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Route of the 1964 Norwegian Expedition

Route of the 1964 Norwegian Expedition


Tirich Mir is the name not only of a mountain with two main peaks, but also of a mountain massif. The massif resembles an octopus, the head of which comprises the twin peaks of 25,263 and 25,237 feet, while the tapering tentacles are mountain ridges with peaks of from 24,564, 24,076, 23,150, 22,237 feet and right down to 15,000 feet. Like the tentacles of an octopus, these ridges curve from side to side, but unlike tentacles, they divide into lateral ridges. From the town of Chitral three main ridges are visible, but naturally only the very highest: the South Ridge (more correctly, the South-west Ridge), which we reached at a height of 23,000 feet in 1950 and followed to the summit 25,263 feet, the South-east Ridge, which I visited in 1949 at 20,000 feet, and the East Ridge, so far unvisited. This ridge runs in an unbroken line from approximately 18,000 feet to the top, hence the impressive, although not very steep, appearance of the east profile. If we include the long ridges leading up to the twin summits, the Tirich Mir Massif covers about one hundred square miles. Apart from the two highest peaks, the area includes about fifteen other peaks of over 20,000 feet.1


  1. The figures, 25,263 feet and 25,237 feet, have been taken from what is easily the most detailed map (1:126,720) available of this district, that of Brigadier R. H. Thomas, Surveyor-General of India, published in 1931. On other maps different heights are to be found. The Polish expedition had only two maps, both produced by the Survey of India, and to a scale of 1:1,000,000. One of them is described by the Geographical Section General Staff, War Office, London, edition 1956, and gives the height 25,426 feet. We consider it correct to retain the figures from the survey map through the General Staff in 1949, viz. 25,263 feet for the West Peak and 25,237 feet for the East Peak


The second highest peak in the Tirich Mir Massif, 25,237 feet, unclimbed until 1964 and dazzlingly beautiful, towers up, as seen from the south, immediately above the South Barum Glacier, its distinctive feature being a tremendous wall of rock, reaching up to the very summit. There are also ice-fields in the wall, but more rock than usual at that height. From about 17,200 feet it rises sheer to the south-east summit ridge. The wall is more than a mile wide and 8,000 feet high. In short, it is an unusually large rock precipice, even by Himalayan standards.

In 1950 I reached the highest summit of Tirich Mir. Why I set out for the neighbouring 26 feet lower summit in 1964 ? Actually the aim of the 1964 expedition was not to reach a summit. The aim was to explore the possibility of continuous, sustained technical rock-climbs at very high altitudes.

Long ribs were rejected because of excessive wind. Rock walls with hanging glaciers above, sending enormous ice-boulders down at irregular intervals, were out of the question. After having inspected hundreds of pictures of walls, I decided that, after all, the South Wall of Tirich Mir East was the most suitable. Thus, the good old friend of Norwegian expeditions, Tirich Mir, was again selected as the object of athletics and devotion.6

Due to the smoothness and high angle of the wall, there is no hanging glacier—actually no glacier at all—on the south face of Tirich East. On the other hand, the angle of ice-fields makes it difficult for new snow to keep quiet. During heavy snowfall, small avalanches will sweep down practically everywhere.

In 1950 we tried out the easiest route on Tirich Mir, this time we looked for the most difficult. There was, however, also a difference of expedition philosophy from the expeditions of 1949 (the reconnaissance) and 1950: I was determined to judge the expedition a failure if the members were not happy practically all the time, and if the exertions were not within the margin of that of competitive athletic games. That is, one could ' give out all', but without imperilling values such as life (including toes) and aesthetic enjoyment.7


  1. Account of the Norwegian 1950 expedition: Tirich Mir, Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. (Out of print since 1951). A short account is to be found in the Alpine Journal Vol. LVIII, No. 282, May 1951.
  2. An early development within downhill ski-racing was based on similar considerations. In the beginning no gates were used, but after a while this way of predetermining a certain race-course was introduced to prevent the undue and very dangerous risks that some were taking as competition got stiff.—It was my wish to impose such 'gates' on our expedition strategy.


The adventure should be such that there were no alien pressures (naturalism, heroism, romanticism of death, dread of not reaching the summit, etc.). In short, what ultimately mattered should be the way of life during the expedition, not an abstract concept, such as physical presence at a definite point—that of 25,237 feet in our case.

Tirich mir from Chitral town

Tirich mir from Chitral town

The Tirich Mir twin peaks from a distance. The valley of south Barum glacier is hidden by the owir  chain of peaks and connecting ridges

The Tirich Mir twin peaks from a distance. The valley of south Barum glacier is hidden by the owir chain of peaks and connecting ridges

This picture is taken very much from below-consequently, the shoulder leading to the summit looks too slack. Only a little over half of the wall is seen: about 4,700 ft.

This picture is taken very much from below-consequently, the shoulder leading to the summit looks too slack. Only a little over half of the wall is seen: about 4,700 ft.

Per vigerust leading, with Ralph Hoibakk belaying, below camp V in the wall

Per vigerust leading, with Ralph Hoibakk belaying, below camp V in the wall

Whether an expedition of the easy-going kind, with unfailing high spirits and peace of mind, can be carried out or not, depends essentially on the team. I was lucky to have a team ideally fitted: three young civil engineers, Anders Opdal (26), Ralph Hoibakk (26) and Per Vigerust (31), with very impressive and convincing lists of climbs in the Alps and in Norway. Number four was a man with indispensable qualities to us: Kjell Friis Baastad (48), doctor, accomplished climber, especially on ice, professional igloist and equipment specialist. These are surface qualifications. Picked out to travel half-way around the world to climb one of the giants among mountains, they were overmotivated—from the moment the mountains could be seen far above the horizon of minor peaks, they were eager to exert themselves in excess of sensible considerations or the bare necessities to keep the project moving.

The ‘duty to be happy' seemed rather strange and paradoxical to the young expedition members. Their exuberant minds did, however, possess qualities which made the satisfaction of the severe norm possible and even likely. I shall limit myself to the mention of one of the ways we used to live up to the norm. During expeditions in the Himalayas there is a constant exhibition of extreme manliness without the extra impetus. Per Vigerust acts in a ‘soft' way and gives vent to all kinds of anxieties (without ever really undermining the necessary efforts): ‘This tower looks ugly and may overturn any time. And I am tired and hungry ! Enough for today, let us have a grand meal ! " Saying a thing like that we could turn on him furiously, insisting that no tower could be more beautiful, that it is grand to take certain risks, that we never felt less tired and more uninterested in food. And we might even add that just for the sake of good comradeship we would give in and take the big meal. Thus, we were led to feel how strong and daring we were, instead of taking it for granted and risking demoralizing frustrations. Due to the exceptional resourcefulness of the actors, the drama of contrasting comfortable safety and manly endurance went on day after day.



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The team left Norway early in May and arrived at the small airport at Chitral town, May 16. We were greeted by old friends from 1949 and 1950 in a most touching way.

Our youngest porter in 1950—he was then only 17—Abdul Karim, undertook to administer our travel to the mountain from Chitral town, our wise old friend, Government Treasurer Wazir Ali Shah, helped us in innumerable ways, and Prince Burhanuddin entertained us in his royal, cordial way.

Base Camp was placed at Shokor Shal (' sugar-shed') at 10,000 feet, just below the tip of South Barum Glacier. All through July we helped the porters carry equipment and provisions to Advance Base, 17,200 feet, directly under the South-east Ridge, and scaled 7 peaks surrounding South Barum Glacier. There are still some left over ! Our aim was to obtain maximum physical fitness, so that we could have hope of negotiating the wall without complete exhaustion. It was evident that the climbing would be of a technical kind that would demand perfect balance—also on the way down, so that it was a ‘duty' to store up reserves of strength.

The most beautiful peak we climbed during our training period we named Owir VII (c. 18,700 feet), or better, ‘Nidaros Cathedral', after Norway's most famous cathedral. Ralph and Anders climbed it by moonlight and discovered that what seemed to be a summit snow-cone was mainly a cone of steely-hard blue ice with a sprinkling of sugar-snow.

The peaks south of South Barum Glacier we named Owir I-IX. Owir I has an old name, Ausher (17,333 feet), and had been climbed before. The peaks and spires along the ridge north of the glacier we named Utshanzo I-V. We did not get beyond the first one in this rocky chain !

Ski-ing was excellent and our young, very sports-minded Liaison Officer, Lt.-Sabir Kamal, was introduced to the enjoyments of downhill racing. We were lucky to have in our company this faithful, well-balanced, and kind companion, who was looked up to and respected also by all our Chitral porters, including our dangerously intelligent and strong cook, Mohammed Hussein,



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The belief in success for the climb of the South Wall was based on three postulates:

  1. All through July there would be only scant snowfall on the wall. Our fingers would rest on dry holds.
  2. The lower half of the wall, that is from 17,200 to 21,000 feet, would be less steep than the upper, permitting the climbers to bring 600 pounds of equipment and food half-way in a week's climb.
  3. The ‘explosion avalanches' would not reach the gigantic scale of 1950, but be of the more moderate 1949 volume and speed.
The south wall of Tirich Mir East, with Itinerary and camps of the Expedition

The south wall of Tirich Mir East, with Itinerary and camps of the Expedition

We knew very well that some or all of these postulates might turn out false-making the plan impossible to carry out or too risky (i.e. beyond the range of ‘good sport').

The first postulate was undermined by Abdul Karim who could tell us that in 1962 there had been an American expedition led by Professor Knauth that had to turn back because of a great snowfall lasting a whole week in the middle of July. They had tried a second ascension of Tirich Mir West along the route we used in 1950. Abdul Karim could point out the highest camp (c. 20,500 feet) where he had stayed several nights alone with his sahib. The porters could also point out the spot from where Fritz Stammberger, who tried for the summit alone, was helped down. It is quite clear that the East Ridge may yield to a solitary well-experienced climber, but the ridge is long and requires many well-equipped camps. To have reached 21,000 feet on the South Ridge is quite a feat, but the use of skis—as Stammberger apparently was trying— on the ridge (without crampons underneath !) seems out of the question or at least pointless.

The postulate about excellent weather in July rested on ' all available data', but, alas, little had been available even in the old reports of Indian Survey. One week of snow was enough to turn the odds against us.

In order to keep nerves cool and to keep us from starting the climb of the South Wall before the July sun had made snow on holds and in cracks evaporate, there was all through June a 4 No Entrance' order: we did not permit ourselves to go near the wall and touch it.

I broke this (self-made) order on June 30, when nobody saw me, being alone in Advance Base Camp, and tested the second postulate. It was a mistake. The lower half of the wall proved very steep indeed, starting with excellent hard smooth rock. One might for the sake of beauty and elegance start to climb straight up the rocks—but a less time-consuming transport route had to be found.

On June 2—alone again—I made a discovery very much relevant to postulate 3—until then verified most encouragingly.

On the morning of July 2, I discovered a thin layer of chalk- white new snow all over the glacier—a sure sign that a big explosion of avalanche had occurred. Some words must be said about some special features of Tirich Mir which makes it necessary to keep at a considerable distance from the lower half of a line drawn from the Col between the West and East Summits.

Snow from fields just west of the wall, many square miles in size, tends to avalanche into a tremendous trough, over the brink of a great hanging glacier and further down between wind-swept cliffs. Long before reaching the surface of South Barum Glacier the advancing masses get airborne and turn into a snowstorm radiating 360° from a centre. Exact measurements in the Alps of such storms give the values 70-100 km. an hour speed of turbulent snow particles inside the widening ball of the storm. People are killed by the air pressure at an appreciable distance from the centre of the ‘explosion’. In 1950 tremendous avalanches of this kind flattened our tents which were placed far away from the explosion centre.

The thin layer of powdery snow that had settled over the area on July 2 suggested that the 4 season' of big explosion avalanches had started. This meant that postulate 3 might turn out to be a half- truth.

The conclusion was inevitable. No more light-hearted mountaineering on surrounding peaks. Immediate assault on the wall itself.



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From July 7 to 10 we managed to carry about 500 pounds up the 4 Diagonala steeply rising system of ledges and cracks, partly packed with snow, to a magnificent site of a first camp on the wall, at about 19,600 feet. It was sheltered by overhanging rock, carved out of the snow, and just wide enough so that small tents might be placed in a row. With fixed ropes all the way, we thought it justifiable to have Abdul Karim and another very good, cheerful porter, Safdul Karim, with us.

Three times during our struggles under heavy loads on the diagonal explosion avalanches reached us. Secured with our ice-axes, we flattened ourselves on the snow. Mouth and nose were covered with our mittens to prevent ice-dust penetrating into the lungs. We waited in the screaming inferno, ice- and snow-crystals clogging us down. The whole thing lasted only a few seconds, and then it was over. Shouted questions and answers soon established that no one was hurt. Only a few pairs of sunglasses were blown away. The shock waves did not reach as far as the tents. Conclusion : the 4 explosion season' was under way, but dimensions of the avalanches were still not such that further advance was inadvisable.

After some days of reorganization and recuperation we were on July 15 ready to start on the next stage of the South Wall, from Camp 5 up to the ‘Integral’ an S-shaped snow formation, where we considered Camp 6 should be placed. Meanwhile, Camp 5 was now complete, with two two-man tents and ample stores of provisions. Climbing above Camp 5 was magnificent, mostly of degrees III or IV, but with two 5-degree chimneys. Ropes were fixed for about 300 yards above the camp. This was exactly the kind of work we had asked for: real rock-climbing on excellent hard rock.

But alas, the sky clouded over, large snowflakes began to fall, covering everything—our equipment, our tents, and ourselves. As though in response to a shouted order, a new world now sprang into life: avalanches of dry snow thundered or rushed past us in every direction. Thick clouds of dust enveloped us, rendering the visibility still worse. Only ten yards away a continuous river of dry snow flowed down. It was like the sound of an endless freight train rumbling past.

Retreat from above Camp 5 was a little too exciting. Kjell and Ralph played a sort of hide-and-seek with the avalanches. After a while they realized that certain types of small avalanches could be expected at regular intervals. Now and again they stood still, waiting till ‘the next avalanches' had passed. This worked excellently, but afterwards they made no bones about the nerve- racking moments they had endured.

Just before they arrived, Kjell, who had moved up diagonally across a ravine, saw a new snow-avalanche heading straight for them. He let out a warning yell, and Ralph, who was at the bottom of the ravine, flattened himself against the side. The snow poured over him, but he managed to hang on, and they were able to continue the last few yards down to the tents of Camp 5.

Next day we made a general retreat. There was plenty of food in Camp 5, but the main point was to ensure that no one stayed on in Camp 5, merely consuming its stocks of food needlessly. We just had to get down to Advance Base, Camp 4.

Finally, on July 20, the fifth consecutive day of snow, the overcast split up. Climbing was impossible before the snow had settled a little, however, and most of it had slithered off.

We knew from experience that the South Wall lacks the kind of system of ribs and corners which make avalanches select definite courses, so they can be avoided during heavy snowfalls. A second fall of snow would have far worse consequences than the five-day snowfall we had just witnessed, as it would surprise us while we were making our assault on the summit, thousands of feet above sheltered camps. Would the only safe solution be to leave the South Wall, carry the most vital of our 400 pounds of equipment from Camp 5, and set about establishing camps on the South-east Ridge as an alternative ? Certainly this choice would not provide us with an easy access to the top, in fact this itinerary had some steep rock-faces between 20,000 and 21,300 feet. Higher up, on the other hand, it looked as if we should literally have to wade in snow.

There seemed to be an obvious either-or: to continue scaling the South Wall despite the danger, or accept the much longer, but probably comparatively safe, climb along the South-east Ridge.

After all the work on the South Wall, it was terribly tempting to continue here. It was obvious that this alternative was the most popular one with all members of the party. Would it be possible to find a plan, a method of carrying it out, which would be defensible ? I, who to a certain extent had the greatest responsibility, found it difficult to reach a decision. But after long and careful deliberation I decided that if an assault on the summit was undertaken in such a manner that the smallest possible number of climbers remained, for as short a time as possible, on the stretches where avalanching was likely to occur, then it could be defended. Briefly stated, this would involve every member of the party starting from Camp 4 (17,200 feet), two without any loads, and the other three with the maximum possible loads. (Sabir Kamal, Abdul and Safdul could not be included.) At 21,000 feet (Camp 6) the two, who had climbed without loads and so had energy to spare, would then spend the night, leave a depot behind, and continue on up, heavily laden, next day. The other three would simply deposit their loads in Camp 6, and then return as quickly as possible down to the rest station, where they would be ready to come to the assistance of the two making the assault, should misfortune befall them.

Even though everyone was considered capable of making the final assault, the choice was not difficult. During the last few weeks Anders and Ralph had shown just that extra more enthusiasm than the rest of us, and they had both made themselves go through special training perfecting a technique for advancing as quickly as possible. Whatever might be said to advance the claims of the others, the conclusion was never in doubt: Anders and Ralph were to constitute the ‘top team', while the other three would act as their slaves.

The five days of blitz attack, three days to the summit from Advance Base, two days down, were without a dull moment.

The first day re-established Camp 5. Masses of snow had buried it just as surely as Pompeii was buried by the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius. The ‘summit princes' did neither carry anything nor exhaust themselves at the task of working up the path through the sea of powdery snow.

The distances look smaller, and the angle of the snow-fields less steep, than actually is the case. The distortion is due to the picture having been taken from below, with a slanting camera. The snow-fields have an angle of 50-55 degrees

The distances look smaller, and the angle of the snow-fields less steep, than actually is the case. The distortion is due to the picture having been taken from below, with a slanting camera. The snow-fields have an angle of 50-55 degrees

The second day started at 4 in the morning, when I carried additional rope from Advance Base to Camp 5. Next stage started at 9 when we all climbed from Camp 5 to the Integral, Camp 6, where the summit team was placed in a tent and the rest of us went down to Camp 5, arriving late at night. This day resulted in a well-stocked camp at 21,000 feet, harbouring two men who so far during ‘the blitz' had no days of extreme exertion behind them.

The three of us, acting as slaves, were happy, but exhausted, from tremendous rucksacks with food and clothing for the 'privileged we had done our indispensable share.

On the third day, the summit team first worked their way up ice-fields. The ice being very hard, they discovered that ordinary belaying would make it impossible to reach 23,000 feet in less than two days. They, therefore, advanced unroped, ascending for the most part through kicking the front pair of the crampon spikes into the ice, but sometimes ' walking French' to relieve the strain on the leg muscles. At 23,000 feet they camped, ‘weighed down with a sense of paralysing weariness' according to their report.

Considering the requirement of both happiness and balance, this state of mind and body means a break of the rules, but the report also reveals their tremendous consumption of food of all sorts. My conclusion is that they, after all, could not have been too tired.

They brought with them 50 pounds each (plus extra rope), which should make it possible to stay covered and eat for 10 days in the event of a prolonged snowstorm. The fact that they managed this load well somewhat balances the negative impression their unropedness must leave in our mind.

On the fourth day they continued along ice-grooves instead of switching to rock-climbing because of the time-factor. Five days on the wall had been put down as a maximum stay considering the threat of more snow-falls. This consideration then, in the end, precluded the realization of our main mountaineering aim: a more or less predominantly continuous rock-climb from 17,200 to 25,200 feet.

Having ‘gone all out’ the summit team arrived at the Southeast Ridge at 2 p.m., and at the summit itself at 3 p.m. The ridge proved in part to be extremely narrow, but no technical difficulties were met with. At 7 p.m. they were back in their well-stocked camp at 23,000 feet, firing green rockets, one of which was seen among the clouds by our two valiant porters at the foot of the wall.

Having observed the summit team descend, we who had remained below at once started stocking up a depot of food and ropes on the South-east Ridge above Advance Base, with a view to helping those of us who had not yet had the chance of reaching the summit trying for it along this relatively safe and broad ridge. Again time prevented us from doing what we most wished. We found that we would have to return as soon as possible to our native country, keeping dates set by our professional duties, developing films, writing the book promised our creditors, etc. This decision was a great disappointment first of all to our magnificent, fruitful companions, Sabir Kamal and Abdul Karim. It is our hope that they soon will get the opportunity with another expedition to go ‘all the way’

Our conclusion might be formulated thus: The severe norm You should be happy and have peace in mind' may easily lead to returns without reaching a summit, but it does not rule out great efforts being made, and, if sufficient time for training and slow altitude acclimatization is secured, does not preclude the successful climbing of walls of rock and ice of the South Wall dimension. As regards this particular wall, however, one must have a July with a climate as in 1949 and 1950—practically cloudless. Only then one might peacefully negotiate cliff after cliff from the glacier level to the summit rocks. We wish those good luck who feel they would like to try.

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