IN DEDHI we met our advance party of three, accompanied by our liaison officer, Pranesh Chakraborty, and four buses from Himachal Pradesh Tourism, and we were roaring out of Delhi in a rain-storm by 2, p.m., having completed the tedium of extracting our last advance baggage from the customs shed. In almost record time, the King's School Ely Himalayan Expedition 1978 was on its way to the mountains.
We were a motley crew, ranging in age from 11 to 47. A third were adults, a third between 18 and 21, and a third under 18, probably the youngest group ever to visit the Himalaya. We were divided into two main groups, an exploratory one with the objective of exploring the Miyar nullah in Lahul up to glacier level, and a mountaineering one with the objective of climbing peaks on the watershed above the main valley, the highest of which was Menthosa, 21,140 ft. We knew also of many possible first ascents. Our training had been thorough, over a period of two years to the expedition, and had included Alpine work as well as walking, back-packing and camping. We felt tired after our journey and the rush of final preparations, but ready to tackle our peaks and realize our dreams.
We arrived in Manali a day and a half later, picked up 15 porters, some paraffin and fresh food, and continued on over the Rohtang Pass to Thirot, where we were stopped by a landslide on the road ahead. From there we had an extra day's walk to Udaipur, and then a grand sort-out before continuing in two stages to a base-camp just below Khanjar, about half-way up the Miyar Nullah. Although we used porters for this and for the establishment Of a second base-camp for the attempt on Menthosa, over half the loads were carried by our own expedition members in relays. Everybody carried at least two loads into base, thus significantly helping their own fitness and acclimatization as well as getting more loads into position. Throughout the expedition members worked in small groups, and camped in pairs. This helped to keep the weight of communal equipment to a minimum, as massive base-camp tents and dining shelters were unnecessary. It also helped to reduce the impact of the expedition on the environment, a factor which was uppermost in our minds during the planning stages. In practice we achieved a minimal impact, both economically as we were largely self-sufficient, and environmentally as our members observed very high standards of camp hygiene and tidiness throughout, and, base-camps apart, were spread thinly over a large area. The entire expedition also reached the base-camps in a good state of health by dint of slow acclimatization, and refraining from unfamiliar local food until all load-carrying was complete.
Photo Plate 44
Co-ordinated by expedition Deputy Leader, Theo Quant, and with much help in communications from our excellent liaison officer, the Exploration Group soon set about making contact with the local villages, and moving up into the rich Alpine pastures of the upper half of the Miyar nullah, where migrant shepherds were grazing their sheep for the summer season. A great deal of valuable topographical information was gained, and exciting new friendships forged with these native people, so new and interesting to us. They came to visit our camp, and we visited their homes in the villages and the shepherds' huts on the hillsides. Our young people saw a new world, and a fresh approach to life, with all the inspiration and insight into the human state which, such experience gives. They also surveyed and reported on largely unexplored side valleys, with the ascent of one or two easy minor peaks.
Twelve of the expedition, the youngest of whom was 17, concentrated their activities from the base camp below Menthosa, situated at about 15,000 ft. They laid siege to the mountain for three weeks, and made two attempts to the summit, the second of which was crowned with success, though the descent was made in an electric storm and rapidly deteriorating weather. The summit team of four crowned what was a magnificent achievement by any standards with the joy of success. The third ascent of Menthosa had been made by schoolboys, and they were justifiably proud. Meanwhile, members of the first assault team who had been unable to make the summit, largely because of lack of acclimatization, made two first ascents of neighbouring peaks over 19,000 ft. All these three mountains offered climbing problems adequate to extend those taking part in their ascent. It is probably worthy of note that the British Army used this mountain ,-as a training climb for Everest a few years ago.
The second group of climbers, known as the Younger Mountaineers, concentrated their efforts from the base camp above Khanjar on to the mountains to the east of the Miyar nullah above the point where it turns westwards just above half length. Three peaks in particular had taken my fancy during my reconnaissance of the upper valley early in the expedition. They were points 19,935 ft, 19,901 ft, and 19,720 ft. A little further south were two, other peaks over 19,000 ft but these proved too dangerous for an attempt by the younger contingent. Accordingly we concentrated our efforts on Point 19,901 ft in the first instance, and set up three camps in the first ten days above base. We used no porters, and the boys, aged 13 to 16, did their full store of load-carrying. The route to Camp I followed a side valley immediately above base camp, and lay largely over moraine boulders for 3000 ft. In places it was steep, and the boulders large and loose, which gave hard going for some of the unacclimatized youngsters. After two carries to stock the camp, which was in the ablation valley beside the moraine-covered base of the glacier, eight of the party moved up to occupy the camp, moving on the following morning to establish Camp 2 some 2000 ft higher. I followed that night and had an exciting trip in the dark, the others meeting me in the morning when they descended from Camp 2 to take up loads of food. Our way now crossed the glacier over moraine, quicksands and torrents, until we reached the Hat bottom of the ablation valley on the other side, and then climbed a gruelling steep grass slope followed by more boulders to a delightful flat camp site a few yards from the relatively clean ice snout of the subsidiary glacier leading to the col at I 17,700 ft which was to become the site of Camp 3. The ascent of this glacier was slow as everybody began to feel the altitude, and the loads become intolerably heavy. Camp 3 was pitched on snow just above the crevasses of the glacier at the head of the next side glacier of the Miyar nullah northwards. There was much resting and puffing and blowing as the camp was pitched.
It was here on the snow and the ice that the sleeping bags, tents and jackets which we had made for ourselves back at the school in England were really put to the test. They proved their worth, and our skill, and are still in use now with plenty of wear left in them. From our lofty perch on the spine of the ridge between two Himalayan valleys we could see rank upon rank of now-covered peaks fading to the horizon, all of them as far as we know still untrodden by the feet of man. As our tired eyes ranged over the eternal snows, we became acutely aware of the humbleness of man in the presence of nature's mightiest creation. If this immensity was finite, what hope had man to conceive the infinite?
The next morning saw the concerted ascent of a tiny outlier some 500 ft above the camp, which we nicknamed 'Peanut Peak as our staple diet on its summit was peanuts. We took our time, and two of, our film team who were with us filmed parts of the ascent. The weather was kind, and the views breath-taking, but altitude had taken its toll, and the descent was slow. Some of the younger climbers had had enough, and with snowfall overnight and in the morning all but two descended to base, leaving tents and food in place, and Peter Martin and myself to have a look at the route on to Point 19,901 ft if the weather improved the following day.
Peter and I slept well, and an early alarm showed only mist and snow through the tent flap, but at 8 o'clock the skies were clear, and after a hurried breakfast we set off with the intention of investigating the route to the col between 19,901 ft and 19,720 ft. As soon as we rounded the bulge in the glacier to get the full view to the col, we were disconcerted by the steep slope descending from it to the glacier, and the seracs which threatened the approach. On an impulse we turned our steps towards the slope up which I had cut steps two nights before in the mist and snow with Geoff Drake. It led to the beginning of a long ascending traverse across the face of the mountain, to reach the summit ridge well above the col. The slope was split by some massive crevasses, and was steep, but only one section appeared to be threatened by falling ice from seracs, and I judged that we could move across that section very rapidly. It also did not appear to be particularly active. We decided to attempt to complete the traverse to the ridge, and thus reconnoitre that route to the summit. It was late, and the snow was deep and soft, so the going was hard, and we tired rapidly. However, the route continued to offer no serious resistance as we threaded our way on to the traverse. Here the snow was particularly deep and steep, and we moved very slowly to the base of the final slope leading to the ridge. Many times we thought we must be nearing the top, only to find that there was more snow hidden behind the next bump, and then a final very wide crevasse with a most unpleasant bridge of soft snow, over which I worked on my stomach to gain the far side and give Peter a belay. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon we stood on the ridge, and the summit rocks were tantalizingly near. With the world at our feet, and the summit apparently within our grasp, what could we do but go for it, even if it did mean almost certain benightment on our return.
We wasted little time in discussion, dropped our sacks in the snow, and set off up the slope ahead. At first we could kick steps in the deep snow, and then we could kick steps in harder snow, finally having to cut a staircase in snow-ice to the base of the final rocks. Our crampons, of course, were still in our sacks ! The rocks were steeper than they appeared from below, and we worked our way up with infinite care until a short arete of pristine snow was all that separated us from the highest point. I braced myself against the rock behind me and filmed Peter as he made the final few steps to become the first human being to tread the summit of 19,901 ft, which we came to know as 'King's Peak'. It was 5.15 p.m. as Peter stood silhouetted against the sky, surely one of the first 15-year-olds in the world to claim a Himalayan first. A minute or two later we exchanged exalted positions, and then after a few more photographs commenced our descent, acutely aware of the late hour. The rocks must needs go with care, and then the long descent and the staircase to our sacks. Here a quick much-needed snack of toffees, and then down the never-ending slopes to the traverse and across the clawing white depths as fast as possible while the light lasted. I drove poor Peter and myself until the twilight finally faded at the top of the slope leading down to the glacier. With the crevasses behind us, and our footsteps still visible through the murk, we slogged downwards into a worsening blizzard. Without a torch, owing to our misguided intentions of only being out a few hours in the morning, we often thought we were going to lose the track, but luck was with us, and despite frequent rests when one or other of us would collapse exhausted into the snow, we arrived back at the tent at 8.30 p.m., surprised at the quantity of snow which had fallen on to it. We had been so absorbed in making our snail-like progress across the glacier that the severity of the blizzard had gone unnoticed. Thankfully, and with a wonderful sense of preservation and success, we dragged ourselves into the little tent to brew, eat and sleep. Mid- afternoon next day saw us back at base, and I was faced with the task of speeding on their way the last groups for the final active week of the expedition.
39. SW face of Chiring We.
Article Page 68.
Photo: Vijay Kothari
40. East face of Bandarpunch from Camp 2. Route followed was up the icefall from right by an ice wall.
Article Page 68.
Photo: P. M. Das
41. Phawararang in Kinnaur.
Article Page 95.
Photo: Balwant Sandhu
Not many young ones wanted to go really high again, but one had missed the first push because of a sprained ankle, and our youngest member wanted to have a go. Accordingly five of us set out after a day's rest, and, with the aid of two porters for food, made the ascent to Camp 3 again, but this time with only one intermediate overnight stop. From there, at 11 a.m. Neil made an ascent of 'Peanut Peak' with me, where, at 18,200 ft he was appropriately sick, having eaten too many peanuts ! Meanwhile, Mark, only a few days after his 14th birthday, along with Andrew, aged 16, and John as adult in charge, made the first ascent of Point 19,395 ft, again making their descent in the dark to Camp 3. After this we pulled out, the three older ones making another quick ascent of a small outlier on the way down, and then there lay ahead merely the clearing up of base camp and departure.
During those last few days the news of the various successes of the expedition dribbled in, to build up a picture of delight for me, as leader. The boys and girls themselves had done a magnificent job, and had more than vindicated my belief that the young are capable of far more than we often imagine. As, we finally came away from the mountains and jolted down into the dust of the plains, we longed for home so that we could pass on our jubilation to all the friends and relations who had helped to make the venture possible. Our thanks must go to them, and to all our friends in India without whom there would have been no expedition.