Himalayan Journal vol.23
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Dr K. Biswas
    (W. P. GAMBLE)
    (INST. LIEUT. M. S. KOHLI, I.N.)
    (M. B. GILL)
    (J. P. O'F. LYNAM)
    (A. J. M. SMYTH)
    (H. B. GURUNG)
  22. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1961-62



I had just retreated to bed in January with jaundice when the Pakistan Government letter came. Permission for our proposed expedition had been declined on the valid enough grounds that several expeditions had already been granted a permit; the countryside's resources in Baltistan could hardly tolerate another. I was feeling ill enough to be grateful in a way, for the expedition was to have started in another four months' time-now I could relax in my illness.

However, this was not to be! A vigorous telegram from Keith Miller, organizer of the expedition in England, shattered my rest. Surely the Pakistan Government could somehow fit our small expedition in alongside the other ones ? Soon, as a result of Miller's insistence, every known string was being pulled and ten weeks later, through the support given to our re-application by the Australian High Commissioner in Karachi, we obtained a permit.

Setting off from Rawalpindi by air for Skardu in mid-May, our expedition objective was to visit the Saltoro region of the eastern Karakoram. T. G. Longstaff1 explored much of this region for the first time in 1909 when he discovered the mighty Siachen Glacier and his maps show the complex topography with remarkable accuracy, over the large region he explored. However, in some of the ground within the triangle between the Siachen Glacier, Shyok River, and the Bilafond Valley, the existing maps, published by the old Survey of India, are somewhat vague or even blank. No expedition since Longstaff's had penetrated far into this triangle (see map) but Shipton's expedition in 1957 drew attention to some of its topographic puzzles when they looked into it from the Siachen side.2
Our present expedition was composed of five men: K. J. Millet (organizer, English), Capt. R. Sebastian Khan (Pakistan Army liaison officer), J. P. Hurley (anthropologist, U.S.A.), D. HalTnei (England) and myself (leader and geologist, Australia). Hurley Khan and I joined the expedition in Pakistan where we had been working, while Miller and Haffner journeyed from England,

1. Longstaff, T. G. (1910). Geographical Journal, Vol. 35, pp. 622

2. Shipton, E. E. (1958). Alpine Journal, Vol. 63, p. 185.

Miller, K. J. (1958). Himalayan Journal, Vol. 21, pp. 33- 39.

The expedition had many objectives, including exploration and mapping of the region surrounding peak K12 which we also hoped to climb. Hurley was to continue the ethnological studies in Baltistan which he had been making for three years, and I was to do as much geological work as I could in the upper Saltoro region. Another objective, not even embarked upon, was to have been a final 6 jaunt' up to the head of the Siachen Glacier, to find a pass across to the Baltoro Glacier. We had even intended a return home down the Baltoro ! The problem of this possible ' passwhich evaded the Bullock-Workmans, still exists and fully merits the attention of some specific expedition.

We set off from Skardu on May 21st in pouring rain (allegedly very rare there) with a train of ponies carrying our gear. Using early morning starts to avoid the searing midday heat of the dry valley, we walked in four days to Khapalu. On the second day Miller was forced to return to the Skardu hospital with severe dysentery but after a week's treatment completely recovered and followed us to the Saltoro.
In khapalu we were entertained by the Rajah who took us for a delightful afternoon tea in his palace which looks out over the extensive orchards of the town and the wide Shyok River valley across to the dramatic towers and pinnacles of the Saltoro spires beyond.

The Rajah told us many interesting things about his state, and the history of his ancestors who lived in a fortress the ruins of which remain on the summit of the crag towering behind the present palace.

We went on, crossing the Shyok River by zak' ferry, inflated goat skins serving to support a raft. As noted by earlier travellers, the prejudice still persists against paddles in favour of simple, thin willow poles. Following up the Saltoro River we travelled along beneath the magnificent rock towers and peaks of the Saltoro spires, which looked even more impressive lost in cloud. The rugged nature of this range, along the northern side of the Saltoro Valley, completely belies its appearance on the maps. Through the Rajah of Khapalu we had arranged to purchase 10 maunds of atta, and we collected this in various Saltoro villages. The last village in the valley is Goma, at 11,000 feet, and from here we made our route north up the Bilafond Valley. This glacial valley is most impressive, with high sheer walls and an almost tunnel-like aspect as one enters it; the valley, only one mile wide, is a trench with walls from 3,000 to 7,000 feet high. Comparison of the position of the snout of the Bilafond Glacier with photographs taken by Longstaff in 1909 shows scarcely any change though the present height of the snout appears to be less. At the time of our visit the character of the snout indicated slow advance.

After a short reconnaissance a route up the east bank of the Bilafond Glacier was used to reach the second tributary glacier on this side, locally known as the Grachma Lungba ('frigid' valley). An easy approach was found up the north bank of this side glacier to the site of the base camp, at 15,000 feet. We had the camp on moraine next to the marginal trough of the glacier on the north side, well away from the tremendous southern wall which periodically releases most spectacular avalanches. Retaining the five best men as high-altitude porters, we spent the first week of June reconnoitring the Grachma Lungba, looking for a route to the pass which lies north-west of K12. The mountain itself remains hidden until one turns the sharp corner of the glacier and is able to look into the upper reaches. The mountain presents steep faces on this south-west side, ornamented with hanging ice-cliffs, but the northwest ridge falls in steep but accessible-looking buttresses to the pass at the head of the glacier. On Shipton's suggestion we intended to attain this pass to gain access to the extensive snow basin his 1957 expedition had discovered lying to the north of it. The pass would also give us access to the north-west ridge in the planned attempt on the mountain. There are three large ice-falls on the glacier, but we were able easily to skirt the two lower ones on the west side, setting up Camp 1 at 16,500 feet and Camp 2 near 18,000. Above 18,000 feet we were feeling altitude with severe afternoon headaches, and our first attempt to find a route through the upper ice-fall was unsuccessful for we were unable to negotiate the final crevasse, an enormous chasm 70 feet deep which extended completely across the ice-field. In view of our as yet limited acclimatization, we descended to Camp 1 to continue more rapidly the surveying which Miller had meanwhile begun.

The morning after coming down, we woke in the warm stillness of snow, and bad weather set in for the next ten days. Efforts to persist with the survey work were largely frustrated by snow storms and after four days there was no alternative but to descend to base, since the incidence of avalanches, hidden behind steadily falling snow, was rising. The descent to base in the new snow was very laborious.

The next week was spent in base, while the weather displayed something of a definite daily cycle. After storms throughout the day, in the evenings at sunset the mountains would clear themselves of cloud. By 7 or 8 a.m. the following morning, however, clouds would gather again and, between 8 and 11, snow storms would commence. This hampered the survey operations considerably, and delayed plans for the pass, so that it was not until the end of the third week of June that we were able to return to the higher camps.

On June 23rd, Haffner and I set out at dawn from Camp 2, to look for a route through the upper ice-fall to reach the pass. Reaching again the edge of the great chasm, there seemed no other course than to start the long job of cutting steps and fixing ropes up the steep ice-slopes beyond one end. It suddenly occurred to me to descend into the crevasse and attempt a route along it, for the floor was well filled in, so we quickly climbed down a drift slope. Making our way along the crevasse floor towards the south we wandered through a most pleasing, almost incredible labyrinth of turnings and tunnels, with superb greenish-blue ice rising sheer close on either side. There was some danger from the enormous icicles which festooned the overhangs, in curtains 10 to 12 feet high and in spears 6 inches thick, but at this early hour our risk was slight. The floor was sound though deep in snow, and after more than 100 yards we turned a corner where a rising ice rib offered exit from the crevasse. Half an hour's steep ice cutting followed, with a piton, until we peered over the edge only to see an easy snow ramp we could have used beyond the next corner !

We continued far enough in the upper basin to assure the route to the pass, now directly above us. Haffner broke the bridge of a nasty crevasse, and this upper basin, with its somewhat spongy snow and menace from the hanging ice-cliffs on the face of K12 above, was not a healthy spot. We returned by descending en rap- pell into the chasm to avoid the icicle danger of the new route.

The next day saw a camp on the pass established, and with food for five men to last for ten days. It had been necessary to fix one section of rope on the ice traverse just below the pass. The weather now chose to continue poorly for four days, with strong winds, cloud, and at times more snow. The camp close to the pass was in a most exposed position and we moved \ mile down into the basin on the northern side, to be rewarded next morning with a wonderfully clear day, the fine peaks of the Teram Kangri group sparkling in the sun.

While Miller moved down into the broad snow basin with Haffner and Khan to make a number of photo-theodolite stations, Hurley and I worked as a separate group using the plane table. Two line days allowed completion of most of the survey, but were followed by further bad weather. Surfaces throughout the basin were tiring, the crust consistently breaking to a depth of 6 inches. An attempt by Hurley and myself to reach the Siachen by travelling down the complicated glacier system from the basin failed when we were unable to find a route through the very heavy ice-fall. However, we observed a straightforward route passing the east side of the isolated rock peak in the lower part of the basin.

When we returned to the pass, Haffner and Khan were feeling altitude effects and it was clear that to alleviate their sleeplessness and lack of appetite, they must descend. Hurley and I planned to spend another day at the pass, in order to make a reconnaissance of the lower part of the north-west ridge of K12 which we had not so far attempted. Miller accompanied the other two men down from the pass back to base, and during the descent to Camp 2, an accident occurred. In the course of lowering packs into the great chasm, Miller was knocked unconscious by a block of snow which fell while he was receiving the loads beneath. He was fortunate to escape with only severe concussion but this necessitated his return to Skardu earlier than planned.

Meanwhile, Hurley and I were in Camp 3 on the pass. On the morning planned for the ridge reconnaissance, we woke in bad weather which built up into an impressive storm. We had arranged for three porters to come up from Camp 2 to arrive at 8 a.m. that day, to evacuate the camp, and to our utter disbelief they arrived, plastered in drift, at the height of the storm, which was Antarctic-like in its violence. Almost grumbling at their lack of consideration, we emerged from our sleeping-bags and helped them lower the camp and descend to Camp 2.

The next day, July 4th, dawned crisp and clear. But what else could we do but descend to base where the others waited and also the mailman ? Base camp had changed markedly during our fortnight's absence, wild flowers and grass having appeared in profusion in place of snow. The weather was agonizingly fine, the peaks standing high around us held still and clear in the brilliant sunshine. This spell of good weather proved to be the best we had on the expedition for it was to last for another five days. Sensing this, I decided to stay on with Hurley and four of the porters, while Miller descended and returned to Skardu ; Haffner and Khan would descend to Goma to arrange supplies for a planned journey up the Chumik Glacier in a week's time. Hurley and I hoped to take advantage of the weather to have another look at K12.

In perfect weather we returned in two days to Camp 3 on the pass. Setting out early with two of the porters we began cutting steps up the ridge rising to K12. Breaking crusted snow overlying ice, it was necessary to proceed slowly, for unfortunately we had no crampons for the porters. At the foot of the second step of the ridge, some 600 feet above the pass, there is a wonderful site for a camp, where overhanging rock shelters a small but flat gravelled bench on which three tents could be pitched end to end. We continued up the snow and ice buttress beyond which the ridge steepens to 50° or 60° and care was required. Above, a sweeping snow rib led us on to the foot of a rock step, beyond which a further long snow and ice buttress rises steeply.

It was now 2 p.m. and ordinarily the two porters would have descended at this stage to leave Hurley and myself with the tent, to continue the reconnaissance next day. Hurley had no previous mountaineering experience, yet had climbed strongly to reach this point. Nevertheless, he argued cogently that I might have more chance for success on the summit next day if Mohd. Choo, a particularly able porter, were to continue. So Hurley descended with the second porter, Mohd. Daud. Choo and I climbed the rock step with some difficulty, and after quite a search located a small space for the tent at a height close to 20,700 feet. The view was fantastic, the wildness of peaks, spires and ridges being picked out in their incredible succession by the setting sun.

Camp I on the grachma glacier with K12 In the background

Camp I on the grachma glacier with K12 In the background

Unnamed peaks over 21,000 ft. in the upper gyong valley

Unnamed peaks over 21,000 ft. in the upper gyong valley

porters descending the ice-slope below the pass where a fixed koim was placed

porters descending the ice-slope below the pass where a fixed koim was placed

We consumed early breakfast (Choo having his customary 8 lumps of sugar per cup of tea) and started before dawn. The first steep pitch on the buttress above the camp was impressive and we made the mistake of taking the easier angle of the crest itself, having to climb smooth green ice. A firm ice-piton reassured the position and after two rope lengths firm snow deepened and provided good axe belays. After several hundred feet it became possible to move to the accessible rocks which led us to the top of the buttress. We had now come level with the main ice-cliffs which ornament the west face of K12 and the smooth ice apron above these, sweeping up beside the ridge towards the summit, offered an alternative to the ridge. The ridge itself rises in an unrelieved snow buttress for more than 1,000 feet and we were grateful to avoid its steepness by cramponing out across the ice-field. This was awkwardly steep in places at first but later firm snow permitted more comfortable climbing. At 9.30 we began to steepen our traverse and I began to conjecture in terms of the summit, for the day was perfect and this route surely leads smoothly up. But we were moving more slowly and Choo appeared to be distressed by the exertion. Shortly before 11, he requested a halt, and I went on alone, the height now being somewhat more than 22,000 feet. Surely, I felt, I could climb 2,000 feet in four or five hours ? But climbing ever slower, at 3 o'clock my altitude meter still suggested less than 23,000 feet. I climbed across to a minor rock ridge at the edge of the ice-field and from this vantage point photographed the scene for survey purposes. I had the thrill of looking down into the south and south-east sides of K12 which I believe no one has previously seen, and to my delight observed that the published map details of much of this country are entirely incorrect. It was easy to turn back for I was extremely tired and the summit would still have been four hours away. Besides, Choo awaited me.

I descended. Choo was not well, and during his wait one of his toes had been mildly frost-bitten. We climbed on down and, with the steep snow on the ridge in excellent condition, we reached the tent soon after dark at 8 p.m. Two porters climbed up from the pass next morning and helped us down with the camp. Joining Hurley, we all descended to Camp 2, having to pass through the chasm on the way at a time when the icicles were most dangerous.

Sprinting from cover to cover we were thankful to emerge, to reach the lower camp in a brilliant sunset featured by a strong solar halo and mock suns.

The following day the weather changed and by midday snow was falling. On the way down the glacier, while testing a snow- bridge with my axe, I was shaken to see t;he shaft snap cleanly just below the head, the discoloured wood indicating an old weakness ! And this the axe with which I had been cutting scores of steps on the ridge two days before ! With this and the weather, it was as well we were off the mountain.

Hurley now returned to Skardu, spending two weeks on the way continuing his researches into history and religion. In addition to collecting more information on the Nur Bakshiya Islamic Sect (peculiar to Baltistan), he succeeded in obtaining the first written record of the Kesar legend in its Balti version, an epic poem which is recited over the course of 12 nights.

Haffner and Khan had waited for our return, and with two porters we ascended the Chumik Glacier. I was keen to fix the head of the glacier and try to obtain a view into the unknown country beyond. We reached the head in two days from the Bilafond junction, but four days' bad weather there frustrated our survey plans. From the crest of the northern gap at the head of the Chumik we did obtain views of the southern face of K12 and down into a large glacier which flows east and then north beside this mountain to join the Siachen Glacier just visible 10 miles away.

On returning to Goma, we received news of a further substantial scientific grant to the expedition. While Haffner had to return to his job in England, Khan and I were free to remain on for another three weeks. Although Longstaff explored the Gyong Glacier to its head, the Gyong La, in 1909, the original map published by the Survey of India leaves this region blank. We decided to spend the remainder of our time making a plane-table survey of the Gyong Glacier system. It proved to be quite the most delightful country we had seen on the expedition, and in two weeks we succeeded in mapping the glaciers above the Gyong snout. By comparison with LongstafFs photographs, the main snout appears to be in almost exactly the same position now as in 1909. But in contrast some of the side glaciers have in some cases retreated up to \\ miles.

The glacier system of the Gyong affords easy travelling and includes an extensive system of side glaciers and basins in a region of most attractive peaks. There are some 9 or 10 fine peaks between 20,000 and 22,000 feet and the most prominent of these is Gharkun (21,720) which has two almost equal horn-like summits. Another peak, 22,400 feet, lying to the east of the Gyong La, is even more impressive though unnamed. We reached the Gyong La which Longstaif noted was impassable for porters in 1909. It now appears accessible. We visited several other passes at the edge of the Gyong basin, one overlooking the K12 region, and another leading east of Gharkun into the Chulung Glacier.

When we had returned to Goma, Khan was anxious not to forfeit his annual leave, and after a few days we returned in six days to Skardu. A further wait of six days saw us on a plane to Rawalpindi.