Originally we had intended, in 1955, to attempt Xstor-o-nal up in the N.W. corner of Pakistan but news of another expedition, lack of funds and the plea of an eminent geologist turned us towards Spiti on the borders of the Punjab. Trevor Braham and I were the climbers of a mainly scientific expedition from Cambridge. Our objectives were twofold: first, to penetrate one of the two nullahs, the Eatang or the Gyundi, which led to the peaks of the Great Divide; and second, to establish once and for all the true height of Shilla, claimed by the Survey of India to be 23,050 ft., and by Marcel Kurz, in The Mountain World, 1954, to be well under 22,000 ft. On this depended more than the reputation of a mountain. Climbed in 1860 by a Survey
We approached Spiti by way of the Rohtang La, the Chandra valley and the Kunzum La. The walk-in was uneventful apart from two near-drownings in the difficult nullahs. Our pony-men demanded a day's rest after crossing the second pass, so Braham and I took the opportunity to climb a virgin peak of some 18,500 ft. on the Taktsi-Karcha watershed. Loose rock, an ice slab and a rotten cornice which had to be cut away made the climb more dangerous than difficult. From the summit we gazed on the five tributary glaciers of the Karcha, all unmapped, nestling like quintuplets under the southern wall of the nullah. The total ascent of just over four thousand feet took five hours and made a wonderful training climb for our unacclimatized legs and lungs.
A few days later, while the scientists were busy collecting ammonites, we made a sortie up the Gyundi nullah. Two days' hard work and difficult going, in which we progressed a total of two miles, convinced us that there was no way here while the waters were in flood. Early-June or late-October are the only possibilities. This defeat was thoroughly depressing, for we had no reason to expect a different outcome with the Ratang. When J. O. M. Roberts made his lightning reconnaissance in 1939 the entrances of both the Ratang and the Gyundi had given him little hope for a route being forced up either of them except in October when the cold nights of an approaching winter had brought the water level down.1
In the event, we found the Ratang a little more accommodating. In five long and arduous days Braham and I, with the help of our -hree Ladakhi boys, forced our way through the gorge to a meadow about fifteen miles above the junction of the nullah and the main Spiti river. The second day was the worst. Abandoned by two local coolies, the five of us were carrying 350 lb. between us. All morning was spent climbing a 600-ffc. rock spire which blocked our way, all afternoon was spent descending to nullah level again. In all we covered 400 yards in nine hours. The climbing was dangerous and exasperatingly difficult. The same can be said for the gorge; mud-cliffs, stonefalls and hazardous fordings gave us an impression of literally fighting against nature. But not only the difficulties impressed us; the grandeur of the cliffs above us, the fantastic contortions of rock, the thundering fierceness of the water are difficult to forget. Almost as impressive was the behaviour of our Ladakhi boys, Rikzen, Sunom and Jigme. At times they were frightened, always they were tired with their mammoth loads, yet only once, when faced with a terrible mauvais pas, did they falter; and then they accepted our decision to push on without a murmur.
On the fifth evening we camped in the meadow, on the sixth day we pushed up over moraine and ice to a camp at c. 18,000 ft., and on the seventh we climbed two peaks, one 19,500 ft. and the other 19,720 ft. The climb was at times airy, but never hard, and the view was magnificent, without a cloud in the sky.
A quick look about us showed that the existing Survey map based on the surveys of the 1850's and 1860's had been drawn entirely by guess-work. To the north-west, west and south-west lay the tributary glaciers of the Parahio and the Ratang, huge sheets of ice which were not even hinted at by the map. Towering above and behind were the peaks of the Great Divide, while all about us were a profusion of smaller peaks and glaciers. A whole world to be explored. It was tiresome to gain no more than a glimpse of this exciting ground, but with both supplies and time running out, we had no choice.
Back in the Spiti valley we turned to our second problem; the height of Shilla. Its history is straightforward if chequered. Climbed in I860, its height was recorded as 23,050 ft. Its ascent established a record for a summit climbed; it was 'the highest yet', a record which was to stand for 47 years. Roberts climbed Point 20,680 ft. in 1939, but in mist, so he was unable to see anything. J. de V. Graaf's visit to the immediate area in 1952 added nothing to what was already known, but his panorama of the whole area from the summit of Mani Kang, 21,630 ft., on the border of Bashahr, raised the whole question again. According to Marcel Kurz (The Mountain World, 1954, p. 221) this panorama 'proves beyond doubt that Shilla does not attain 23,000 ft., perhaps not even 21,325 ft.!' But advocates of the older school clung to the original height as the true one. We hoped to solve the question once and for all.
Firstly, we discovered that Point 20,680 ft. is not called Shilla, 'the place of the monastery', as Roberts suggested, but Guan Nelda, 'Snow Moon in the Sky'. Shilla, according to all the locals we questioned, referred to the nullah alone—-though they admitted that 'there might be a high mountain near the source of the stream'. Secondly, we climbed Guan Nelda. The climb, from an uncomfortable camp at 17,800 ft., and involving no more than three hours of easy snow work to cover the 3,000 ft. to the summit, proved nothing. We arrived at the top in a dense mist and descended in a storm. Obviously Shilla was determined to keep its secret. So we countered with evasive tactics. The next day was clear, and we walked as far to the west as we could from our camp above Langja (wrongly marked as Hikim on the map), to the very edge of the terrific canyon of the Shilla nullah. To our great relief we could see Shilla clearly. Beyond any shadow of doubt the problem was solved. Shilla cannot be much higher than Guan Nelda's subsidiary peak which we had estimated to8 be about 19,800 ft. So ShillaVtrue height must be about 20,000 ft., give or take a few hundred feet. It was easy to see why it had been climbed alone by an untrained climber so long ago. The west ridge could not be gentler, never exceeding an angle of twenty degrees.
Our main objectives were accomplished, the scientists were happy with their 3 cwt. of ammonite fossils, and our time was up. Base Camp was packed and the caravan started back towards Manali. We left the inhabitants of Spiti to their cruel winter.
Having touched on such an exciting area it was inevitable that we should go back in 1956. So a second expedition was organized. Our plan was to push up the Ratang gorge once again, this time in force, establishing a fully stocked and equipped Base Camp on the meadow. From here the climbers would continue up to the head of the valley, climbing such peaks as presented themselves. After six weeks of this a return would be made, not through Spiti as before, but by pushing across into the Parahio and then into the Parbati. This would involve the crossing of two high passes, both over 18.000 ft.: the first, which I had briefly seen from the summit of peak 19.500 ft., was virgin, but the second had, we thought, been crossed once before.
THE EXPEDITION RESTING IN THE RATANG GORGE.
VIEW FROM 14.000 FT. ON THE S.W. BANK OF THE RATANG VALLEY SHOWING, LEFT TO RIGHT, SHILLA, GUAN NELDA SUBSIDIARY PEAK (ESTIMATED HEIGHT 19,800 FT.) AND GUAN NELDA, 20,680 FT. PARTLY OBSCURED BY CLOUD. THE COMPARITIVE SNOW LINES INDICATE THAT SHILLAS HEIGHT CANNOT BE 23,000 FT. SHILLA NALA AND MAIN SPITI VALLEY IN MIDDLE DISTANCE.
For the undertaking of such an ambitious plan it was essential that we should be a small and highly mobile party. Unhappily, Braham was unable to join us at the last minute. Our party finally consisted of two climbers, G. W. Walker and myself; my wife, who was in charge of medicine and food; and Pran Nath, an Indian security officer. When I heard of the Indian Government's decision to send a security officer with us I was slightly indignant. But he quickly proved himself so co-operative, pleasant and generally helpful that I relented. Finally, through the kind offices of Major H. M. Banon at Sunshine Orchards (the local Himalayan Club Secretary), we were able to contact Rikzen and Sunom again; and at our request they brought two friends with them, Angrupp and Jolson. So in all we were eight.
We arrived at Shigri on June 17th. Here we would stop for a week while an excursion was made up the Karcha nullah. Pran Nath and Walker were both unwell, so I set off with three porters. No one had ever been up the Karcha before; the reason being, I suspect, that no one could be bothered. The walk was tiring, because there was still a lot of winter snow about, and dull, because the walls of the nullah were too steep to allow a view, but we covered the ground without difficulty.
I had hoped to climb one peak on the Karcha-Taktsi watershed, and another on the Karcha-Gyundi watershed before crossing over to the Bara Shigri and attempting the 'Lion’. With perfect weather this should have been possible within the seven days allotted to the excursion. But the weather was terrible. It snowed, sleeted, hailed and rained. There were numerous avalanches all about us and visibility was seldom more than a few yards.
Nevertheless, we achieved some measure of success. Abandoning the Karcha-Taktsi peak from the first, on the second day we pushed up the Boomerang glacier to a Col at 17,500 ft. On the third day, Rikzen and I made the first ascent of a peak of about 19,000 ft. on the Karcha-Gyundi Divide in a terrific storm. We could see nothing all day, we were miserably cold, and on the descent Rikzen fell 400 ft. In spite of all this we did open up a new pass 17.800 ft.) between the Karcha and the Gyundi at the foot of our peak; and also a minor pass between the Boomerang glacier and C glacier. The weather cleared that evening for the first time in three days, so to spite it Rikzen and I rounded the day off by climbing a very minor peak of 18,500 ft. after supper.
The fourth day saw another minor pass, between the Boomerang glacier and glacier E and then a major pass at 18,000 ft. This we called the B and K Pass (Bara Shigri-Karcha). We camped on its crest, hoping for good weather on the morrow. With luck Rikzen and I could climb a peak while Sunom and Jolsun carried our camp to the foot of the 4Lion'. We would then climb that. The weather decided otherwise, however, for it snowed heavily all night. There was no point in anything but retreat, so forcing our fifth new pass in three days we returned to the Shigri meadow. A thoroughly disappointing but not quite wasted excursion.
We marched over the Kunzum La and down the Spiti valley, as before. Two weeks were spent collecting ammonites, visiting the Nono and Kee Monastery, and renewing old friendships; and then we turned to the gorge. Because of Pran Nath's administrative and diplomatic genius we were able to secure the co-operation of 22 Spiti coolies; the first time, I believe, they have worked for outsiders. We started up the gorge on July 6th, and thanks to an almost uninterrupted succession of snow bridges we were able to reach the meadow in three easy days. A striking contrast to the five long hard days Braham and I had experienced the year before.
The coolies dismissed and Base Camp established, six of us continued up the now more amiable valley. On succeeding days camps were established at 16,000 ft., 17,500 ft., 19,000 ft., and 20,500 ft., with three to four miles between each. The last camp was on a saddle between 'The Twins', both of which were climbed the same evening. The next day a party of four climbed what at the time we took to be Snelson's Dibibokri Pyramid. Of course it was nothing of the kind, as we discovered to our cost a few weeks later. From the summit at about 20,700 ft., we could see across the Gyundi to the Karcha peaks; down a mammoth ice-basin to the south; and, above all, up to a nearby peak which towered over us by at least two thousand feet.
A retreat was then forced on us by bad weather, so Pran Nath, Walker, and two porters retired right down to Base Camp to recuperate. Rikzen was unwell, so while he had a rest-day at the 17,500-ft. camp I wandered up the main Ratang glacier to the Divide. Clouds obscured my view, but certainly there was a way to the ice-basin beyond. In the evening I walked up to another pass, this one between the Ratang and the Parahio, all snow and ice.
CAMP IN THE CWM BELOW PEAKK 20,700 FT., OUR FIRST CLIMB IN THE RATANG, 1956.
Rikzen felt better the next day, so we pushed up a subsidiary glacier to establish a camp at 19,000 ft., on a pass (our eighth) between the Ratang and the Gyundi. On the 19th we climbed peaks of 20,500 ft. and 20,705 ft., in indifferent conditions (20.705 ft. to differentiate from the first peak). The climb was notable for a small avalanche which overwhelmed us in a steep ice-gully and carried us down about 500 ft. I remember being very cross at having lost an hour's hard work. Luckily no serious damage. A poorish view from the summits because of the cloud.
Rikzen was really unwell by now, from overstrain and exhaustion. so we too retired to Base Camp. While Rikzen rested Walker and I made a reconnaissance of the first pass we were to return over. It turned out to be one of the longest days I can remember. We started at 14,700 ft., we walked a total of 12 miles on the map, we climbed and descended 7,000 vertical feet, getting up a virgin peak of 18,700 ft., in the process, and also crossing two high passes. ' Rikzen was better, so a return was made to Camp I. He and I were then installed in a high camp below a fearsome looking peak which I believed to be the 21,410-ft. peak marked on the Survey map. The obvious route from a distance seemed to be the ' skyline ridge', but closer inspection from a minor peak we climbed that evening (c. 19,000 ft.) showed it to be hopeless. The alternatives were the south-east ridge and the east face, the one rock, the other ice.
We had thought in terms of the rocky ridge, but a large stone- fall as we approached it early the next morning warned us off. The ice face was not particularly hospitable either, for after an hour's cramponning during which we climbed perhaps 500 ft., a cornice high above us gave way and we only just avoided the ensuing avalanche We compromised by working from rock island to rock island reaching the south-east ridge not too far from the summit. The crux of the climb was only 50 ft. below the summit, when we had to traverse out over a really frightening drop to the cwm below and then tackle a short overhanging crack. This went with iamming, but at over 20,000 ft., proved tiring to say the least. It would rate as technically severe by current Welsh standards From the summit we had a really wonderful view. It was our first good-weather peak. We could see perhaps 75 miles, right into Tibet Ladakh, Bashahr and Lahul. Only to the south, where monsoon clouds lapped against the Divide, was our view obstructed. This was the last peak we climbed in 1956, so this is as good a time as any to summarize the problem which arose over fixing the heights shown on my map.
The case for accepting the heights shown is as follows. From our last peak, which I measured as 20,710 ft., I had an extremely clear view of Guan ISTelda, 23-25 miles away. Now Guan Nelda can easily be seen from many places in the Spiti valley, and because of this accessibility of view it is reasonable to assume that it's height and position on the Survey map are accurate. When in 1955 Braham, Kikzen and I climbed it, our two altimeters confirmed the Survey height. From the summit of this last peak, 20,710 ft., our Abney Level, told us that Guan Nelda, 20,680 ft., was slightly below us. Further, peaks 20,700 ft. and 20,705 ft. were exactly the same height as 20,710 ft. (as measured by the Abney Level, which cannot account for five or ten feet). Measuring distances which are accurate to within 1/2 -mile, and vertical angles, which are accurate to within f of a degree, I calculated the height for the largest peak of all. Altogether I took eight other bearings from minor peaks, passes, etc., and their average comes to 22,500 ft.
The case for down-grading these heights is based on the question, 'how could the surveyor have missed such a large peak ? and the fact that the acceptance of my heights seems to raise the overall height of the highest peaks in the area. I frankly do not know what to think, but until someone goes up the Eatang with theodolite and disproves the heights given I will stick to those give on my map.
The climbing over, we began the return. The first pass was reached in three days and crossed in eight hours. Five days after this crossing we were approaching the second pass, across the main Himalayan Divide itself.
In 1952, J. de V. Graaf and Kenneth Snelson had explored and climbed in the Dibibokri Basin, to the soutfi of the Divide. In Snelson's article,3 he says they crossed or reached the crest of altogether three passes from the Dibibokri Basin to the main Parahio valley. When in 1955 Braham and I had seen an obvious pass at the head of the main Parahio valley from our 19, 720- ft. peak we had naturally assumed it to be one of Snelson's. It seemed to fit in perfectly with his description of the first pass they crossed. We were making for this pass now.
I was a little alarmed when we saw that there could not conceivably be another pass, much less two, out of the Parahio. But we pushed on hopefully. The walk up the last glacier was long and unpleasant. We had very heavy loads-the porters over 100 lbs the rest of us 70 lbs—the ice seemed to go on for ever, and it was bitterly cold. Rapidly descending clouds heralded an approaching storm. The porters, even the gallant Rikzen, needed constant encouraging, and we were not much better off. Only my promises of 4 the warmth and luxury of a valley camp' kept everyone going; for Snelson had written that it was only a few hours from the pass' top to the main Parbati valley.
I reached the top first and looked down the far side, searching for the 'steep though feasible slopes' which I had promised the boys. Something was very wrong. No steep but feasible slope here. We were at the top of a terrific precipice, fully half a mile deep. A long way below we could see a huge glacier.
The porters arrived, looked over, and sat down in despair. There could be no doubt about it, they said, we would all die together. It seemed as if they were not far wrong. Retreat was hopeless, for we had only enough food for one more meal. It was too cold to stay where we were, postponing a decision until the morning. Somehow we must get down the cliff-face.
While the others went through the loads, throwing out the last vestiges of luxury, I descended alone to look for a route. I found that by doing an enormous Z across the face of the cliff we could reach a good ledge 600 ft. down. Gathering our forces we began the descent. We moved with the utmost care, for a slip could never have been checked. In 90 minutes we reached the ledge, which was just wide enough to accommodate three small tents. The storm broke and for most of the night it snowed. Mercifully, the ledge was out of the wind.
It had cleared by the next morning and over breakfast, the last of our food, we tried to piece together our whereabouts. Obviously this was not one of Snelson's passes. Equally obviously, there were no passes at all from the main Parahio valley to the south. Where, then, were we? There were magnificent peaks all around us, but none were familiar. Or were they? I rummaged in my rucksack and brought out the photographs and article I had irreligiously torn out of my H.J. before leaving Manali. There could be no doubt about it. There, only a few hundred yards away, was the Dibibokri Pyramid. The glacier below must be Snelson's main glacier.
A look around, then and later, showed that both Snelson's map and the Survey map on which it is based are accurate—south of the Divide. But neither bears any relation to the ground on the Spiti side of the Divide. Snelson's passes do cross into a tributary of the Parahio, for it is a very wide valley, but they do not cross into the main branch. The fault lies entirely with the Survey map, on which, reasonably enough, Snelson based his own map. The former seems to have been drawn entirely from imagination on the Spiti side.
Instead of four hours it took four days to reach the Parbati. For two of them we were without any food whatsoever. Swollen streams and our own exhaustion slowed us down. Just as we were wondering if we would collapse from hunger a flock of goats, out to graze for the summer, appeared above us. A wild chase and we caught one. Our one remaining knife was too blunt to cut its throat, so we had to strangle the poor beast.
It was a weary but happy party which descended the Parbati valley. Too exhausted to appreciate its beauty, we were intent only on getting back to Manali and the luxury of Sunshine Orchards. In spite of an adventurous and alarming ending, the expedition had been thoroughly enjoyable and reasonably successful. Twelve passes had been found, though the last two barefy rate as 4passes', and ten peaks had been climbed. This in spite of the fact that we had successfully followed the atrocious weather wherever it went.
A word must be added about the superlative quality of our Ladakhi porters, both in 1955 and 1956. Jolsun is as strong a man as I ever wish to see; Angrupp and Jigme are uncomplaining and helpful men-about-the-camp; Sunom's sense of humour and fine cooking make him invaluable. All four are in addition excellent load-carriers. But Rikzen is in a class by himself. We inherited him from another expedition in 1955, and he came with Trevor and me to every summit that year. This year, on more difficult climbs, he blossomed forth into a first-rate mountaineer. It is certain that, locally, Ladakhi porters like these will soon replace imported Sherpas. They are less expensive, more willing, less sophisticated and just as dependable.
The Spiti - Lahul - Kulu Watersheds