Breakthrough by high waters—
on the back of camels in Sinkiang

HIGH WATERS in the valley of Shaksgam! That can make tremble even the nerves of mountaineers who are used to heavy storms and other kinds of trouble. My camel leans against the current of the rushing river, spume surrounds us and the thunder and the roaring of the high waters. I feel how the animal touches the bottom with its feet to find hidden holes as the power of the whirling floods digs them into the stony sandy bed of the Kaladjin river. There is not only a single stream like in the dry season in spring, now in August there is a whole net of streams and islands, almost a mile wide, enclosed between the pale faces of the Kun Lun and Karakoram mountains! Since days we are searching our way in a zigzag through the huge, sinister valley ....

I feel how my animal moves forward slowly, it has disappeared now till over its belly in the brown, foaming flood, the prow-wave in front of its throat is carried away by the current, for some moments it seems to me as if we would move like in a race at the speed of the wind upwards the river over the water-surface — an optical illusion, which has made loose the equilibrium of several of us already. I cling to the ropes in thick fur of the camel, curved, tense, every moment ready to throw myself around into whatever direction, if the animal all of a sudden would break through or lose the ground under its feet. A half-strangled cry makes me turn around — and I can just see how Rodolfo and Giorgio disappear in the sandy floods, between them there stand out the head of a camel over the surface, which got pulled away off the ground by the power of the wild waters. With an incredible speed my friends are carried down the river, towards a vertical rock-wall — nobody can help them! I see, how they disappear again and again, how they paddle desperately with their arms — and just before the river hits the wall, they succeed to catch some blocks by the edge. The camel has made it earlier — no wonder, it has the longer legs! No, without our camels we could never make it to get out of this mountain-desert on the Chinese side of K2! Rut yesterday we have lost four loads in the river, today three — however, so far nobody of us got drowned, even if there were enough possibilities here; the wild mountain-rivers of the Himalaya and the Karakoram have already claimed several victims among climbers.

At present nobody amongst us wants to know anything about summits — we are a crew of dissipated figures, who feel burnt in their minds after four months in the mountain desert of Sinkiang only with one desire; home! With this desperate wish we throw ourselves again and again into the muddy waters of the river, which has blocked our return, from stream to stream, from rock-island to rock-island . . . from day to day. One of us has the greatest fear: small Agostino, our first summiter on 8610 m high K2 - he does not know how to swim! All of us, 22 members of the international, mainly Italian, expedition are marked by the hardship of four months: their faces have grown rugged, now our too wide clothes are shaking around our arms and legs which have grown . . . thin. One has lost 30 pounds of his weight, the other 40, I even got 46 lb less! Julie, our British member who has together with me filmed this expedition up to 26,000 ft on the mountain, lost only 20 lb, but despite of all dreams of being slim, which women usually have, at present she would not be suitable for a beauty-competition (for a 'Miss Karakoram' or whatever nice joke one could say here) as well as Christina, our doctor. But if you have struggled together for such a long time for a mountain, dealt with all the disappointments, fears, joys, — you feel above such unimportant little things like appearance — you see the eyes in the thin face and you know that friendship counts more than anything else. Our expedition team came back in friendship, even if it was one of the hardest and longest enterprises which I have ever lived so far. But maybe — just because of that.

K2 — The Mountain of Mountains

8610 m - it is the second highest mountain of the world, but much more beautiful and more difficult, than Everest. The local people call it the Chogori, which means the big mountain! You can see the regular pyramid rising above all the other mountains from a long distance. From the Pakistan side, I have already seen the mountain in 1957 together with Hermann Buhl, when we attacked Broad peak, but this Chinese side with the 3600 m high north face and the fantastically sweeping ridge in it is certainly the most wonderful view of a big mountain I ever had. I explored the route in 1982 from the distance with 'Bubu* (Enzo de Menech), my Italian friend, for the coming 1983 Italian expedition (leader, Francesco Santon). We were accompanied by only four Chinese, two Uijhur camel drivers from Sinkiang (they are Chinese as well, but belong to a minority), six double-humped camels and two donkeys. The direttissima up the rddge has been attacked immediately afterwards by a big Japanese expedition, which at that time was working their way up the K2 glacier, and they were successful in reaching the summit; however, the Direttissima, had been given up at c. 26,000 ft as a traverse to the left on to a hanging glacier and the exit towards the top on a neighbouring ridge proved to be easier and less complicated. Thus — the last 600 m of the Direttissima were still untouched when the 1983 Italian expedition arrived, in the beginning of May. This time exploration was still my target, but I was in charge, together with Julie Tullis (now the highest climbed British woman mountaineer), of making the sound-movie of this expedition. This huge enterprise of 22 members, almost all Italian, moved with 120 camels through the gorges of the Surukwat river, over the c. 4800 m high Aghil pass into the Shaksgam valley. There were another 25 members of a support group, which should help for two weeks with the transport over the awkward K2 glacier. This group could not stay longer because the Shaksgam valley in summertime is almost always so flooded that nobody can pass — one is simply cut off from the world. After three days of approach in the dry Shaksgam valley (in spring) the main group established a so-called Base Home (lower base camp) at c. 3800 m on a green place in that barren mountain-desert-country, an oasis (uninhabitated), which we know from the early explorers (Younghusband 1887, Desio 1929, Shipton 1937) under the name Sughet Jangal (which means 'willow tree oasis,). From this point the camels could still carry their loads upto the ledge of the K2 glacier at about 4000 m, but then they were definitely 'on holiday'; because over this glacier not even a camel from Sinkiang would walk — just us!

Human Pack-animals in the Fairyland of Ice-towers

More than 15 miles of gravel-fields, stones, ice-humps, ice-slabs, ice-towers . . . where we are moving hanging sometimes with the heavy packs on our shoulders over a fast-driving glacier-stream, otherwise gasping for breath in the up and down of this never-even glacier world. Moving in a zigzag between frozen processions of shimmering ice-towers — and to do it, all that, with 40 to 60 lb of load on you, covering 3000 ft of height between the end of the glacier and the upper base camp site (c. 5000 m)! That's the hard reality for the 'human camels' — we need three days for carrying a load from the front of the glacier to the base camp. An activity, which went on and on — some of us have done the distance thirty times! I suppose this expedition brought the greatest hardship to a crew which I have ever experienced on my enterprises - at least as far as transport is concerned.

Of course it became necessary to establish two intermediate glacier-camps (some tents and a kitchen) for these transports.

Why did we have no porters? The answer is simple: in Sinkiang there are none! Nepal has its Sherpas, Pakistan its Hunzas and Baltis, Tibet its Tibetans, but in Sinkiang you only walk as far as the pack-animal goes.

Approach route to K2 from north.

Approach route to K2 from north.

Ice-towers — these shimmering formations, high up to 15 or more yards, seem to be because of their regularity, something like a frozen-to-the spot procession of the Ku Klux Klan.

Sometimes you may find even an empty ice-tower inside, and if you shout into it, it makes a very strange sound. They change their shapes continuously by slowly melting of their surface and sometimes you can hear the thunder if one of them collapses and breaks into a hundred pieces and blocks of white and blue ice. That's why it is better always to keep a respectful distance from them I Not only the K2 glacier has these ice-towers, all glaciers on the Chinese side of Karakoram show them, and the mightiest processions we found were on the Gasherbrum glacier, extending over many miles! They are amongst the most beautiful sceneries I have ever seen! It is a brilliant shining sparkling fair-world of fantasy! As if it is all made of crystals! The first tents of the upper base camp were already set up by the end of May, but the transports over the glacier went on and on without interruption till the beginning of August even till the time when the altitude camps on the mountains were established.

One of the most original high camps was Camp 1, a crevasse in the steep ice-face to the right side of the ridge.

5800 m — living in a glacier crevasse

'Don't ruin the icicles when you do the clap'. I shout to Pieran-gelo the bearded, Bergamasc Italian, strong like a bear; but it was just a joke — he is still standing outside the icicle curtain of Camp 1 in his bathing suit; because outside there the sum burns you down without any mercy, whilst at the same time here inside the glacier crevasse, in which we have built our 'home', we have minus-degrees, we are below zero, That's why we have really no lack of icicles, they grow faster than mushrooms in the woods (during an everyday raining or dripping session, which lasts for about two hours and which is one of the shadowy aspects of this camp site). You can always pick them, for a soup from icicles, tea from icicles, for freeze-dry food which you can prepare with icicles, and if you are sitting long enough in that cave, you may have icicles even in your beard. I am filming across icicle curtains the tents under icicles and even Julie has fixed the microphone between two icicles. And finally 'Clap number 1' cries Pierangelo through his mighty beard and while the action, the camera and the recorder are running, Pierangelo jumps as fast as he can with his bathing suit from our ice-box cave back out into the sunshine!

K2 as viewed from the K2 glacier, China.

K2 as viewed from the K2 glacier, China. Photo : Kurt Diembergr

The unclimbed wall of Gasherbrums viewed from the north (China). Hidden Peak (left) and Gasherbrum II is on the right.

The unclimbed wall of Gasherbrums viewed from the north (China). Hidden Peak (left) and Gasherbrum II is on the right. Photo : Kurt Diembergr

It's 3000 ft of film, which we are making only on the climb and living during the ascent itself (out of a total of 6 miles of film for the four months of this expedition), and it certainly needs a strong belief in what you want to put into realisation by making a film on a difficult mountain. Usually most mountaineers would not help you very much for the film when they are on such a climb. Julie and I already had some negative experiences from this point of view on Nanga Parbat. Anyway here it is much better: tomorrow Luca wants to carry the big Arriflex camera upto Camp 2, which is about 2700 ft higher! A climb of long steep traverses over ice-slabs, rocks and snowfields to the right of the ridge. We will carry it on our own backs as our personal gear, a lightweight tent, the sound equipment, a summit camera. Being a film-team, because of the unforseeable movements which the film making requires you have to carry a bit outside the normal expedition strategy. When the two of us go up here for the first time into this crevasse camp, there was no space for us in the tents. Well, we shovelled a snow-hole for ourselves and passed the night in our perlon-bivouac bag, which was not a bad solution. However, since then we preferred to carry with us a British super light weight tent always in the rucksack, when we moved higher up, because with that we may as well dare a summit attack on K2, if the weather gives us a chance. With the growing number of altitude load ferries up to Camp 1, the place becomes more "and more comfortable. There are niches for cooking which have been carved from the ice, there are benches cut out from the snow, there are pitons to attach your equipment on the wall (one has to choose the place carefully, not in a spot where icicles grow, otherwise you may find all your equipment frozen into a compact unit, as one piece, and may not even be able to take it from the wall). Only the WC remains uncomfortable, you have to hold to your ice-axe as a self-belay and half-and-half hanging or leaning over a vertical drop of at least 40 m darkness inside the crevasses. There is enough humour on an Italian expedition for sure, but when the avalanches come over you, here in Camp 1, everybody looses his laughter, There is this sudden sound as if a cascade would race down the slope. This mighty hissing across the opening of the crevasse, snow, soft or powder enters here and there and one has fear, of course. We could close the opening partially with a sheet but it is no perfect solution. In an avalanche it is no good place. But otherwise one gets used even to live in a crevasse!

7000 m — give up or go on?

Now we have filmed enough with the big camera. From now we only will use the summit camera and we will have our own attempt. Two days ago the highest of our climbers, Agostino and Joska, have successfully reached the summit, and two others, Sergio and Fausto, are just going to do the same. Nobody did the dream line Direttissima above 26,000 ft. They all followed the Japanese route out to the left from there, but when you are at that height the summit is the summit, especially when you are so high on K2. It already needs so much good luck with the weather and you must be in extremely good shape to try it without oxygen, as our expedition does (we only have 3 bottles on the mountain, for emergency).

The question, whether to give up or go on, has had a very short life. When Francesco Santon, the leader, asked us over the radio, whether we still have not had enough of filming and perhaps we might need a rest in the lower base camp we decided that this here and now was our chance; we already worked an incredible amount on this expedition and we would certainly also take film and sound higher up while we had our try. We wanted the summit or at least to get as high as possible! That's why we have climbed up with our light weight tent and all the thousand things which you need as equipment, food, stove, summit camera, sound etc. We have reached a kind of airy pulpit by the side of the ridge, which here at 7000 m sticks out like a ski-jump over an ocean of mountains. Unmeasurable distances extend in front of us, mountain to mountain, valleys filled with blue haze, glittering shimmering belts of glaciers like huge snakes.

1983 Expedition route

1983 Expedition route

No, the summit of K2 is not everything. Living above the ocean of summits below us is at least as much.

Days in which all the distances belong to you.

And also what seems to be close, down there, the saddle above the Skyang glacier — where we have recently been further out the Tek Ri. Do you see Nanga Parbat? 'Yes, there on the horizon'. And these many huge blue mountains, further to the right? 'Rakaposhi is one of them, Kunyang Chish another, the great Batura Wall, all the seven thousanders above the Hunza valley'. We have been there last year.

One should never take for granted, what life offers you. During the night the storm came. It pulled and rattled the tent, because the space on the 'ski-jump' was small and the place quite exposed to the power of the storm. Well you start to think of the 6000 ft of drop below you, and you think about how strong the fabric may be, how well the seams have been stitched and whether perhaps you should have put some heavier stones on top of the anchors cf your tent. Such a high camp is always a gamble: if you descend because of a storm you may lose perhaps the only possible day for the summit, and if you stay and snowfall starts avalanches may cut all possibilities for your return. These are the always recurring thoughts of a stormy night in the Himalaya. But then you know, you would not give it up, and that you have come here, knowing that all these risks will be with you.

In the morning I have a headache, but it goes away after a while. The storm continues till the afternoon but we have decided to stay. Then, all of a sudden, from above Agostino and Joska come down (they reached the summit on 31 July, just perfectly to the day 29 years after the first ascent of K2 by lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni). From below Soro and Giuliano have come up. Big hugs, greetings, and Julie records an interview with them all squashed together, half inside half outside the tiny tent. Tomorrow we will go up, first to Camp 3, then to Camp 4, and then there will be the big question mark . . .

7600 m — going it alone on the ladder to heaven

Camp 3 is situated in a horrible place! Two tents in the midst of a terribly steep snowfield, which extends above at least for 300 ft. A slide of powder snow from up there will sweep the whole thing off the face! That means to go without any halt for 8000 ft into the depths! I find it impossible to sleep in such a camp.

When I arrive with Julie and Giorgio, who has joined us, I try to find a better place. But is already so late that in the end I give it up. However, at least I chose the edge of the snowfield, where we can belay to a fixed rope which is anchored to a rock. Giuliano is sacrificingly helpful to shovel out with me in the gathering darkness the place for the tent; then Julie starts to put up the tent, while we are still having a break, gasping for breath from the hard work.

Not a very good night, the cooking was endless! Still there is a rule which says, one should drink up to six litres of liquid a day. But who can ever melt so much snow — to all devils! Even if all around here there is enough of it!

Morning light, the weather is fine. But today all of us are late-get-uppers! You feel that here at 7600 m life is burning absolutely on the emergency flame.

Not without reason I have deposited two days ago an oxygen bottle for emergency somewhat down on the ridge.

Giuliano stands there in the morning light without his shirt and just gets fixed by Soro with the electrodes of a heart-measuring machine on his chest. Somewhat later they start towards Camp 4, then we follow, except Giorgio who prefers to go on sleeping for a while.

Above us now it looks quite threatening: The mighty drop of the huge serac of the hanging glacier which is attached like a balcony between two ridges (north and northeast) on to the summit pyramid. To its right there are savage rock towers, it's a pale yellow crystalline limestone, with vertical drops in between. All this together in an incredible sequence, one behind and above the other; it is like a 'south ridge of Aiguille Noire', a dragon's spine, where the mind swings higher from tower to tower, from point to point like over a Jacob's Ladder to heaven.

The Direttissima

We two have again packed up our complete camp and slowly we go step by step towards the rocks of the first drop. Gasping we get over it with slow movements, as if one would be a robot, again and again you stop only for breathing. Nevertheless, both of us feel very well, and that fills us with pleasure. After a steep loose gravel field without any belay on fixed ropes, which we manage with extreme prudence and very slow movements, we have again to tackle one of the steep drops of the great rib at the right side of the hanging glacier. Now we move on the yellow limestone rocks. If only this rucksack would not be so heavy! We have a rest, we eat something and drink tea from the bottle, sitting on a small outstanding rock between broken slabs, snow-patches and various ledges. Yes, it is great, if you have everything with you, if you push on completely on your own. We would, if we wanted, set up our camp at any time and nothing would be missing.

Who knows, where this Camp 4 may be? We should be close already; obliquely below us in direction to the hanging glacier we have discovered a place with an oxygen bottle, certainly an old camp site of the Japanese, perhaps their Camp 4? Agostino has told us about it he also spoke about a bivouac place up here somewhere. We move up further in zigzag through the steep face with these menacing towers above our heads. Then by the end of a ledge in the vertical rock of the spur there I discover all of a sudden a snow-wall, big chunks of snow, one on top of the other, to result in a windbreaker, a shelter in front of a niche, a kind of swallow's nest. The afternoon sun shines straight into it. Everywhere around here the rocks reflect the light with a bright yellow colour! This spot is so unique, that we decide to stay. Soon we have set up our tent. A beautiful sunset follows, up here, so high above thousands of peaks, so high that you think to be able to touch the heaven.

8000 m — a dream bursts in the storm

Places with evening sunshine get the warm light of the next morning much later. So we have to wait for a long time before the sun reaches us. We have not to go very far today, the weather is beautiful, and so we put the icy sleeping-bags and all the other cloths on to the rocks for drying; then we simply pass the time.

Some noises from above? Soon afterwards Gigio comes down over the rocks testing slowly, with some strange jerky movements. Then Almo follows him. They had a bivouac on the hanging glacier, at 8200 m, no summit. Resignation, disappointment, exhaustion in their faces. Some words of consolation but do they really help? They descend together with Soro who also has come back. Fausto and Sergio are the next, then nobody else comes down any more. Both of them have reached the summit, before that they passed a terrible bivouac on the hanging glacier. In their eyes there is no happiness. It's the last possible tension, it must have been an endless night and they certainly got frostbite; it's incredible that despite all of that they went on and up to the summit. Sergio gives us all best wishes for our way up before he goes down. He even makes us smile, I admire him.

At 1 p.m. we start off. We know from our friends that Giuliano and Adalberto today want to traverse out to the hanging glacier with a tent, and to try the summit tomorrow. Days ago, when it wasn't very clear I had played with the thought how Julie might feel up on 26,000 ft (she suffered from stomach trouble in Camp 2). Eventually I may go with Giuliano to the top (we were old friends from Everest 1980). But in the meantime I am completely convinced that she can go beyond this altitude. Giorgio has appeared now below us, coming up from Camp 3. Together with him there is another appearance; dark, bad clouds, which move in over the mountains from Pakistan, slowly from the southwest.

That looks really worrying.

Soon afterwards Giorgio shouts up to us, that he has decided ta go down, and whether Julie might not better come with him?

For a moment the question hangs in the air — but I cannot meet the thought myself that my comrade perhaps would have to struggle in a change of weather down over the icefield, while I would try my luck up here. No — we will go on together! Up, if it's possible, and otherwise — down. Despite the increasing severe cloud-atmosphere in the depth, despite the strange huge helmets of cotton which are rising towards, I feel relieved. Everything we have shared on this expedition: we have carried so many loads together, made this film together, we have dreamed of it, if everything would go right, up here, at least to try the Diretissima, or at least to make it possible for either of us to get to the top. Perhaps the weather gets better once more!

Above us now, there is an overhang of yellow rock, and to its right a vertical drop. Sinisterly there are towers above us, very close. The Diretissima . . .?

God, give us one more day — no, two, where the weather stays fine — because finally, after a try up there we want to come back alive, of course. At least to climb up there, several hundred metres,, to explore, touch these rocks, where never before a man has been. Another length of rope, then there appears a pulpit on which there is the rubbled blue fabric of a tent which lays formless on the ground and surrounds some pieces of equipment. Nobody is to be seen. But then I discover Giuliano and Adalberto on the Japanese traverse.

'Buona fortuna — good luck!' I shout to them and they wave back to me. However, the atmosphere now is more and more menacing, patches of fog are moving around the towers, one can feel it like an approaching disgrace.

Julie hurries in pitching our small tent and I literally carry all the rocks which I can find in the surroundings to our exposed shelter for putting maximum weight on the anchors. Just three feet from the entrance there is a sheer drop, first to the hanging glacier and then into bottomless abysses. I get to think of the horrible fall of one of the Japanese into this infinity — and carry more rocks to our tent.

Please give us one more day without a storm!

Would we be fit enough to go higher, tomorrow morning? At present we both feel well — despite the hardship of carrying our whole camp up in one go. We enter the sleeping-bags, then Julie melts chunks of snow for water, while I hold the pot. Suddenly everything turns over as I fell asleep for a moment. Porca miseria I Water everywhere! With chunks of snow we try to gather it, to suck it up as fast as possible, I am swearing while Julie stays calm. Now we have to start it all over again — anyway, we have the time.

First hissing of wind around us! All is grey outside. Our two> comrades have found the shelter of a crevasse, perhaps 500 ft higher on the hanging glacier. The first snowflakes are already whirling through the air.

Time has become unimportant. What counts are the inches of snow which accumulate, and the power of a storm at 8000 m on K2. Our tent resists thanks to its streamline shape and the heavy rocks on the anchors. We barely close an eye all night long.

We understand that it is almost certainly over for us. We speak about it, what we would have done, wonderful thoughts, thoughts of the summit, of a push, a reconnaissance into the unknown Direttissima. Yes, it is good to be here, together, even if the storm would not grant us one more step higher up. We have entered the ultimate space of our dream mountain, we have been with K2 for so many days now, we have lived with it, it has become ours from the bottom to the highest ridges.

Whether the summit too will be ours one day? Tomorrow? Another year? 'I so much wanted to know, what it looks like around that corner up there', says Julie; and I understand she means the Direttissima.

It took us two days to get down — thousands of feet of rope, strong currents of powder snow up to our knees that try to pull us out of the face. All four of us get down finally well to the bottom but everybody takes a deep breath when he reaches the glacier.

Was it worthwhile?

It's a strange question, and it always only occurs when you are down again!

Fausto needs days under the pain of his frozen fingers before he finds an answer. 'Yes, I would never want to miss it in my life to have been up there'.


Duration of the expedition: 28 April to 11 September 1985 (Duration of the exploration: the full month of May 1982).

Members: Francesco Santon (leader), Agostino da Polenza {summiter), Josef Rakoncaj (CSSR; summiter), Sergio Martini (summiter), Fausto de Stefani (summiter), Luca Gianbisi, Mario Lacedelli, Giuliano de Marchi, Marco Cortecolo, Soro Dorotei, Almo Argentero, Rolando Menardi, Giorgio Peretti, Marco Preti, Alberto Soncini, Luigi Visentin, Giuseppe Simini (doctor), Pierangelo Zanga, Cristina Smiderle (doctor), Rodolfo Cappelletti, Julie Tullis (film), Kurt Diemberger (film).

K2, the route of routes. The route of ascent of the Italian ex¬pedition 1983 from the north (China).

K2, the route of routes. The route of ascent of the Italian ex¬pedition 1983 from the north (China).


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