In early June, after a season's climbing and travelling around Nepal with Charles Evans,2 the time came to say our farewells. As the plane sped down the runway on its way out of Katmandu I caught a last glimpse of Charles waving and felt a lump rising in my throat; we had spent three wonderful months together.
I was bound for Rawalpindi where I was to meet up with the 1957 Disteghil Sar expedition.3I was already behind schedule and knew the urgency of arriving without any further delay. I was tired and when at last I landed in Rawalpindi I was developing my first sore throat since leaving England.
The others had left over a week earlier and had given instructions for me to follow as soon as possible with some of the stores which had been late in arriving.
Despite the perfect weather at Rawalpindi, it was several days before the mountain weather was good enough to permit a flight over the high passes to Gilgit. I paid my respects to the Political Agent there, and was given breakfast before the day's journey began. A jeep was hired for me and I experienced a hair-raising ride along cliff-tracks and round steeply climbing hair-pin bends, which the jeep was unable to negotiate without having to reverse half-way across, towards lhe precipice-edge. I was always ready to jump out in case of emergency.
Covered with dust, very tired and my throat becoming unbearably sore, I arrived at Minapin where I stayed at the Rest House.To get food for an evening meal I tried out my Sherpa-cum- Hindustani on the locals, and ended up with chicken and potatoes which was rather tough for my tender throat.
Sketch map showing approaches to rakaposhi, Haramosh, Disteghil Sar and Minapin.
With the inbred horseman coming out in me, I ventured to hire some horses for the equipment and also one for myself. The owners came along too, but as they walked alongside the loads there was little advantage in my riding at all, especially as it took me all my time to keep up with the laden horses.
On arrival at Nagar, which was a veritable oasis in the wilderness, I learnt that the main party were some ten days ahead of me. After spending the night at the Mir's palace, I left the next day with three local men of Nagar as my porters.
The next two days were the most trying of the expedition for me: they were waterless and foodless. The only water available was from the muddy glacial torrent that roared its way relentlessly down the gorge. I collected this, and overnight it settled and left a thick sludge at the bottom of my empty stewed steak tin which served me as a cup. I had deliberately travelled light, thinking I would meet the others soon after leaving Gilgit.
Late in the afternoon of the second day I reached Hispar. The villagers flocked around my tent, and during the course of the evening I lost a shirt and various other small items from my rucksack. 1 finally piled everything into my tent before getting inside to sleep.
We left early the next morning and it was hard work trying to keep the porters on the move. At 3.30 p.m. I gave in to their plea that there was no water further on. Although they had tried this several times during the day, I felt that we had done enough and that perhaps it would be the last water for some distance, so we settled down for the night.
The next day, June 19, we were off fairly early again; we pressed on along the moraine, then down on to the Kunyang glacier. We met a party of coolies returning, who informed us that the others were not very far ahead. This spurred me on, and I caught them up at about 2 p.m. on my second day from Hispar.
By this time I was in a sorry state and expected to have a fuss made over me, to be helped out of my boots and put into my sleeping bag and given penicillin for my throat. Instead, I found them ferrying equipment up to the next camp. With a wave of the hand, my loads were absorbed into the general mass of equipment and whisked away by the waiting porters; even my rucksack was carried off. Everyone was on their way when a huge kitbag was noticed and no-one left to carry it. All eyes focused on me; if only I had kept quiet about how I had carried a load with a Sherpa head-band! So it was that I stumbled along to the camp, resembling a Nepalese coolie rather than a member of the climbing party.
It seemed incredible that I should have caught them up so soon, hut it had taken them eight days to cover the journey from Hispar. Apparently the porters had been very obstinate and on their first day's march from Hispar they had halted after only two hours and declared that this was the last watering point. At one stage they had even come to blows with the Wazir, who is the Mir's right- hand man.
Base Camp was pitched at about 15,000 ft. on the Kunyang glacier, with a cirque of high mountains towering all around. Rising from the South-west at about 20,000 ft., a continuous ridge of jagged rock and ice rose in a series of steps and, after dropping to the West col of Disteghil, swept upwards to the 25,868-ft. summit, whence it fell away along a lengthy broken ridge to the S.E. col; from here it rose again to the impressive pyramid of Kunyang Chish, 25,762 ft., towering above us to the South-east.
The situation was awe-inspiring, and the chances of our finding a route up Disteghil seemed remote. The danger of avalanches seemed to be present everywhere. The only possible approaches were from the two cols. The West col would provide an easier route once it had been reached; whereas from the S.E. col the ridge leading to the summit was 5 miles long and rose in a series of frightening steps.
A first reconnaissance was made towards the S.E. col and ended under a face of the 23,000-ft. peak north of Kunyang Chish. From here we could see the route to the col barred by a huge ice-cliff down which ice-blocks were continually tumbling. This recce also gave us a clearer picture of the South face which gave access to the West col. Its angle was not as steep as we had feared, but it was swept by avalanches. A decision was reached, after carefully watching where the avalanches fell down the face, that there was one line, a slight rib, which appeared free from danger. This seemed the only possibility, and plans were made to try this route.
C amp I was established at about 16,200 ft. on June 23, after persistently heavy snowfalls. It was a relief to be on the move at last. John and Dave had gone up to establish Camp II, but returned after dumping loads some way up the face.
It was with excitement buzzing around that on July 1 five of us left Camp I with hopes of establishing Camp II. At the foot of the face, one of the party felt unwell and returned to camp; this meant sharing out his load between us. By 11 a.m. we reached the previous load-dump and piled the stuff on top of our already overladen sacks. We were then floundering up appallingly soft snow-slopes at an angle at times of 50°. We followed the rib until it ended in a steep section leading to a couloir on the right, and then traversed across to the left at an easier angle towards a proposed site for Camp II. This traverse was about 60 ft. long and drained all our remaining energy, as it was very steep and overlaid with 3 ft. of new snow. At each step the axe was thrust deep into the soft snow above, and the snow had to be cleared in front with the other hand before the body could move forward; by working then with the knees and the feet it was at last possible to stand upright in steps of compacted powder snow. With loads of over 50 lb. we found this almost too much. At the end of the traverse we flopped down in the snow to rest.
Dave and Keith left their loads and descended to Camp I, whilst Gregory and I pushed on a bit higher and pitched a couple of tents. We crawled inside and lay down for a while eating some sugar, and melting snow for a drink. We were now faced with returning to collect Dave and Keith's loads before the usual snowfall set in. We were reluctant to leave the comfort of our lilos, but finally managed to totter off down the slope. Even going down was an eiTort in our state of tiredness, which made our minds go quite blank; the uphill trudge back to camp left us feeling very tired indeed. We then sorted out equipment, for the next clay and food for the evening meal.
Having enjoyed the luxury of climbing with Sherpas, this was a tough life, for not only did we have to carry the food up the mountain ourselves, but we had to cook it as well. It is a great experience to be high on a big mountain together with a companion. Working together and then relaxing over a meal in the warmth and comfort of a tent forms a great part of expedition life, building a close companionship and making all the hardship and effort worthwhile. So it was that we spent the evening talking and reading before turning in for the night. We awoke at dawn to find the tent ceiling covered with ice-crystals and looking like a fairyland. Cautious hands moved towards the match-box and as the match was struck the stove was turned on and the sound of the roaring flame was music in our ears. How much easier these gas bottles were to operate than a primus stove. The snow we had gathered in a pan the night before soon melted into a small quantity of water, and only after several re-fillings did it produce enough water to make a brew.
Disteghil Sar, 25,868 ft., seen from base camp. West col, centre skyline; highest point at left end of summit ridge.
KUNYANG CHISH, 25,762 FT., SEEN FROM CAMP II. BASE CAMP AT JUNCTION OF GLACIERS, RIGHT OF CENTRE.
It was not long after the sun struck the tent that we saw fit to stretch our legs on the slopes above, taking with us only a few items of equipment to dump on the way to Camp III. The snow was knee-deep and unstable, and once more the gruelling task began: one step, then another, and another in the same place before the snow was firm enough to stand upon. The ridge steepened and we took to the shallow couloir where the snow was firmer, or perhaps it was ice beneath the snow. Sure enough, after another rope's length the snow thinned until we were on hard ice. The top of this slope led easily to the scimitar-shaped serac we had seen from below. It was cloudy when we reached the serac and the track-making had exhausted us so much so that we dumped our loads and returned early to Camp II just as the others were arriving with more gear. They had roped up the steep sections of the route so that the porters could be brought up safely.
It was on this occasion we noticed that the gas bottles seemed to be leaking, and on checking the burning hours found that some of the 10-hr. bottles were only lasting 2 to 3 hours each. This was a crisis indeed and meant that we would have to economize drastically. At Camp I a fire-place was devised out of a large tin, opened at both ends with wood for fuel; the fire-place eventually melted into the ice as much as 3 ft. below its original level.
The others returned to Camp I, and once more Gregory and I were alone, feeling much better now. We had rested and not even made an attempt to put things together for our bid to establish Camp III, which meant carrying a tent, cooking equipment, lilos, sleeping bags and enough food to last a few days. If only we had a Sherpa or two with us !
We were on our way quite early the next morning and the sun had not reached our tent when we dismantled it and packed it for the journey. The loads were far too heavy but we felt that if we took it slowly enough we might reach a suitable site above the scimitar, where there appeared to be a long horizontal shelf. The steps made the previous day were a great help and we took considerably less time to reach the scimitar than we had done the day before. We had a short pause for some sugar and then dug out the stores left there; unwillingly, we added these to our loads. An hour later, we flopped down in the deep soft snow above and, without a word, we unloaded some of the gear. In another hour and a half, we reached the shelf and here, at about 20,000 ft., we sited Camp III. Once again, after a rest, we had to descend to collect the stores left below. The evening was brilliantly clear and in a happy, light-hearted frame of mind we turned in.
We were away very early the next morning and, winding our way through crevasses and seracs, we flogged up the interminable slopes. We had no loads to carry but we found trail-breaking a very tiring business, and we changed the lead frequently. After a fairly long rest we made a big effort to reach the proposed site of our Camp IV. At 2.30 p.m. we came out on top of a serac beyond which lay easy slopes leading to an overhanging serac firmly attached to the mountain; the platform below this seemed an ideal site for Camp IV at about 21,500 ft. The route to the West col was open: if only we could have carried on there and then, when we had a few days of fine weather.
We talked things over and decided that more equipment was required at Camp III before we could safely continue, so we descended to assist in the ferrying of stores for the assault. A final look at the route above, then in high spirits we set off down, passed Camp III and returned to Camp II. The others, meanwhile, had moved a good deal of equipment and food up the mountain, and Camp II was fairly well stocked.
The plan now was to remuster at Base and then advance to the col as quickly as possible. This was not to be, for the weather played us foul; soon we ate ourselves out of stores at the camps in numerous attempts to go high again, and we were finally forced down by heavy snowstorms. We never had more than three fine days together, which were followed by six or seven days of snow, and usually the first line day after a snowfall would bring down terrible avalanches sweeping the faces.
We launched our assault in between a fine spell and reached Camp II in snowy conditions. The following day was perfectly clear and we were ready to set off when we glanced up at the summit and saw a puff of snow. As we looked up, to our amazement the whole of the face started moving down, gathering momentum as it came towards us. A few minutes, and it would reach us. We started to make for some seracs where we might miss the brunt of the avalanche; then as it seemed longer than was reasonable before it swept over the ridge in the face and on to the camp, we saw that it had been diverted by the ridge and was sweeping across the glacier below us towards Camp I. The tents were engulfed by the ice dust which swept on to our Base Camp and fell like snow there for 15 minutes. From the summit to Camp I was a fall of almost 10,000 ft. The mountain was really being vicious now; although we could never understand why the slopes above Camp III did not avalanche. After this spectacle, any idea of going higher that day was abandoned. In order to see 8b what the snow was really like we went up the slope a short way and the top four inches cracked and slithered slowly on to the tents. We did not dare to move after that. It was a week later that we discovered that the blast from the avalanche had flattened some of the tents at Camp I and swept the others into a nearby crevasse.
During another spell of fine weather we decided to move up again; the snow was good, although all the steps had to be remade once more. Three of the porters said they felt fit and would carry up to Camp III. I had Aijaz and Chaban on my rope. Aijaz, who was our liaison officer from the Pakistan Army, carried far more than the porters. Sometimes, whilst the porters were bemoaning their fate, he would turn away and be quietly sick, due to lack of acclimatization, then pick up his load and carry on. Even Ghiglione, despite his 74 years, carried a load up to Camp III. Chaban, after a mere 50 ft. up the slope, collapsed and said he could not go on. Later he fell on his face, a spiritless creature, begging to be left to die. It took a lot of persuasion to get him back down the slope, and it was unsafe to let him go alone. This meant descending with him, then letting him down on a rope and hoping he could manage the last 50 ft. on his own. He untied the rope and only by continually shouting at him could he be got down the slope. A yard or two from the tent door he lay down again. We had to order him into the tent many times before he finally dragged himself inside, to our great relief. We split his load, Aijaz taking his share, and then continued on our way. The position of Camp III was delightful; we soon had the other tents up and a meal brewing. One of our porters, Aijoob, only 17 years old, stayed up with us whilst the other was taken down by John, who was to return the next day. As there was some daylight left, Keith and I decided to break the trail for the next morning. We appeared lo go up quite quickly, but it took two hours to reach a point where the slope eased off on to a shelf. The descent took no time at all and we were soon down with the others ready for a meal.
On the following day, July 18, this section took only one hour, although we were fully laden. Four of us had to carry enough equipment to enable us to occupy Camp IV for several days if necessary in our attempt to break through to the West col. At 3.30 p.m., after a very hard carry, Keith and I said goodbye to Gregory and Dave and pitched our tent under the huge overhanging serac attached to the face. We were soon inside our bags with the gas bottle wedged upright between the two lilos, and a p in balanced precariously on top of it. A few hours later we had a last glimpse outside and noticed a small cloud over Kunyang Chish.
On July 19, we woke with a start to hear the thunder of snow on the walls of the tent and, somewhat alarmed, peered outside. Over a foot of snow had fallen during the night and it was sweeping off the upper slopes and rushing round the tent. One side was already so heavily laden that we had to go out and clear it away. We felt utterly frustrated and disappointed by the hopelessness of the situation. All this new snow would take days to clear. We retreated into the tent and had some breakfast. Still the snow piled up. Once more we got out, to move the tent, but found this an unpleasantly long task, so deeply was it buried. After a couple of hours we decided to retreat. All our efforts had come to nothing; all our patience and hope had ended in this, when a few more fine days would have seen us within striking distance of the summit.
We collapsed the tent to save it from the force of the blizzard, leaving our stores and food inside for a possible return. Deep down we knew that our chances of returning were small. We took a last look at the forlorn tent, already merging into the whiteness of the mountain, and made our way down sadly to Camp III. It was not long before we realized that we should have to pick out the route entirely from, memory, as all traces of the track had gone and visibility was down to a few yards.
It was with slow, weary and slightly despondent steps that we arrived at Camp III. No-one stirred to welcome us, for we were not coming back from the summit with banners Hying. Yet, there was a strong feeling of unity in the party. Everyone had pulled his weight and done more than his share to encourage success.
As the snow continued unabated during the 20th, we all started down from Camp 111 on July 21. The route was in very bad condition, the ridge between Camps II and I being particularly dangerous. The whole party returned safely to Base Camp on July 23, and on the following day we began the return journey home.