BRAMMAH I is a beautiful classically-shaped mountain, 21,050 ft high, in South Kashmir, India, which the City University- Brunei University Kishtwar Himalaya Expedition 1978 had chosen as its prime objective. The expedition was merely four friends who had climbed together for some years, deciding to go away together again, but this time somewhere further afield.
So the Himalaya it was, and we chose a mountain that would not be badly affected by the monsoon (as we had to go in July and August during the height of the Indian monsoon), did not necessitate oxygen, but would give some challenging rock and ice climbing. We picked Brammah because we thought it would offer these things, but I hadn't even seen a photograph of the mountain before we left, and from the scanty reports of previous expeditions, we believed all previous attempts had failed due to technical difficulties; it was not until a few days before leaving England that we found Chris Bonington and Nick Estcourt had climbed it. But their description spurred us on with more enthusiasm, to quote: 'as hard as anything we had encountered on South West face of Everest.' We were soon to agree!
The members of the expedition were Anthony Wheaton, Paul Belcher, Duncan Nicholson (from the City University) and Jon Scott from Brunei. Both universities are in London, and the mountaineering clubs have been going away together for some years. We all had been climbing for many years in the UK and had had very successful visits to the Alps and Africa the previous year. We decided to join forces again this summer in order to make full use of our experience, both climbing and organizing, especially in finding sponsors. We only wanted a small expedition as we planned to be an ultra-lightweight party, climbing alpine-style, and the smaller we kept it, the more cohesive the party would be. We wanted to avoid the encumberant problems of a large expedition and to enjoy the close companionship that develops through a limited number only.
We left London in early July, and began the four day walk-in from Kishtwar to the Base Camp after a fortnight in India. We had some trouble in arranging mules for the walk, due a Japanese expedition paying very high rates two years ago. However, our liaison officer was related to a high official in Kashmir, and his influence was such that the Tahsildar (mayor) of Kishtwar threatened the muleteers with jail! Subsequently, we had no more trouble.
We walked on a good path beside the Munab river, and then branched off up the Nanth Nullah, and positioned the base camp at the snout of the Brammah glacier. We established an advance base camp with some difficulty at the head of the glacier, due to the tortured, rock-strewn surface making progress almost impossible. We found the last piece of level ground in the south cwm underneath the NE. face of Brammah at 13,000 ft and set up two tents; this was to be the starting point of the climb, 5000 ft to the south col between Brammah I and Flat Top, and then 3500 ft and two miles up the southeast ridge to the summit. We had looked at the alternative northwest ridge, but rejected it as the approach was up steep avalanching gullies. (We also may have been influenced by the SE. ridge being the only successfully climbed route to the top!)
The initial problem was to climb through the icefall spilling down from Brammah in order to gain the SE. ridge. We split into pairs, and while Duncan and Jon unsuccessfully tried a route through the centre, Paul and I gained the south col by a series of steep ice-gullies and loose rock ridges on the left side of the icefall. Unfortunately due to a recurring stomach problem, Paul felt unable to go on, and so we had to retreat after leaving a large dump of equipment on the south col.
A few days later, after a spell of bad weather, we all set off at 3.00 a.m. on our previous route, stumbling up the initial slopes in darkness to be greeted by a spectacular dawn as the clouds cleared to leave a beautiful sunny day; this was to set the pattern for the next five days. Paul and I gained the south col by noon, having pushed on ahead of Jon and Duncan as we had agreed to climb at our own pace separately. As we had already been climbing for 9 hours, in hot sunshine, we felt a cup of tea was in order. Refreshed by that and a brief rest, we started up the ridge which at first was merely broad easy-angled snow. We bivouacked after about 500 ft before the slopes steepened.
The route comprised of 500 ft of steep hard snow, followed by a 1000-foot sharp rock-ridge, punctuated by four gendarmes of vertical rock, the last and most fierce being 500 ft high. Beyond, the 1500 ft summit snowfield led to the top.
Paul and I quickly soloed up the snow to the start of the rock, and the difficulties. We found a couple of fixed ropes on relatively easy sections, but we moved together the whole time, only protecting ourselves by throwing the rope over small pinnacles. We turned the first two towers to the right without encountering great difficulty, but the third required some careful climbing over steep mixed ground on the left with a lot of loose rock leading to the last impressive tower. It was late in the afternoon when the weather deteriorated and the snow started, and we could see Duncan and Jon who had already bivouacked at the start of the rock section.
But there was nowhere we could possibly stop. Another dodgy- looking rope led to the right of the tower, which I followed, belayed by an increasingly cold Paul. After about 100 ft the rock became impossibly loose and so, trusting my luck to the gods, I grabbed hold of the rope; it held! and so I jumared up to the top. At that stage of the day, ethics fly out of the window with remarkable ease! Paul followed up, and overjoyed at having cracked the crux of the climb we bivouacked at the bottom of the summit snowfield.
We had to be content with a tiny ledge and hot tea only before the light faded and we settled down to sleep in a state of great excitement. The snow stopped falling to leave a clear, cold night —the route to the summit seemed open to us.
The following morning, 15 August, dawned clear, revealing a 1500-ft snow slope to the summit, shallow to begin with but becoming increasingly steep towards the top. We moved together the whole way for speed, and as the snow was too rotten to take any protection. The final steep wall was not difficult, but just demanded absolute concentration. Even when resting, we dared not relax as the drop was enormous and the soft snow lying on hard ice looked as if it might easily avalanche.
My elation at finding that the steep wall in front of me had disappeared, replaced by a panorama of peaks, was only matched by the relief of making the top; after five hours of exhausting climbing where the altitude had really begun to affect us, we stayed on the top for an hour before returning. The descent down wasn't uneventful—it started to snow, cascading down the surface, making the whole snowfield appear to be on the move. At one point, a deadman pulled out and Paul and I found ourselves sliding down with the loose snow. After about 100 ft, our ice-axes stopped us; we pondered over the danger we had just successfully overcome and the worsening weather, and with confidence restored, bounded down the remaining snow.
We arrived back at our bivouac site in the midst of a snowstorm to find Jon and Duncan had completed the rock section and now had moved in on our comfortable flat ledge that we had arranged the previous evening; but they had been kind enough to leave just sufficient room for Paul and me to sit down with our legs hanging over the edge. Surprisingly, we managed to have a good night's sleep in this position.
As dark fell, the snow stopped and quickly the cloud cleared from around us and we could see isolated peaks poking through the layer of clouds several thousand feet beneath us, and beyond the mountains to the south, an electric storm was lighting the sky in a fantastic firework display—slightly disconcerting if the storm was to move toward us.
Fortunately the following day was fine, and so Jon and Duncan climbed for the summit, while Paul and I started descending. Once again cloud obscured the summit itself, but I saw them climbing down the snow from the summit and so presumed they had reached the top. Paul and I spent two days climbing back down to our camp and waited for the others to arrive, expecting them the following day, as they had been only one day later than us in reaching the summit. That evening, when they had not returned, I became worried, fearing that they might have got into some trouble, but decided to give them another day, as they might have stayed on the mountain to take sunrise or sunset shots as their view on the summit had been obscured. The weather deteriorated the following day and we knew that they must have had an accident. We prepared emergency sacks of foods, fuel and clothes in order to mount a rescue.
At dawn, our enthusiasm was dampened by the rain, the thought of having to start up the exhausting climb once again, and the contemplation of what we might find. As we climbed higher, the rain turned to snow and we set up our bivouac on the south col in a snowstorm worse than we had encountered before and completely surrounded by cloud. The next day, after continuing up for a short way, I decided that Paul and I had to go back down. The mountain had become very unsafe to climb and our return route was in danger of becoming impassable. We were taking a longer time to climb up than we had expected and we would have to use the provisions ourselves, and not be able to leave much with Jon and Duncan. Our rescue attempt had become hopelessly ineffective with visibility down to a few hundred feet, and so rather than risk the possibility of more casualties Paul and I returned back to camp.
How can one make a decision like that? Knowing that I was abandoning two friends who had meant so much to me over the previous months, I had to be totally impassionate in considering the facts; but after turning around, I was left with a feeling of total emptiness and remorse at cutting off the last hopes that I had of seeing Jon and Duncan again.
Because the realization of Jon's and Duncan's deaths came slowly over a few days as the accident and its results became more apparent, and the closeness of death always being with us (albeit in the subconscious, as one never wants to openly contemplate such a thing) we were not too badly shaken by the accident. The moment I felt my greatest unhappiness was after seeing the effect on Jon's and Duncan's parents. Their grief was obviously of incomparable magnitude to ours and I could only try to console them by explaining Jon's and Duncan's enjoyment from being in the mountains to help them over the traumatic event.
The accident cast a dull spell over the remaining fortnight Paul and I spent in India, in which we cleared the mountain of our equipment, reported the matter to the authorities and returned to Delhi. I have been asked whether this ends climbing for me; it doesn't, because all that I gained in new experiences and enjoyment from the expedition was not destroyed by the loss of two close friends. It is one of the factors of mountaineering that all climbers must accept.