FIRST ASCENT OF CB 54, 1984
HIGH UP, several kilometers beyond the Samundar Tapu Shigri guarded by icefalls, we saw our first view of CB 54 (6094 m). We could smell rain on the wind, making us hurry as we scrubbed out tent platforms from the rubble. Mists, then driving sleet drew a curtain across spectacular mountain scenery as we crawled into the tents. It all looked very desolate; yet this was going to be our home for the next couple of weeks.
Over the next few days we moved base camp higher up the glacier to in island of scree on the middle of the ice. Here we sat and planned our Alpine-style ascent of CB 54. But our ambition was also to travel north some 30 km to KR 5 by an approach that had never been attempted before. After the porters left us our group Mtlprised of Raman Gupta, our LO, Janeck, the cook, and Lal Chand, a high-altitude porter, together with, Lizzie, my wife, Adam Brown, my climbing partner, my brother Pete and Jim Shilling All four of them were new to expeditions in the Himalaya. Our aim was to use the three members of the group as porters to establish base camps and to carry equipment to KR 5, while Adam and I Were climbing CB 54. The route between the two mountains had been followed on the east side of the Chandra river up to the Baralacha pass, but we took the west bank which gave access to glaciers never before visited.
After they had established us at the foot of the icefall on CB 54 four of them set out for the lofty ridge that would allow the route to the Chandra valley to be opened up. Raman and Janeck stayed at base camp till we returned from the mountain. Alone, Adam and I climbed slowly upward. The following day we spent hours working our way through an icefield that allowed us to reach the face of CB 54 where a huge gully soared upwards to the ridge of rock, the key to our summit. Swirling cloud patterned out the valley below, now no more than a small ribbon of ice with a dot for base camp where our lives lay in abeyance. Lacking any good snow to tunnel into we chose the safest looking site in the middle of the glacier and chipped out an ice-coffin. I hollowed out a small cave so that we could place the cooker out of the wind. Our movements became slower and slower until we slumped over from exhaustion.
Note: An 'ascent* of CB 54 reported in HJ. Vol. 38, p. 202 and in HC.NL.35, p. 26 is incorrect. That party had climbed CB 53.-Ed.
The first of the snow-flurries swept in with the encroaching black clouds. -We sat still, folded over at the mercy of our bodies. I watched the snow-flakes begin to cover Adam's head and shoulders. It was not the white snow of picture cards but a wet cold slush that soaked us with misery. Another hour and the snow relented, but the amphitheatre of rock and ice lay swamped in thick storm clouds. We decided to fix the first two pitches for the following day. Ploughing through the snow upto the bergschrund was no easier without the packs. We crossed using a hollow fin of ice that flew over the blue depths hung with tubular icicles. Adam led up the steep ice to a rock overhang. I climbed up to join him, clipped into the two screws before arranging a nut placement. He traversed off around the overhang leaving me to watch the rope run out. An avalanche crunched off the opposite wall of the cwm. After long cold minutes of watching the gathering storm Adam abseiled back down to me before together we abseiled back to the schrund.
Back at our pathetic shelter we took off our windsuits before getting into the bivvi bags, shutting out the deteriorating weather. In the bleak darkness, short of breath we sucked in cold air and wet snow, drifting in and out of sleep as the night wore on. Wide awake at three in the morning with noise echoing around the cwm I poked my head out of my bag, in a futile attempt to discover whether we lay in the path of the avalanche. I spent the remaining hours of darkness knocking the weight of fallen snow off my bag as the trap closed behind us. At first light we gazed on a scene where white cloud met white snow, creating a void in which we were suspended. Recovering the ropes from an avalanche-prone face, beaten, we began the long climb down across the crevassed glacier beguilingly disguised under a smooth white surface. Everything was wet, weighing down the packs, contorting our backs with pain.
Late that afternoon we reached base camp, only Raman and Janeck the cook, to welcome us home. The others had already left to set up the attempt on KR 5. A day's rest was all we could allow ourselves before following, caught in our ambitious plan that was collapsing around us like a rotten icefall.
While we were resting the pain in Adam's back grew stronger. He looked drawn and wasted. He began bleeding inside which scared the hell out -of both of us. Reading the medical guides I gave him everything from kidney stones to ulcers, which was little reassurance so far away from hospital. His mental and physical reserves were wearing away as the realization dawned on him that he might not be able to climb for the remainder of the expedition. He decided to carry on towards KR 5 in the hope that there might be an improvement, but each day that brought us closer to the mountain was another further from help. We thought that if he could wade the Chandra he would only be three days from Batal. Adam suggested that drowning would cure the bleeding.
It had been hard work for the others carrying loads up to the top of the ridge that barred the way to the KR group of mountains. Reaching 16,000 ft they had to descend 4000 ft, down an alarmingly steep slope of loose rock. The weight of the loads, rain and gusting winds had added to the difficulty.
We joined the others at the camp they had established two days earlier, with their two tiny tents amid the emptiness and silence of those arid mountains. Adam was deteriorating. The pain in his back was worse and he was passing blood in frightening quantities. He was exhausted, needing rest before we could decide what to do. We started him on a course of antibiotics. Any remaining chance he had to climb was finished. A plan that I should climb with Lai Chand surfaced from somewhere. Adam was anxious that there should be an attempt at KR 5 even though the approach to the base of the route lay in the next valley.
It was still early when we said good-bye to the others and began the long climb that would take us from the glacier over the ridge to the ice-face on KR 5, that the Japanese had climbed in 1983. It had to be an ice-route: we only had ice-screws with us as a means of protection. It was an all-or-nothing attempt, Pete and Jim accompanying us, helping to carry loads. We were becoming totally extended. Days of walking away from our base camp had found us still pushing on to try to cross yet another ridge, that would lead to who knows where. It almost broke us; four figures struggling against the weights of their packs, the shortage of oxygen and the steep slopes crumbling away under each hard won footstep. Time and again each of us would stop to stare up at the col we hoped to cross. A point that never seemed to come any closer. Finally we topped the ridge and could look down the other side. Another deep valley containing a small glacier lay below us. It shouldn't be there. It wasn't marked on the map. The access the Japanese had used, coming from the north instead of the south, lay several kilometers away over yet another ridge. We sat in the snow. The only possibility was to climb higher to see if there was a crossing. Nobody wanted to go up there. Our present altitude of 19,000 ft and the days of struggle to reach this point had worn ua out. Lai Chand volunteered to go if someone would accompany him. It "was my idea, so I plodded after him. We climbed another 300 ft to where four of the ridges from the radiating mountains converged, our last chance to find a possible descent to the base of KR 5. After long gasping breaths and weary steps we looked down vertical rock and overhanging ice. A way down for us was impossible, any chance of climbing KR 5 was gone. We stumbled back down to the lads. Seeing what I'd seen and knowing what we had struggled so hard for knocked all the fight out of me. I could feel the emptiness, a hopelessness welling up inside me. I sat down on a rock. Pete stood behind me and put his hands on my shoulders sharing the bitterness and regret for what might have been. The only way was down, down what we had struggled up, until we came to a small hanging valley tucked into the moraine that led to the glacier. There we kicked out a rocky platform to take both tents. During the night another storm moved in. We lay in our sleeping bags trying to shut out the sound of thunder that shook the ground and control the involuntary twitches as the blue lightning bolts lit up the inside of the tent. Dozing between fear and tiredness we heard the sound of snow beginning to fall. Only then did we manage to sleep. Yet the mountains were good to us. We looked out at the darkness faded to a white world of mist which slowly began to clear. The summits of peaks surrounding the glacier came into focus. The clouds parted, allowing us to glimpse gullies, cornices, ice-flutings, spectacular rock and ice architecture plastered in fresh snow, reflecting the early morning light. We struck camp and ploughed down through fresh snow. Dumping the loads we climbed up the gently sloping glacier towards its head under peaks that had no name. What had been taken away the previous day had been given back in the beauty and silence that surrounded us. We were the first people to see this view, to walk over this snow covered ice. The dying wind had allowed us to look into the heart of the glacier and the surrounding mountains filled with snow and light, giving them an intangible, transcendent power. Confirming the route to KR 5 was impossible for us we turned and began the long trudge back to join the others. The snow had fallen as far as the river, turning the mountain of orange rock on the other side of the valley smooth and white. We had left the tent pitched on an island of coarse grass and blue flowers amongst rocky moraine. It too was white.
Our failure on KR 5 didn't leave us without any reward. We had seen and were able to photograph the glacier approach to the northeast side of Mulkila, peak CB 9, which is unclimbed, at the entrance to Mulkila's glacier system, and the valley and glacier approaching the southeast side of KR 5, which had never been visited, revealing surrounding peaks, which showed excellent potential for new routes.
Returning home to the glacier underneath CB 54 took two long days, drawn out by the depression of our failures. Climbing back up 4000 ft of loose rock eroded what little reserves we had left. It was a sorry group that staggered down at different times of the afternoon into base camp. We had fixed our plans. I was to make another attempt at CB 54, this time with Lai Chand. The fact that Pete and Jim had no ice-climbing experience didn't unduly worry us. In our original plans there was no cause for them to go high, yet they had reached 19,000 ft. Now we were asking them to go beyond the snow-line through icefalls, over crevasses when they had not even used a pair of crampons, to the ice-coffin at the bottom of the face on CB 54. All my climbing had been with one partner or alone, so I found it disconcerting to set out for this last attempt with Lai Chand, huge and reassuring in his natural strength but impossible to understand. Jim and Pete, who were using Lai's ex-Indian Army ten-pointers, Lizzie and Janeck to lighten the loads as far as the first icefall. , At the base of the ice-cliffs we doubled up the loads before saying our good-byes. Progress up the first icefall was straightforward. This time it was Lizzie's return to base camp that had its moments. As they reached the point where the river emerged from the ice to roar down over the conglomerate of boulders, she paused and looked up only to see Janeck's face widen in that helpless, speechless 'behind you' sort of look. Then the falling boulder crashed past her left arm.
Meanwhile our quartet climbed on, Pete and Jim oblivious to the nature of the icefall, balancing over ice-bridges and jumping crevasses. Lai Chand ploughed on in front 'slowly, slowly going backside up' while I tried to take photographs. It took a day and a half to reach the ice-coffin but the unpredictable weather looked as if it would hold. The sharp beauty of the upper cwm below the final headwall of CB 54 captivated Pete and Jim, a place to wonder at with its snow and rock, and mountain beyond mountain cutting into the electric blue sky. It felt strange to be back up there where I had lain huddled with my own doubt through that earlier storm. What felt threatening now seemed benign.
That night I only suffered cramp. We didn't get away until 8 a.m. The night had been very cold covering the inside of the tent and the outside of the sleeping bags with rime. Pete and Jim watched us on our way. The ice-bridge, bad as ever, was at least familiar. Even so I was uncertain about climbing with Lai Chand and pounded two wart-hogs in as runners before I reached the first belay below the overhang. Lai Chand clambered over the schrund and climbed up strongly towards me. I looked for the wart-hogs, but not knowing that he was meant to bring them with him he had simply undipped them and left them behind. I abseiled down the first pitch, retrieved the screws, before jumaring back up the rope, only to find him undipped from the belay stamping around to get a good foothold. I clipped him back in, then ran out the second pitch without runners to make progress easier. So we continued up the edge of the gully finding what shelter we could from the rocks that continually cascaded down the centre of the ice. Eight pitches brought us to the narrows. A point that funnelled the rocks from the upper part of the face. Adrenalin overcome the lack of oxygen as I climbed gasping towards a sheltered peg crack, but the rope came taut still 20 ft short. A bulge in the rock prevented Lai Chand and me from seeing one another, so I shouted for slack. There was a pause then I felt a strange twanging on the rope. My bent arms began to straighten as I looked at the two ice-tools that were holding us onto the slope. The pull on my wrists became stronger. Then around the corner came Lai Chand, jumaring on the rope with not a point of protection between us. I think I whimpered, before bellowing until he got the message, 'Nearly quickly downside going’. I climbed on and pounded a peg into the crack.
We reached the end of the ice late in the afternoon and started up rock that fell down around us. The technique seemed to be to push the rock back into place rather than use it for holds. After five pitches we arrived at the summit, our first unclimbed summit and thumped one another on the back. We sat amongst a tangle of rope and looked out at the view. In the fading light, out over what used to be called Tibet, the mountains of Kulu and Spiti picking out nearby Mulkila, then Dharamsura under gathering cloud. Before we left Lai Chand wanted to leave something valuable behind for the gods, so we parted with half of our only Mars bar. Wearily now we began to climb back down trying to be cautious, but I clumsily pulled off two large rocks which went bouncing down towards Lai Chand who couldn't get out of the way as he had now clipped into the belay. He headed one rock as though he were playing football, then went quiet. I thought I'd killed him. But he got back on his feet, shook his head and shouted. When I reached him he patted the helmet, chuckling. 'Good. No helmet no Lai Chand'. Adam's red helmet now had a neat hole in it. We continued to abseil down even though night had fallen for our bivi gear was with Pete and Jim. They had spent the day following our slow progess and now watched the points of light from our head torches wandering like fireflies down the blackness of the face. It wasn't until half past ten that we recrossed the schrund and ploughed down exhaustedly to the tent. The lads welcomed us with mugs of sweet tea.
Reflecting on the climb and, indeed, the whole area a few impressions remain clear. The rock is badly fractured, so that protection on steep routes is poor. Though the ice was good there was the incessant danger from rock falls. The upper cwm and the icefall on CB 54 is badly crevassed. Recent rock fall debris showed as streaks down both icefalls. It is possible to avoid the two icefalls by using the glacier that comes in from the right as you look towards CB 54 and skirting around left under the rock ridge to the upper glacier.
An interesting and intriguing curiosity occurred during the time we were in the mountains. A mountain dog attached itself to the expedition which we fed and allowed to sleep in the tent. The dog eventually went as high as the first icefall at 17,000 ft. Whilst on the KR glacier system Lai Chand clearly heard a woman's voice calling to him. Lizzie, the only woman, was a kilometre away sat with the others and had said nothing. At the same time the hair on our placid dog's back went up and she ran around barking. There was no one else in the area. Secondly, on the night of the 13 September while we were away the dog went crazy again, hair standing up as it rushed into Lizzie's tent barking. All three people, lying in their tents at base camp, heard footsteps on the moraine walking around the camp and off towards the glacier. No one was there or could have been there. The porters say the spirit of an English woman stays in that region of the mountains.