THE WORK OF ITALIANS IN THE SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION OF THE KARAKORAM (CENTRAL ASIA)
GEOGRAPHICAL atlases show the Karakoram as a large wrinkle juxtaposed northwest of the larger system of mountainous ranges which are the Himalaya. An 800 km long wrinkle (therefore a bit shorter than the Alps), going from northwest to southeast and slightly curved, which contains 4 of the 15 mountains over 8000 m, and among these the 2nd highest peak in the world, K2 (8610 m), which is only 229 m lower than the Everest.
Then, if we take into account that, of the other 45 peaks above 7500 m, 15 can be found in the Karakoram and that the average height of the range is about 5500 m above sea level (the average height of Alps is estimated at 1300 m), we can get an idea of the altimetric features of our range.
I said that the Karakoram is situated northwest of the Himalaya: this means that while the latter range faces the Indian plain directly, the Karakoram is separated from the Punjab plain by various curtains of mountains that range over an area of 300 km. So it's easy to understand why the Karakoram climate is different and, on the whole, drier and more rigorous than that of the Himalaya which lie at an average latitude of at least 8 degrees further south.
These short notes alone can give us an idea of the difficulty for the pioneers of reaching the Karakoram range.
Up till a few years ago the only ways of penetrating this remote region were on tracks which were partly covered on trained mountain ponies and partly with porters hired at each stage.
It was a tiring and uncomfortable journey, along rough tracks often only held up by stony walls over jutting rocks smoothed by glaciers, and along paths hardly traced on to slopes prone to landslides, with rickety foot-bridges; or across hanging bridges swinging over gorges through which tumultuous swollen rivers rushed. They were age-old caravan routes that wound along valleys, sometimes narrow and uninhabited and sometimes open and studded with villages scattered among the greenery of laughing oases on morainic terraces spaced out along the rivers, or on wide alluvial fans. Oases created by an ingenious network of running water fed by the glaciers into rustic canals which irrigate small fields of grain (above all barley), vegetable and fruit, that together with products got from sheep-farming, are the only source of alimentation for those poor, but not for this unhappy populations.
Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, was once the starting centre for three main caravan routes going north; that is, the western route reached Gilgit, the chief town of Dardistan, after a 16 days' march, the central one, which got to Skardu, on the Indus, chief town of Baltistan, in 15 days, and the eastern one, which got to Leh, chief town of Ladakh, in 20 days,
The three towns are spaced out along the Indus valley, and along that of its tributary, the Gilgit over a distance of 350 km and they represent the starting and supply centres from which you enter the three sectors, western, central and eastern, of the Karakoram.
Now the journey is much shorter; in an hour's flight from Islamabad, Pakistan's new capital, you can reach the first two villages mentioned; for the third you have to start from Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir controlled by the Indians, as the range's eastern sector is under Indian control. In fact, the armistice line garrisoned by the Indian and Pakistan armies and patrolled by United Nations observers, who make sure they keep the ceasefire, runs between east and west Karakoram.
I mentioned the natural difficulties of entering the Karakoram from the south. I won't dwell upon details of the few routes that cross the range, as the two which really climb it, cross ice- rove red passes above 5000 m, while the other a bit more accessible routes go round the range towards the west (Khunjerab Pass, 4700 m) and towards the east (Karakoram Pass, 5575 m). The latter is also the one that inappropriately gave its name to the whole range. I say inappropriately because the toponym Karakoram in Turki means 'black stones', a name that does not suit a range covered with glaciers!
But, this isn't the only case: the natives, who can't have the vision of a great geographic unit like a mountain range, limit themselves to giving names to the places they haunt and, at the most, to some prominent peak visible from their villages. Geographers invented most of the names of large geographic units even when they took them from local topoymy. In this particular case, William Moorcroft gave it its name in far 1820. From its initial, K, the peaks that were gradually measured geodetically by Col. Montgomerie between 1857 and 1859, from a great distance ( between 100 and 200 km), got their names. This is the origin of the name used for the second highest peak in the world, K2.
In a territory as remote as the Karakoram, the abovementioned access difficulty is added to t he convergence on its high ridges of four nations political frontiers (Afghanistan, China, India and Pakisthan), which virtually represent insuperable barriers even for those with valid credentials. What's more, a part of those frontiers is still being fought over, or even substituted by armistice lines, as I mentioned above.
The political situation, in comparison with the one the first travellers who penetrated the Karakoram, found, suffered a deep radical change at the time of Pakistan's partition from India (1947) and, above all, after the wars that followed later on between the two countries. Among those who felt the negative effects of this, most were the scholars of those territories who saw their freedom of movement and, therefore, the material possibility of efficient research, reduced year by year.
Among so many difficulties the scientific exploration of the Karakoram progressed, but much slower than elsewhere.
We can overlook the pioneeristic era, when very little really scientific work was done, without taking any merits away from the men who opened the roads to geographical exploration. The names of those travellers who penetrated some Karakoram valleys for the first time, are very prestigious; like, for example-among the Italians,-Father Ippolito Desideri da Pistoia, in the first half of the 18th century, Marquis Osvaldo Roero di Cortanze between 1853 and 1875, the two brothers, Dukes Lante Grazioli della Rovere in 1878. Their published reports, even though they contained some detailed information about the countries they crossed, and, above all, about the eastern and most accessible part of the Karakoram, all together don't represent anything more that what journalistic accounts would be nowadays, (Incidentally, Marco Polo passed north of Karakoram range without touching or even seeing it.) In the meantime, the geodetic and topographic operations of the Survey of India, which settled the region's map- making within rational base lines, an indispensable element for any true progress in territorial research, started in our region.
In the second half of the 19th century the heart of the Karakoram range was penetrated, particularly by English travellers, and one of them even crossed its central part which is the highest. In 1887, Francis Younghusband reached India from China across the eastern Mustagh Pass (5422 m) which was completely covered with glaciers.
Among the most famous names next to that of the Englishman H. H. Godwin Austen (who was the first to see K2 from fairly near), we mustn't forget those of German Schlagintweit brothers,
of the Englishman, Martin Conway and of the American couple, Workman, who continued their intense exploration activities almost up to First World War and who didn't only have Italian collaborators among the guides (M. Zurbriggen, G. Petigax and C. Savoye), but also as topographers. In particular I am referring to Dr Cesare Calciati who was part of the Workman expeditions in 1908 and 1911, carrying out quick topographic surveys of the Great Hispar glacier and of some minor glaciers of the Shyok basin (Masherbrum, Gondokhoro and Kabery). Calciati also collected numerous rock samples and some specimens of the flora which gave rise to publications by specialists.
During this time (1909), an Italian expedition led by Duke degli Abruzzi was heading towards the highest and most inaccessible part of the range which rises in the high basin of the Baltoro glacier, with the predominant aim of conquering K2, already attempted seven years earlier by a multinational expedition (Eckenstoin Hanoi Guillarmod). But as on his previous expeditions the Duke was accompanied by a topographer, in this case Commander Federico Negrotto Cambiaso, who used photogrammetric methods for high mountain surveys for the first time, using the Paganini camera which was invented and constructed in Italy.
The expedition doctor, Dr Filippo de Filippi, took care of the naturalistic collections which were then entrusted to experts for study (Ing. Vittorio Novarese for the rocks and Prof. Romualdo Pirotta and Dr Fabrizio Cortesi for the plants).
Among the Italians who accompanied the expedition, we also must not forget the unparalleled photographer, Vittorio Sella with his assistant Erminio Botta and the seven guides and porters from Val D’ Aosta (Giuseppe and Lorenzo Petigax, Alessio, Enrico and Emilo Brocherel, Alberto Savoie and Ernesto Bareaux).
Mario Piacenza’s expedition to Nun Kun in 1913 was also of a mixed alpine and scientific nature. However that mountain system isn’t part of the Karakoram, but of the Kashmir Himalaya which are further south.
Before the first World War, the only real scientific expedition to visit the eastern Karakoram and its bordering areas, was that organized and led by Dr Filippo de Filippi-who had often accompined the Duke degli Abruzzi on his expeditions from 1913-1914.
The De Filippi expedition had ten members besides its leader (who was also its doctor), of which six left for India with most of the baggage at the end of summer 1913, to winter at Skardu. The others
joined them in April the following year. Their names can already tell us something about the expedition: Prof. Alberto Alessio, geodesist and geophysicist; Prof. Giorgio Abetti, geophysicist and Alessio’s assistent Marquis Nello Gionori Venturi, meteorologist, Prof. Giotto Dainelli, eographor and geologist; Prof. Olinto Marinelli geographer, Major Henry Wood and John Alfred Spranger, topographers Lieutenant Cesare Antilli, photographer, and Giuseppe Petigax, the alpine guide.
It is not easy to summarize briefly here all the research done by the De Filippi expedition during its year and a half stay in Asia, research that has been illustrated in 15 volumes published in the following twenty years.
This monumental work, in the Italian language, includes three volumes on geodesy and geophysics, three on geology,' three on petrographic and paieontologic descriptions, one on the history of expeditions to this region, one on geographic-physical descriptions, two volumes on anthropogeography and ethnography, one on the plants gathered above 4500 m and on the fishes in the Indus, while the last is an index volume. Numerous collaborators helped in the study of the naturalistic materials collected by the expedition.
Among the results of the geodetic-geophysic research, the connection put into effect for the first time, between the Survey of India's network of gravimetric stations on the pre-Himalayan plain and the Russian Army Geographic Service's network of stations north of the Karakoram, in Pamirs and in Ferghana, is particularly interesting. Among other things, this enabled us to establish the deviations1
, of the vertical and the regional gravimetric anomalies and to establish that the values of gravity are generally in excess in the mountain ranges (of the Himalaya and the Karakoram) and in default in the plains that extend at their feet, besides showing us the greater thickness of the earth's crust under such ranges.
The geological research allowed us to reconstruct the stratigraphic sequence of the eastern Karakoram with greater precision and details than was previously possible thanks essentially to the work of English geologists of the Geological Survey of India, and to extend this knowledge to unknown areas towards the east of the Karakoram. The paleogeographic reconstruction and the regional tectonic are also illustrated and extended to Central Karakoram.
If the volumes published by the De Filippi expedition did not have the renown they merited, above all for the language they were written in and for the exuberant extension of their texts, and if a part of the results, perhaps illustrated with an excessive use of logistic details and of attestations and therefore difficult to interpret, was surpassed by subsequent research, they still represent a milestone in the history of the geophysical, geological and anthropogeographical knowledge of the Karakoram.
After the victorious end of the First World War, in Italy, the political and even the economical moment was not favourable to launching a new scientific expedition in the heart of Asia.
Therefore, almost a decade went by before the idea could be realized and the chance came with the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the victory of Vittorio Veneto.
The expedition left Italy in April 1929 and worked for five monhs, especially in the Baltoro glacier region, but a small group climbed the eastern Mustagh Pass, which I have already mentioned, and explored the upper Shaksgam Valley, with the glaciers that bar it and that had stopped Major Kenneth Mason's English expedition in 1926. The group also climbed the Urdok glacier looking for a way to re-enter the upper Baltoro across the Conway saddle and the Duca degli Abruzzi glacier which had been previously explored by the expedition, but because of bad weather they had to give up. Then, it split up into two groups to allow two members, Balestreri and myself, with just enough food to survive, to explore the still unknown part of the Shaksgam Valley, while the other group went back to the base camp.
The scientific work of the 1929 Italian expedition was especially recognized and appreciated in England, while in Italy the official scientific circles almost ignored it, mentioning it as if it had been a tourist trip. Later, there was even someone who denigrated it.
Apart from a few brief preliminary accounts, the expedition's scientific report didn't appear till 1936, because of economic difficulties.
That year, a large volume, which reassumed the geographical end geological results fairly extensively, and in brief appendixes, the data regarding the geodetic, geophysical and anthropological measurements and the zoological and botanical collections, was printed. Unfortunately, only very few copies were published, because, while it was printing the last sixteenmo, the publishing house shut down and nobody heard anything more about all the unfinished copies.
With all that, the expedition's scientific contribution is sufficiently well documented. Apart from the discovery of the Staghar and Singhie glaciers (so named by the expedition), which barred the Shaksgam Valley, the geologist-geographer who was part of the exploratory group, did the topographic survey (with the "Tavoletta Monticolo') at the scale of 1 :50,000, of the upper Shaksgam Valley, and its main confluents, of the Sarpo Laggo Valley which up to then had no map representation, as well as of the whole Panmah glacier basin on its southern slope, while the expedition's' topographers took care of the photogrammetric survey of the Baltoro basin.
For the first time, relatively detailed geological surveys were done of all the above-mentioned area and were illustrated on single maps in the expedition's official volume accompanied by the illustration of the stratigraphy and of the tectonics. The discovery of fossils of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, not only but also in the sedimentary zone situated on the range's northern slope, but also in metamorphic rocks in its southern slope, and the petrographic study of numerous rock samples, allowed us to set that whole territory's geology on secure basis for the first time. This study also helped to correct several interpretation errors of previous authors, including more recent ones.
The publication of other volumes dedicated to single scientific fields was planned, but the economic difficulties that had already greatly hindered and delayed publication of the official volume, stopped these works being realized altogether. However, in their place, we still have about fifty notes and reports of varied size and contents, published in the following years and, a part, even recently.
The following year (1930), member of the De Filippi expedition Giotto Dainelli, visited the Siachen glacier again and crossed into Rimu with a small expedition (which I had been invited to taKe part in), which included, as well as its leader, two topographic officers from the Instituto Geografico Militare, Captain Alessandro Latini and Lieutenant Enrico Cecioni and a secretary, E. Kalau von Hofe. Unfortunately because of a disagreement that arose between the expedition leader and the topographic officers, the map of the Siachen basin, plotted all over again with a Santoni phototheodolite, was never published.
The geological data was included in the De Filippi expedition's volumes.
In the decade preceding the Second World War no other Italian expedition visited the Karakoram. I was well ahead in planning, with the support of the Italian Alpine Club, an alpine-scientific expedition to K2, but the sudden start of hostilities put off my carrying out this enterprise.
After the Second World War, the Italian scientific-exploratory activity in the Karakoram range began again rather late because of the country's well-known political and economic difficulties.
I began a first attempt at getting a new expedition going again in 1952 with the financial help of the Italian Olympic Committee. It was not a scientific expedition, but a sporting one (the ascent of K2), about which it was easier to awaken public opinion in order to raise the necessary funds.
Even if the goal was an alpinistic one, I had, however, arranged for a group of scientists to take part in the expedition with a well-defined programme to carry out and almost complete logistic autonomy from the climbing group. The difficult negotiations with the Pakistan Government lasted the whole of the following year, during an attempt by an American alpinistic expedition, led by Dr Charles Houston, to climb K2.
In summer 1953, I went on a reconnaissance of the Karakoram financed by the National Research Council, visiting, at the Pakistan Government's request, the Stak valley, where the Khutiah glacier, in the last three months, had advanced 12 km, invading the main valley and threatening the higher villages.
From here, with a companion (Riccardo Cassin) I crossed into the adjoining Turmik Valley to do a geological survey and collect rock samples, and then, went on into the Basha and Braldu valleys towards the Baltoro glacier and the foot of K2, in order to study the possible ways of climbing it. I carried out geological surveys and perfected the ones begun in 1929 along this itinerary too, using the maps we plotted then. This journey helped me, among other things, to get permission for the K2 expedition; permission that was being contended by five other countries.
1954 was the year the scientific-alpinistic expedition to the Karakoram-as is well known-conquered K2, the second highest peak in the world. I will talk to you about the scientific research combined to it only.
First, I have to mention the colleagues who collaborated in the research with me. Prof. Paolo Graziosi, from Firenze University, was in charge of doing anthropological research on the local populations and pre-historic surveys in the inhabited zone of the northwestern Karakoram. Prof. Antonio Marussi, from Trieste university, took the geophysical measurements and Prof. Bruno Zanettin, from Padova University, did the geopetrographic investigation. Captain Francesco Lombardi of the Instituto Geografico Militare was assigned to topographic surveys with the Pakistani assistant, Badshajan. I, myself, beside the heavy duty of the leadership took care of the geological survey and the meteorological observations with one of the mountain climbers, while the anthropological measurements on Hunza and Balti porters, which had been entrusted to the expedition doctor, were not done.
In 1955, I went back to the Karakoram with two Italian collaborators Prof. Paolo Graziosi and Prof. Antonio Marussi, and was accompanied by Dr M. N. Khan, Director of the Pakistan Geological Survey. The expedition went as far as Gilgit from the Chitral territory along different routes, carrying out anthropological and ethnographic research among the Kafiri, taking gravimetric and magnetometric measurements and doing geological research and studies in the whole of that vast territory which includes the western extremity of the Karakoram and a part of the Eastern Hindu Kush range.
In the following expedition, in 1961 I again had as collaborators, Prof. Marussi for the geophysical part and Drs Ercole Martina and Giorgio Pasquare for the geological part. It was supposed to take place on the northern slope of the Karakoram and of the Eastern Hindu Kush-namely in Wakhan, the corridor that separates, Pakistan from Russian Pamirs and that belongs to Afghanistan -but as, at the last minute, we didn't get permission to enter Wakhan, it mainly took place in Badakhshan and in some bordering areas. I would like to add that it was a provi
dential drawback, as Badakhshan proved to be the key-zone for interpreting the structural relationship between Pamirs and Hindu Kush, and for explaining the stratigraphy and tectonics of an area characterized, among other things, by an exceptional seismicity.
The following year, 1962 with two geological assistants, Dr E. Martina and Dr G. Galimberti, and thanks to a special permit from the Pakisthan, I was able to ascend the whole Hunza valley again, as I had only partly covered It in 1954, and reach the Chinese border, finding the solution to still unsolved geological problems regarding the structure of Central Karakoram.
The 1971 expedition took place along, the now road being built, which follows the middle Indus valley and which was almost completely unknown geologically, and I was accompanied by an assistant geologist Dr Giuseppe Orombelli.
On that occasion, I was able to establish for the first time, exactly where the huge ice-tongue of the great glacier, that occupied the Indus valley in the quaternary, came to a stop; a position that all the authors assumed to be somewhere else; and to clarify other geological problems that were still up for discussion.
That year, I wanted to see the Khutiah glacier again, but various kinds of difficulties stopped me. It was only two years later that I managed to carry out an excursion into that remote valley with a Hunza student and to complete other research on the ancient glaciers of the Indus basin.
The last expedition was that of 1975, which was organized and directed by my colleague Marussi for its geophysical (geoseismic) part, and by myself for its geological one. It was financed, as were my previous expeditions, by the National Research Council. The data and materials we collected are still being worked on.
I can only remind you that the geological and geophysical research was intended to complete the study of the structural connection between the Indian ledge and the Eurasiatic continent, with the intervening orogenesis of the Kashmir Himalaya, of the Karakoram and of Pamirs, using not only surface geological and geophysical surveys, which, as I have already said, have been done for years, but also a deep seismic sounding between the Punjab plain and northern Pamir, in collaboration with a Pakistani team, and a Russian team, this, one for the area north of the Karakoram.
The documentation of the scientific results of my eight previous expeditions to the Karakoram are illustrated in seven volumes, part of a collection that should include twelve volumes, published from 1964 to 1975. Therefore, there are another five left to publish, one of which is ready for print and another two are being prepared.
I have rcached the end of my presentation, with which I to illustrate very concisely the development of the scientific research carried out by the Italians in one of the Earth's highest regions in the century that is now coming to an end. It is a story full of emotional and sometimes dramatic episodes, among people very different from us, simple or better still primiive, but fundamentally good people in whom we managed to inspire feelings of fondness which caused most willing collaboraration even in the most difficult moments, when life itself was in danger.
I will never forget the meeting I had, in pring 1954, with three porters from the small team who had accompanied me on that adventurous reconnaissance trip to the other side of the Karakoram, in Chinese Sinkiang,with just enough food to survive and a pretty difficult pass, of over 5000 m which separated us from our companions, to cross, 25 years before. For three days and three nights they waited for me to pass on the caravan route of Shigar valley and when they saw me, they ran towards me with tears in their eyes, offering me the fruits of their land and trying to kiss my hands in sign of affection and respect for their leader, who they had carried over the more difficult fords on their, shoulders, but who they had followed faithfully over the hardest routes, along glaciers full of dangers, across tangled masses of crevasses, or up steep slopes threatened by avalanches.
This spiritual communion between me, an European Scientist, and my humble Asian porters is, in the field of human experiences, one of the greatest satisfactions I got during my journeys, and an important success factor on my expeditions among the fascinating Karakoram mountains.
See article in this issue.-Ed.
THE KARAKORAM MOUNTAIN RANGE