A Change of Plan in Delhi
WHEN BILL and I checked into the YWCA International Guest House in Delhi at 4 o'clock on that uncomfortably muggy August morning, all we could think about was bed. Hauling two travel-weary bodies, two bulging sacks and £230-worth of excess baggage up three flights of stairs to our room was a trial and sleep came easy.
We went to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) on the outskirts of ' Delhi only to find our climbing permits had not yet arrived. As it happened, this delay was opportune. Whilst waiting we decided to find out what we could about Bobang Peak from their library.
According to a letter I had received from Mr Ashraf, Deputy Director of Tourism and Recreation for Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) State, the previous year, 'Bobang Peak (about 20,000 ft) between Suru valley and Wardhwan valley . . . (is) ... an unclimbed beautiful pyramidal peak involving steep ice-climbing. Japanese attempted it last year (1980) but failed to climb if. Thumbing through some Himalayan Journal indexes then, I was surprised to find Bobang Peak mentioned and read the relevant report with a mixture of increasing disappointment and anger. It had been written by Major E. A. L. Gueterbock in 19361 and was entitled 'The Mountains South of Dras In it appeared the following passage: 'Bobang Peak (17,500 ft) ... Climbed by Gueterbock, Marriott, Tashi Tendrup and Ang Tempa on 26th . . . August 1936 . . I could hardly believe my eyes.
Two doubts immediately gripped my thoughts. Had I been totally misinformed by Mr Ashraf or was he, in fact, calling another mountain Bobang Peak? The discrepancy in heights indicated the latter.
A rapid change of plan was called for which would gain immediate acceptance from the IMF. It seemed to me that persuading the IMF to let us tackle another mountain in the vicinity of Bobang Peak might be the easiest way out of our problem. Bill, Sah and I examined the photographs in the report and were attracted to Pt 19,590, about 4J miles northwest of Bobang. The only picture of it was of the opposite side to the one we would be climbing on but, even so, gave us a reasonable impression of what the mountain was like. We were attracted by the east ridge which, in the climbing notes, was described thus: 'Route 2—the shorter—is up the east side of the main south glacier to the upper part of this glacier, where a camp would have to be established at about 17,500 ft. Then on to level ridge east of Ft 19,590 and up very steep ice to summit/' This was a remarkable route appraisal considering the author' could at no time have been any closer than three miles from the peak. Little were we to know at this stage that Pt 19,590 was the very peak that Mr Ashraf had been referred to all along as Bobang Peak !
Into the Vale of Kashmir
The journey was a drag and my sang-froid was sorely tested early next morning in Jammu when a truculent Sikh autorick- shaw driver dumped me, my 60 lb sack, 50 lb of medical supplies and a broken-handled holdall crammed full of tinned goodies, several hundred yards short of the bus station from which my next bus to Srinagar departed. I could quite easily have murdered him but settled for refusing him baksheesh.
An ageing Australian hippy and two young Jewish sybarites, a Mexican senator's son and his girl friend—a Juliet if ever I saw one—and a mischievous middle-aged Indian quantity surveyor from Kensington called Terence were my travelling companions on this leg of the journey which would take me over the Pir Panjal range to Srinagar, Kargil and to Panikhar, via the Patnitop and Banihal passes.
By the time we set off from Panikhar, I was ready for a walk. A fortnight's peregrinations through the Punjab, Kashmir and Ladakh had left me with, a mild attack of 'traveller's bottom' and I was in need of exercise.
Base camp we thought was about two days' walk. I say about, because we were still not sure, even at this late stage, where our mountains were. I had, in my mind's eye, an image of Bobang peak and another of Pt 19,590 both from pictures in that 1937 Himalayan Journal This was not much to go on, since Bobang peak, as it happened, could not be seen from our base camp and remained obscured until we had climbed up out of the valley and Pt 19,590 had been photographed from the opposite side so, at best, would appear to us as the mirror image. At worst, it would have no recognizable configuration. Even so, the uncertainty caused us minimal anxiety.
As the day wore on, we slipped into automatic, mesmerised by the rhythmic pace and the still air, drifting in and out of private blue sky reveries. We reflected on our twin fortunes of choosing to climb where, we now were almost two years ago, and of miscalculating the number of ponies we would require for the carry to base camp two days earlier. What would have been a redundant pony was now heavily laden with Robin's, Sah's and my own sack. Bill, who has always favoured the Whillans approach, was honing himself to perfection on the walk in by carrying a very heavy sack and Simon, a newcomer to the art of coarse mountaineering, was left holding his sack when all available pony space had been greedily taken up.
For the first ten miles or so, we followed Mohamed Iqbal's legacy to the world, a roughly hewn but nevertheless impressive length of track wide enough for fully laden ponies to pass. The path was not steep and Majgain Maidan (13,580 ft) was reached with hardly a sweat. A flat grassy area where cattle, sheep and goats grazed, it was the obvious place to halt and we decided to camp there for the night.
We only had a thousand feet of altitude to gain the next day, but route-finding did present problems. Robin crossed the Chalong river at one point and we lost him for some time in the camouflage of moraine and boulders. He came into view an hour later walking along a lateral moraine on the opposite bank. At the time, we were picking our way across a large rock slab which sloped several hundred feet down towards the river.
Pt 19,590 came into sight gradually as we rounded a bed in the river and a lunch stop was suggested. We gazed with a certain amount of awe at this pyramid of rock and snow, still several miles away, but already dominating the horizon. It had a perfection of shape that reminded me of the Weisshorn in Switzerland.
It was only after we had walked for another hour, and then another, that the size of our mountain took on any meaningful proportions. As a friend once said of the walk up the Allt a'-Mhuilinn toward Ben Nevis, and which now applied equally well, 'it doesn't get any nearer, just bigger'. Pt 19,590 certainly felt like that.
A troublesome river crossing at Tshringmad was the last excitement of the approach march and we were ever grateful to the stalwart ponies which carried us across the icy river barring our way to base camp and rest. That they did so with both of us and the loads on their backs said a lot for the strength and surefootedness of these hardy beasts of burden. We flopped down on the opposite river bank, putting off the moment when tents had to be pitched and a meal prepared.
Next day, 27 August, was T-shirt weather and ideal for reconnoitring the different approaches to the upper reaches of our mountain. From base camp three routes looked feasible. Across the braided river system to our left looking up the valley, Bill and Sah made towards an erratic jumble of lateral moraine and scree which they followed for about 1000 ft to a stone gully. They were heading for a grassy notch in the skyline from where it was possible to make out whether the glacier separating the mountain they were on, Retsheriah, from Pt 19,590 could be safely and quickly crossed. When they reached the notch it was obvious that another route would have to be found. The glacier crossing was fraught with hazard and quite unsuitable for our purposes. By way of consolation, the two continued up the east ridge of Retsheriah and made what is probably the second ascent of this delightful little peak of 17,000 ft, surrounded on five sides by glaciers. The peak was first climbed by Gueterbock, Marriott, Tashi Tendrup and Ang Tempa on 27 August 1936, exactly 45 years earlier to the day. From it there was a commanding view of the surrounding higher peaks. As well as being able to assess the climbing difficulties on the upper reaches of our eventual route on Pt 19,590, they saw Bobang peak for the first time on this expedition, over to the southeast. It matched the photograph we had seen in Delhi.
The second possibility was the rocky gully at the valley head which might gain easier access to the screes higher up on the right hand side of the valley as viewed from base camp. Robin and Simon tried it the next day and it did not. The third and eventually the actual route we took was by a steep grassy gully leading to a long concave boulder slope, which you walked along for ever towards a snow notch in the rocky ridge horizon. Simon and I spent a day exploring this route and I wrote about it in my diary.
'Yesterday, Simon and I wallowed in the unconstrained freedom of climbing high, untrammelled by heavy sacks and layers of hermetic clothing. T-shirt, jeans, Big-T's, water bottle, altimeter, camera; these that time that place were all my possessions, all my needs. My sustenance every hour, perhaps on the hour, who cared, was a thirst-abating fruit drop.
'Cautious steps up the deceptive grass gully, less steep than had been imagined, wary upward progress on stacked rocks that the ravages of time had made unstable, hands and knees thrutching across even less stable ground and, in between, body-jarring unevenness of juvenile moraine. Eventually, a short rise and on that vast expanse of rock, precipice and scree just where it was needed a two-tent plot with a small trickle of water close by. We built a cairn for future reference.
'Across from us, over the textbook glacier and atop the far ridge, two silhouettes wended their way through the 'chimney pots' to a' rocky summit, one of three. Bill and Sah were also enjoying themselves.
'And thus exhilarated, we were spurred on into a system of shallow stone gullies that led in time and space to a notch on the containing ridge. And then we would touch the snow. But incipient snowflakes at first imagined but soon for real, put an end to our euphoria and prudence prevailed. We turned back at 17,000 ft, certainly a feasible route had been found, but perhaps thinking more about getting back safely before the weather really did break. A few minor detours fixed the best line of approach to Camp 1 and we felt we had done a good job. Several times we were forced to run the gauntlet of swollen afternoon streams before base camp was reached. Rain stayed off until then, but only just.' We resisted the temptation to go to the pub that night and discussed our plans for an attempt on Pt 19,590. Simon and I had realized from our exploratory walk that the mountain was bigger than it looked and thought that just reaching the final ridge might take three days. The ridge would be another day and descent perhaps two more, six in all. We packed for five. The resulting 50 lb packs made us wonder why we had ever described ourselves a light-weight expedition but there was nothing we could safely leave behind. Like camels, we stocked up on food and on 29 August we started our climb.
19,000 ft on Pt 19,590
Unaccustomed to the heavy packs and not yet used to the altitude, we laboured across the interminable moraine. A gully crammed with dangerously perched boulders gave us a few anxious moments and Bill and I found ourselves committed to a trying struggle up a short vertical section composed of earth and boulders. Our carefully constructed cairn of two days before was not the landmark we had hoped it would be, and the stream that we eventually managed to locate was little more than a trickle. We followed that up to our Camp 1 site.
The ground was sloping and the uneven soil scarcely covered the underlying rock. We set about building a dry stone retaining wall behind which we formed a level earth shelf, a terrible desecration of the indigenous ecosystem but a means of ensuring a decent night's sleep for some of us at least.
That night I cooked the most revolting spaghetti bolognese ever and my credibility as a cook took a downward plunge as a result. The pasta was like wallpaper paste and the tomato puree—dried mushroom and onion—-parmesan cheese sauce was, in a word, ugh ! Some people will do anything to get out of cooking the meals! My stomach wrestled with the revolting concoction all night and the tube attached to it wondered what it had done to deserve such a going over most of the following day.
Underfoot was a disintegrating mountain, the screes and boulders a different colour and texture to the country rock, and up to the snow notch was a treadmill. At the snow notch we were puzzled to find a stone cairn. This was the first evidence of previous exploration.
Ahead of us lay a snowfield, bound on the right side by the ridge whose crest we had just reached and on the left by a complex serac fall. The way ahead was as clearly defined as if it were a line on a map. We skirted the edge of the containing bergschrund towards the steep headwall and, at a place that Sah thought suicidal, but which Simon, Bill and I thought perfectly suitable for pitching a bivouac tent without poles, we started digging a ledge in the snow.
Sah's uneasiness grew all through that night and by the next morning I could tell he was no longer interested in the climb. There were quite a few crevasses, just above the bivouac, which the previous visitors to this area had seen fit to fix with rope. We took a line further to the right which Sah questioned. He queried our choice of line for the next snow slope as well. So, just to maintain the mutual respect that had so far been a feature of our friendship with Sah, we followed his advice. We came to the top of that rise and gazed out across a pristine snow wilderness, a huge yallee blanche. Above it towered the final pyramid of Pt 19,590, an incompromisingly vertiginous challenge. Sah took about three seconds to make up his mind—he'd seen enough. We didn't see him again for four days.
In his rush to get off the mountain in the shortest possible time, he made one costly error of judgment which was to rob us of a second attempt at the summit when our first one failed. To reduce the loads that the rest of us would have to carry down during the descent, Sah decided to strip Bivouac 1 and Camp 1 of items no longer required. Unfortunately for us, this included the remainder of the fuel which we needed for cooking and melting snow for drinking water. Simon, Bill and I trudged on across the snowfield blissfully unaware of all this. Robin, who had climbed up from Camp 1 that morning was the first to realize the consequences of Sah's blunder, but it was to be several hours before he met up with us, so it was an optimistic threesome that clambered up towards the start of the summit crest. Totally miscalculating the steepness of the final 1500 ft or so of ridge, we started up it about noon of that day. Our rush to reach the summit however was more headstrong than headlong and we had barely gone a rope length before good sense prevailed. It was noon and there was no way we were going to get to the top that day. Even if we went on further, it was highly improbable that there would be any point on the ridge flat enough or wide enough to pitch a bivouac tent. The surface conditions were rather treacherous, slabs of hard-packed snow sloughing off with each upward footstep, and to continue might have been foolish. At the foot of the ridge there was a reasonably flat area and we decided to site our second bivouac there.
It was a miserable place. Plates of friable slatey rock, interleaved with khaki-coloured clay, had to be chipped away to form a ledge for the tent. The problem of tent poles was solved this time by the timely discovery of some gear abandoned by our predecessors. Metre-long dexion strips combined with large slabs of rock were used to construct a piled retaining wall behind which a tolerably level surface was prepared.
In the afternoon Bill and Simon went down to Bivouac 1 to get some food for two more days. When they met Robin halfway back across the snowfield the realities resulting from Sah's blunder became clear.
As Bill and Simon completed an already exhausting day with one final pull back to Bivouac 2, they already knew we had one more day left to reach the top. Without fuel, we could not melt snow for water and without water we were beaten.
We crawled into our pits that night knowing perfectly well what we had to do the next day. For the second time in my life I took a sleeping pill, Normison, and regretted it, Robin took two and was twice cursed. We were like zombies the next morning. For a couple of hours we stumbled around like old old men.
It was not until we reached the first rock step that increased verticality and unstable rock forced us out of our lethargy and on to our toes, literally. From then on we could not afford to be anything less than fully awake. We moved with the utmost care.
Gradually, exhilaration pushed out every other feeling and we moved well. But time was the hunter and we the prey and even before we had reached a third of the way we knew we had lost. I remember hanging on to the steep wall of an ice-tower, my two axes firmly placed, crampons scratching the thinly iced rock and gazing for a while to the north and the hazy creamy mass of Nanga Parbat, and then for a while to the south and hundreds of Himalayan peaks, some towards Kishtwar, others towards Kulu-Manali and others, I suppose, stretching even further. It had taken us three and a half hours to reach that point, there remained about eight to ten pitches of equal or greater severity still to do and all of these and the six we had already done would have to be reversed before nightfall if the relative safety of Bivouac 2 were to be reached. Staying out on the ridge overnight without a sleeping-bag or a bivouac tent would have been courting disaster. We had been beaten by technical difficulties, not insurmountable ones, but rather ones that had prolonged the duration of our ascent and stretched our resources, in every department, to the very limit.
The descent from our high point of 19,000 ft was a prolonged affair due to the steepness and hardness of the ice and we had to exercise extreme caution. We resisted the temptation to use the fixed rope that ran out just below our own high point even though there were times we felt it would have been useful. And back at the rock tower, we found a Japanese karabiner and realized that this was the 'Bobang Peak' that Mr Ashraf had been referring to in his letter. So, at least that little mystery had been solved.
A Day in the Life of Bobang Peak
My thoughts were beginning to turn towards Bobang peak itself. This was, after all, the peak we had been given permission to climb and it appeared from our vantage point high up on Pt 19,590 that the right hand peak of Bobang would go in a day, given the right conditions. We were not given them, but climbed it all the same the next day in seven and a half hours, base camp to summit.
Nine o'clock wasn't such an early start for us, but compared with what we had been on, Bobang wasn't such a big mountain or at least that is how it seemed at the time.
Wispy cirrus streaks portended poorer weather to come and gave the lie to what had started a promisingly bright day. We thought 'anticyclone' and for our optimism bought murky depression. But it did not seem to matter. We had decided to go for the summit that day whatever.
I dont know why but all three of us, Bill, Simon and I, seemed to be moving much better that day and we were past the three boulder scoops leading to the East Bobang glacier in hardly any time at all. We stopped to put on crampons and then crossed the flat glacier for about a mile and a half. Ahead of us lay a heavily crevassed head wait and brooding black clouds.
By the time we had reached the bergschrund we were in thick mist and it became nearly impossible to distinguish between snow and sky. We zigzagged past yawning crevasses and jumped across dark groaning voids, 'a cheval' here, 'walking the plank' there, for two nerve-racking hours. All that was left now was the final snowfield which we ascended in whiteout and the summit was ours. We spent half an hour traversing the corniced summit crest, some of the time on our hands and knees the snow was so soft and punishing to walk on to locate its highest point. At 3.30 p.m. we were satisfied the top had been reached and we stayed there just long enough to be chuffed by what we had done.
It was snowing quite heavily by the time we started downhill and we lost our way several times. In order to avoid the crevassed area we took a line along a ridge t0 the side and descended from that. What I had thought would be a 150 ft descent on steep ice to just below the bergschrund turned out to be nearly 400 ft and the three of us used up quite a few kilojoules of nervous energy before that particular nightmare was over. We raced down the glacier and arrived back at base camp just after nightfall, tired but pleased with ourselves.
Into the Hidden Kingdom
Two days, sixty cups of tea, and as many games of cards later, at Famkhar, we were well rested and, since John was not actually due to meet up with us until 8 September, I decided we should press on to Zanskar straight away to get started with the glacier crossing that would take us over to the Kiar nullah and Cathedral peak
Bill, Robin, Sah and I hitched a ride on a public transport carrier the next day and were subjected over the next twelve hours to as bone-jarring a journey as I am ever likely to have. Now I know what it must feel like to be inside a washing machine. We creaked and crunched our way along the Sum valley past the Nun Kun massif and away from the last Moslem outpost into the Buddhist kingdom of Zanskar. Panikhar had been warm enough for shorts and T-shirts during the day so we were ill-clad for Juldo when we arrived there after dark. I stepped out of the lorry to check in for the night at the PWD quarters. Juldo, at 12,700 ft, whilst sunny and warm during the day, chills down considerably during the night and the ever- constant air-stream produces a wind chill which freezes you to the marrow. In the short distance between lorry and building I started shivering and by the time I clambered back into the relative warmth of the truck cab I was nearly an exposure case and a statistic.
Meanwhile, John had arrived at Panikhar where Simon, who had stayed behind, filled him in on the story so far. The following extracts from John's diary give something of the flavour of the next few days.
'8 September . . . approx. 5 p.m. we arrived at the village of Juldo. We half expected the other expedition members to be here but found a message to say they had already moved on to Box. We stayed the night in one of the local's houses. . . .
'9 September . . . Left Juldo approx. 6.30 a.m. Problems with fuel drums leaking so stopped numerous times to rearrange and resolve leaks — ours and the drums.
'Arrived at Box base camp at 1.15 p.m. ... In the afternoon I went for a walk up the south side of the Derung Drun glacier to help acclimatization.
'On my return to base camp, several trucks were waiting and Sah was preparing to leave with them, so we rapidly packed our excess equipment for Sah to take with him to Kishtwar.'
A note of explanation is required. On crossing the Pensi La, Sah had taken one look at the Derung Drun glacier and decided we were all mad. He was complaining of swollen lips and nausea and suggested he might travel round to Kishtwar by road, via Kargil, Srinagar and Batot. He thought he might save us a lot of trouble by walking to Kiar, three days away from Kishtwar, hiring porters there and getting them to our proposed Cathedral peak base camp by 22 September in readiness for our march out. I was quite aware of the advantages this strategy meant to the rest of us, but was at a loss to understand Sah's motives, unless they were actually altruistic.
Derung Drun glacier
'10 September . . . Weather poor—overcast. . . . Today we went up the eastern side for about 1 1/2 miles and then crossed to the depot left by the others yesterday. In total about 5 miles up the glacier. The journey took 3 1/4 hours to Camp 1. T found it quite reasonable at first but soon it became obvious that acclimatization was going to restrict. After about 2 1/2 miles I found it necessary to stop about every 700 paces to allow my pulse rate to slow down. I would walk until my pulse rate reached between 150 and 160 then I would stop to allow it to fall to about 108. . . .
"The journey down took 2 hours. I was very tired, the altitude had affected me far more than I had expected. My pulse rate never dropped below 108 all evening.
11 September ... At Box. My pulse rate at 7 a.m. = 96. . . . After moving around during breakfast my pulse rate was up to 136.
'10 a.m. struck camp and prepared loads for carrying up to Camp 1. Gave some of the extraneous equipment to the local herdsman at Pensi La, He was very grateful to receive sugar, flour, an axe- head and potatoes. He decided to refuse Bill and Stuart's favourite pickle. He did sample several pieces but spat them all out with disgust . . . sensible folk these Zanskaris.
I was so much better today and was going like a train . . . arrived at Camp 1 in 2f hours. .
And so on, a double carry between each camp to ferry our 500 lb of gear and food up the glacier, we laboured three more days trying to reach the ever-elusive Col Luigi di Savoia and, on its far side, Prul glacier and the long downward climb to Cathedral peak.
13 September was a critical day. Alter breakfast, Robin and I set off from Camp 2 to try and reach the col. From our camp, there were two possible routes, one to the left of the serac fall higher up the glacier, and the other skirting under the cliffs to the right. We opted for the easier looking line to the left. Distances were very deceptive and even from the highest point we reached that day it looked as though it would still take another day to reach the col. We still did not know how difficult the descent on the other side was going to be and were becoming concerned about time running out on us.
That night we discussed our position. Crossing the col to the Kiar nullah might take so long that no time would be left to tackle Cathedral peak. On the other hand, staying where we were, surrounded by several attractive peaks, there were many climbing options available to us. One problem was S'ah round in Kishtwar and this could only be resolved by one of us walking out to send a telegram calling him back from Kiar. Since Bill and I were due back in England before the others and we had less time to play with than Robin, Simon and John, it was decided we should leave the following day, taking with us as much equipment as we could carry, but only the barest necessities of food, and try and get to Srinagar as quickly as possible to inform Mr Ashraf of our change of plan and arrange for telegrams to be sent. We took three days to get there and the all important message was sent. It was not until Sah strolled up towards us over a week later in Delhi that we had confirmation our message had reached him in time.
Robin picks up the story from here.
On the afternoon of 14 September, Stuart and Bill set off down the glacier to Box, leaving John, Simon and me in possession of Camp 2. Once again we were able to appreciate the sheer size of the Derung Drun glacier, which had frustrated our plans. For a long time the two figures seemed almost stationary on the immense expanse of white, and then we looked up again and they had vanished, hidden by one of the ridges which are so deceptively concealed by the fiat colouring. Not for the first time 1 thought how easy it would be to lose a man or a whole camp here in bad weather.
Our position was in many respects an enviable one. We were camped high on a glacier, unencumbered by a liaison officer, surrounded by fine peaks of around 20,000 ft, from, which we could take our pick. We had at least a week before we needed to think about returning and we had ample supplies of food. Along with Stuart and Bill, our chief enthusiasts for Shipton-like reliance on local food, we had said goodbye to a diet of parathas, dal and curried vegetables. The bulk of the high altitude food intended for six people was now ours to share between three, and we set to right away, beginning with some delicious greasy Polish salami. Later that afternoon I walked for about two hours up a tributary glacier to the east, in order to inspect the approaches to Doda peak, a formidable lump protected on this side by steep bands of rotten-looking rock. I enjoyed being on my own in this lonely spot, for once without a heavy pack, as I picked my way over morainic boulders, round rock tables and across little streams flowing on the surface of the ice. I saw a huge raven perched on a rock, and high above my head, at the vanishing point of a dizzying perspective of cliffs, the tiny outline of a bird of prey almost transparent against the blue sky, like the ghost of an eagle.
Doda seemed too much of an undertaking in the time available. On the next day John explored across to the west side of the glacier and up the lower slopes of a likely looking peak, a shapely cone of ice with an obvious route up it, straightforward apart from a problematical rock step near the top. Meanwhile Simon and I recovered the cache of climbing gear we had left higher up the glacier before abandoning our attempt to cross the pass. John returned well pleased with his reconnaissance, having dumped some food at Ms high point.
Ascent and Descent
On 16th morning we set off with two ropes, a rack of gear, bivvy tent, MSR stove with two full fuel bottles and food for three days. We moved separately across the glacier, following John's tracks in our own time. The weather was perfect, although it promised to be very hot later. Rhythmical movement across rough terrain is like a drug. The ache and labour is there but seems to recede to another plane, leaving the mind free to wander, until one clumsy step breaks the spell and physical exigency rushes back with the thin air you gulp into your lungs. The trance-like state can levitate you effortlessly, but can also lead to dangerous inattention. Experienced climbers induce it when they wish to, but also usually manage to control it—a part of them stays watchful. This morning I was sunk in reverie and, without thinking, twice leapt a large moulin—a hole' where a river of melt water is swallowed by the ice—which was barring my way. It was like stepping down in the dark on to a non-existent stair. I landed on the far lip with a jolt which shook me into wakefulness, A little later I reached a crevassed area where the snow of the glacier gave way to the neve, the snow of the mountain, I put on crampons and continued steadily, enjoying the crisp bite of the points. Glancing back I could see Simon and John not far behind.
We were proceeding up a broad gully, and three hours after setting out from, base, we reached the point on the rocky buttress to our left where John had cached the food. I made some 'Rise and Shine' orange drink with a trickle of melt water, and ate a bar of chocolate. We continued up the next steepening towards a prominent rock tower. The top of the tower was joined to the main mass of the mountain by a col, a neck of snow which might provide a good bivouac site. We entered the snow bowl below the' buttress and my leg went through as far as my thigh, so we roped up. The snow bowl was a sun-trap, sheltered from the wind and stiflingly hot. We kept coming across crows' footprints, like the arrows which traditionally adorn prison clothing, and all the arrows pointed down. It required an effort of will to keep going for the col, still well above us, but Simon and John, were adamant, quite correctly as it turned out, that we should make the extra height.
The bivouac site was sloping ice-ledge backed by a wall of rock. We levelled it as best we could, and found anchorages for the bivvy tent in the rock face. In front the ground dropped steeply to a large crevasse. It was like making camp on the first three feet of the Cresta Run. The thought of something giving way and the tent and its occupants tobogganing into the abyss so preyed on the mind of Simon and John that they prevailed on me, as the one nearest the entrance, to get out in the middle of the night and secure an extra rope round the front of the tent. Quite apart from this, I spent a miserable night. The tent was very small for three people; we could only sit on our sloping ledge with our backs to the rock, and kept sliding down into a cramped huddle held in by the bulging front tent wall. The cold struck through where the sleeping-bags were compressed, and my bent knees felt freezing. Half way through the night I took my sleeping-bag outside where I could lie full- length, and this was marginally better, although I was still cold without the protection of the tent. In the morning the sun crept round towards our bivvy site with excruciating slowness, but at last blissfully warmed us and thawed out our frozen boots enough for us to put them on.
At 9 a.m. on 17 September, we set off for the summit. We left our bivouac tent in place, intending to return to it that evening. We moved unroped at first. The snow was breakable crust, that most infuriating of surfaces. For two, three or a dozen steps it takes your weight as you walk on eggshells, trying to think yourself lighter. Then you sink through up to the knee, your rhythm is destroyed, and a series of clumsy, crust-breaking steps follow before you are back on the surface again. After a while the snow improved, but we came to a tricky crevassed area where we had to rope up. The three of us had never climbed together before this trip, and had dig- covered that we have radically different approaches to moving uphill. I like to get into a steady plod, no matter how painfully slow, and keep going. Simon and John prefer to climb in bursts with short rests in between. As a result we preferred to move separately, although when we had to rope together we all adapted a little.
After picking our way through the crevasses we gained a broad snowy ridge which led to the foot of the rock band which looked as if it would provide the crux of the route. We reached the base of the rock step in about four hours from the bivouac site. The rock proved about as stable as a dry stone wall perched on a 45° slag heap. Parts of it had the colour and consistency of cheese. At least if you wanted you could carry your holds up with you. After a pitch I reached a ledge with a small overhang above it. Tucked in under the overhang, in one of the relatively more solid pieces of rock, was a newish looking piton with a short sling attached to it. So someone had been here before us, and quite recently too. Oh well, the peg would help in the descent. When the others heard the news there was some ritual cursing, but I don't think they were too upset. This was a very minor peak, one among hundreds. Its ascent was important to no one except the ascensionists. The fact that someone had preceded us took a little of the uncertainty out of our adventure, but we weren't going to complain .too long or loud. The Ulysses Factor was present in our party, but in a fairly diluted form.
Another pitch of bad rock gave on to steepish snow-ice which led in three rope lengths to the summit. From there the ridge dipped and then rose again to a top very much the same height as our own. It was very hard to estimate whether we were on the true summit or not—if we were it was only by a foot or so. It was now three o'clock and the other point was perhaps an hour away. We decided unanimously that we had reached the top. Photographs were taken. Far to the north we could see the snowy giants of the Karakoram, and nearer at hand, Nun and Kun. Views to the south and west, into Kishtwar, were tantalizingly obscured by cloud welling up from the north Indian plain. We did catch a glimpse of what we thought was the Prul glacier which we had hoped to descend. It looked heavily crevassed and we could also see that it was a long way from our high point on the glacier to the pass.
On the descent of the rock band the abseil ropes jammed as we tried to pull them down, a sure sign that the party was getting tired and careless. We reached the bivvy again at about 6 p.m. We considered continuing down to base camp, whose Spartan conditions seemed like luxury compared with the bivouac, but we had already been moving for nine hours, and would certainly have to cross the glacier in the dark. We decided to wait, and make a leisurely descent in the morning.
Back to Box
On the 19th we struck base camp and began the descent to Box. Despite the fact that we jettisoned large amounts of food and inessential equipment, our packs were huge. Simon presided over a bonfire of atta, sugar, denydrated apple rings, aplastic bowl and various other items, feeding the flames with our surplus paraffin. As the fire was dying down, we heared a series of sharp resorts, followed by the tinkling fall of glass uncomfortably close to us. Simon walked over to inspect the cause. The ampoules of drugs from some discarded medical stores had explored, showering the area with broken glass.
On our way down we came across a few burnt tins and scraps of paper with Japanese characters on them. Was this a remnant of the ill fated Japanese expedition? It was a cold, overcast day, and the weight of the packs was such that you needed to find a rock or an ice-shelf of a suitable height to rest on. If you once sat or laydown it was extremely difficult to get up again. After five hours of back-breaking work we were approaching the snout of the glacier. John and Simon were both some distance ahead of me and out of sight. As I topped a rise I saw Simon over to my left, just beside the stream which bounds the glacier on that side and merges into the river which flows from the glacier snout into Zanskar. He was out of audible range, but saw me, waved, and made swimming motions with his arms. I took this to mean 'go the other way, if you come here you will have to swim'. I had covered some distance on the right (east) bank of the river when I saw Simon and John on the far side, proceeding purposefully towards our camp, and realized that he had meant just the opposite, I was exasperated, physically tired and also suffering, I think, from, an insidious mental lethargy. I had a feeling that the expedition was really over, that we had left danger behind us. For whatever reason, I did a foolish thing. Rather than retrace my steps, which would have taken perhaps an extra forty minutes, I tried to wade across the river. It was not very deep but was moving fast and was very cold. I had not gone more than a yard or two from the bank, in knee-deep water, when I lost my footing on the slippery cobbles of the river bed. The weight of my rucksack now took over and pinned me down into the icy water My position was both ludicrous and potentially lethal. I could not get rid of my sack quickly, as I was fastened in with a. hip belt as well as shoulder straps. The force of the water was carrying me quite fast downstream, bumping along the bottom. By rolling over and over I managed to reach the bank, gasping and swearing. I was soaked to the skin, it was now about 6 p.m., night was drawing in and a bitter wind was blowing. We had been going all day with very little to eat. The danger of exposure was ringing in my mind with the insistency of an alarm bell. I unceremoniously dumped the heavy climbing gear which made up the bulk of my load on a bank of shingle, put on the only two particularly dry items of clothing I had in my rucksack, a duvet and a pair of overtrousers, and set off back towards the glacier. I was walking very vigorously, spurred on by the' urgency of the situation, but nonetheless was shivering violently by' the time I reached the others at the road. Simon and John looked after me magnificently, I was soon stripped off in a dry sleeping-bag, inside a tent, and, being fed with hot food and drinks, Pinion took my temperature which was 34.5 C, 37 C is normal. When it drops to about 33 C, Simon explained, the shivering reflex fails, and deterioration is very fast. So the time to worry is when you stop shivering.
That night there was a spectacular storm, but fortunately the next day was fine, and I was able to dry out my wet clothing in the sun. The rest of our trip was a gradual return to normality; a bone-shaking journey in an open truck to Kargil, a lift with an Indian engaged in a geothermal survey, ('What charm you find in barren hills?' he asked with genuine puzzlement. 'There's something very strong about them', John, replied lamely), a pleasant stay on a houseboat in Srinagar, train to Delhi, plane to London.
Later investigations indicated that N9 was climbed by a 10-man Italian expedition led by Giorgio Mallucci in 1980. The three of them reached the summit by the south ridge at 15.00 hrs on 17 September.
There is a lot of conflicting data regarding heights and names of mountains in the areas we- visited. Pt 19,590, for example, is referred to as Bobang peak by the Directorate of Tourism and Recreation, J & K and, presumably, the Japanese.
But Bobang peak according to Major E A L Gueterback et al is another lesser peak on the opposite side of the valley. This second one is the one accepted by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation as such. The height of this second peak has been stated as anything from 17,500 ft to- 20,000 ft over the years. The height we have used, taken from a Survey of India map, accords pretty closely with our own altimeter reading.
N9, if that was the mountain we climbed, has two recorded heights and we have used the one appearing on an Italian map we were shown in Srinagar at the end of the expedition.
Members: Stuart Hepburn (leader), Eobin Andrews, Bill Hodgson, Simon Brown, John Hall and Girish Sah (liaison officer).