The First Ascent, 1983



13 SEPTEMBER 1979. A friend and I were walking back down the Hagshu nala, in the Kishtwar Himalaya. Weak and undernourished, dispirited by our failure two days earlier to cross a pass to Zanskar, I nevertheless couldn't help being moved by our surroundings — the valley glittering in the white sunlight of a frosty morning and, a few miles to the south, the north face of Shivling, framed in the 'V of our valley. It was a Very spectacular mountain which few climbers had seen and none had attempted. Prom this side it looked very hard. I toyed idly with the idea of attempting it at a future date, and wondered just how steep that north face was or whether there was any way of avoiding the huge ice-cliffs which appeared to guard all approaches to the more reasonable looking west ridge. The east face didn't offer much of an alternative — its great, steep granite walls would almost certainly require slow, artificial climbing and the buttress between it and the north face rose in a series of jutting steps, capped by precarious snow mushrooms. In my weakened state, it seemed to be a mountain to look at and admire, from a distance.

Over the next three years I periodically examined my pictures of the mountain and wondered about making an attempt on the north face. Unlike its more famous namesake in Garhwal, this Shivling (c. 6000 m) was almost ignored, until the 1981 OUMC expedition considered making an attempt. However they opted for nearby Aygasol and from that summit they reported that the south side of Shivling didn't appear easy; it might prove more straightforward than the north face, but there probably wasn't much in it. The magnificent north face was certainly a more appealing objective and by 1982 I had set my heart on attempting it. I had no plans for the autumn of 1983 and it was fortunate that Dick Renshaw1 was keen on finding a technically demanding route on a comparatively low peak in India. Shivling seemed to fit the bill and we applied for permission. By the end of 1982 we were committed to an expedition the following autumn and had applied to the MEF and the BMC for financial assistance. They^ later responded with generous grants. A third member had to drop out at the last minute due to work commitments, which left just the two of us bound for Kishtwar-Shivling at the beginning of August, 1983.


  1. Dick Renshaw suffered a mild stroke on The British Everest Expedition to China, 1982 at 26,700 ft. He had to leave the expedition. A lion-hearted climber!—ED


Photos 27-28


Shivling is regarded by the locals as a holy mountain: its name means 'The Phallus of Shiva*. The villagers at Machail pointed out a phallic pinnacle of rock quite low down on the western flank. From Kishtwar onwards it was interesting to hear various legends centred around the mountain. On occasions the music of conch shells was said to be heard coming from the mountain and it was also reputed to be able to change colour. There is a story about a holy man who once set out to climb to the summit. He left his camp at the base of the mountain early in the morning and that evening went to sleep on the lower slopes. Waking up next morning, he found himself back at the foot of the mountain, and gave up his attempt.

There seemed to be no objection from the locals to us trying to climb a holy mountain, and in fact a number of people were quite curious as to whether we had found any gold or treasure on the summit.

The Approach (5-19 August)

We flew very comfortably to Delhi. The IMF hostel was expensive, but we were glad to have somewhere clean, cool and spacious to pack loads. We had freighted some food, with some of the climbing gear, from Britain, but most of our supplies were bought in Delhi.

On 8 August we met Patial, our liaison officer, and the following evening the three of us left for the station, with two taxis carrying our eighteen pieces of luggage. By indulging in the luxury of a 1st class sleeper, we were able to cram all the luggage into our compartment (a practice not condoned by the authorities). The following morning we checked into a rat-infested 'retiring room' at the bus station in Jammu. Due to a delay in changing money (Jammu is the last place where this is possible), we didn't leave for Kishtwar until a day later. The afternoon bus stops overnight at Batote, before leaving the main Srinagar road and driving east up the Chenab valley. A landslide just short of Kishtwar caused another delay and much tedious shifting of luggage to the end of a long queue of vehicles on the far side. We camped out on the road and the following morning a relief bus took us into Kishtwar, where we stayed in the hotel above the bus stand. (It was only on the way back that we discovered the excellent dak bungalow, half a mile up the road.)

From Kishtwar, the road continues a few miles east to Galahar, where mules take over. We arranged for seven mules and rearranged our baggage to make seven matched pairs of loads, varying from 55 kg to 70 kg. We had catered for a possible two months at base camp and the total weight of baggage was about 420 kg.

The approach to the eastern part of the Kishtwar range is delightful but, suffering from an attack of 'flu, I was in no fit state to appreciate the magnificent cedar forests along the banks of the Chenab gorge. After two days we reached Atholi and branched north up the Bhut nala. The late monsoon now finally hit the area and we walked through persistent drizzle to Machail, the last Hindu village on our route. On the fifth day we continued east along the Dharlang nala for three miles before turning north up the nala, which descends from the Buddhist village of Sumcham. At Sumcham the valley bends round to the east. We wanted to site our base camp on the south side of the valley, immediately below Shivling; there is no bridge across the river and it took a lot of coaxing to get our muleteer to take his animals across a large snow bridge just below the village. (Later in the season the snow became too fragile and the river had to be crossed by the large boulders in the gorge, just above the village. This crossing is always usable, except possibly during the spring thaw, but is not suitable for animals.) After more arguments, our muleteer continued along the south bank of the river to a meadow at the edge of a birch wood, near the snout of Shivling glacier, where we pitched our tents.

Monsoon delays (20-31 August)

My first priority was to shake off the 'flu and I was quite content to rest at base camp (c. 11,500 ft) while Dick, on 21 August, prospected a route onto the mountain. Our first sight of the north face had been alarming: it looked harder than expected and the most obvious route — the right hand buttress, leading to the West tower — was out of the question, as the approach up the chaotic glacier was threatened by rockfall and by several ice-cliffs. We shifted our sights to the centre of the face. A prominent spur merged into the face at the level of the main ice-cliff: if we could find a way through this barrier, the spur would probably be the easiest and safest route onto the face. Above the ice-cliff a steep icefield led up to the summit wall. The obvious route through the rock wall seemed to be a depression filled with icy runnels, leading up to the Andean-type flutings of the summit icefield.

Dick returned with good news. He had climbed up to a col on the spur (c. 15,000 ft) which offered a good campsite and a view up the crest of the spur. The route up the col was tedious but easy and quite safe — certainly infinitely safer than the glacier. The spur above seemed feasible.

By 23 August, after four days of concentrated eating and sleeping, I was feeling better and ready for a little gentle acclimatisation; so we set off with a tent arid some food to visit the Umasi la, the most frequented pass over to Zanskar. Once we had arrived on the large glacier and were faced with the choice of several upper branches, the route wasn't immediately obvious. A steep scree slope leading to the true right bank of the east branch seemed the most likely bet and when we arrived to pitch our tent below it, foot marks and traces of animal dung confirmed our suspicions. (Apart from increasing numbers of trekkers, large numbers of Zanskaris continue to use this pass to trade with the villagers and Shepherds on the south side.)

The following morning we were blessed with fine weather and crisp snow on the easy glacier plod to the col — an improbable notch on the rocky watershed, decorated with prayer flags. The view northeast to numerous spectacular unclimbed peaks was a temptation to return another year. Descending to the tent we had fine viewsacross the main valley to Shivling. The north face was now in profile and, seen from this angle,-looked more reasonable; We also examined the east ridge as a possible alternative; although shorter and perhaps less steep than the formidable granite walls of the east face, it certainly wouldn't be straightforward and the approach looked long, tedious and possibly; dangerous. However, we kept it in mind as a possible alternative.

Back at base camp the weather returned to its old pattern of frequent rain showers. On 29 August we made an initial carry to the col on the spur, establishing advance base. We hoped to investigate the first part of the route above, but an hour's climbing up into lowering clouds, on sodden snow, the next morning convinced us that it would be wiser to wait tot an abatement of the wet, warm monsoon weather. (Opinions differ as to the best time to climb in Kishtwar. The abundant forests and high meadows bear witness to frequent precipitation. Apparently the weather is often fine in May and June, before the monsoon, but remnants of winter snow could be a problem. The monsoon itself, although not comparable to the deluge further east, does usually give the area Very unsettled weather. By September it is usually clearing up, although in September 1977 Paul Nunn reported the worst mountain weather he had experienced anywhere in 21 years! Possibly the period with the best chance of fine weather is the last two weieks in September and the first two in October. The winter snows usually arrive in the middle of October. We had brought enough supplies to stay into October if necessary. In fact we were blessed with fine weather early in September and had left by the middle of the month.)

After our first almost abortive foray, we returned to base camp. The weather remained unsettled. Nevertheless, oil 31 August we sorted out loads for a second carry to advance base. We had already taken up most of the climbing gear, now we added two 45 m lengths of fixing rope: we were intending to do two carries up the lower part of the route and it might be necessary to fix difficult ice-pitches. Allowing for bad weather delays, we might stay on the climb for two weeks, so we packed plenty of food to add to what we already had on the col. On 1 September we left on what we hoped was to be a climb to the summit

The Climb (1-12 September)

On the afternoon of 1 September we arrived back at the col. We replaced the flimsy bivouac tent with a Salewa dome. This proved to be a wise move, as the following two days were spent sheltering from almost continual rainfall; (the freezing level was still quite a bit higher, at about 17,000 ft.) On the evening of 3 September the weather cleared and the following morning, at 3.30 a.m., we left, carrying all the climbing gear. On the lower part of the route the snow hadn't frozen, but higher up conditions improved briefly/until the sun arrived. At first light we were delayed by an unexpected obstacle — a 100 ft serac wall steepening to the vertical. Above, two pitches up an icy ramp led to a terrace below a snow arete, reminiscent of the Fremdo Spur. We climbed it in six pitches to a rock outcrop, where we made a cache of all the gear. One final steep pitch led onto the crest of the spur and a chance to make sure that the route ahead was feasible. The crest of the spur had formed into four tottering snow towers, but on the east side melting had exposed a rock ledge, which bypassed the towers. Beyond the fourth tower was dead ground, but not far above the main ice-cliff was visible. It looked steep but safe. We left a rope fixed down from our high point and started back down to base camp. After a hot descent on appallingly sodden snow, we arrived back at the tent at 3.30 p.m. We were now ready to leave on our push for the summit, but it seemed wise to wait for a day so that we could dry out our snow-soaked clothes before leaving.

Day 1 (6 September)

We left at 2.30 a.m., carrying sleeping-bags, duvet jackets, the bivouac tent, stove, fuel and food for a possible ten days on the mountain. This time the snow was frozen and we made quick progress to the first ice-cliff, where we had left a fixed rope. By the time we had both jumared up, the first of four perfect days was just dawning.

At the cache we resorted loads, leaving most of the baggage, before continuing up the second fixed rope. We continued along the ledge under the snow towers. At the end of the first pitch we discovered a great shelf of warm granite, perched on the edge of the spur (c. 17,500 ft). It was a perfect bivouac site, and by the time we had ferried up the second load from the col, it seemed wise to stop rather than get soaked on the serac barrier above, dripping in the midday sun. We could now see the route clearly: another pitch along the ledge led to the second ice-cliff. Above that was the third ice-cliff — the lip of the hanging glacier in the centre of the face. The weather now seemed to have set fine and it seemed likely that we would be established on the upper wall by the following evening. There seemed no point in rope fixing, we could dispense with some of the pegs and could leave some of the food and fuel. This reduction in the loads made our rucksacks manageable and in the morning we were able to leave on a single push to the summit. However the weight of our gear was still considerable: 10 rock pegs, 2 Friends, 7 nuts, 10 ice-screws, 2 deadmen, 2 ropes, 7 slings, spare tape and 22 karabiners.

Day 2

We climbed easily to the end of the ledge. Dick led the second ice-cliff, which was vertical and brittle. I continued up the third cliff, finding much easier conditions; without a sack (the leader's sack was hauled on the harder pitches) it was possible to climb into a vertical split in the serac, avoiding an overhanging bulge on the face. The glacier shelf above led easily up to the bergschrund at the start of the upper face. We climbed three pitches to the top of the icefield, where an hour's excavating produced a narrow but comfortable bivouac ledge, protected by a rock overhang. Once again we had stopped quite early in the day, as there appeared to be no more comfortable bivouac sites for a long way to come.

Day 3

As usual, we started brewing at 2.30 a.m. and were not ready to leave until the first light at 5 a.m. Once again we shed weight, leaving the bivouac sack, 3 ice-screws (which would be used on the descent to abseil back down to the ice-cliffs) and some of the food and fuel. The idea was to reach the summit ridge in one day, climb to the summit and back on the following day, and return to the bivouac on the third. We only carried minimal food, but we had enough gas for three nights if necessary.

After traversing for three and a half pitches across the 65° icefield, we reached the depression on which we had pinned our hopes and which had become known as The Runnel. In fact there were several icy runnels to choose from — thin smears of ice which* seen now at close quarters, looked very thin and very steep. One pitch up the lower, easier part of The Runnel confirmed our worst suspicions — the ice was already becoming too thin for screws and there were virtually no rock belays. Now that we were actually here we also didn't like the idea of climbing all day (and maybe bivouacking as well) in the fall line of the huge summit cornice, so we abandoned the direct line and moved back left onto the rock wall where there was the security of good belays and runners. There then began a rather vague wandering which took us, after four pitches, into a ledge system in the centre of the wall. We could never see far above and now, as evening drew in, it still wasn't entirely obvious where to go. We had arrived below a hard looking diedre, capped by an overhang. Above it, a ramp appeared to lead back right. Already it was too late to attempt the diedre and we settled for a bivouac on a meagre twelve-inch ledge at its foot.

Day 4

Once again we set off on a perfect dawn. The diedre, which had caused considerable apprehension, turned out to be easier than, expected — superb VS climbing on beautifully rough granite, with the odd patch of snow and ice to add interest. The ramp above did lead out right, to the foot of another diedre which gave superb climbing — fragile ice on the smooth, 80° left wall: cracks and flakes for handholds on the right wall. At the top we broke out right' again, crossing sheaves or" granite riakei to another crack system. Another step right, across a wrinkled slab, led into a chimney. The following pitch brought us into a gully overlooking the top of The Runnel. It only remained to do some 'straightforward' mixed climbing up to the col on this summit ridge. It turned Out to be far from straightforward and gave us some awkward aid climbing — the only place on the entire route where direct aid was necessary.

By the time we both arrived on the ridge, the sun had already set behind towering storm clouds. It had taken us fourteen hours to climb eight pitches.

' A Cold wind was blowing over the col from the northwest, so we dug into the east side of' an enormous snow mushroom. An hour later the contentment of our well earned rest was shattered by my knocking the saucepan down the east face. Ah empty gas cylinder, with its top hacked off, provided a rudimentary replacement pan. Melting snow was now an even more Tabbfious process than usual.

Day 5 — The Summit (10 September)

After a meagre three hours sleep, we started brewing again. The cloud had built up during the night and it was a bleak, grey, stormy dawn when we set oft for the summit. Apart from climbing gear, we took just duvets, one spare pair of mitts and a litre of orange juice with glucose.

The first job was to reach the col — we were perched up on a mushroom on the wrong side of it. A short abseil and some mixed climbihg on the sputheast side brought us round to it. We had considered climbing the top part of the east ridge to the summit, but a close look at the hollow ice and unstable mushrooms convinced us that it would be better to traverse back out onto the north face, So we moved out onto the summit icefield, making a rising traverse across steep, hard, brittle ice overlaid with sugary snow and a succession of fragile snow flutings which had to be crossed. Occasionally, usually on the steeper 75° — 80° sections, we struck welcome patches of hard neve. On the sixth pitch the angle eased and the seventh pitch was an easy plod out onto the summit — a broad snow ridge, lost in the clouds.

It was snowing hard and the time was already 3 p.m. Underestimating the summit climb, we had left the torches at the bivouac. Now we had only four hours of daylight left, so, without lingering on the summit, we hurried back down pitch 7 and then made the first of four diagonal abseils, linked by sections of traversing. In the last glimmer of daylight, Dick did a magnificent lead across the final ropelength of steep ice, arriving at the col in the dark. I followed on a backrope. After a considerable delay, while we sorted out the belay and retrieved the ropes, we climbed back up to the bivouac and finally got to bed shortly before midnight Mercifully the storm had blown over and we had a clear night.

A new route on the southeast ridge of Gasherbrum II and the line of decent.

23. A new route on the southeast ridge of Gasherbrum II and the line of decent. The snow pyramid (c. 7200 m)and Gasherbrum East (7772 m) visible in the foreground. Article 19 Photo : V. Kurtyaka

Southwest face of Hidden Peak.

24. Southwest face of Hidden Peak. The route of Polish ascent. ------- line of failed attempt.

In one final act of domestic incompetence I had lost the cigarette lighter. The emergency matches failed to ignite and we had to resign ourselves to being unable to melt snow — a serious predicament after a long, dehydrating day at altitude, with two days of descent still to come. Luckily the lighter turned up in the morning.

Day 6

The weather was fine again, so we lingered in the morning, drying out mitts. After finding the lighter, we were able to drink again, so we both felt reasonably rested and refreshed when we started on the descent. Twelve abseils took us in a diagonal line to the second bivouac, where we made the most of the food cache. By stopping early, we gave ourselves time to produce a good quantity of tea and soup and thoroughly rehydrate. It was also a relief to be able to signal to Patial. We had been exchanging torch signals every night, but the previous night we had been out on the face long after dark, without our torches. Patial had insisted on remaining faithfully at base camp throughout the expedition, and it was reassuring to know that someone was guarding the tents: although most people in the area are scrupulously honest, we know that at least one shepherd in the valley suffered from kleptomania and it would have been very disheartening to return to a ransacked base camp.

Day 7

A long day. Three more abseils took us down to the glacier shelf. We climbed down to the top of the third ice-cliff and made the first of two abseils off deadmen. After a brief stop at the first bivouac we continued down, abseiling (we made twenty-five abseils altogether during the descent) and downclimbing, back to advance base. By the time we had added the tent and all the other odds and ends to our rucksacks they were extremely heavy and the final descent to base camp, down steep, loose scree slopes and wet snow gullies, was a slow, weary business.

At dusk, as we were descending the moraine, Patial came down to meet us and we continued together down to base camp. We had been gone for twelve days.

The Return (13-26 September)

The fine weather continued, and in some ways it was tempting to stay and explore the area further. However the seven-day climb had proved quite draining, particularly the three days on the summit with very little food or sleep, and we both felt quite tired. We had achieved what we came to do and, after such a memorable climb, anything else might seem an anti-climax, so we decided to leave for home.

Five contract labourers in Sumcham. were about to leave for Kishtwar and Patial persuaded them to wait for two days so that they could earn some extra money, portering for us. A contract was signed for carrying 20 kgs each, for 30 rupees a day. The loads in fact came to 25 kgs each, so we supplemented the wages with evening meals and a tip. The reason for the large amount of return baggage was twofold: firstly we had a lot of surplus equipment, including 1000 ft of rope and secondly we had catered for a possible two months at base camp. We sold some of the surplus food, left' a cache of non-perishables at Sumcham and took at least a load for the walk-out, which meant that we could cook for ourselves rather than rely on the local chai houses, where the cuisine is rudimentary, to say the least.

There was only one other problem — five gallons of Tom Caxton 'home brew' beer had reached maturity. We had drunk a little before the climb but most of it was still left and in our last two days at base camp we were hard put to finish it.


⇑ Top