic on this expedition!

27 May. Dasso. We have crossed the Indus and left Skardu. Our boat slid easily across water like a metal mirror. The current was strong, but so uniform that the surface seemed solid. Then up the whole valley of the Shigar in three days. Forty-five miles of desert, pebbles and gravel, happily broken by villages. Their oasis freshness soothes our sunstroke and rests eyes blinking all day in the scorched air. Each evening we arrive at the staging point more tired by the heat than by the length of the way.

We arrived at Dasso by zak. Zaks are rafts, eight feet by twelve feet, made of a network of branches mounted on about forty goatskin bladders. These contraptions are difficult to manoeuvre, and fragile, but they are practically unsinkable and well suited to torrential streams. The crossing, directed by boatmen who had great difficulty in co-ordinating their efforts, was agitated throughout, and we disembarked completely soaked.

31 May. Askole. In theory we are taking a rest-day here, but in practice it is a heavy day of work and re-organization. The porters have left us; we have to replace them; fifty-seven new ones have had to be engaged to carry the two tons of flour we are buying in the village. The hiring took place amid shouting, dust and a surging crowd. The policeman on duty had plenty to do, generously distributing insults and truncheon blows to maintain a semblance of order during the operation.

For hours Florence has been applying dressings, giving injections, opening abcesses, distributing poultices and pills to a population wretched both in physique and in circumstances to a degree that I have never seen: goitres, tuberculosis and degeneracy are to be seen in almost all the inhabitants not only of Askole but of all the valley of Braldo. The village of Chakpo, two days' march up the valley, seemed to be inhabited only by idiots. Inbreeding, iodine deficiency, lack of sunlight in winter in these deeply-enclosed valleys cut off by snow from the rest of the world, these are the chief reasons for this appalling wretchedness.

2 June. Bagdomal. An eventful day, which was nearly disastrous for the expedition. In the morning the crossing of the Dumordo torrent was difficult for our porters. The first arrived on the bank at nine o'clock, when the water was still low, allowing an easy passage, but soon, with the heat of the day, the current became so violent that it was necessary to stretch a cable from one bank to the other to secure our coolies. In spite of this precaution several were carried away and rescued in extremis. Their loads drifted away, but fortunately it was possible to fish them out again several hundred yards away. In the end we only lost one food box and the surgical equipment was soaked.

But this evening we came near to catastrophe. The whole camp narrowly escaped being carried away by a torrent of mud. The tents had scarcely been set up when an avalanche broke away in a deep canyon, 5,000 ft. above our heads. In a few moments a wave of semi-liquid muddy substance, advancing twenty yards a second, spread throughout the camp, creating panic. Seizing everything we could lay hands on, we rushed pell-mell to safety on a nearby bank. By a miracle we were spared. In the future we shall be on our guard against this phenomenon, which is frequent at the end of the day in this part of the Himalaya where erosion is on a gigantic scale, for we must often cross stretches of ground very exposed to it. On our return we were unable to find our camp-site, which had been buried under several yards of earth.

5 June. Urdukas. For two days we have been making our way up the Baltoro. From morning to night to go up and down moraines like slag-heaps in the Black Country is enough to sicken you of big Himalayan glaciers for the rest of your life. But what a wonderful sight all around us! A veritable forest of peaks and towers encircles the Baltoro. I do not think that anywhere else is there in so small an area such an assembly of mountains so high and so fine.

But we have a great anxiety: there is no longer any doubt that the British expedition led by John Hartog is aiming for the Muztagh Tower. Including McNaught-Davis, Joe Brown and Dr. Patey, it is one of the best parties of climbers that could be put in the field. The British have been established on the Muztagh Glacier for a fortnight and are attacking by the Chagaran Glacier and the northwest ridge. They are already high on the mountain.

I review the delicate points of the situation. In the first place, there can be no question of taking the British route, still less of impeding them. Secondly, the start that they have, suggests that they will anyhow reach the summit first. Thirdly, our porters have no longer enough food to go to the far end of the Baltoro. Can we change our objective ?

The decision is taken. Since we are here to examine difficult problems, let us go and have a look at the other faces of the Tower, and then settle our goal. Some information received at Skardu and Professor Desio's map suggest a possible route up the north ridge and another, more risky, on the south-east side.

12 June. Base Camp. Six days for two normal stages. I should never have believed that we should have such trouble to get here. The bad weather started it all. Misled by the mist we did not find the Younghusband Glacier immediately. To aggravate things, icy rain, soon turning to snow, provoked most of our coolies to desert us. At least two hours from our future Base Camp we only had about twenty porters left. We had to pay them an impossible wage. How can we blame them? Their poor physique is sorely tried by the cold and the snow.

We have pitched our camp a few hundred yards from the foot of the south-east ridge of the Tower, at the confluence of the east and west branches of the glacier, in a strategic position which enables us to encircle the mountain. But we had to do a considerable amount of levelling work in order to set up the tents on the central moraine. Tomorrow the reconnaissances will begin.

14 June. Base Camp. A very bad day, at the end of three days of effort. Tonight the party's morale has rather lost its dash, not so much because of lost time as of vanished hopes. To reach the summit by the north ridge is suicide, if not impossible. This afternoon Paul and I reached the ridge at 18,500 ft., at its lowest point between the Tower and Monte Seste. We could not have found anything more terrifying. In practice the ridge does not exist; there is just a vague shoulder that soon emerges into an appalling face, very steep, bombarded by ice avalanches throughout its 4,500 ft. of height. We have only the south side left, and it is not encouraging.

GRANITE SPIRES ABOVE THE BALTORO GLACIER.

GRANITE SPIRES ABOVE THE BALTORO GLACIER.



THE MUZTAGH TOWER, 23,860 FT. THE SOUTH-EAST RIDGE RUNS DOWN DIAGONALLY FROM THE SUMMIT TOWARDS THE CENTRE OF THE PICTURE.

THE MUZTAGH TOWER, 23,860 FT. THE SOUTH-EAST RIDGE RUNS DOWN DIAGONALLY FROM THE SUMMIT TOWARDS THE CENTRE OF THE PICTURE.



17 June. Base Camp. Yesterday, Conta, Robert and Amin IJllah, our best Hunza, left at dawn to try to find a way through the three-thousand-foot icefall which forms the west branch of the glacier. They returned at three o'clock in the afternoon, scorched by the sun and fagged out, but with information that allows us some new hope. From the upper plateau of the glacier they could clearly trace a route through the enormous wall of ice that cuts across the whole of the south face of the Tower. This is the most important point, but we still have to get our convoys through the icefall, and going to and fro for days amongst these tottering edifices involves great risks. But if we go through before the main heat of the day, it is possible to make a way by the avalanche- gullies on the left bank. Only the bottom part cannot be avoided.

Today Paul and I have succeeded in rigging a thousand feet of cable at the beginning of the lower seracs. We placed the winch- head on a rock promontory overlooking the glacier. Tomorrow we shall begin winching the first loads and I am somewhat anxious to know how it will work.

27 June. Base Camp. It has been snowing for ten days. Every morning I am scarcely awake when I cock my ear and detect at once the slight but ceaseless rustle of snow falling on the tent fabric. As the days roll by, our chances shrink like untanned leather. This makes it fifteen days since we arrived here, and Camp I is not yet established. Our main occupations are eating, sleeping and listening to the avalanches which sometimes thunder for whole minutes without interruption. Our only diversions are bridge and chess, and we should soon have tired of these without the wireless sets to distract us; the distraction is not, as you might think, listening to these but trying to manufacture the batteries needed to make them function. By what mystery did these batteries, ordered in Paris, never reach Pakistan ?

On the 25th, Paul and I took advantage of this period of inaction to pay a visit to the British expedition. At Urdukas I had written to John Hartog to bring him up to date on our plans. His reply reached me on the 24th; as I expected, he claimed priority of authorization. It was quite clear that we had reached a stage when it was impossible to alter this position. It was best to have it out by word of mouth.

The reserve of our first contact did not last long over the traditional tea. The conversation soon took a friendly turn. Could one speak of rivalry? They had every chance of getting to the top before us; our Base Camps were a day and a half's march apart, and our routes totally different. Unless on the summit, we should not set foot on a single one of their tracks. We parted without bitterness, each party wishing the other good luck.

30 June. 5 a.m. Base Camp. During our absence, Conta and Robert have opened and maintained the track to the foot of the seracs. Every day the Hunzas have carried loads to the start of the tele-usually cross at going out in such weather. At last, just as we despaired of it, good weather reappeared. Two days ago the work began, and almost all the high-altitude loads are above the winch. This morning nearly everyone is leaving Base Camp. Only Florence and the Balti porters will be left to watch over the camp and maintain contact with Ali, our liaison officer, installed at Ibex Camp on the Baltoro. What torment it must be for this unrepentant sportsman to be without a gun in this place swarming with game, bears, leopards, ibex and wolves; their tracks come right up to the camp, but he has to be content to assault his prey with voice and gesture.

I have laid down a plan which should gain us some time. Today all of us, both sahibs and Hunzas, will go straight up to the upper plateau of the glacier. While the sahibs are setting up Camp II, the Hunzas will go down to sleep at Camp I on the intermediate plateau. In the days following they will shuttle to and fro between the winch and our camp, while we are preparing the way on the spur leading towards the future Camp III. Florence, down below, will keep an eye on the final loads, then follow to bring up the rear.

2. July. Camp II. Joy reigns in the camp tonight. Despite the length and danger of the route between the winch and us, the loads have arrived and Florence has rejoined us. We have found a site for Camp III just above the spur overlooking Camp II.

We have already fixed 1,300 ft. of rope on this face, but I doubt if men with loads could regularly use this route, which is as difficult as the north face of the Courtes. Perhaps we shall have to take the left side of the rib, which is exposed to ice avalanches almost the whole way ? Tomorrow Keller, Conta, Paragot and I will stay at Camp III to try to force the great barrier of seracs above.

5 July. Camp III {19,500 ft.). We have been established on our rib for three days now, just enough time to set up the camp and equip the route up the slope and the gully of the great barrier. Above a vertical wall, a 600-ft. band of seracs bars the way right across the mountain and overlooks us. One single point of weakness on the right may permit us to set foot on the top of the icecliff. If we can reach that point, the most speculative section of the ascent will have been climbed.

THE SOUTH-EAST SIDE OF THE MUZTAGH TOWER, SHOWING ROUTE.

THE SOUTH-EAST SIDE OF THE MUZTAGH TOWER, SHOWING ROUTE.



Very early tomorrow morning we shall go up with Florence and our two best Hunzas, Amin Ullah and Gueri Khan. We shall pull ourselves up the 1,000 ft. of fixed ropes that we have rigged on the slope these last two days. Yesterday evening Paul and Robert finished fixing ropes up the extremely steep gully in which it finishes.

6 July. Midday. Florence and the Hunzas have just left us. We are on the plateau. The implacable sun blazes down on us overwhelmingly from a dark sky. With slow movements we are stamping down deep, waterlogged snow to make a place for the tent. Heat and altitude are making our heads sing a little. The last three thousand feet of the Tower are before us, of a steepness to pour cold water on our optimistic ideas: the face direct had appeared to me an obvious way, but at its foot I must confess that another solution is preferable. In fact the only remaining way is the south-east ridge, which splits the face vertically; but it is still necessary to get on to it.

8 July. Camp IV (20,500 ft.). Yesterday Robert suddenly saw two minute black dots outlined against the sky. Two men were just beside this coveted goal of ours; the British expedition was arriving at the top.[1]
We are meeting such difficulties that we have only just reached the ridge today. Two days to do 800 feet. Yesterday two pitches above the bergschrund required hours of effort. Today it was only after six hours of unremitting labour on an almost vertical wall, six hours of cramponning at the limit of balance, of iced slabs Surmounted with pitons, of violent arm-pulls that leave you exhausted, that we emerged in a notch of the ridge. Certainly one of the hardest bits of climbing that has been done in the Himalaya at this altitude.

At midday, the morning sun disappeared and all parts of the sky clouded up. On the ridge one deep gap succeeded another without intermission; they so slowed our advance that, when at 4 p.m., we turned back, we had not gone more than a hundred yards horizontally. It began to snow and we made a gloomy retreat to Camp IV. We have put out as fixed ropes all the ropes we have left, climbing ropes included.

14 July. 3-30 a.m. For two days we have been shut up in the tent. Yesterday the sky cleared and we feel we must try our luck without delay.

7-15 a.m. The weather is very good. We reached the notch quickly, thanks to the fixed ropes. But we had scarcely passed the end of our tracks when we began to sink in to the middle of our thighs. The battle is on, and though we do not know it, we shall be at it for two days. Vertical towers bar our way. Sometimes our only choice is between steep icy slopes on the left and cornices of rotten snow overhanging the Younghusband Glacier on the right.

4 p.m. We have reached the foot of the third great tower, the last. Beyond it, the summit appears within close reach. This is just an illusion, for it will take hours to climb the tower: we are not yet above 22,500 ft. Our progress is so slow that it comes home to me that we shall find ourselves on the final slope at nightfall. On the rocks it is still nice and warm; we must choose a bivouac place while we have the chance. After a long search we can only find two narrow places to sit down, where we shall fix pitons, and each of us has to work for quite a time to arrange a little comfort. If the place is precarious, the view is unique, for around us is a fantastic semi-circle. From K2 to Masherbrum, with Broad Peak, the Gasherbrum peaks and Hidden Peak between, the mountains of the Karakoram roll like waves to the horizon.

Soon night begins, fine but very cold. I wonder how we are going to stand it. We are at 22,900 ft., we have had nothing to drink for a long time, and it is with difficulty that we have managed to swallow a few slices of tinned fruit. The interminable wait begins, the fatigue of the day weighs on us, and every instant of drowsiness is broken by the whistling torment of the wind. We shiver with cold, at first by fits and starts, soon continuously, all the time until morning.

Dawn rises on 12th July after one of the most difficult bivouacs we have ever had. Long streamers are invading the sky. We realize that we must move quickly.

We get going at 5-30; our movements are clumsy; we are numb from head to foot and must be careful. Robert launches away in the lead to surmount the final pitches of the great tower. Soon the first battles set our blood circulating vigorously.

Now we continue up slopes that appeared straightforward. But we only make progress with difficulty, stamping steps unceasingly in deep loose snow. The whole slope sounds hollow, and none of us is secure, for there is no single solid belay point for the whole length of the party. Making the track is extremely strenuous; in some places it is a veritable trench that the man in front has to open. Each man takes his turn and does thirty or forty steps, and then without a word hands over to someone else.

At midday we are below the summit peak, where it steepens abruptly. Conta and Robert try to get up by the rocks, Paul and I prefer to carry on straight up. The snow is so deep that a few yards from the summit ridge, Paul gets stuck on the slope, buried higher than his waist, and has to drive in his axe and his arms up to the shoulders to hoist himself up on to the ridge. With difficulty we all get there and pull ourselves up. Hold by hold, step by step, we advance on a tight rope, axes planted up to the head.

At last I am touching the summit. It is 1 p.m. The actual top is so sharp and unstable that it is impossible to stand up on it, and to make our conquest still more ephemeral we can scarcely pause a few moments on this summit for which we have journeyed for weeks and which has cost us so much effort. We must go down without delay. It has been snowing for half an hour and already the mountain shapes are disappearing in a whitish blanket that fills the whole sky.

In spite of our haste, we have to fix numerous rappels; the descent is slow and night is overtaking us. We slip and slide in a greyness in which we cannot distinguish snow from empty air. It is completely dark by the time that the first of us, Contamine, reaches the notch. It remains to make one more rappel, of 150 ft., before we find the fixed ropes.

Two hours of interminable manoeuvres, groping about in squalls of thickly falling snow, release us at last at the foot of the berg- schrund, where we find Florence, who is moved to tears. In a mad slide amid cataracts of fresh snow we reach at last the shelter of Camp IV. Of all ambitions there remain but the simplest desires, drink, eat, sleep.

19. July. Ibex Camp. We are starting the return march. Yesterday we assembled our baggage and evacuated Base Camp. When we arrived on the Baltoro we were surprised to find Dr. Patey waiting for us. He came to ask Florence's help in looking after Hartog, whose feet are severely frost-bitten. This evening we shall see again the flowers of Urdukas, where the members of the British expedition have been resting for several days.

20. July. Urdukas. We are taking Hartog out. Florence is of the opinion that he must be got down as quickly as possible to prevent infection. Dr. Patey will come with us also. Thus they will both be able to watch over the sick man as far as the hospital at Skardu.

As we make our way back down the interminable Baltoro moraines, I think of the simple, warm welcome with which the British climbers greeted us yesterday. A few hours after our arrival, we were sat down before a banquet of Pantagruel; all rivalry disappeared, we celebrated our double success. I am sure that it was our new-born friendship that we celebrated that evening, the friendship of men lost on the edge of the world, joined in brotherhood by the same passion and the same ideal, just as much as we celebrated the beginning of a new conquest, the conquest of the finest and most difficult Himalayan summits.


[1] The west summit was reached by Ian McNaught-Davis and Joe Brown on 7th July. The following day, John Hartog and Tom Patey, using their tracks to the W. summit, descended to a Col, and after a stretch of Grade V climbing, reached the east summit which Hartog has described as being higher by about ten feet.-Editor.