WE were, nominally, an Army expedition mounted from Hong Kong. We even had a military code name. However, as the number of experienced Army climbers in Hong Kong in 1974 was scarcely sufficient to mount an expedition to Llanberis, the original plan had to be modified along the way. The team finally included three Army climbers based in England (Mike Burgess, leader, John Scott and Derrick Chamberlain), Frank Fonte from Brunei, Phil Neame from the R.A.F. and even a civilian (me). The original Hong Kong Army criteria were filled only by Jeff Barker (just about to be posted away) and our two Gurkhas, Ang Phurba Sherpa and Sange Tamang. Ang Phurba's father had been on Everest in 1921, which seemed a good start. When we assembled in Pokhara in March 1974 only Mike knew everyone else in the party.
We were a large expedition for the size of our mountain, but an underestimate of its difficulty made us a fairly lightweight one, and force of circumstances made us a low-budget one. We took no Sherpas, thus saving much money and probably some trouble, and confounding the newspaper correspondents in Kathmandu who told us, improbably, that we were the first expedition ever to leave without them. I convinced myself, from one or two distant photographs, that 1,500 ft. of fixed rope would be the most we would need, and in fact it was just enough, though I suspect we would have used twice as much if we had had it. My simple belief that Army climbing expeditions were all paid for by the British taxpayer was shattered at an early stage, but we received a grant from the M.E.F. and we managed to raise some cash in Hong Kong which kept our personal contributions down to £100 each plus personal gear. Our total expenditure was £4000.
Jimmy Roberts had suggested the east ridge of Lamjung, approached from its south side, as the best route. This was the route taken by the only previous party we were aware of. (Ref. A. J. No. 317, p. 249-50) and an exciting aerial reconnaissance confirmed this as our choice. After Mike and I had been up on foot to choose the Base Camp site, we set out from Pokhara on 23 March with sixty porters and just under two tons of baggage, including seven weeks food for ten people.
Our approach was short, not more than thirty miles, and we thought we were safe in allowing four days to base. A heavy snowstorm on the third day out confounded us by causing two- thirds of our porters to quit, half way there, and the two feet of new snow on the rest of the route slowed us down very much. We even had to fix a rope on one bit. Before our base was set up on the snow at around 13,500 ft., we were out of porters altogether.
The route to the east col. (17,730 ft.) between Lamjung and the "Lamjung spitzen" lay up the flank of a rather nasty glacier, into a snow bowl, then up a 1,500 foot ramp on the flank of the west Lamjungspitzen to a point just above the col. A large transverse serac wall, colourfully banded like Neapolitan ice-cream, threatened the lower part of the route but in fact caused no mishaps. The snow bowl, which could have been full of appalling crevasses was in fact very easy, and the ramp was straightforward steep snow, albeit sometimes in foul condition, and with the odd ice patch near the top. When Phil and I abseiled down to the col with the first batch of loads on 11 April, we felt we had been fairly lucky so far. The next day, we took a rest—fortunately again, as three substantial avalanches cleared the soft snow off the ramp exactly 24 hours after our descent.
From the col our foreshortened view of the east ridge gave rise to some optimism. A series of snow couloirs led to the ridge which, it seemed, gave access via a short serac wall to the upper glacier-capped ridge. This, as we knew, or thought we knew, from the plane trip, led in easy snow slopes to the top. Phil stirred up the rearguard by asking on the radio for the summit flags, and we set out for a look the next day, full of hope that the job would soon be done.
We found we had been a bit premature. Six hours up the con- loirs and along a narrow and not too stable snow crest took us to a junction of ridges, and a superb view to Manaslu and Himal Chuli away to the east. From here a kink in the ridge line, hidden from below, revealed a thousand feet of particularly nasty narrow, rotten, steep sided, cornice-topped snow ridge leading to a sudden impressive wall of seracs. We clearly needed fixed ropes, not summit flags, for the time being. We also needed a camp- site, which wasn't there. After some thought, we scratched out the beginnings of an ice cave in a very hairy position and retired to bring up the gear and let our minds digest the thought of the forthcoming bivouac.
At this point, the expedition's secret weapons came into play. These were monumental stakes, made by the Royal Engineers to my somewhat extravagant design out of one of the world's more expensive alloys. They weighed about three pounds each and were strong enough to hold a falling tank. It turned out that in steep soggy snow they were ideal.
Phil and I were relieved of our soul-searching about the ice cave when Mike decided we had been in the lead long enough, and went up himself with John to fix the ropes. John had been looking forward to this and they turned our scratchy hollow in the ice into a presentable bed-sitter-just as well, as they spent three nights in it, rather than the one which had been anticipated. Even in soggy the big stakes needed a bit of bashing.
After two days and 1,200 ft. of rope-fixing, John and Mike reached the serac wall. It was around two hundred feet high, not thirty feet as I had thought from below, but they found an almost miraculous route through it by a big crevasse, big enough to put a temporary camp in. Derrick, Phil and I joined them — three in a 2-man tent to save weight —and at 19,800 ft. on the altimeter we began to feel we were getting close.
We still had some food in a dump at the ice cave, so on the next day John and I carried this up, while Phil and Derrick set off, self-contained, for the top, hoping to make it with just one more camp. The serac wall was followed by an exciting snow- bridge and another 200 ft. of fairly steep ice, after which they were on the broad glacier-capped ridge leading toward the summit. This had one catch in it, a small overhanging ice wall which made them get out the ice pegs and etriers, and caused some hard breathing. They pitched their top camp on 24 April, at around 21,400 ft. on the saddle above the conspicuous snow dome.
Above this camp, the broad ridge continued easily at first — then steepened into a turret-like summit crest, rather more distinct than it appeared from below, and a good deal steeper. An easy snow ramps ran to the east around the base of this, and may have led to a relatively easy route to the top, but this could not be seen, so Derrick and Phil took a direct route. Three hundred feet of steepish ice took them to a sharp crest, which ended in a short vertical snow-wall below the summit. They needed pegs again, for what proved to be the last pitch. The summit plateau was long and narrow, but otherwise remarkably like the top of the Cairngorms in winter. Despite a late finish they got a view of Annapurna II, rising three miles away beyond a very large snow saddle. They just got back to their camp in daylight.
John and I repeated the climb two days later, following the original route exactly, despite my preference for exploring round the corners and avoiding the ice climbing. We had electricity buzzing around our heads on the summit and saw about as much as one usually sees from the Cairngorms. We had a thrill on the descent when we abseiled down the top wall from an ice channel in the snow; the peg held me adequately but pulled out just as John finished his abseil. It meant we saved a peg. Mike, who had earlier descended to the col with a heavy cold, now persuaded Phil to repeat the climb with him, again following the same route.
By this time, several people had been continually above the snowline for a month or more, and we had had enough, so after some heart-searching we left the fixed ropes and headed for home. The main party returned by the approarh route, marvelling at the difference in speed of the same porters going up and coming down. Frank, John and I for a change went down on the north side of the col, sliding for miles on our bottoms in the snow, and incidentally discovering that access to the col was much easier from this side. After a few passages of grade six pine forest, we reached the beautiful and impressive Marsyandi Jvhola at Chame, and followed it down in five days to Khudi, Dumre and the road to Pokhara.