Himalayan Journal vol.28
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.28

Publication year:
1968

Editor:
Soli S. Mehta
Index
  1. MALI-KA-PARBAT, KAGHAN VALLEY, 1967
    (GENE F. WHITE)
  2. THE MOUNTAINS OF MALANA
    (COLIN PRITCHARD)
  3. THE VALLEY OF REFUGE
    (DERVLA MURPHY)
  4. MUKARBEH, 1968
    (JOHN ASHBURNER)
  5. A HIGH WALK THROUGH LAHOUL, ZANSKAR AND JAMMU, 1968
    (YASHODA N. SINGH)
  6. NETHERLANDS HIMALAYAN EXPEDITION, 1967*
    (DR. J. A. NOORDYK)
  7. THE SECOND CZECH EXPEDITION TO THE HINDU KUSH
    (VLASTIMIL SMIDA)
  8. A RECONNAISSANCE INTO NORTH-EAST CHITRAL, 1967
    (GERALD GRUBER)
  9. THE LAMKHAGA PASS AND LEO PARGIAL *
    (SOLI MEHTA)
  10. PERAMBULATORS IN THE LAND OF THE THUNDER DRAGON
    (PETER STEELE)
  11. KOKTHANG, 1966
    (MISS PUSHPA ATHAVLE)
  12. THE THREE ASCENTS IN ROSH GOL VALLEY
    (KEI KURACHI)
  13. NORTH GARHWAL-HIMALAYAN EXPEDITION, 1968
    (SUNIL CHAUDHURI)
  14. BETWEEN ANJUMAN AND MUNJAN VALLEYS
    (WOLFGANG FREY)
  15. PAPSURA CLIMBED
    (ROBERT PETTIGREW)
  16. N.D.A. EXPEDITION TO THE KUMAON HIMALAYAS, 1968
    (FLT. LT. V. P. SINGH)
  17. THE MANCHESTER KARAKORAM EXPEDITION, 1968
    (J. T. H. ALLEN)
  18. A VISIT TO THE CHIANTAR GLACIER REGION, EASTERN HINDU KUSH, 1967
    (ALFRED LINSBAUER)
  19. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  20. OBITUARY
  21. BOOK REVIEWS
  22. LETTER TO EDITOR
  23. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1967-68

MUKARBEH, 1968

JOHN ASHBURNER

The Kangra Himalaya has over the past years become the focal point for both small- and large-scale expeditions. The majority of these consisted of foreigners for it is practically the only area of the Himalaya that they may practise their sport without recourse to special permits. It is unfortunate that, even in Kulu Valley, the security net enshrouds many interesting and unclimbed peaks of 20,000 feet and one awaits the day when these well-mapped areas are open to all who love untrodden peaks. Perhaps this day will also witness the silencing of the voice that whispers ‘Spy' down the telegraph wire whenever the innocent mountaineer dons his boots and walks up into the mountains !

A visitor to Kulu Valley can surely never forget his first venture up the road from Kulu to Manali at the head of the valley. The road swings left round a corner and then as the hill eases back to the level, so the lush valley floor sprawls before the eye. Imposing cliffs block in the sides where 7,000 feet of forest stretch up to the Chandra Khanni Pass-perhaps the most rewarding of local treks ? One's attention is channelled upstream where sparkling white teeth protrude into the sky, perchance crowned with a plume of cloud. It is in this direction that a peak of great beauty and surprising difficulty lies. Mukarbeh (19,910 feet) was probably first written about by Colonel Bruce in 1912 and in recent years has been the scene of increasing activity by small teams of mountaineers. One might wonder why such a peak, whose Base Camp lies a mere day's march from the town of Manali, should not have been conquered long ago ! I can only recall my own thoughts on first seeing it towering above Camp II and again when sitting on top of an intermediary peak of 18,600 feet over which it is necessary to traverse. The bleak rock and snow reaching up to the summit cornice not only looked uninviting but to my mind quite frightening.

I first encountered the lower slopes of Mukarbeh in the tragic circumstances of November 1967. My great friend and fellow member of the Papsura1 trip earlier that year, Geoffrey Hill, had died at Camp I along with Sherpa Pemba and Suresh Kumar. Only shortage of leave from my job in Allahabad had prevented me joining his party and it was natural that on receiving the sad news I should go to try to help bring them down to the valley. It would be comforting to be able to report that all possible help should have been available for this task. To find the authorities and director of a local mountaineering institute uncooperative and obstructive only made the grief more difficult to bear. Let us hope that the true spirit of mountaineering can quickly return to these parts.

A.J., 1967, p. 315

Sketch map of Upper Kulu Valley

Sketch map of Upper Kulu Valley



Much happier circumstances brought me to Manali in June 1968 for Dennis Gray and Liam Calver had invited me to join their attempt to scale Mukarbeh. Shortly after establishing ourselves at John Banon's guest-house we strode down into the town to locate Wangyal who had worked as high-altitude porter with both Gray and myself previously. I was amazed to see his cheery face as he met us on the road, for although the usual bidi was hanging from his tobacco-stained lips, the protruding tooth which had so often caused amusement was sunk back into alignment and sparkling white. Only later did he spin a dubious yarn as to how his tooth was knocked out and replaced with a pot replica.

On June 1 we left Manali in a lorry with 15 local porters and drove to the foot of the Solang Nullah. Snow lay low for the time of year and all but the tallest trees were covered as we walked beyond Dhundi, the first night's stop. The men were paid off at Beas Kund (12,000 feet) and the Base Camp was erected on what was then a 10-foot deep plateau of snow. To the north lay the snow-covered moraines rising steeply to Shiti Dhar (17,358 feet) and the site of Camp II. To the west lay Bruce's Pass (16,391 feet) and two virgin rock fortresses of about 17,000 feet but the view is dominated by the precipitous north wall of Hanuman Tibba2 down whose hanging glaciers and rock walls avalanches rarely seemed to pause.

Although the approach to Base Camp is so easy, upward progress towards Mukarbeh is an exhausting experience. The site of Camp I lies 3,500 feet above at the top of a spur of moraine which divides the glaciers spreading down from Ladakhi Peak (17,525 feet)[1] and Shiti Dhar. A preliminary ferry of loads was halted by a mild snow-storm but by June 8 enough equipment had been assembled to enable Wangyal and I to spend a night there. The tent was placed on a snow platform dug in front of a rock rognon, so providing protection from any avalanche danger from the snow couloir above. At this stage we had still not completely discounted the possibility of an avalanche having overwhelmed Geoffrey Hill's party at this same site only eight months previously. As the sun set that night and the snows grew red on Indrasan and Deo Tibba across on the eastern side of Kulu Valley, it was difficult to believe my friend had spent his last hours in a storm at this very spot.

On June 9 Wangyal and I took light loads and cramponed up the hard snow in the couloir above, emerging on the ridge plateau l ½ hours later. Until this stage, Mukarbeh had been hidden from view by the Ladakhi Peak, Shiti Dhar ridge. Mukarbeh somewhat resembled a fortress, with its eastern walls dropping sheer for 8,000 feet on to an icefall which swept north into the Chandra River. A ridge led steeply down from the summit to connect with the intermediary Manali Peak which has already received several ascents including one in mistake for Mukarbeh ! The ridge continues down from Manali Peak to a rock hump which was later to site Camp III and further to connect with Ladakhi Peak.

We dumped the loads on a snow plateau which would form Camp II at about 17,000 feet and walked east along the ridge up to the summit of Shiti Dhar. Here Wangyal discovered a tin which not only contained the names of Staniger's party[2] from the previous year, but to his delight the photograph of a rather beautiful Indian lady. Despite warnings that I would inform Wangyal's wife, he insisted he remove the picture to place it where he thought it really belonged-on top of Mukarbeh, Alas this was not to be for in the early morning shambles of the summit attempt we forgot to take it with us.

Five days later on June 14 we had carried sufficient equipment up to allow all four of us to move to Camp I. We found a party from St. Stephen's College, Delhi, already encamped and witnessed them scale Manali Peak (the intermediary peak en route to Mukarbeh)-only three days from leaving Manali ! It seemed a staggering feat when one member's experience was limited to an ascent of Snowdon (3,560 feet) in North Wales. We were to meet again the following day on Ladakhi Peak, Wangyal and I carried loads to Camp III and then traversed along the ridge to reach the northern face of Ladakhi Peak.

H.J., Vol. XXVI, p. 145.

CAMPS I AND II ON THE SOUTH SLOPES OF SHITI DHAR FROM BASE AT BEAS KUND

CAMPS I AND II ON THE SOUTH SLOPES OF SHITI DHAR FROM BASE AT BEAS KUND



HANUMAN TIBBA (19,450 FEET) NORTH FACE, BRUCE’S PASS AND POINT 16,391 FEET FROM CAMP I.   (J. E. Ashburner )

HANUMAN TIBBA (19,450 FEET) NORTH FACE, BRUCE’S PASS AND POINT 16,391 FEET FROM CAMP I. (J. E. Ashburner )



PEAKS SOUTH-EAST FROM CAMP II (1) CENTRAL PEAK ON BARA SHIGRI GLACIER ? (2) PAPSURA (21,165 FEET) AND WHITE SAIL (21,148 FEET) (3) INDRASAN (20,410 FEET) (4) DEO TIBBA (19,682 FEET)

PEAKS SOUTH-EAST FROM CAMP II (1) CENTRAL PEAK ON BARA SHIGRI GLACIER ? (2) PAPSURA (21,165 FEET) AND WHITE SAIL (21,148 FEET) (3) INDRASAN (20,410 FEET) (4) DEO TIBBA (19,682 FEET)



MUKARBEH (19,910 FEET) AND MANALI PEAK (18,690 FEET) FROM SHITI DHAR. ROUTE FOLLOWED RIDGE FROM CAMP III.

MUKARBEH (19,910 FEET) AND MANALI PEAK (18,690 FEET) FROM SHITI DHAR. ROUTE FOLLOWED RIDGE FROM CAMP III.



Three pitches of loose rock brought us to the summit barely three hours after leaving Camp I at 6 a.m. From this fresh vantage point we could survey the upper structure of Mukarbeh and the ridge leading to Manali Peak. It appeared difficult and we thought that the scale would force a bivouac on our return even if fixed ropes were placed along the connecting ridge. We scrambled back down the east ridge of Ladakhi Peak, passing the St. Stephen's lads still en route upwards and reached Camp I at 11.30 a.m.

Gupturam constituted the fifth member of our party and was serving as an apprentice cook to Wangyal. He had just arrived at Camp I from Manali where he had made some extra purchases and brought up our mail. As he was not yet a climber we would not allow him to go higher although his enthusiasm was plain enough. He was always cheerful company but it appeared from his rice preparations that his apprenticeship was to last several more years. A few days later he was taken ill with a severe cold and he was sent back down to guard Base Camp and recover. We were consequently very surprised to find him racing back up the next day but soon learnt the reason for his rapid convalescence. He had emerged from his sleeping-bag that morning to find a bear looking him straight in the face. Fortunately the uninvited guest soon wandered elsewhere for his breakfast but Gupturam took no chances and had grabbed his rucksack to flee up to a safer sanctuary at Camp I.

We now had sufficient provisions high up on the mountain to attempt an assault in the excellent weather. As Gray and Calver were not yet fully acclimatized, I moved up to Camp III (17,300 feet) with Wangyal on June 16, carrying enormous loads. On the 17th we took rope and ironmongery and climbed along the corniced ridge and up an ice-field to reach the rocks of Manali Peak in 70 minutes. The summit was now only 100 feet above and we could just make out a fixed rope dangling into the dark abyss behind. This we concluded was a remnant of Staniger's attempt the previous season. Closer inspection from the top of Manali Peak revealed the rope to be in excellent condition although partially covered with snow and ice. We had brought 1,200 feet of plastic line with us and proposed to hang it just as our predecessor, but with a margin left over for any further difficulties once down on to the narrow ridge leading to Mukarbeh. Wangyal was already uncoiling our rope and sorting the pitons while I was having serious doubts about proceeding any further at all ! The summit is merely a tottering block of granite perched above sheer drops to the glaciers on either side of its narrow ridge. It seemed to have an eerie atmosphere all of its own and I completely lost my confidence. Perhaps altitude effects, coupled with exhaustion from the considerable load carrying we had done over the last 15 days, was having a bigger toll than I realized. I decided to act cautiously and informed Wangyal I would have to return without completing our task of placing our fixed ropes. This was the first time I have turned back on a big mountain but the mental relief it gave seemed to indicate a wise decision.

Gray was delivering goods at Camp III when we returned and so I explained the situation and he agreed to take my place while I moved back into support at Camp II. They fixed 600 feet of ropes from Manali Peak next morning and prepared to make for the summit after a day's rest. From June 19 to 22 they seemed to have incredible bad luck while in my ignorance and solitude at Camp II I failed to understand why the figures above me seemed never to be heading towards Mukarbeh. Apparently they took a rest-day and postponed an attempt next morning as the weather seemed unsettled. On 21st evening their paraffin stove refused to light and they spent over two hours in a tent reeking of fumes attempting to mend it. Wangyal seems unaffected by even the worst physical discomfort but unfortunately Gray began to feel very ill. When the performance was repeated in the early hours of the 22nd, the two stalwarts eventually staggered vomiting from the tent and prepared to make their assault. They had eaten their dehydrated food raw and had drunk only a splash of liquid in the previous 16 hours. They not only felt nauseated but it was by now 5.30 a.m. and very late for an attempt on Mukarbeh. Utterly exasperated they reluctantly turned back and walked to meet me at Camp II.

I had now recovered from the shock of viewing Mukarbeh at close quarters and was delighted to find Wangyal ready to turn about immediately and return with me to Camp III. Gray took up my position in support at Camp II and we parted, leaving him with the offensive stove and taking a better one with us. Curiously that was the end of the stove trouble but it had nearly cost us the summit. We had so far been graced with excellent weather and, apart from cloud, all other ominous features such as the rumbling of thunder had remained a few miles away. However, we realized it couldn't last and were both extremely eager to continue the climb.

We feasted regally that night and got away at 3.20 a.m. on June 23. The snow was hard and our crampons hardly scratched the surface. We were on top of Manali Peak at 5 a.m. and as dawn broke in all its glory over Indrasan and Hanuman Tibba, so we swung rapidly down the fixed ropes. At 6 a.m. 1 tripped over a boulder at the end of the fixed rope with ‘Angnima' carved on it. This was the point of return of Staniger's party and perhaps we were now on virgin ground. With rope coils, Wangyal danced delicately over the quarter mile of cornices intermingled with loose rock, to reach the foot of the ice-field on Mukarbeh. At 7 a.m. we paused for breath by a 100-foot wide crevasse, backclothed with a 120-foot wall of ice. The left-hand possibility looked uninviting up 70° ice and soon Wangyal was tiptoeing over a snow bridge on the right-hand extremity. He cut steps silhouetted against a glaring sun and reached easier ice above. I followed and we dumped one of our spare fixed ropes at the belay for easy descent. 800 feet of cramponing up the ice brought us to the foot of the summit rocks at 9 a.m. but we were soon to find that our troubles were only just beginning. The next 800 feet was composed of very steep snow, ice and incredibly loose shale. It is the worst rock I have encountered and one's confidence seemed to ebb as it crumbled to the touch. Wangyal is an expert in these conditions and made good progress. Boulders rumbled down from beneath his feet and snow cascaded below his burrowing arms. He was almost like an ape wading vertically upwards and I prayed that his body would proceed up faster than his feet seemed to be coming down. The sun was working on the snow now and conditions were worsening rapidly. As my nerves began to fray, I asked Wangyal how much further there was to go.

I'm not sure, sahib he replied, winching me up a disintegrating wall of shale. I reached him and pumped his arm for the cunning fellow was sitting on the summit rock! It was 11 a.m. and we tied ourselves to a rock and walked up on to the summit cornice. Below I heard a shout from Calver who had spotted us from Camp II and then a yodel from Gray at Camp III. It seemed to clinch the feeling of isolation and I turned to find Wangyal grinning at me.

Unfortunately the rope was not quite long enough to permit me to peer over the north side of the cornice. I was particularly anxious to see if the ridge marked as connecting Mukarbeh to Shikarbeh (20,340 feet) was in fact climbable so permitting a traverse of these magnificent peaks. I held my camera aloft and pressed the shutter but unfortunately it is not possible to decide from the photograph. However, it seems likely from A. J. M. Smyth's brief description[3] of the Shikarbeh ascent that an ascent of Mukarbeh could be forced up the ridge from the col. I would be interested to see a view of these ridges in profile taken perhaps from the Sissu Nullah or the Chandra River. The panoramic photograph I obtained from the summit reveals little that is not already known but the exceptionally clear day shows the peaks of Lahoul, the Bara Shigri divide, Point Parvati (21,760 feet and conquered by the Italians a few days earlier) and of Kulu Valley all very sharply on the prints.

Wangyal was busy building a cairn while I searched for any signs of previous visitors. Satisfied the summit was virgin, we glanced once more over to Indrasan, Deo Tibba and Papsura. What a tragedy that Geoffrey Hill who had conquered the latter could no longer be with us on Mukarbeh. With mixed thoughts we started to abseil back down the shivering rocks. It was a slow process for firm belays were hard to locate. Eventually our second fixed rope was abandoned on the lowest rocks before the ice-field and I was startled by a shout from Wangyal. He had found an old tin of uncertain age but probably less than three years old. We assumed that these rocks had turned back a previous attempt and I pondered over our luck for we had only just been able to scale them.

The ice-field was now in very dangerous condition for a covering of snow threatened to lubricate a rapid descent. Cautiously we belayed down to reach the fixed rope down the ice well and over the crevasse. The corniced ridge along to Manali Peak was weak and as Wangyal tripped along merrily I tried to predict which side he would fall so that I could counter with a leap on the opposite side. We reached the fixed ropes up to Manali Peak without incident but at the onset of a threatening storm. As we hauled ourselves to the top, the ironmongery started to buzz with static electricity. Down the ice-field to Camp III the conditions were again very dangerous and it was with great relief that we emerged from the mist to be greeted by Gray holding two steaming mugs of tea from the tent doorway.

On the 24th we loaded Camp III on our backs and sped across the slopes to Camp II. This traverse was completed with further relief for several times avalanches had obliterated the route and crossings became more dangerous as the endless days of sun weakened the snows above on Ladakhi Peak. We couldn't load Camp II up as well, so soon Wangyal had made a huge bundle of equipment and rolled it over the edge. Calver scrambled out of his tent at Camp I and was just in time to catch the package in a fine rugby tackle as it came hurtling past. We were anxious to reach Base the same day and so Wangyal constructed an even larger package weighing about 600 lb. While this was going on, I went to investigate Geoffrey Hill's camp site that was just emerging from the snow. The ample stores of food, equipment and medical supplies supplied a sad postscript to our venture. We all concluded that a cornice had formed over the tents, presumably as they slept overnight.

We continued the descent and marvelled at the skill with which Wangyal and Gupturam manoeuvred their enormous load down the snow couloirs. Three days later we had devoured a sheep at Base Camp and returned to the pastures of the Kulu Valley. As I walked alone down the Solang Nullah I met a party of Americans who were hunting for bears and who had just had to spend a day constructing a bridge in order to cross a swollen torrent. I reflected that people find excitement along different avenues and was again puzzled by the compelling call that the mountains still held for me.


[1] See H.J., Vol. XXV, p. 178, and H.J., Vol. XXVI, p. 144.

[2] H.J., Vol. XXVI, p. 145.

[3] H.J., Vol. XIX, p. 152 (including photo of Mukarbeh).

3B