Himalayan Journal vol.27
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Dr K. Biswas
    (J. O. M. ROBERTS)
  9. MOMHIL SAR (24,090 FEET)
  12. KINNAUR, 1966
    (B. P. BANERJI)
    (DR. H. SHIRAKI)



(Hispar Karakorum)

(Translated by Hugh Merrick)

[Pages from the diary of the Styrian High-touring Section of the Austrian Alpine Association's 1964 Expedition to the Karakorum]

June 25, 1964

Leo Schlommer and I have been at Camp 2 for two days. In keeping with this year's Karakorum weather, we are completely snowed-in.

Our tents are on a glacier-terrace in the middle of an amphitheatre whose ice-walls go up about 5,000 feet above the glacier itself. The little island of our camp seems hopelessly lost in this desert of snow. The gales of the last few days have covered us with fine powdery snow up to the ridges of the tents. Here I lie half-asleep, listening to the avalanches roaring down the snowy flanks of Trivor and Momhil Sar.

Dr. Rudolf Pischinger, Hans Schell, Leo Schlommer and I have lived in this world of ice, rock, heat and cold for the last seven weeks, bringing a Karakorum dream of many years' standing to fruition.

My thoughts go back three months to our departure from Europe and our journey out from Genoa to Cairo, Aden and Karachi. On an outing to Bizeh we bagged our first peak-the pyramid of Cheops by its ‘Aida' Ridge! We travelled in a cloud of fine sand by the Khyber Express through the deserts of South Pakistan, then north across the boundless fields of the Punjab to Lahore and Rawalpindi. Our flight past the Nanga Parbat Massif leaps to my mind ; for then, as we saw the long snow banners flying on the Rakiot face, we first realized the (rials that awaited us among these great ranges. Four decrepit jeeps took us and our gear along a hazardous road through the canyon-like gorges of the Vale of Hunza to the hamlet of Nagar, nestling close under the granite buttresses of the Batura range. I can still see the blossom-laden trees of the oasis with the great white peaks behind them lifting some sixteen thousand feet above the village roofs ; and the round, kindly face of the Meer, Shaukat Ali, who rules over 25,000 souls in this Karakorum Valley. Sometimes it seemed that we had taken a voyage back into the days of two hundred years ago.

Seven weeks back, we had set out with 75 porters, carrying our materials on their backs, and marched across the sandy slopes, moraines and glaciers of the Hispar and Gharesa valleys, to site the small tent-village of our Base Camp at about 15,000 feet. During the following weeks, we placed our three high camps on the snow-terraces of the Trivor Glacier.

We had brought 6-foot skis with us and these proved one of the most useful items of our equipment, for we found we could use them up to 20,000 feet. If we had not had them with us, I feel certain our whole venture would have foundered in those heavy masses of new-fallen snow. And I shall never forget those marvellous downhill runs on firm, powder snow!

Blizzards lasting all day during the last few weeks have damped down the fires that were in us at the outset. Half of May and almost the whole of June have gone, and we have not climbed our peak.

The sound of voices, dulled by the snow-coverlet, has woken me up. I open the tent-flap and see three faces, which their frozen beards have made almost unrecognizable. These belong to Hans, Rudi and Rolf, who have come down from Camp 3 because their two tents below the ice-saddle up there have been blown down. And now they have fought their way down, wading thigh-deep through the snow on the steep slopes between 3 and 2.

Here the five of us lie in a tiny tent, deep in our fleecy sleeping-bags. Hot tea radiates comfort and our spirits rise at seeing each other again after all these days of raging tempest. Would we get just one more chance to go for the summit, we wondered?

Only a week ago we had been defeated on the first pillar of the East Ridge at about 22,300 feet. There we had met extreme climbing on outward-sloping rock and cornices which meant laborious clearing with the hands ; these obstacles and the usual deterioration of the weather at the end of five hours' hard labour, driving us back to Base, had brought about this first rebuff. When we first occupied Base Camp in mid-May, our optimism had been unbounded: Momhil Sar would take three weeks, after which we would make the second ascent of Trivor from Camp 3, and then take the unnamed 20,000-footers of the Gharesa Ridge. Now, seven weeks later, we were not even sure that we had sufficient energy left for a second attempt. We would need three or four days for the preparation of the hardest part of our ridge-roughly 1,000 feet of it. Till now, we had never had more than a day and a half of fine weather.

 Unnamed peakas to the south of the Trivor glacier seen from between base camp and camp I.    (Horst Schindlbacher)

Unnamed peakas to the south of the Trivor glacier seen from between base camp and camp I. (Horst Schindlbacher)

 Momhil sar (24,090 ft.) The South-east face seen from between base camp and camp I (c. 17,700 ft.) camp 2 (c. 19,350 ft.) camp 3 (c. 21,300 ft.).  (Horst Schindlbacher)

Momhil sar (24,090 ft.) The South-east face seen from between base camp and camp I (c. 17,700 ft.) camp 2 (c. 19,350 ft.) camp 3 (c. 21,300 ft.). (Horst Schindlbacher)

 Climbing the ice-fall of the Trivor glacier between base camp and camp I.  (Horst Schindlbacher)

Climbing the ice-fall of the Trivor glacier between base camp and camp I. (Horst Schindlbacher)

 panorama of the peaks to the south of the trivor and hispar glaciers from the south-east face of momhil sar.  (Horst Schindlbacher)

panorama of the peaks to the south of the trivor and hispar glaciers from the south-east face of momhil sar. (Horst Schindlbacher)

We resuscitated an old plan which we thought might still provide a route by which to cover the 3,000 feet between Camp 3 and the summit in a single day. For, in the middle of the 4,500-foot south-east face there was a ramp of snow and ice- slopes, leading up from a precipitous zone of seracs to the Southwest Ridge.

It cleared up in the evening, and the next day was a red- letter one. In fine weather, we stamped our way up the slopes to Camp 3 for the fifth time. Both tents had been blown down, their ridge-poles and stays smashed. Laboriously, we shovelled a fresh platform out of the snow-slope and substituted ice- stakes for the broken tubular rods.

June 27, 1964

Leo and I started as the leading rope at about 3 a.m. There was a bright moon and this gave us enough light. An icy wind was blowing across the saddle, numbing my right hand completely. We had to go down 300 feet, then along the lower lip of a crevasse and, gasping for breath, across the track of the ice-avalanches in the lee of a protecting nose of frozen snow. The sun began to colour the towers of ice overhead, and down below we could see Rudi, Hans and Rolf emerging from the shadow. Three rope-lengths up the 'nose' of snow and a rising traverse beyond it brought us to a little tower of rock.

The other three caught us up and went on to take the lead up the next slope, fully 45° to 50° steep and very exposed. Overhead, the wall swept 2,000 feet to the summit; 150 feet below us the ramp broke away in a vertical band of seracs to the bottom of the face. Following the other three to the end of the ramp, I found myself crossing a gully steep enough to be highly impressive. As I reached its further side, I was pulled up by a tug on the rope and a shout; instinctively I rammed my axe into the slope. A small powder-snow avalanche came sweeping down the gully across the rope between Leo and me-just as a minor diversion, at 22,000 feet or more.

The leading rope was hidden from us by a buttress, but we knew the steepest part of the ramp was now behind us. Leo and I rejoined them and took the lead again. For some minutes now our face had been enveloped in the thick brew of a dense mist. There we stood, up to our hips in the snow of our steps, surrounded by a confusion of ice-towers and avalanche tracks- the hanging glacier which forms the continuation of the ramp. It was quite impossible to check one's whereabouts, for we could not see more than 30 yards. We debated whether to halt here; we had all our fleece-equipment with us, for we had counted on the possibility of a bivouac, and there would be no difficulty in digging a cave on this terrain. On the other hand, if the weather broke we should be caught like rats in a trap. If fresh snow were to fall on the face, a descent to our camp would be turned into a desperate adventure owing to the avalanche dangers. We decided to turn back and admit the failure of our second attempt on the summit. We were back at the tents by mid-afternoon. Trivor was bathed in sunlight, clouds hid the summit of Momhil Sar from view.

During the night a northerly gale swept all the clouds from the sky overhead, covering the terrace and the tents with a thin powder of blown snow. This dry wind, coming from the deserts and steppes of Inner Asia, had so far always heralded a couple of days without high winds or falls of snow. It seemed as if the weather was relenting-our drive of a few weeks back was not entirely quenched. We thought of making another attempt on the East Ridge, but we abandoned the idea when we saw the snow-banners flying far out over the face from the ridge. So we decided to tackle the south-east face just once more.

Camp 3's two tents stood at about 21,300 feet on a terrace below the broad saddle of ice which joins Trivor and Momhil Sar. The gale was driving fine snow before it, banking it up between the steps of the terrace and the tents, pressing their walls in, and reducing the already small space in them. Afternoon came with the sun high in a cloudless sky above the peaks. We would rest till 9 p.m. and then devote three hours to cooking, getting dressed and eating, starting out at about midnight, so as to traverse the most dangerous parts of the avalanche-slopes while the cold was most intense. In the interests of greater mobility, we would leave our heavy fleece-jackets behind this time. Yesterday's effort had proved that we could come down the ramp after dark by the light of our forehead-lamps.

 The summit ridge of Momhil Sar.   (Horst Schindlbacher)

The summit ridge of Momhil Sar. (Horst Schindlbacher)

Rustam Ali, A high-altitude porter from the Hamlet of nagar

Rustam Ali, A high-altitude porter from the Hamlet of nagar

We buried ourselves in our sleeping-bags and tried to sleep. This business of sleeping is one of the problems of high altitude.

6 Kulu and Lahoul, by Lt.-Col. the Hon. C. G. Bruce, m.v.o. London, Edward Arnold, 1914.

I could hear Leo tossing and turning in his bag, quite unable to fall asleep.

June 29, 1964

We left the shelter of our tents half an hour after midnight and faced the icy chill of the night. Snow-dust flew into our faces from the saddle above the camp. The sky was absolutely clear; we did not even need our lamps, so bright was the night with the light from the moon and the snow. Rudi with Hans and Rolf took over the lead. Our steps had been partly obliterated, but the track made on our earlier attempt was still recognizable. The wind and the sun had packed the snow to a firmer consistency, so breaking a trail was not as difficult as it had been two days before. We tackled the big crevasse, the avalanche-gully, the snowy 4 nose' and the great slope above it; by first light we had reached the point where we had been checked on the previous occasion, with the ramp behind us. The temperature was bearable, -20° to -25°. Only Leo complained about his toes, troubled by a contraction of the veins incurred during his winter ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn. We were moving well and had taken less than half the time taken to reach the top of the ramp two days earlier.

The sky was brightening over Distaghil Sar, and the cold at its most intense, as we moved up on to fresh ground. We went in over our knees in the cold powder-snow as we turned two ice-towers, which looked like glass in the dawn light, and moved up the hanging glacier. Rudi stamped his way up a gully between two cliffs, climbed a slope and made an attempt on a snow-rib behind another ice-tower, but this proved too steep. 1 tried a slope further to the right and this brought us out on to a roomy terrace above a serac.

By now the sun had cleared the ridge of Trivor and gave us at least an illusion of warmth. We had been climbing for more than seven hours. Leo massaged his cold toes and battled with pains in his stomach; in an effort to expand the circulation in his toes he had treated himself to an overdose of Ronicol and his inside was voicing its objections. We rested for an hour before moving on over a relatively gentle slope where wc met bad, stratified snow on which the danger of a slab-avalanchc was !M cater than on the steep slopes of the ramp below.

1 came to the upper lip of a crevasse, with about ten feet of vertical snow-wall between me and the slope above. 1 cut a few holds with my axe, for hands and feet, pushed the shaft in, pulled up on it, took a couple more steps up the slope and collapsed on the snow, utterly exhausted. Short, fierce efforts of this kind at these altitudes are much more punishing than the ascent of a whole long slope, where one can suit the rhythm of one's movement to that of one's breathing; but these short vertical pitches call for a sudden expenditure of effort, which uses up the very last of one's reserves.

Sketch-map of Momhil Sar

Sketch-map of Momhil Sar

We were now on flatter ground and took it turn and turn about to break trail for a rope's length. It was midday before we reached the foot of a couloir which should bring us up on to the South-West Ridge. There was not a breath of air stirring here, on the lee-side of our peak ; we were suffering more from the reflected heat than we had from the cold during the night. With the sun scorching the nape of my neck and the blinding surface of the snow before my face, I climbed at a snail's pace up the lower part of the gully on deep, soft snow. This sector is short, but fully 50° steep. After two-and-a-half ropes' lengths I had nothing left and asked Rudi to take over the lead, so he and the other three moved past me, with about 250 feet still between us and the summit ridge. In the upper part of the couloir there was barely an inch of snow on the outward-tilted rock, a delicate proposition for the leading climber. We had taken three and a half hours to climb less than 700 feet, and it was well into the afternoon as we climbed out on to the South-West Ridge at the top of the couloir. The last 300 feet of ridge did not look as if they would offer us any great problems ; but, when it came to it, we were amazed at the degree of exposure involved, for the snow was as steeply pitched as a roof up those last slopes.

At about 4-30 p.m. we reached the summit of Momhil Sar, a small snow-crest. We were very tired but the whole party was on the summit and that was a source of unutterable pleasure.

All around us lay a welter of great peaks, ridges and glaciers, from the Baltoro to the Hindu Kush, from the Singkiang ranges to Nanga Parbat. We rested for an hour up there, finding the hilly gale almost agreeable after the burning heat on the face.

Evening was drawing in, with the sun low over the fantastic ridges of the Batura Mustagh, and the peaks were casting their huge shadows across the glaciers far below. We still had to get down 3,000 feet to our tents and the sleeping-bags, into which we knew we should be crawling, utterly spent after the long descent through the darkness.

Rudi was the first to leave the summit, to prepare the abseil down the couloir. We watched him go down the snow-rib and disappear below the great cornice. We followed presently. At the cornice I turned to watch Leo, the last of us to come down the rib. Behind him the gale was already obliterating our trail.