I CAN still see myself as a little primary school student reading the books of Sven Hedin. Ten years later, they were voluminous expedition books by Dyhrenfurth, Tichy and Harrer. Slowly my childhood desire to know this world for myself started maturing. Particularly, Dyhrenfurth's book on Baltoro-Massif, Ladakh, great mountains and glaciers as well as monasteries and lamas had inspired me. Since my first expedition in 1974, the mountains, the land and the people of Western Tibet fascinate me more and more, and its culture and history spread their special charm on us Europeans.
Ladakh is the farthest north-eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir and was opened to tourists only after 1974. The political differences between India and Pakistan has, made this land a strategically important area. Kashmir with its capital at Srinagar is known as the Switzerland of the East. It is Indian territory and has an ideal climate for the cultivation of fruits and cereals. Srinagar itself is situated at an altitude of 1750 m, and monsoon rains touch only its fringes. When one leaves the vegetation-rich basin of Srinagar and proceeds eastward over the 3500 m high Zoji-La (La=Pass) in the direction of Kargil, one becomes aware of the exceptionally arid climate and sparse vegetation. The hard work of the local people, who convert this dry but fertile soil to arable land and other useful purposes through artificial irrigation, is therefore very remarkable.
Our team—composed of Hanns Schell as the organizer and his wife Lieselotte, Dr Gerhard Pressl from Leoben, Dr Karl Hub from Munich (who was with us before in 1975 during the Hidden Peak expedition) and myself—set the ascent of 7087 m high Kun as our goal.
The journey up to Srinagar was by air, after which we travelled by a hired truck to Parkatschik via Kargil in Suru valley. From there, we went on foot. Our twenty pieces of baggage, which weighed 450 kg altogether, were distributed on the horses which were put at our disposal by wandering Tibetans for a small amount of money. From Parkatschik itself we could recognize Kun or Nun, our goal, which with an altitude of 7135 m is the highest mountain of this group. Early in the morning, in bright sunny weather, we set out in the direction of Gulmatunga. After a seven-hour march we reached at midday heat the place called Gulmatunga, where the Shafath valley merges into the Suru valley. Our route to the base camp passed through the Shafath valley, and to reach that place, the dangerous Suru was to be crossed. Having been warned by previous expeditions, who had great difficulties at this point, we had taken the precaution of carrying with us a rubber boat, which would facilitate the transportation of baggage and porters. The water level of Suru was so high on the afternoon of our arrival that we preferred to set up our camp for the night and wait till the next morning when the water level would fall. Hanns and Karl, our two experts on wild water, were able to establish a cable connection between the two banks, with the help of the boat. As they reached the other bank completely exhausted, it was clear to us that this kind of transportation of baggage would be too strenuous for us due to our insufficient acclimatization. Therefore, we decided to build a cable rail. The baggage was transported piece by piece to the other bank of the river. The team with five porters had to be transported by the rubber boat. Late in the evening we stretched the cables while Gerhard proceeded towards the base camp in the afternoon along with the porters, so that they could cover half the way and set up a baggage depot.
While Gerhard, Lilo and I set up the base camp on the next day and also spent a night there after a long and tiring day, Hanns and the porters again climbed down in order to bring our entire luggage within three days. This work was enough for Karl and Hanns at the beginning of the expedition, but travelling to the Shafath glacier was very arduous: numerous moraines had to be crossed, in order to enable us to use a slightly rising green stony mass in the upper glacier valley, for facilitating our ascent. As 'climax' of their duty, our experts had to lead four of our porters across the Suru. Ibrahim, the most dependable among the porters, worked as a cook and helper at the base camp during the entire period of the expedition.
The task of exploring the route to Camp 1 fell on Gerhard and me. Due to the nice weather, it was not difficult at the beginning to find a possible route through the wide Shafath glacier with its numerous fissures.
Just before the saddle, at an altitude of about 5100 m, we made a deviation from the normal route. This led through the watershed on the Shafath glacier, to reach the base of the Nun- Kun high plateau in a wide left arc, but just before the saddle, we took a direction which led us to the foot of a 700 m high spur. Objectively it appeared to be safe. We only had to cover about 300 m with cable.
Where the spur ends, one stands right at the beginning of a high plateau, about 4.5 km long, which had to be traversed diagonally in order to reach the 700 m-high typically rocky peak structure of Kun. Together with Gerhard, I first trekked to the base of the spur and deposited the equipment in a camp at an altitude of about 5400 m. The nearer we came towards the spur, the more doubt we had about our choice, because a few eventually easier ascents to the plateau were visible on the wall in the direction of the normal route. However, these ascents were subsequently found to be too dangerous : metre -wide fissures with weak bridges and dangerously threatening ice-cracks drove us immediately back to our spur. Within two days, the spur was made secure and a depot was set up in the plateau for the equipment that was still needed. Now all of us; waited in Camp 1 for the weather to improve, since a threatening weather front had meanwhile built up in the west, and it brought us alternately snow and rain. We waited, but the weather worsened. With the temperature around freezing-point, it started to rain, and within a short time our high-altitude tents could no longer beat back the rains. We had to dismantle the big 5-man tent so that the storm did not damage it further, and hurried back to our base camp.
In a 'blind dash' we trudged down the glacier and reached camp completely drenched. During the following three days it rained almost incessantly with short breaks. An improvement was seen only on the evening of the third day. The fog cover lifted and moved westwards. The journey to Camp 1 was to foe resumed on the next day. For the fourth time our route took us past the 'Teutonic stone', which was a huge stone man erected by a German expedition to Kun, during their passage from the lateral moraines to the Shafath glacier. At noon, we reached Camp 1, and studied the weather conditions with some anxiety, because a dark bank of clouds was again building up on the Nun-massif, but fortunately it cleared up by the evening. Even before the sunrise we stood at the foot of the spur and started a trail on the fresh snow. The fixed rope lay under a hard wind-pressed cover of snow, and we had difficulty in retrieving it at certain points where it was frozen with ice. As we reached the end of the spur, we could again see directly before us the peak structure of Kun covered with fresh snow. It really seemed to be near enough to touch—the lump of boulders towering above the gigantic snowy plateau. We quickly distributed our dumped equipment and provisions and started crossing the plateau diagonally. Karl, who was the only person to use ski, took over the task of marking the route with sticks. At the beginning Hanns and Lilo badly needed their snow-shoes, which we half- jocularly called 'flying saucers'. Gerhard and I tried to match the 'advantages' of the snow-shoes with our shoes of sizes 47 and 46 respectively. Fortunately, the snow was hard, and we sank only a few centimetres in it with our shoes. Although we believed to be en route quickly, it seemed that we stagnated for hours in this vast snow desert. Gradually, the moderately steep eastern ridge of Kun came within our sight. Tired and hungry, we called it a day in the early evening, about a kilometre from the beginning of the edge of the peak. A glance at the altimeter showed that we had gained only 100 m in height during the 4 km horizontal distance which we covered from the end of the spur to the present point. Thus our Camp 2 stood at an altitude of about 6300 m, a good 800 m below the peak. The weather became fine at last and the following night was particularly cold.
42. Load carry to ABC. Mulkila dominates the glacier.
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43. King’s peak, 19,901 ft.
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44. Summit Pyramid of k2 from near ridge. Camp 4 was locked in notch beyond the prominent icetower.
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The departure from Camp 2 took place on 20 July in absolutely clear weather. Slowly we adjusted ourselves to the tempo. At first, we reached the end of the plateau, where the first rays of the sun warmed us up. Gerhard selected a track on the steep slope ahead, which led us to the saddle of the ridge. Our heartbeats rose to the maximum. I tried not to think about the strains of climbing, but to concentrate on the thought of what kind of view we shall have from the 6500 m-high saddle. Memories came back as I again saw the known peaksi: at the extreme left was the Nanga Parbat with its Rupal flank; on the other side—in the background—was the Hidden Peak. Between these two, was the array of Broad Peak, K2 and a large number of six- to seven-thousand metre peaks.
The peak ridge in its entire length now lay in front of us. On the other side of the Suru valley there was heavy snow- cornice and about two-thirds of it was about 40° steep. Only the last portion of the ridge was slightly flat, but big fissures ran deep through the slope up to the edge of the ridge. We were very lucky to find a snow-ridge over which we could continue our ascent without any major deviatory manoeuvres. Gerhard, who was in great form on this day, led the steep climb without any break—only then Karl and I relieved him. The surrounding mountains, 6700 m high on an average, gradually lay back behind us. At noon, cloud formations built up in the west and started stretching over Kun. They enveloped the peak and to us it seemed as if we went on an endless path. A little afterwards, we reached our goal. Being glad at the prospect of not having to move a step further, we laid down our rucksacks and allowed ourselves for the first time a breathing time. Slowly the realization came to us that we stood on the peak of Kun. As Hanns and Lilo were soon with us, the traditional summit- greeting followed.
Soon the strain and, stress were forgotten, and we could rejoice at our tremendous success. All the participants reached the 7087 m high Kun without the help of high-altitude porters. Karl looked for another record and accomplished it when he was the first person to successfully ski down to close proximity of the base camp from the peak.
A week later, with the Lamas at Rangdom Gompa in the Suru valley, impressed by the way of living of these ascetic people, with whom we had the privilege of staying for a few days. At the end of the valley stood the mountains wherefrom we had just returned.
The events we had just experienced, had already become a memory.