An Account of the British-American Karakoram Expedition, 1956


BEFORE our arrival in Pakistan, plans of the British-American Karakoram Expedition were changed. This was due to the large number of parties going to the Baltoro area where our early objective, the Muztagh Tower, is located. We chose instead Raka- poshi, a peak of 25,550 ft., which is surely one of the most accessible mountains of its height in the world, and it is certainly difficult.

Our party of four members could not have been more scattered. Mike Banks (later appointed leader) was in England, Bob Swift in California and Dick Irvin also from California had travelled to New Zealand and joined me. Needless to say, it was with great relief when we all met in Rawalpindi.

The morning of the 25th of May saw all members and supplies in one of the Dakotas which are engaged on the difficult flight to Gilgit. The great wall of Nanga Parbat was passed on our right, and in front the white heads of the Karakoram giants appeared above the sun-baked ridges.

After this interesting flight, we went up to our Base Camp at 14,000 ft. after a four-day march with coolies. The only excitement on this short trek was the crossing of the turbulent Hunza river by zahh. We had decided to attempt the mountain by the route chosen by the Cambridge Expedition in 1954,1 and indeed on investigation we found that this was the only way.

Base Camp was situated in a delectable spot where primulas and bubbling streams enchant a valley walled by stately peaks. It was sited on a shelf on the moraine near the snout of the Kunti glacier, and at nights when the stream slowed to a trickle, eiderdown jackets were not long in appearing. We had four Hunza porters, Issa Khan, of K2 and Nanga Parbat fame, being the Sirdar. As is customary, we were given a Pakistani liaison officer, in this case a Captain of the Education Corps.

Camp I was some distance up the Kunti glacier and was more of a stores dump than a camp; usually it was by-passed. We established Camp II by the 5th of June. Three of us occupied it whilst Dick, who had lung trouble, retreated to the pinewoods lower down the valley to recuperate. With him went Fazal-i-Haque our liaison officer. Camp II was on the crest of the south-west spur, and was overshadowed by a symmetrical pinnacle which we later climbed. It commanded a wonderful view of Nanga Parbat and its neighbours. Haramosh (this mountain though lower than Rakaposhi is even more accessible, as a road from Gilgit goes right to its base), a shapely mountain offering no visible route, rose above the southwest ridge; and on the other side of camp, above the cornice on the crest, were the great chain of peaks of the Hindu Kush.


  1. See Himalayan Journal, Vol. XIX, 1955-56, p. 109.


By courtsey of the Editor, Alpine Journal.

By courtsey of the Editor, Alpine Journal.

On the 6th of June, Mike Banks and I climbed the slope above Camp II and reached the start of the ridge which runs along to the gendarme. The gendarme we knew was our first big obstacle, and from this angle its steep sides were shown to their best, or worst, advantage. We were impressed by the cornices and steep slopes of the ridge and, I think for the first time, we realized the immense task that lay ahead of us. Later that day the weather deteriorated and it snowed intermittently for several days, confining us to our camp. The routine was sleeping, eating and digging the tents out.

On June 12th, the weather was good enough to force a route up the slopes to the ridge. As we were ascending, Dick arrived with laden porters and shouted the bad news that a tent and most of the fixed rope had been lost in an avalanche. He returned to Base that day intending to come up again to stay on the morrow. Next day we had a full complement of climbers at Camp II. Fazal-i-Haque who had accompanied Dick up the gully to camp had, on return, slipped and taken a tumble, but luckily he was unhurt.

On the 14th, straws were passed round and as Mike and Bob pulled the long ones they had the privilege of occupying the next camp. The following morning, with Dick and I acting as porters, we pitched a two-man tent on the crest of the ridge which leads along to the gendarme. We called this 'Cornice Camp' as it was not to be permanent. Mike and Bob, after spending the night there, relayed up to Camp III which was on the lip of a schrund at the base of the gendarme. It was an airy spot and large icicles like organ pipes hung from the vertical ice-face on the other side of the schrund. A day or so later, when Dick and I were carrying up to Camp III, we saw Mike and Bob cutting their way up the steep flanks of the gendarme. The plastered rock reminded me of the north face of Ben Nevis in winter. Dick returned to Camp II ahead of me and by the time I got back to camp, ominous clouds were mustering their forces over Haramosh. The gentle zephyr of morning had developed into a veritable gale and powder snow shot off the cornices.

Again it was days of storm, eleven this time, and between digging the tent out and making elaborate sweets, the Cricket Test provided some diversion. Our wireless was used mainly to receive the weather bulletins from Radio Pakistan. After listening to a news bulletin in the cook-tent, I shouted to Dick telling him there was a great accident in Aberdeen. He muttered a few magic words when I told him, 'there were twenty killed in a taxi'. A wind in the region of 100 m.p.h. was the last gesture on the part of the elements, for a short time at least. On the 27th, the weather cleared and as we were excavating the tents and food dump, our two companions returned from Camp III. They brought ill tidings— the 'Gerry' tent had been damaged in a small avalanche when they were both in it,

Next morning, following the trail of the previous day and our bamboo markers, we reached Camp III in fine weather. It was Dick and I who now occupied that camp while Bob and Mike, who were acting porters, returned to Camp II. The following morning when the sun's rays touched camp we had breakfast and then cut our way up the gendarme, fixing a rope from bottom to top. From its summit, we saw the great ice-face of the Monk's Head—and no wonder Tilman said 'hopeless5 when he saw it. We descended the back of the gendarme and continued in good weather looking for a site for Camp IV. En route I fell into a hidden crevasse.

The next few days were spent in relaying loads over the gendarme and on to the site of Camp IV. Instead of going over a whaleback which is between the gendarme and the Monk's Head, we found a route through a great rift in the ice which we called the 'Notch5. Our porters had by this time carried between Camps II and III, but refused to go over the gendarme. Issa Khan, who had been up to the high camps on K2, said it was much too difficult. We had been expecting this, so it did not cause us great concern. On July 3rd, we all occupied Camp IV, which was situated on a slope opposite the face of the Monk's Head. Meanwhile our porters, who were now of no use to us, returned to Base.

We awoke in undecided weather the following morning and as the tasks were as usual allotted, Mike and I set off on ours—-to make a route up the Monk's Head. Bob returned to the gendarme for fixed rope whilst Dick had a rest-day taking photographs. Banks and I, using twelve-point crampons, dispensed with step- cutting and from rock bollards and ice-pitons, we hung approximately 500 ft. of fixed rope. There is no disputing the fact that the climbing of the Monk's Head is of Alpine standard, and the angle of 45° is unrelenting. As 500 ft. was all the rope we had with us, we returned to Camp IV. Half the Monk's Head had still to be climbed.

Dick and Bob led up the Monk's Head slope the following morning. Mike and I followed, packing supplies and equipment. Where the ropes were secured to ice-pitons we hacked out platforms for resting, as pulling up the fixed rope without steps imposed considerable strain on the ankles. Even with the rope from the gendarme we did not have enough for the whole face, but within a few hours of leaving Camp IY we were higher than any previous expedition. When we were nearing the summit of the Monk's Head, a blizzard sprang up with alarming speed and we had no alternative but to cache our loads, using the tent poles as markers, and beat a hasty retreat.

It was a hard day up the fixed rope of the Monk's Head on the 6th of July, and then over its summit to the site of Camp Y at 21,000 ft. Arms and ankles were aching and we had a fuller understanding of the hard work of Himalayan climbing. We dumped our loads on the level snow and gazed at the slopes above. They looked as bad as the Monk's Head, and we realized that Eakaposhi was going to make us fight for every foot we gained. We returned to Camp IV that same day.

The 7th of July was my birthday, and a rest-day. That morning I had double rations for breakfast and the usual bantering between the Scots and English prevailed. We thought it a great pity that one of the Americans did not come from the Southern States, which would have completed the national discord of the quarter !

Next day we left camp at 5 a.m. and by 11 a.m. we were on top of the ice-face. We collected the supplies left during the blizzard, which made our packs 40 lbs. each. At the site for Camp V, which we had previously selected, we erected two Gerry tents. Dick and I were chosen to occupy Camp VI and attempt the summit.

On July 9th we took turns at kicking steps up the slopes above Camp V. There was no shortage of crevasses, hidden and open and, as I said to Mike: The cracks were so frequent, so deep and so wide, we thought the mountain was hollow inside. In places the ice was as steep as the Monk's Head, and infinitely more dangerous. The weather, which had worsened during the day, made us frequently feel like turning back. Standing on an ice slope with cloud creeping round us we had a conference. Were we going to cut a platform for the tent, or keep going ? I volunteered to go a little higher to see if there was a better site above. I had climbed only a few hundred feet when the weather cleared and I found an ideal platform on a narrow ridge. The others joined me and we pitched our tent, Camp VI, at 23,000 ft. Still the slopes above us looked steep, in places 50°, but the summit looked enticingly near. As Bob and Mike were descending the slopes below Camp VI, Bob slipped on steep ice and fell 100 ft. Luckily he stopped on rocks at the lip of a face which falls to the Biro glacier. Mike also had a tumble lower down and fell into a crevasse, but both were unhurt and reached Camp V safely.



That night Dick woke me out of a deep sleep saying it was twelve minutes to four. I thought it had been a very short night, but blamed it on the altitude. Later, we discovered it was ten minutes to ten. I shall omit my description of Dick and his watch. At dawn the weather didn't look too good, and as Dick was suffering from a bad cough and sore limbs we decided to postpone the summit bid. Later that day we were joined by Mike and Bob, who had come up to support our supposed summit bid. We spent a terrible night with four of us in a two-man tent, and by 5-30 a.m. we left camp. It was cold, and a fresh wind bit at our faces. Above camp, after crossing a-schrund, a steep snow-rib had to be climbed and beyond treacherous crevasses reduced our progress to a snail's pace. Bob who was wearing tight 'Vapour Barrier' boots with no socks suffered from cold feet and we had to call a halt to thaw them. At 23,500 ft., 2,000 ft. short of the summit, we called it a day. The two Americans advocated retreat, but Mike and I were feeling fit and reasonably warm so we agreed that, as we had wasted so much time and energy for so little height, we would have a good night's sleep and knock the peak off on the morrow. Tomorrow never came as the good spell had, unknown to us, ended. A cold wind was blowing drift snow across the slopes and clouds were building up in the valleys. In the distance, K2 looked stately. Above us, the slope leading to the last step on the mountain steepened to 50°; so there was still difficulty above. Needless to say, when we were at Camp VI again the weather cleared, and I think we all had regrets for not pressing on. Dick who was still not as fit as usual decided to go down to Camp V; Bob accompanied him. As there was still some food available, Mike and I resolved to stay on for another attempt on the summit.

Our try the next morning was stillborn. On ascending a few feet from camp, a circle around the sun predicted bad weather and gathering storm clouds substantiated it. We retired to our tent and the dwindling supply of food and watched nature's fireworks. That same day Bob and Dick had some excitement going down to Camp IV. Bob fell into two crevasses, and when going down the Monk's Head face on the fixed rope they were caught in an electric storm. Bob received several potent charges and an extra big one almost stunned him and caused him to drop his rucksack, which fell to the Biro glacier, 4,000 ft. below in the wrong valley. The cine-camera which he was carrying went down 600 ft., to the base of the Monk's Head. His pack was gone for good, with it all his personal equipment. That night at Camp IV Dick lent him his inner sleeping-bag.

In bad weather the following morning Mike and I went down with difficulty to Camp V as food had run out, but we intended making another attempt on the mountain later, when we had rested and recovered some of our lost weight. The morning after that, we again went down and arrived at Camp IV in poor visibility. We found the Monk's Head slope in a dangerous condition with most of the ice-pitons out. Bob and Dick, who were one stage ahead of us, reached Camp III that day. On July 15th, we struggled up the steep slopes on the reverse, or Monk's Head, side of the gendarme. The gendarme itself had to be descended using nylon boot-laces tied together as a rope, as all our rope was left on the Monk's Head slope. Meanwhile, the two Americans were trying to get to Base, and Dick slipped whilst traversing some steep ice between Camps III and II. Luckily he grabbed a protruding rock, which saved him a nasty fall of 4,000 ft. In this fall he hurt his leg, though not seriously.

Mike and I arrived at Base Camp without any further incident. On July 24th, having rested and eaten our fill of mutton and chicken, we went back up to Camp II with two porters. The Americans had decided to withdraw. Unfortunately, the following day on the slopes above Camp II, I fell sick and later discovered that I had fever. Next day we all returned to Base. Later we found it was dengue fever. We sent our two best porters up to Camp II on the 28th, to cut the long stairway of steps up and along to Camp III. That day, when Issa Khan was cutting on the slope above Camp II his companion pulled him off. They crashed down 500 ft. Though not seriously injured they were obviously finished for the rest of the expedition.

I was still very weak when Mike and I set off on the 29th for our third attempt. We fully realized the risk involved in two of us attempting a 25,000-ft. peak, but we had confidence in each other and perhaps avoided thinking too much about what would happen if there was an accident. Beyond the gendarme there would be no possibility of rescue, and indeed little hope of the porters even getting back up to Camp III, soft snow and neve had given way to hard ice. The two other porters carried our packs to Camp II and the following day accompanied us for a short distance beyond camp, then returned. It took us 7 hours to reach Camp III and we had to summon all our energy to re-pitch the tent. We realized how small our reserves of strength were. The weather which had been undecided all day deteriorated and the clouds in the Kunti valley seemed to be boiling. Next day Mike had a pain in his chest and after thinking of all the horrible diseases and illnesses we discovered that he had taken an extra strong drink of acidic lemon crystals. However, this delay proved fortunate for the weather steadily worsened and we were prevented from crossing the precipitous gendarme. Again it was storm with plenty of snow and poor visibility. On August 1st we packed to retreat, but the weather and visibility were too bad. Next morning we realized that we must try to get back to Base; food was running low and it was snowing steadily and heavily.

We shouldered 60-lb. packs and proceeded along the ridge. I started the day's* excitements by falling into a hidden crevasse; then Mike, when traversing a snow-covered ice slope, slipped and fell about 20 ft. before being stopped by the rope. Here again we were lucky for my ice-axe belay was pulled out, but throwing myself backwards seemed to be the correct reaction. So another long drop was averted. Due to the high wind and drift snow we found that we could not wear goggles. By the time we reached the ice slope above Camp II we were feeling very tired. At the top of this slope, snow avalanched under me and we both fell 300 ft. Again we were unhurt. Over 7 hours after leaving Camp III we arrived soaked to the skin at the partly covered tent at Camp II. That night at 10 o'clock we discovered we were snow-blind. Mike was the first to discover it and slowly but surely the pricking pains in our eyes increased. As we had no medical supplies with us, we tried to ease the pain with moist tea-leaves, but it was to no avail. Another gale commenced, and the stove refused to work. The storm raged all night and the next day, when by afternoon we were able to open our eyes for short periods.

The following morning, we managed to reach Base Camp in very deep snow with Mike seeing double. Reflecting now on his seeing liable, I think it would have been interesting to have given him half ills allocation of food. On the way down to Base, several avalanches had a last try at scaring us. So with Camps IV, V and VI still up there, we bid farewell to the great mountain,

It seems a pity that no more expeditions are to be permitted to attempt Rakaposhi. The Pakistan Government are reserving it for their own mountaineers. After saying good-bye to Mike at Gilgit, I left with permission to visit the State of Hunza and to do a rough reconnaissance of the north face of Rakaposhi. One has just to glance at that 20,000-ft. north precipice, to know that the south-west spur is the only way to climb the mountain.

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