Himalayan Journal vol.24
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Dr K. Biswas
    (Pierre Leroux)
  4. EVEREST; 1962
    (J. O. M. ROBERTS)
    (Captain S. N. DUBEY)
  21. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1962-63




IT was, for me, a very revealing moment when, in June, 1954,1 met for the first time a group of Soviet mountaineers at the end of a lecture on the 1953 Everest Expedition. Of course, it was a glimpse of the obvious ; I need not have been surprised to find these tough, eager young men so friendly, so much in tune with mlyself on the subject of mountains. Yet the Soviet Union in 1954 was still gripped by the all-pervading terror which persisted after Stalin's death. To the outsider, a visit to Moscow was still something of an adventure and mystery, the ordinary people behind the Iron Curtain were curiously identified with the image of their political masters.

This, at any rate, is the background to our expedition last summer, for the germ of the idea was sown as we talked about climbing together, in a room in the British Embassy. From that conversation have flowed a whole succession of contacts ; a lecture tour in Russia by Charles Evans in 1955 ; a return visit by Eugqne Beletski and Eugene Gippenreiter in 1956; a British Expedition to the Caucasus in 1958 and a return visit by six Soviet mountaineers in 1960, followed by three more British climbers going to the Caucasus the next year. It was natural that in the course of these exchanges, some of us should have looked forward to the day when we might carry out an expedition together.

After the Russians had returned to their country in 1960, at least two separate applications were made for British climbers to join up with a Russian group on this basis ; in each case, we were thinking in terms of a group of friends, competent mountaineers but in no sense representative of the most outstanding virtuosos in this country. Advised by our contact in the erstwhile Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports,[1] Dr. Malcolm Slesser and I had received the approval of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and the Alpine Club respectively to submit our proposals in the names of these bodies. We were anticipating a considerable delay before the Russians would decide whether to fall in with either suggestion and, in the event of their approving, which of the two applications to favour when, with welcome promptitude but in unexpected terms, I received a reply in May, 1961, containing a joint invitation to both Clubs to send a single group of twelve climbers, to spend a period of sixty-five days in the U.S.S.R. during July and August of the following year; six Soviet mountaineers would join our group. This created a new situation ; not only must Slesser's group and mine be amalgamated, but, in the opinion of many, a review of the membership must be made in order to ensure that we should be as strong a party as possible from the climbing point of view.

The Party

For myself, as leader of the British part of the expedition, this was not an easy position. The eventual problem of responsibility for the whole enterprise in the field had still to be faced, but there was the immediate one of reviewing our membership ; of reconciling the viewpoints and ratios as between the north and south; between those who felt that we should, as it were, field the 6 top 12' experts in Britain to carry our colours across the Iron Curtain; and others who, like myself, were more concerned that we went out as friends, made more friends in Russia and came back with a wider and deeper degree of understanding at the end.

The resulting team[2] was a compromise and, I believe, a fair one between these differing viewpoints. It would be idle to deny that, as such, the final results, in climbing achievement and in understanding, were to some extent modified by this compromise.

* * *

Arrived in Moscow, variously by sea, train and air, we were met by the secretary of the Mountaineering Federation of the U.S.S.R. and by Eugene Gippenreiter. Eugene was to accompany us, as he had done on all the previous British and Russian lecture and climbing tours. The remaining five Russians, whose leader, Anatoli Ovchinnikov, Master of Sport, had climbed in Britain in 1960, were already 2,000 miles away in Dushambe (formerly Stalinabad), capital of Tadjikistan, in which Republic the Pamirs are situated.

I raised with the Secretary, Sasha, the delicate question of leadership of the whole group and was surprised, grateful and a trifle awed when he requested me to take charge of all eighteen climbers during our stay in the mountains.

Two days later, after a 5 ½ hour scheduled (light in a four-engined llyushin-18, with which the internal communications of the U.S.S.R. are splendidly served, we were greeted by Ovchinnikov and our other companions in the dark, hot blast of a July night at Dushambe airport. Like ourselves, the Federation had, it seemed, tried to reconcile the various interests of the expedition in their selection. Apart from Ovchinnikov, Anatoli Sevastianov and Nicolai Shalaev, a carpenter in the Moscow G.P.O., were also Masters; Vladimir Malakov and Nicolai Alkhutov were younger climbers of great promise, each with a burning ambition to earn their Masterships.

Eugene filled the vital function of interpreter. Keen as some of us had been to lower the barrier of language, we would have been severely handicapped without him. As for the other Russians, we were struck by the enthusiasm, focused by a stricter discipline than ours, with which they had prepared themselves for this venture. Three of them had, like ourselves, taken a language course, but with far better results; with the advantage of being Muscovites, they had trained regularly since January in the evenings, and at week-ends they had climbed on a ruined building outside Moscow. Smoking and alcohol had been rigorously banned.

In Dushambe

We had three days in Dushambe. While in Moscow, we had fretted over the implicit delay in reaching the mountains but, in the event, I believe most of us would have liked to stay longer and see more of this new Central Asian city and its surroundings. It would be out of place in this Journal to dwell on our brief experiences and impressions of this outpost of the Soviet Union on the frontiers of China and Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that we were impressed by the evidence of vigorous growth and prosperity, by the successful blending of East and West, in a territory which emerged only in 1923, in the aftermath of a long and bloody resistance, from the feudal yoke of the Emir of Bokhara. We were surprised to discover the extent of independence of the local authorities of the Republic from the control of Moscow. This had apparently been demonstrated in the difficulty of the Central Government in negotiating our visit and in the restrictions placed on our route while in Tadjikistan. Originally we had been told that we would be flown to Tavil Dara on the Garmo river, from which helicopters would carry the party and its baggage to the Garmo Glacier. We were looking forward to walking back to this village on our return journey and it was on this premise that we had based our plans and finances. It was, to put it mildly, frustrating now to learn that Tavil Dara was forbidden to foreigners. Not only would we be known to, and picked up from, a more distant airfield, Jirgatal (or Mir Aza) on a tributary of the great Muk Su river, but our return would be by helicopter via the same route. Apart from the aesthetic pleasure thus denied us of walking through the foothills, the extra cost of air transport seriously jeopardized our funds. Protests were unavailing, however, so, while the Russian members went by road to Tavil Dara with all the expedition baggage, we flew to Jirgatal. Both groups met, after an exciting helicopter trip across the high, grassy ridges of the Western Pamirs, two miles below the glacier snout, where a hair- raising landing was made on the stony river bed. Our stores followed during the next two days and Base Camp was set up in a pleasant wood at 2,900 metres; Eugene and Graeme planted two huge specimens of the Soviet and British flags, side by side.

* * *

At Base

The comfort of the site for our Base Camp in a wood was somewhat offset by its low altitude and the distance from our objectives. We were told that the use of helicopters was an innovation in Soviet climbing and it had been hoped that our intrepid pilots from the air base at Frunze, in Kirghizia, would be able to land us at a campsite known as Avudara, eight miles further up the glacier. Without the aid of local men, we were now faced with the unwelcome prospect of carrying most of our very considerable stores up to Avudara in the following day; it proved to be a most wearisome and time- consuming corvee. We were rudely impressed by two facts: our relative unfitness vis-a-vis our Russian comrades, and the far more lavish scale of our equipment, in contrast to theirs. On both counts, I believe the Russians provided valuable lessons for those who wish to learn.

* * *


A word about our plans. We had formulated a basis for detailed planning in London, for which we had much helpful information both from the Mountaineering Federation, and from W. Rickmer- Rickmers who had first visited the Garmo Glacier in 1913 and later led a German expedition to the West Pamirs in 1928. All this had enabled Wilfrid Noyce to describe the topography and summarize the history of Soviet climbing in the area we were to visit.

We now discussed these plans with the Russians and made the following decisions. We would divide the time available-forty - three days-into two periods; in the first period of eighteen days we would move up to the Vavilova Glacier, a main tributary of the Garmo and, breaking up into three groups, would make some new ascents in this area; principal among these would be that of Peak Garmo, 6,595 metres, if possible by a new route on its south-west face. The period would be partly a preparation for the ascent of the Peak of Communism, 7,459 metres, in the second period. We hoped that all would take part in this latter climb, perhaps by different routes.

There was some disappointment among the Russians over these plans. The emphasis on training and acclimatization during the first fortnight, rather than on reaching known summits, did not appeal to the younger ones; they were intent on recording actual peaks which would count towards their Masterships.

The Peak of Communism has been climbed by several routes since its first ascent by the east ridge from the Fedchenko Glacier in 1933 by Gorbounov and E. Abalakov.[3] One intriguing possibility was the prospect of forcing yet another route, up the forbidding 7,000 feet of nearly vertical rock of the south face. Some of us were very attracted by this idea in London; we were curious to probe the non-committal nature of Soviet replies to our enquiries on the subject. Now, we knew the reason.

A strong group of Soviet climbers, from the Sports organization, Spartak, headed by Vitali Abalakov, had received approval from the Mountaineering Federation to make this face their objective in the annual competition for the best high-altitude ascent of 1962 ; their effort must have absolute priority. Soon after our arrival at Base, this group began to arrive from the Caucasus, where they had been training: thirty lean, hard, bronzed men under their almost legendary leader. Among others whom I knew were Misha Khergiani, the Svanetian who had come to Britain in 1960 ; he was now proclaimed rock-climbing champion of the U.S.S.R.: he was full of zest after leading the first ascent of the north face of Peak Shchurovsky, which some of us had climbed by its ordinary route in 1958. There, too, was Nikolai Romanov, who had greeted us four years before as President of the Mountaineering Federation: Michael Anuvickov, who won the highest award at the Trento film festival in 1956, for his film if Only Mountains Could Speak.
Talking to Abalakov and Boruvikov, reigning President of the Federation, it was clear that they appreciated our desire not to precede them or to prejudice their plans. When we saw their photographs and later, after viewing the great wall itself, our enthusiasm diminished and our admiration for their daring increased. We soon grew to like individual members of the Spartak group and we enjoyed the sing-songs around a blazing fire at night.

* * *

By July 13 only twenty-two man-days of food and certain other stores had been carried forward to Avudara, and the need to speed up our advance up the glacier induced me to open negotiations with the senior helicopter pilot for an air drop of the remaining supplies. This involved a certain amount of risk to the food boxes, for the rations were packed in cardboard and polythene containers ; we understood, too, that the operation was not entirely safe from the aeronautical point of view. The latter objection was soon set aside by the gallant pilots and the discussions were made the more amicable by the presence of a bottle of whisky. As regards the food boxes, we bound them up as securely as possible with 4 fixed' rope and hoped for the best.

The Air-drop

Three sorties were made on July 13 and 14. I went with the first flight with George Lowe: we had an enthralling half-hour as we sped up-glacier at about the maximum flying altitude of the helicopters, and turned into the entrance of the Vavilova Glacier, the great wedge of the Peak of Communism, the other peaks in the Peter the Great range and the imposing Vavilova Wall rearing up all around us to bar our way beyond. We were frantically busy with our cameras as each new summit came into view; without knowing it at the time, I fixed in my viewfinder an attractive aiguille neighbouring Peak Garmo which, when developed later, turned out to be a mountain, then unnamed and unclimbed, of which we subsequently made the first ascent.

The Vavilova Glacier

On July 14 and 15 the whole of our group, now divided into three equal parties of four British and two Russian climbers, moved up the glacier, camping at Avudara (Camp I) and below the influx of the Vavilova (Camp II), to establish an advance Base Camp (Camp III) at 3,600 metres above the south side of this big tributary glacier. Both here and at Camp II loads had previously been airdropped, as well as on the moraine on the north flank of the Vavilova. Great was our dismay to find the sad condition of many food boxes, from which tea and sugar had disappeared and other items, notably jam, were liberally distributed among the various bags of food. This was to be greatly missed during the climbing which followed.

Peak patriot (6,100 m.) from camp III

Peak patriot (6,100 m.) from camp III

J. brown on peak patriot

J. brown on peak patriot

This camp was beautifully situated beside a pool of melted snow, with pleasant vegetation around, including large quantities of 'wild onions. Below us, along our way up from Camp II, we had walked up steep, grass-covered hillsides on which many marmots played and there were traces of ibex, too. The views were stupendous.

Immediately opposite rose a fine-looking ice peak, Patriot, 6,100 metres, which was said to have been climbed by its south-east snow ridge, during the descent of which a double tragedy had occurred involving five climbers. The unclimbed west ridge, of mixed snow and rock, attracted Malcolm Slesser and his party; to strengthen his attempt in what promised to be a hard climb, I invited Joe Brown to change places with George Lowe, who joined my party. Wilfrid Noyce's group was already destined for Peak Garmo, which they hoped to climb by its south-west rock face; it remained to find an objective for my own party. Having already two such formidable climbs on the programme, it seemed to me wise to regard this third group as an eventual support for the other two ; we therefore looked for, and most fortunately found, a very attractive summit located on the north flank of the glacier, between Peaks Patriot and Garmo and rather lower than either. This shapely mountain caught the discerning eyes of Joe and Robin during a reconnaissance above our camp; Ralph, too, returned full of enthusiasm and it only remained for me to decide when we could get a closer view, from higher up the glacier. Assuming that it would require less time than Patriot and Garmo, I arranged that, after our descent, we would first move up to the head of the Vavilova to offer any help or reinforcement to Noyce ; if not required, we would then return to Camp III, so as to be available to Slesser's party. All three parties were to be back at Camp III by July 28, which was thus, in Soviet climbing parlance, our ' control date'; our supplies had, in fact, been carefully calculated to meet this programme, with little to spare.

Everyone seemed well content with this plan, the two youngest Russians in particular being delighted at the prospect of achieving one of the two major summits needed to complete their apprenticeship as Masters of Sport; the evaporation of their earlier despondency was especially welcome to myself. We all set out in high spirits, slightly tempered by our mountainous loads, on July 18. Before leaving I had a last word with Wilfrid, discussing with him the need not to push too hard for the south-west face of Garmo which was much snow-covered and looked formidable. These were the last words we spoke together.

The weather in the Western Pamirs in July and August was reputed to be very reliable, apart from brief storms. But we had already experienced a good deal of rain and low cloud, with occasional dust storms, during our time at Base Camp and above. Now another period of poor weather set in. While this did not prevent all three parties reaching their objectives it certainly damped our enjoyment and increased the danger.

First Ascent of Peak 5,640 Metres

None the less, and despite the tragedy which developed on another mountain, I hold satisfying memories of our climb on the (then) unnamed mountain.[4] It turned out to be all one could wish for in appearance and quality-with the notable exception of the rock pitches. We climbed throughout along its south-west ridge: long, varied, impressively narrow in places and steep in the upper part. There was one short ice pitch of 40 feet which took us about an hour to surmount. After so much good climbing it was disappointing to arrive on the summit at 1 p.m. in thick cloud; we saw nothing of the magnificent panorama which it must offer. The height, according to our barometer, was 5,600 metres, which accords closely with a spot height on the Survey of India map of the Fedchenko Glacier at the correct position for our peak, which shows 18,878 feet. We built a cairn and left two small national flags on it.

I had anticipated the need for a bivouac and we had come prepared for this. But on the descent we pressed on down the big slope below the summit rocks, despite the sun-saturated condition of the snow overlaying ice: the narrow snow ridge was in a perilous state. There was no real security in places and there is no doubt that we were very lucky to get down without mishap. All of us were very tired when at 7 p.m., thirteen hours after starting out, we reached the two tents at 5,000 metres, to be greeted by George Lowe who had remained in support. The date was July 21.

Back at our Camp IV at 4,000 metres the next day, we rested and enjoyed our success. George was unwell and it was not until the 24th that he was well enough to permit us to start up the Vavilova Glacier to look for Noyce's party. The snow was very deep and soft and we made slow progress ; it was hot and airless on the glacier and hopes of reaching the upper basin of the glacier that day, where we believed the camp of the other party to be, began to recede. Our state of tedium and torpor was suddenly interrupted when Eugene Gippenreiter, leading the first rope, on which were Lowe and Nicol, disappeared through a snow-bridge into a big crevasse. It was filled with icy slush some 25 feet below and in this poor Eugene wallowed, held by the rope but out of his depth and gravely hampered by a heavy rucksack ; it was about fifteen minutes before he was hauled out. During this ordeal Eugene retained his equanimity, cheerfully instructing us in excellent English as to what we were to do! Most people would, I believe, have succumbed to the cold but Soviet citizens are made of sterner stuff. He was, however, suffering from exposure and shock and we decided to camp at once nearby, to give him time to dry out and recover.

Peak ‘Co- operation’ (5,640 m.) from vavilova glacier

Peak ‘Co- operation’ (5,640 m.) from vavilova glacier

Descending the upper Vavilova ice fall

Descending the upper Vavilova ice fall

So it was that we sat and discussed the fortunes of Noyce's party that evening, as we searched the mountain for signs of them. We were all aware of a strange malaise; conjecture led some members to suppose that the others had turned back and were, at that moment, down at Camp III. I felt a strong urge, however, to press on upwards.

Peak Garmo

At 9 a.m. on the 25th we had already surmounted an ice-fall and stood beside a forlorn-looking Russian tent, unoccupied for several days. Hopes rose when we spotted two figures on the west ridge; we had already guessed that it would be by this route, rather than the forbidding and snow-covered rocks of the south-west face, that Noyce would have climbed. Graeme Nicol and I had previously decided that we would try to reach this ridge and we now went on up to the upper basin of the glacier, which is protected by a second ice-fall. Here the steep ramparts of Peak Garmo sweep upwards to the ridge in an ice-slope, some 2,500 feet in height, cut by a large bergschrund. We saw two figures coming down snow-slopes on the left of this, and moving so slowly that we began to suspect that something was amiss. For some time we sheltered from the fierce sun in an ice-grotto in the bergschrund; later, we started climbing the snow-slope, but with less enthusiasm to reach the ridge than earlier.

Suddenly, we noticed two figures below us, in the basin; it was Derek Bull and Ted Wrangham: they shouted something about Wilf and Robin, and an accident. The mind is unwilling to accept the fact of disaster and so it was this time, as Graeme and I returned carefully downwards In our steps, each trying to reassure the other that there must be some mistake. But illusion was dispelled as the four men approached us; we knew the awful truth from their demeanour before they told us.

The previous day the whole party had set off for the summit of Garmo from a camp on the ridge at about 6,000 metres. To start with the climbing order had been Wilf with the two Anatolis in the lead, followed by Robin, Ted and Derek. After climbing about 1,500 feet, however, the latter two had decided to return to the tents and Robin had joined the leading trio ; they then roped up as two pairs, with Wilf and Sevastianov leading. In this order all four arrived later on the summit.

Coming down, the two Russians had to put on their crampons on reaching the steep snow-slopes which flank the south-west face, and which are a marked feature of the ridge route seen from afar. Robin and Wilf had made the ascent wearing them and Robin proposed that they should now start on down together; it must have been about 6 p.m. This was agreed and the ropes were rearranged accordingly, the Russians following soon after. There was apparently a steep snow-gully which, in the deplorable snow conditions, caused some anxiety. But this was safely negotiated and the British pair- started down a big slope below it, half concealed from the Russians. At this moment the fatal slip occurred. It was also seen by Derek; he had been watching their progress after hearing shouts which announced their return to camp.

* * *

I will not dwell on the sad sequel. Two days later, we had returned to Camp III, where Graeme and I crossed the glacier to tell the news to Malcolm's party; they had safely returned from Patriot after a successful ascent and had left us a message for Graeme to come over as Joe Brown was sick. We had then to decide what to do.

* * *

The problem was a difficult one ; it involved a matter of principle for the expedition and a personal choice for each member of the British group. Had we been climbing independently of the Russians I think there is little doubt but that the expedition would have returned immediately, but this was a different situation. The Russians in our party clearly hoped that the expedition would continue ; our departure would not only have been a personal disappointment to them, but might well have been misunderstood and misrepresented in wider circles. The personal decisions were no less difficult for some of us and I will say no more than that I was thankful that, in the end, six of our people decided to stay on. I was no less grateful to all concerned, British and Russian, for being so firmly behind me in my own decision, to return, as they had been throughout our expedition, up to that moment.

There may be no point in linking the loss of personal friends with the theme of a wider friendship ; but I know that both Wilfrid and Robin supported this theme and were beginning to share the satisfaction of it. I know, too, that they would not have wished to be the cause of harming the underlying purpose of our enterprise with the Russians last summer.

Editor's Note : Part II of this article will be published in Volume XXV of the Himalayan Journal.

[1] Now the Central Council of Physical Culture and Sport, a non- Government body.

[2] John Hunt, Malcolm Slesser, Wilfrid Noyce, Joe Brown, Ralph Jones, Robin Smith, Ian McNaught-Davis, Dr. Graeme Nicol, George Lowe, Ken Bryan, Ted Wrangham, Derek Bull.

[3] Gorbounov turned back a short distance below the summit, which was actually reached by Abalakov.-Editor.

[4] The Russians have since recognized this as a first ascent, and have graded it as IV B (i). They have proposed the name: Peak Co-operation, 5,640 metres.