MINAR AND M6
SQN LDR E. J. M. THOMAS
THE aim of this expedition was to climb Minar 20,250 ft, and M6, 20,000 ft in Lahul. We also had an important scientific aim which was to study diseases amongst the nomadic flocks of sheep which the Gaddi shepherds drive up the Kulu valley and into Lahul each year. The second aim was developed because Hugh Morris is not only a fine alpinist but also a veterinary surgeon who specializes In sheep diseases in his work for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The expedition would gain from his presence as a mountaineer, and it may have been that the local shepherds could gain from his professional knowledge. John lianon's dog certainly did so because Hugh operated on a large tumour that the Kulu Secretary of the Himalayan Club's bitch had, and we have recently heard that she has fully recovered to perfect health.
The team consisted of: Squadron Leader Emlyn Thomas, leader, Flying Officer Ian Jones, deputy leader, Wing Commander Peter Hogg, medical officer, Major John Campbell, Flight Lieutenant Mike Parsons, Flight Lieutenant Jeff Scholefield, Sergeant Graham Drinkwater, Sergeant Tony Selmes, Corporal Ernie Smith, Corporal John Coull, Corporal Terry Moore, Corporal Steve Peacock, Mr Hugh Morris and liaison officers Yogi Yadav and Suresh Bhasin.
The beauty of Manali as a waiting place is that there are any number of fine mountains within an easy day's walk of the town, and when the rest of the lads arrived they set about climbing some of them. It was something of a job to keep them from going straight out after their overnight journey from Delhi. But the next day most of us were bivouacking ready to climb a 15,000 to 16,000 foot mountain.
At last we were on the move. Or almost. By 11.00 a.m. the mules began to arrive over the Rohtang. The other side of the Rohtang is the village of Koksar where there is a police post, and everyone going into Lahul has to register there.
I was relieved to see that the Chandra valley was quite free of snow. I could see the track running up it for about 7 miles to where the valley bent sharp left. Huge mountains walled the sides of the valley from its base at 10,500 ft to their summits 10,000 ft higher. So many mountains that it was impossible to differentiate one from another of these little-known and relatively unexplored peaks. The approach march is going to take 6 days.
Photo Plate 43
We established our base camp just below the snout of the Samunder Shigri (shigri-glacier). It was a good site with shelter and plenty of fresh water, and was to be our home for 8 to 9weeks to come, at 13,250 ft. It was with quite a feeling of commitment that I saw the mules leave us on the evening of 13 June, and heard the camp site quieten at dusk under a star full sky with the light of a full moon above glorious rock and snow peaks.
The next day, whilst most people sorted out Base Camp and arranged Loads for moving to Advance Base Camp (ABC) Ian Jones, Mike Parsons, Graham Drinkwater, Suresh Bhasin, and I walked up the Samundar Tapu Shigri to look for a site for ABC. Samunder Tapu Shigri is a long, easy, and boring dry glacier, and we intended setting ABC where the Kandi Kila Shigri joins it. Instead we chose a site on a lateral moraine on the southern side of Kandi Kila Shigri about 4 1\2 hours from base camp. It was logistically good to be able to establish ABC at 15,300 ft on a site which allowed us to carry our loads there without objective difficulty.
The mountains at the head of Samundar Tapu Shigri came into view slowly as we walked up the glacier. On the left Pagoda dominates. It is a huge rock peak which seems impregnable from the side we can see. No wonder it has not been climbed. Then the north face of Minar allows its top few feet to peep over the ridge on the left. At the glacier's source is an enlarged copy of the Rochefort Ridge, and then M5, M6, and Mulkila overshadow the cwm. But again there are so many unclimbed mountains that are spectacular and inviting that the scene overawes one. From the glacier junction we could see the greater part of Minar's north face. It is a huge sweep of ice maybe 5000 ft long and seemingly unbroken. It looked as if it were going to be a hard mountain to climb.
After a lot of discussion I asked John Coull, Graham, Terry and Ernie to take a couple of tents into the North Cwm and to have a look at the route over M33A to assess its viability. Ian and I would fix ropes up the gully so that if we decided to go that way the load carrying would be safeguarded up the gully. By the time Ian and I reached the glacier we could see the others well up the long snow ridge leading to M33A. They were going well. Then they slowed up considerably with Terry in the lead. It was a steep snow slope, and Terry seemed to be almost up to his waist in the deep snow. Later he told me for every step upwards he had to stamp down the snow 3 or 4 times. This was about 18,500 ft and Terry had not had any previous experience at this sort of altitude. He had not acclimatized any more than the rest of us yet he could make this sort of effort with seeming ease and on a desperate slope. Eventually they all climbed the slope and reached a small col at about 18,750 ft. They had misunderstood the reason for their mission, and left 2 tents at that little col. Then they abseiled down a fixed rope on that terrible slope. Ian and I could do little but watch. We had climbed the small peak opposite; this was the one above our ABC. It was terribly loose rock, and when we reached the summit we found a small cairn which had probably been left by McArthur's party in 1955. This was at 17,200 ft.
I was dismayed to have seen the others abseil down a fixed rope because it meant that they had almost committed us to that route. I was even more dismayed to find that they had left not only one rope but 4 on the mountain. The next step over M33A would take at least another day, then from the col to Minar could take another 2 or 3 days. Any retreat, and all the logistic support, would be most difficult and extended. I felt that it had been my error to have put four young climbers in a position which left them making decisions for the whole expedition, and that in turn had resulted from the imbalance of the group at ABC. The youngest and fittest were naturally there. But leaving the gear on the mountain demonstrated the men's tremendous motivation to climb the mountain. So I arranged for Ian, Mike Parsons, John Coull, and Graham to make a good recce of the southern approach to Minar. We would retrieve the gear from M33A when the decision about the best approach was made. In some ways it was a step in the right direction because we were at least a day on our way up one route.
I had gone to base camp for a rest day. A message arrived from Ian to say that he had worked out a reasonable and accessible route to Minar's col. This was really good news, and I set about working out the plan of movements for our assault on the mountain.
By 23 June Ernie and Terry, and Hugh and I were at ABC ready to move to Camp 1 on Minar. So whilst Hugh and I retrieved the gear from the shoulder of M33A the other two moved up to the cwm on the south side of Minar taking with them Tony Selmes, Steve Peacock, and John Campbell to carry the tents and gear. Jeff Scholefield had volunteered to be ABC manager, and arranged for a porter to wake us at 3.30 a.m. with chocolate. Such Luxury. Eventually Jeff sent the porter back down and did all this himself, and it was a most valuable and useful job too. Terry and Co. negotiated the icefall without difficulty and set up Camp 1 on the eastern side of the cmw in what seemed to them the least avalanche-prone position.
Although the main effort was towards Minar, Hugh and I had quite a day on M33A. The route to the shoulder was a real trudge through deep soft snow which was also very steep Having left camp at 04.00 we were on the shoulder by 09.30. Every step up the last 300 ft was up to our waist in soft snow. Fortunately there was the rope that the others had left. We packed up the gear which consisted of 2 tents and 2 ropes, and then Hugh abseiled the 300 ft down the fixed rope. Whilst he was abseiling he often fell in the soft snow and had to do a forward roll to extricate himself. From the bottom of that slope it was an easier angled stretch of snow and Hugh began glissading and holding on to the rucksack full of gear on the end of one of the ropes. He hit a patch of soft snow, lost control after getting tangled up in the rope, turned over a few times, and stopped. But the rucksack went on rolling. It rolled down the slope for a thousand feet or so, hit the glacier, and disappeared into a crevasse. John Campbell had been waiting for us on the glacier but had not been able to stop the rucksack, and I could only stand a thousand feet higher and watch all the gear we had struggled so hard to retrieve disappear into the crevasse. The air around me was purple as I cursed everyone to the best of my ability. When I got down to where the rucksack had disappeared Hugh and John were rigging up a system to lower Hugh into the crevasse to search for the rucksack. Impatiently I walked to the edge and looked down. There was the rucksack within easy reach just 3 feet down. Neither of them had bothered to look. So I hauled it up and we set off back towards ABC. Hugh was exhausted by his experience and the altitude and heat, and John was of little more help, so I ended up carrying 5 ropes and a tent back down the gully and to ABC. We got in by 15.00 after a very hard day.
At 04.00 the next day, 24 June, Hugh and I left to move up to Camp 1 so that we would be on the spot to support Terry and Ernie during their attempt on Minar. I little expected that when we reached the upper icefall we would be able to see them on summit. But there were two figures there. Tony Selms, John Campbell, Suresh, and Pete Hogg had carried loads up to Camp 1 and were all thrilled to see the expedition's first success. Minar was climbed.
Hugh and I set about preparing drinks for Ernie and Terry. We realized that their greatest need would be to get as much fluid into themselves as possible. When Ernie and Terry reached the glacier Hugh and I rushed out to meet them and carry their rucksacks. For both of them it was their first time over 20,000 ft, their first time in the Himalaya, and a first ascent. They told us that they had stuck to the rock ridge from the col and had found it very loose and difficult but had pressed on to get to the top. They suggested that parties following could take a higher gully to the west ridge and climb from there mainly on hard packed snow on the northern side of the ridge. This would make the route both easier and shorter. They had left a fixed rope on one pitch which they described as VS to Hard VS but on good rock. Hugh and I set off at 02.00 the next day to attempt Minar. But we had not had enough rest, and were unprepared for such poor rock so we turned back from the ridge. When we got back to Camp 1 Ian and Mike had arrived at the camp for their try at the mountain the next day.
It was the hottest day we had had, and the cwm was like a huge dish collecting the heat from the sun. We could do little but sit in our tents and sweat. I was exhausted after two nights of only 2 to 3 hours' sleep and was dozing in the tent when Ian called out to say that there was a small avalanche coming down the slope about 50 m from our tents. We all put our boots on and went out for a look. We had been out for less than 5 minutes when a big slab broke away above our tents, it spurted like a huge white waterspout over a crag in its path and started another slab avalanche off. It missed the front tent by inches and a huge snow block actually passed between the tents. That landed on the snow shelf where half an hour earlier we had been sitting and drinking tea. There was another fracture line above the tents, and rather than risk another avalanche we decided to move the tents into the centre of the cwm. This was only overshadowed by a huge icefall from which pieces fell all day.
So we collapsed the tents and dragged them one at a time with everything inside to the new site. At that altitude, 18,250 ft, and after an exhausting day it was no mean feat to do that and sort out and re-erect the tents. However, I had a good night's sleep.
Ian and Mike left early the next day for their attempt on Minar. By about 08.00 we could see them at the foot of the access gully to the main rock ridge. They had approached this by a direct assault on the long south face snowfield. This seemed by far the best way to the mountain, and Hugh and I resolved that when we came back for another try it would be by this route. John Coull and Graham were to have come up to relieve us, to act as Ian and Mike's support, and to have a go at Minar the next day, but by the time we had reached the foot of the approach gully and could have seen someone an hour and a half away there was no sign of them. So we waited an hour in case something had prevented them coming. Still there was no sign of them, so we returned for our third night at 18,250 ft, and yet another searing day in the snow bowl. The climb back up the gully was unending as we were both severely dehydrated and feeling the effects of some hard days at altitude. We collapsed the tents and lay inside the shade of the fly sheets making brews for when Ian and Mike returned successfully from their climb. By the time we cooked an evening meal I was so dehydrated that I could eat very little. It did not help that the Arctic rations cannot be reconstituted successfully at altitude because the water boils at too low a temperature. I am afraid that John and Graham were not the most popular people in my hook by the time we settled down to sleep at about 18.30. Suddenly I awoke to Hugh shouting. We had been woken by someone shouting on the glacier. I wondered what could have happened to make someone come up at this time of day. It was about ID.HO and pitch dark. All sorts of events passed through my mind about possible accidents, but it was just John Coull and Graham arriving. They had delayed their departure from ABC because they wanted to ask me if they could try Minar by another route, and when we failed to come down had decided to come up to Camp 1. So we ended up with three in each of the Medina tents. Another uncomfortable night made me glad to leave for ABC at 05.DO the next day. After our success on Minar everyone came down to Base Camp for a rest.
Although the approach to M6 seemed to lie by way of the Mulkila glacier which branched eastwards from Samundar Tapu Shigri the upper end of this glacier was fierce icefall which tumbled 2 or 3 thousand feet in an impassable barrier. Another subsidiary glacier branched from the Samundar Tapu Shigri a little further north. McArthur's map showed this to terminate in a ridge before it reached M6, and we would have to cross this ridge in order to approach M6 up this steep glacier. Ian discovered that unfortunately for us the map was in error. There was not a ridge there, and the glacier went straight up to the col to the northwest of M6. This was still a very long approach which we estimated would take about 10 hours from ABC. The glacier was heavily crevassed and snow-covered so that we would have to move roped for its entire length. In fact we had to move roped for the entire length of Samundar Tapu Shigri above cur intermediate camp.
In order to shorten the long approach to M6 we decided to put a couple of tents about 2 hours up the Samundar Tapu Shigri from ABC, and assault parties could move there on the evening before they moved up to the M6 Assault camp. Ian, Graham, and John went up to M6 col on a recce taking a Medina tent with them.
If they had taken more gear with them they would certainly have climbed M6 on their recce. It was only the fact that they had just one rope that slowed them down so much that they did not climb it. Really bad luck. They brought back very encouraging news about M6 and the route on it.
On the evening of 1 July, Jeff Scholefield, Pete Hogg, and I setoff to take the 2 tents away on to Samundar Tapu Shigri to establish our intermediate camp. We were prevented from getting as far up the glacier as I would have liked because of the weather and the fact that we were amongst hidden crevasses; the weather was deteriorating quite badly, and it was quite late in the evening. The others were shortly behind us, and we left them to sort out their camp site on a moraine on the true left bank. When they did so they found the remains of an aircraft which were to prove very interesting to the IAF for they were the wreckage of a Mystere aircraft which had disappeared, in 1967, and the IAF were most pleased to discover it. There was no sign of the pilot's body. He may have crashed well up on the mountain and the wreckage been brought down by the natural movement of the mountain.
Sunday 2 July started fine and bright so I took Suresh up a small peak called 'Piton' by us opposite ABC. We enjoyed a rock and snow route which would be about PD in the Alps, It ended on the summit in extremely loose and friable rock. In fact if I had wished it, I could have lowered the height of the summit by a good few feet simply by chucking rock off. I am convinced that the second pair to climb it did that deliberately so as to make it less than 18,000 ft in a fit of spite. By the time we reached ABC on our return the weather had got very much worse. It was raining and the wind was blowing hard from the west. But I was confident that Terry, Ernie and Tony must be well sheltered in their little tent on the col by now and getting ready for their assault on M6 the next day. Had I known the real position I would have been very much more worried.
It had been the worst night we had had since we arrived. There was quite a bit of snow, and it was still snowing, but not heavily, when Hugh and Mike woke at 5 a.m. for an attempt on 'Piton'. It was bad enough for them to delay their start until 6.30. By then the signs were that the weather would clear; so they left. Ian had a badly infected thumb, and Pete decided to operate on it. Whilst everything was being prepared we saw three figures coming across the glacier. It was too early for them to be anyone from base camp so we knew that they must be Terry, Ernie and Tony, and it was. They had a sad and frustrating tale to tell; one that worried me as well. They had not heard Ian explain about the ridge on the map that was not there, and had avoided going up the side glacier that led to that ridge and the col on M6 where the tent was. As a result they had ploughed straight up the Samundar Tapu Shigri to its top col at about 19,000 ft, and had not found the tent. By then the weather had got bad enough for them not to be able to see very far, it had started snowing and they had to decide to retreat to the intermediate camp. They spent 15 very frustrating hours on the hill without getting anywhere. They were naturally very angry, and even accused Ian of not telling them about the non-existent ridge so that he could be the first on M6. That was nonsense of course, and they agreed it was. They were prepared to go back up then and there, but after that sort of experience I really thought it would be unwise and unsafe. They needed time to recover, Ian was about to receive an anaesthetic and a minor operation and Graham and John wanted to wait till he was fit, so that left Hugh, Mike and me available for an attempt on M6. Suddenly we were the first team. It was a bit like being the substitute In an international and the player in your position getting injured. I frit excited at the chance, and apprehensive about my own fitness compared to the other two. I wondered if I was up to it.
We had a meal, and set off that evening for the intermediate ramp. A brew and a Valium, and asleep by 19.00 hours.
The next morning's sunrise saw us well up the glacier, roped together because of the many huge hidden crevasses, but going well and fairly fast. By the time the sun was really on the side glacier, now called M6 glacier, we were well up towards the col. The snow had been reasonably hard and provided good going, but by about 09.00 we were on a false col that hid the main col and the tent. We had not been looking forward to the last few hours of this approach in what could have been soft deep snow, but we had gone so well that the snow had not got as soft as it might. The promised 8-hour walk took only 5|, and by 09.30 we were at the tent. It had blown down. We spent some time rearranging the platform and digging it out some more, and then settled down to wait out the day's heat by brewing lots of tea and soup.
The morning was clear, bright and cold. Exactly right for Alpine climbing. The snow was frozen hard, and my crampons bit into it at every step up the first 500-foot snowfield. By the time I have crossed the bergschrund Mike and Hugh are roping up ready for the first ice. The slope is not steep, but below it is a goodly drop on to the next glacier. Anyone sliding on the slope could have a nasty surprise if he did not stop in time. We cross the slope easily, and I wonder if roping was necessary. It was of course. Now an easy gully full of good ice and old snow. I think again that we could really move together here but the other two want belays. If we have to belay each other all the way up we will be very very slow. The next pitch is rock. It is quite good, red, almost granite. Then we cross a small icefield and get on to some very loose rock. More like shale really, except that it seems to be in big blocks that will tumble at the slightest touch. Hugh arrives saying that if he had had to lead that 400 ft we would have turned back. I am sure that it was the worst rock I have ever climbed. At least it was dry.
We go on up the ridge at an easy angle but still very very loose until we can move back on to snow, firm, and hard, that leads to the summit snowfield. We are there surprisingly quickly, and there is the rounded summit just a few feet ahead. I go ahead only to fall through a nasty little crevasse in the summit snowfield where no one would expect one. I feel as if I am dangling over the whole of the south-west face of M6, and after Hugh pulls me out I go on very much more carefully.
The view to the east is blocked by the bulk of Mulkila, but all around there are superb views of unclimbed mountains. There is one huge one way to the northwest that could be Nun Kun. Without accurate maps it is impossible to name all the mountains. We had climbed M6 in a fast time, and after a long descent which included climbing back up a gully to recover a fixed abseil rope we reached our camp at 12.30. We had taken only 10 1\2 hours for the whole climb.
Ian, Graham, and John climbed M6 on 7 July and Terry, Ernie, and Tony woke them at 07.00 hours when they arrived at Camp 2 on the col at 07.00 hours on the 8th. The latter had taken only 3 hours to get up there from Camp 1. It would not have surprised me to hear that they had then gone on to climb M6 that day.
Spattering rain on a tent is the worst alarm-clock a mountaineer can have. Back at Base Camp I awoke to its sound at 5.45 in the morning of 9 July, and immediately wondered about the weather on M6 for Ernie, Terry and Tony. The weather was better on 10 July and I went up to ABC. Near the junction with the Silver Glacier I saw three figures, crossing from Samundar Tapu Shigri towards ABC and I hurried to meet them to hear of their success on M6. But from a good way off it was possible to tell that they had not made it. The bad weather had stopped them climbing M6, and as they descended from Camp 2, roped, with Ernie leading, he had fallen through a snowbridge into a very deep crevasse. Fortunately he had landed on an ice ledge about 30 feet down and Tony had held him. He was only slightly damaged, and Terry and Tony soon rigged up a pulley system to get him out. This was made difficult by the overhanging of the crevasse, but he was out in about 40 minutes, cold and shaken. He had bruised some ribs and had coughed up a little blood.
The five of us set off up towards Camp 1 at 5.30 a.m. Most of the snow had melted from the Silver Glacier and we could trudge straight up the middle, leaping the occasional narrow crevasse. Much of the snow had also melted from the lower part of the Minar glacier and this had exposed steep scree in the gully we had used previously on to the right of the first icefall. So we took a line which led directly up the icefall which was not too steep or difficult. Pete's crampons kept coming off and slowed us up a great deal.
ON MINAR AGAIN
Hugh Morris, Graham Drinkwater, John Coull, and I set off for our attempt on Minar at 02.00 hours on 12 July. We were going up the main face snowfield which stretched 1500 ft towards the summit ridge. Crossing the bergschrund we started on the steep snow. It was still fairly soft and allowed us to kick big steps. That was tiring of course, and we took turns to lead. Eventually we got on to steep ice. That was better, and we were able to front-point our way up it reasonably quickly.
The long snow-and-ice field took time, and it was as dawn was breaking that we reached the bottom of the gully where Terry and Ernie had left a fixed rope. It was needed for the gully was quite hard in a couple of places, and we were not used to serious rock climbing at about 20,000 ft. Hugh and I climbed together, and were moving well. When we got to the summit ridge it was exciting to see that the mist now filled all the surrounding valleys, and only Mulkila and Minar were high enough to push their heads out of the sea of cloud. We had often see Brocken spectres in Wales and Scotland, but at 20,000 ft it was a new experience.
Suddenly we went up a short snow ridge, and were on the summit. We took photos, and basked in the warm sun for an hour while we waited for John and Graham. Then we pushed on down with some speed, collecting the fixed rope on the way, to get back to Pete's brew of tea at about 14.00 hours.
We were all laden with huge loads for our return to ABC because we brought back everything except the food. When we got there Jeff had his usual brew ready and waiting and Terry had come up to keep him company.
On 16 July the advance party left for Manali. Hugh wanted to collect more snails and faeces and Mike went for company and to arrange for a truck to meet us at Batal. Pete, Tony, and I set off for a couple of days to walk up to the Bara Lacha La at the head of the Chandra Valley, and those remaining at Base Camp had various plans for climbing small peaks and preparing for our departure.
The next day was not particularly good weather but it was a most interesting and enjoyable one exploring the upper reaches of the Chandra. There is a track on the left bank but we were on the right where there were few signs that people had been there. We forded many fast-flowing rivers until we reached one which was too wide: there were really big mountains all around it. We could only see their lower flanks because of cloud but what we could see convinced me that there were some very big and remote mountains around the glacier. It would not surprise me to know no one had ever set foot on that glacier before us. It is almost certain that no one has climbed those mountains; the biggest is about 20,800 ft. I was impressed again at the vast amount of good alpine peaks in Lahul, and could only recall Hamish McArthur's words describing the unmapped area we were now in, 'Many fine peaks here'.
Two days later we were at civilization as represented by the tiny stone-built cafe at Batal Bridge. A wait for a truck and then 6 hours for a journey to Manali which had taken us 6 days coming out. We took the landslides in our stride, and were soon enjoying hot showers and a proper meal at John Banon's Guest House.
King’s peak, 19,901 ft.