Himalayan Journal vol.38
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.38

Publication year:
1982

Editor:
Harish Kapadia
Index
  1. EDITORIAL
  2. THE BRITISH KONGUR EXPEDITION TO CHINA
    (CHRISTIAN BONINGTON)
  3. KAILASH-MANASAROVAR
    (ROMESH BATTACHARJI)
  4. KABRU DOME EXPEDITION - 1981
    (VASANT LIMAYE and SHASHANK KULKARNI)
  5. YALUNGKANG: A TWO-PERSON ATTEMPT
    (CHRIS CHANDLER and CHERIE BREMERKAMP)
  6. UP AND DOWN THE PEAR ROUTE ON DHAULAGIRI I
    (VERA KOMARKOVA)
  7. BRITISH LANGTANG EXPEDITION
    (MIKE SEARLE)
  8. WOMEN ON ANNAPURNA
    (ARLENE BLUM)
  9. EAGLES' NEST ATOP KAMET AND ABI GAMIN
    (Maj J. K. BAJAJ)
  10. MEN AND WOMEN'S ASCENT OF NANDA DEVI
    (Col BALWANT SANDHU)
  11. THE SHEPHERDS OF NANDA DEVI SANCTUARY
    (WILLIAM McKAY AITKEN)
  12. THE GANGOTRI EXPEDITION
    (DOUG SCOTT AND MERVYN ENGLISH)
  13. LIVING WITH AN ANGRY MOUNTAIN
    (PARASH MONI DAS)
  14. SUDARSHAN PARBAT - UNE BELLE MONTAGUE
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  15. CHANGO '81
    (ROMESH BHATTACHARJI)
  16. HIMALAYAN TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
    (DAVE NICHOLLS)
  17. THE UMASI LA - SOUTHERN ENTRANCE TO ZANSKAR
    (LUKE HUGHES)
  18. THE LURE OF NUN
    (B. BARRY NEEDLE)
  19. THE ASCENT OF APSARASAS I IN THE KARAKORAM
    (Brig K. N. THADANI)
  20. SKIING THE KARAKORAM HIGH ROUTE1
    (GALEN A. HOWELL)
  21. TWO ALPINISTS ON THE RUPAL WALL
    (LUIS FRAGA)
  22. GEOLOGICAL NOTES ON THE K2 (CHOGO-RI) MASSIF IN THE KARAKORAM
    (ARDITO DESIO)
  23. THE HIMALAYAN INSPIRATION
    (R. N. PASRICHA)
  24. HIMALAYAN TOURISM AND ENVIRONMENT
    (CAPTAIN M. S. KOHLI, IN (Retd.), AVSM, F.R.G.S.)
  25. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  26. EXPEDITIONS 1980- 1981
  27. IN MEMORIAM
  28. BOOK REVIEWS
  29. CORRESPONDENCE
  30. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1981

THE BRITISH KONGUR EXPEDITION TO CHINA

CHRISTIAN BONINGTON

THE BRITISH Kongur Expedition had two main objectives, to make the first ascent of Kongur, one of the world's highest unclimbed peaks in Sinkiang, the most remote and westerly province of Chinas and to conduct a programme of medical research into the reaction of the expedition members to altitude. The mountain was successfully climbed and the scientific programme provided copious data for later evaluation.

The climb was completed using 'Alpine' style tactics. Essentially this means that the climbers are self-contained on the mountain, starting at the bottom of the route with all their equipment and food and moving continuously in a single push towards the summit. This approach is a natural and exciting evolution from the siege methods used on Himalayan peaks.

Leader of the ten-man expedition was Dr Michael Ward. The four- man climbing team consisted of Peter Boardman, Chris Bonington, A1 Rouse and Joe Tasker, while the scientific team comprised Dr . Charles Clarke, MRCP., Dr James Milledge, MB, FRCPE, Professor Edward Williams, MD, PhD and Dr Michael Ward, MD, FRCS. Jim Curran was the expedition cameraman and David Wilson acted as interpreter.

Acclimatization and reconnaissance

The team, accompanied by a six-person trekking party led by David Newbigging, arrived at the Karakol Lakes (3555 m) fifteen miles to the southwest of Kongur, on 22 May and moved up to base camp (4750 m) on 28 May. Base camp was situated at the side cf a grassy meadow covered in wild flowers, squeezed between two glacier moraines. It was an idyllic spot.

To start the acclimatization programme, the team, with several members of the trekking party, climbed a 5490 m unclimbed peak on the other side of the Koksel glacier. The previous year Mike Ward and Chris Bonington had climbed the Koksel glacier icefall to reach the upper Koksel glacier basin. This had proved both difficult and dangerous and so now the team found a route up the glacier to the north of a minor peak which they named the Rognon Peak. This route led up to a col from where the Koksel basin could be safely and easily reached.

There seemed two possible routes to the foot of the summit pyramid, one from the Koksel Col up the south ridge of Junction Peak and the other up the long easy ridge which led up to the ridge joining Kongur Tiubie to Kongur. It seemed essential to investigate both these ridges to ascertain which was the best route. It had been planned to acclimatize on some of the surrounding peaks, but the weather, throughout this stage of the expedition was very unsettled and heavy snowfalls both created a danger of avalanche and also made the work of trail-breaking extremely arduous, and so the climbing team concentrated on making a thorough reconnaissance reaching a height of around 6400 m on both the south ridge and the southwest rib.

Photos 1-2-3

In order to reach the main summit of Kongur it was necessary to climb over a subsidiary summit, which the team named 'Junction Peak'. It was decided that the south ridge of Junction Peak would give a route that was safer and technically more interesting than the southwest rib.

The first attempt

The climbing team set out from base camp on 23 June and moved up past the Koksel Col on to the south ridge the following day, reaching a height of 6400 m near the end of the shelf that leads to the steep upper part of the ridge. On 25 June, the climbers, filmed by Jim Curran and David Wilson, who had a tent on a small summit on the ridge (dubbed the Pimple) climbed the south ridge in a long very hard day, stopping on its crest at a height of 7250 m. There were two steep ice pitches and the upper part of the ridge was on steep deep snow that presented some risk of avalanche.

On 26 June the party traversed below the crest of the subsidiary tops of Junction Peak in worsening weather but were forced to stop at midday because of poor visibility. During the night the wind rose and threatened to blow away the tents. On the following morning the team had their first glance, through driving spindrift, of the summit pyramid of Kongur. It was only then that they realized just how big and steep Kongur's final pyramid was going to prove. Thev crossed the summit of Junction Peak and dropped down to the Col immediately short of their objective and dug a roomy snow cave in which all four of them could rest comfortably. This was an advantage both in giving greater protection from the wind and enabling the four to communicate and discuss their plans easily.

But they were now faced with a serious problem for their food had very nearly run out and the final climb was obviously very much more difficult than they had anticipated. In addition the wind was particularly fierce and the weather unpredictable. Even so, they set out, travelling light, without bivouac gear, on the morning of 26 June hoping to reach the summit that day, but the knife-edged ridge leading to the foot of the final pyramid proved to be extremely difficult and it took six hours to negotiate the ridge. The team had no choice but to return to the snow cave. The next morning was as windy as ever, food and fuel were nearly exhausted and therefore they decided to return to base camp to get more supplies and have a rest before making another attempt.

On the way back, instead of returning down the south ridge oi Junction Peak, they descended the long ridge linking Junction Peak with Kongur Tiubie and then down the southwest rib. The slopes which had at first seemed prone to avalanche, proved to be mudh safer than anticipated.

The final ascent

Peter Boardman, Chris Bonington, A1 Rouse and Joe Tasker set out from advanced base camp on the Koksel glacier on 5 July to climb the southwest rib leading to the ridge between Kongur and Kongur Tiubie. Jim Milledge and David Wilson helped them with their loads for the first 1000 m of the ridge.

That night they snow-holed at 6450 m. The following day they traversed to the Kongur Col, the lowest point on the ridge between Kongur Tiubie and Kongur, and then climbed over the long shoulder of Junction Peak to drop down to the snow cave prepared on the previous attempt. It had been a long and arduous day, the later part of which featured stormy weather and poor visibility.

They rested on 7 July, and the next day traversed the difficult knife-edged ridge that leads to the foot of the summit pyramid, hoping to find suitable snow for a cave in a gully observed on the previous attempt. Snow conditions at this point were bad and another storm was sweeping in from the west.

Disappointingly, the snow in the gully was only one metre thick on top of hard ice. This meant they could only cut very narrow slots, rather like coffins, with a thin fragile wall of soft snow on one side and hard ice on the other. They spent four nights in these 'coffins' while the storm raged outside. One collapsed on A1 House and everyone had to rebuild their snow holes during the course of the storm. Sleeping-bags were becoming damp and food supplies were nearly finished.

12 July dawned fine and they set out for the summit. It was bitterly cold and windy and the first 150 m were technically difficult, over steep, loose rock and icy patches. It was two o'clock in the afternoon before they had climbed round the rock tower barring the bottom of the ridge and reached its crest. Above this point they could move together and progressed more quickly despite the increasing altitude.

They reached the summit at 8.00 p.m. local time (1200 GMT). It was still very windy and cold but between gusts of spindrift the view was superb. Two hundred miles to the south K2, second highest mountain in the world* was visible, and, to the northwest, Peaks Lenin and Communism, the two highest peaks in the Russian Pamirs. They filmed and took still photographs of the team holding an ice-axe flying the Chinese flag, Union Jack and the expedition flag. The other two summits of Kongur appeared to be lower.

They still had to make a shelter for the night and dug a snow hole about 30 m below the top, finishing it around eleven o'clock that night. The following morning, perhaps because of the different angle of the sun, the northeast summit of Kongur appeared to be similar in height, if not higher than the summit they were on. They there- fore decided to attempt to reach the northeast summit before going down., It took two hours to reach it, precariously crossing the unstable ridge of an intermediate rock peak. Looking back and checking with the altimeter, the summit which they had climbed first was undoubtedly the highest summit of Kongur.

It took until 4.45 in the afternoon to return to the main summit and they immediately started down, hoping to reach the shelter of the large snow cave on the col below Junction Peak before nightfall. Sliding down the rope whilst descending the steep rock step at the foot of the ridge, Peter Boardman was hit a glancing blow on the head by a large stone dislodged by the rope. He was momentarily knocked unconscious but, fortunately, did not fall off the end of the rope and quickly recovered.

Luckily, the weather remained settled and they reached the snow cave shortly after midnight. They returned to advanced base by the southwest rib on the following day (14 July) to be met by Mike Ward, leader of the expedition, and Jim Curran, who had climbed 300 m up the southwest rib.

The climb had been very much more difficult than they had anticipated. This was because of the appalling weather - some of the worst that any of them had experienced in the mountains. The winds were polar in ferocity. There were frequent, sudden heavy snowfalls which made all movement exhausting and extremely slow. The considerable distances involved, particularly the necessity of crossing Junction Peak, which involved a 200 m climb back, emphasized the isolation and difficulty of retreat, particularly in the event of injury or sickness to any member of the team. The fact that the crux of the climb was right at the end added to the tension and uncertainty.

Scientific programme

A comprehensive research programme on the effect of high altitude and oxygen deficiency on the human body was successfully completed on Mount Kongur by expedition leader Dr Michael Ward and his scientific team, Dr Charles Clarke, Dr Jim Milledge and Professor Edward Williams. The following are Dr Ward's observations :

It has been known for many years that ascent to altitudes of 10,000 ft (3000 m), the height of many Alpine ski stations, results in shifts of body fluid. These shifts also occur in chronic lung and heart disease, some of the commonest diseases in Great Britain at sea level. When this happens the brain, lungs and legs sometimes become water-logged in a similar manner as occurs at altitude. The patient may die.

In the last four years, Dr James Milledge, Professor Edward Williams and I have completed studies which show that continuous daily exercise for several days at sea level, such as that taken by hill-walkers and skiers, produces a similar shift of fluid. At an altitude of 10,000 ft the magnitude of the shift is increased. The controlling hormonal mechanisms have been studied.

On the Kongur expedition, our base camp and laboratory were at 14,800 ft (4500 m) and these studies were extended by the programme of scientific work carried out there. As newcomers to altitude suffer more and are prone to brain and lung oedema (swelling of tissue due to an increase in fluid content), it is possible that adaptation to fluid shifts is at least as important as acclimatization to oxygen lack.

Changes in the blood vessels at the back of the eye, the only place in the body where they can be directly observed, were also studied. Over 40 per cent of newcomers to 16,000 ft (4900 m) and above develop tiny haemorrhages at the back of the eye (in the retina). If a certain part of the retina, the macula, is affected, the person becomes blind.

No cases of retinal Haemorrhages were recorded on this expedition by Dr Charles Clarke in contrast to the results of the study carried out by him on Everest in 1975. This is probably because all members had previously been to over 20,000 ft (6000 m) many times and also that on this occasion they took the time to acclimatize slowly.

Experiments carried out during exercise showed that our leading high-altitude climbers had a smaller increase in breathing rate compared with sea level results than had the scientists. They were also less sensitive to oxygen lack. These factors indicate a more efficient system for transporting oxygen in the body, such as occurs in Sherpas. The best known response to oxygen lack is an increase in the number of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the tissues. In one climber who reached the summit of Kongur, no such increase was noted, an observation previously made in some Sherpas.

Many blood samples were obtained for the estimation of erythropoietin, the hormone which controls red cell formation in the bone marrow. Numerous similar samples were also taken for the study of those hormones which control fluid shifts.

The information gained from our team at altitude can be compared with results obtained from our patients in Great Britain who, because of disease, have to adapt to oxygen lack in a manner similar to that which we have been undergoing for the past two months.


1.	Kongur massie from Karakol lakes. Summit of Kongur is on the right. 									(Photo: C. Bonington)

1. Kongur massie from Karakol lakes. Summit of Kongur is on the right. (Photo: C. Bonington)



2.	Pete Boardman and A1 Rouse with summit Pyramid of Kongur in background. 							(Photo: C. Bonongton)

2. Pete Boardman and A1 Rouse with summit Pyramid of Kongur in background. (Photo: C. Bonongton)



3.	Kongur. Route of attempt and ascent. 									(Photo: C. Bonington)

3. Kongur. Route of attempt and ascent. (Photo: C. Bonington)