MOST SMALL-SCALE maps of the Kishtwar Himalaya mark three main summits two of which. Sickle moon (6574 m) and Brammah I (6416 m), lie in the western region and were both climbed in the early seventies. Although not quite as high, Agyasol (6200 m) is the third peak, lying to the southeast of the other two, and up to 1981 was unclimbed. Ironically it could have been the first major mountain in the entire range to be climbed for in 1939 a pair of Austrians, who were exploring the geography of the area, seriously contemplated making an alpine style ascent of the peak from, the north but decided against it at the last moment. One of the two, Fritz Kolb, was obviously very taken by the peak, describing it in his book Himalayan Venture as 'a beautiful, really splendid mountain, and it is interesting to speculate how the pair would have fared for their plan was very much in the modern idiom.1
After a period of closure, the area was again open to foreigners in the early seventies, when there was a rush to climb the obvious plums in the western region. Fashion is a powerful influence (even in mountaineering!) for whilst some peaks around Brammah have now had two or three ascents, the mountains in the eastern part of the range have been comparatively neglected. Barnaj II (South summit) climbed by a Japanese team in 1976, (repeated alpine-style by Paul Nunn and party in 1979) and several small peaks in the Barnaj and Chiring nullahs climbed by Lindsay Griffin in 1978 were the most notable events. Agyasol was attempted in 1980 by a British team from Kingston Polytechnic led by Chris Jones, but after failing to approach the mountain from the north due to difficult river crossings they made an approach from the southwest up the Kaban nullah which led them finally on to the east ridge. Then high point was about 5400 m just below the start of the major difficulties.
The 1981 expedition to Agyasol originated from Oxford University, and consisted of John Wilkinson, Roger Everett, Nick Barrett, Mike Harrop, and myself. Together with our liaison officer, Capt Yadav, we all left Delhi on 20 August on the night train for Jammu. The day after we proceeded by bus to Kishtwar (fourteen hours for approximately 140 miles!) and thence by road to Galahar about 20 miles beyond on the 23rd.
The approach march from Galahar to base camp via Shashu, Athole and Kaban followed a spectacular gorge and took six days, but this could be reduced to three as shown when the expedition came out. The experience of the 1980 team had highlighted the access problems in the area, caused mainly by the low deep-cut valleys, so we had decided to use their approach- Mules were used as far as Koban, a Buddhist village at a height of 3200 m in the Kaban nullah, where porters were hired. Our experience with these was unfortunate since we were rather cheated in the arrangements. We are all indebted to our liaison officer, for without his skill in coping with this and other various pitfalls we befell during the walk-in we would probably have never reached base camp, which was set up, in the event on the 29th. Unfortunately even though the site was at 3600 m it was rather further down the valley than was perhaps ideal, for our mountain was located considerably further up the main valley and not up one of the side valleys as originally supposed. After three days of exploring the area we finally obtained a view of the east ridge of Agyasol and straightaway it was apparent that a major rock step was going to be the main problem and that we would have to establish an advance base.
2 September a Preliminary carry was made for this purpose and two days later the party set up advance base at 4500 m at the foot of the glacier terrain below the col the south flank of the Agyasol massif. A reconnaissance, made over the col the next day, revealed an approach on the other side to the rock step on the east ridge proper by easy but crevassed snow slopes. On the day after, we all established ourselves at a minor col below the rock step at a height of 5400 m. The weather then deteriorated and after three days of almost continuous snowfall it became imperative that three of us should descend leaving the strongest pair with the remaining food and fuel so that they could sit out the bad weather as long as possible. The situation was further heightened byJohn and I who were to a lesser and greater extent suffering from the effects of altitude and it turned out that it was Nick and Roger who remained at super advance base with provisions adequate for perhaps another six days. The weather continued to deteriorate and an unpleasant retreat was experienced by those that had to go down.
On the 12th the weather turned fine and by 11 a.m. the snow had cleared sufficiently for Nick and Roger to attack the rock rice buttress; this was climbed during the day (III- IV with some steep section of ice) and a bivouac made at the top. The next day was brilliant and an early start was made. The route now followed a snow-ice arete, very classic in style, but with some steep exposed sections. Conditions were generally very good as the new snow made a good surface over the old ice, which was particularly hard because of the dry season. They reached the east summit as 10.15 a.m. which was separated from the central summit by a long gendarmed ridge that dropped 300 m or so before rising to an equivalent height. Lack of fuel ruled out any possibility of continuing so they descended by the same route and the bivvy was regained at 1.30 p.m. The next day the buttress was descended, mostly by abseil, and base camp reached the same day. In all nine days had been spent by the summit party over 5400 m with the advantage of the only really perfect weather period being seized as a result of being able to sit out the bad weather on a site at the foot of the main difficulties.
On 21 September Mike and I too reached the east summit taking a similar time on the climb as the previous two but had to wait four days at super advance base for bad weather to clear. John unfortunately was unable to accompany us for he had a shorter time available for the expedition than the rest of us, and he started his journey home with Roger the day after Nick and Roger had returned 1o base camp.
Before the rest of the expedition left the area, Nick and I climbed the prominent rock pinnacle behind base camp, which effectively is a subsidiary peak on Gharol's south ridge. We climbed the prominent dihedral line on the southeast face which gave several pitches of IV and V, before finally finishing up the west ridge. We called the mountain 'Spire Peak' and estimated its height to be about 5000 m. Although not an important summit our ascent did confirm the excellence of the granite of which the surrounding peaks are composed. (Unfortunately there is a distinct band of rotten rock that runs north-south from P. 6100 m to Spear Peak which means that both of these extremely impressive mountains would be rather unpleasant to climb.)
There are many peaks (between 5600 and 6200 m) that looked very worthy objectives from, our vantage points on Agyasol, but unfortunately it looked as though many had very difficult approaches from the low-lying valleys that cut through the range. At present the Indian Government is planning to build a hydro-electric scheme on the river Chenab ahead of Athole, and the first stage of this plan is to continue the road from Kishtwar to Galahar through to Athole. This will greatly ease the access to the Agyasol massif and surrounding peaks but this progress will have a far greater effect on the local inhabitants and their culture than on the immediate exploration of the mountains in the area. For a few years at least therefore the opportunities for exploratory mountaineering in the area will remain good.
Looking back along the final ridge on Agyasol. (Photo : S. Richardson)
Agyasol (left) and Spear peak (right) from the north. (Photo : L. Griffin)