THE BRITISH WEST KARAKORAM EXPEDITION, 1984
STEPHEN VENABLES and DICK RENSHAW
The British West Karakoram Expedition 1984 was not confined to a single objective; instead, we had a choice of several tempting possibilities. Almost all the ingredients for success were there: a strong compatible team, sufficient finance, good organisation, unlimited time, a wealth of valleys to explore and peaks to climb; but we lacked one vital factor - good weather conditions.
Dick Renshaw and I planned to visit two areas - the Shimshal valley and the Naltar valley, both easily accessible from the Karakoram Highway. We chose to go in autumn, hoping for clear, cold weather. In the event, the temperature did decrease steadily, but this was combined with frequent, prolonged precipitation, resulting in dangerous masses of unstable snow in the mountains. Climbing the highest peaks would have been out of the question and even on the lower peaks conditions became increasingly hazardous; so there were no spectacular mountaineering successes. However, as Himalayan expeditions go, this was not a total failure: we did reach our two chosen areas, we managed to assess the future mountaineering possibilities of the Malangutti glacier, in Shimshal, and we reached three summits, albeit easy summits, which have never before been climbed.
One of the stated aims of the expedition was to assess the climbing conditions in the Karakoram during September and October. Our experience this year confirmed suspicions that the Karakoram weather is utterly fickle. Everyone knows how much the summer pattern varies from year to year, but few people climb here during the autumn: if this year was anything to go by (and locals' comments suggested that the unsettled weather was quite typical) it would seem that September and October offer even less chance of settled weather than the summer months.
Shimshal (Stephen Venables)
Dick and I left England on 26 August, accompanied by Cardiff climbers Brian Clissold and Don Hillman, who would be with us for the first part of the expedition. The Shimshal valley and all subsidiary valleys on its south side constitute an 'open area', so we were not obliged to obtain any sort of permit, nor did we need a liaison officer; this meant that all we had to do in Islamabad/ Rawalpindi was buy food supplies and some cooking equipment before continuing by bus up the Karakoram Highway to Gilgit. There we stayed at our old favourite haunt, the Hunza Inn, while we bought the remaining supplies and made up porter loads. We then continued up the Highway, through Hunza, to the village of Pasu. The Highway has of course transformed life for the people here: before its completion, the journey from Pasu to Gilgit and back involved seven days' arduous travelling on foot, mule and by jeep: now a mini-bus does the return journey every day.
Photos 26 to 30
Dick and I reached Pasu on the grey, overcast evening of 31 August. Don followed a day later with Brian, who was very ill - in Gilgit a virulent bug had lodged in his gut and it remained there for the next few weeks. Brian never completely recovered, and only his stoicism and irrepressible humour got him up the long and difficult Shimshal gorge. We stayed at the Pasu Inn. We were told that the journey to Malangutti, a few miles west of Shimshal, would take four days. The stages are short, and on our return, carrying 70-pound loads, without porters' help, we did the journey in 18 hours.
West Karakoram 1984
The constant roar of the river enclosed between massive walls of crystalline calcareous sediments makes the Shimshal gorge a desolate, oppressive place. For some of the way the path is blasted from the cliff face, other sections cross typically dangerous Karako-ram scree slopes and mud banks. On the second day we crossed from the north to the south side of the river and reached Dhud (marked Pikut on the map) - a hut at the confluence of the Lupghur Gaz and Shimshal valleys. On the third day the path zig-zagged precariously up cliffs on the south side. Across the river we saw apparently unapproachable valleys leading up to the high snows of Karun Koh. In the afternoon, as the valley opened out, we crossed a highly dangerous scree slope and continued along the valley floor to Ziarat, a shrine marked by flags. Here also there are huts but even porters spurn their flea-ridden shelter. Finally, on the fourth day we walked the remaining few miles to Malangutti, on the west bank of the massive Malangutti glacier. The snout of this glacier has advanced right across the main valley, and to reach Shimshal one has to cross the glacier and climb the high moraine on the far side before continuing along the valley to the village.
The porters left us by the little field and hut known as Malan-guzi - a hot, windy, dusty spot, enclosed by moraine and devoid of views. We would be staying for two or three weeks in this area, so the following day, 6 September, we ferried loads up the ablation valley on the west bank of the glacier to an infinitely better site, with clean running water, grass, trees and, on the rare occasions when the clouds lifted, magnificent views up the valley to the north face of Disteghil Sar. Two tents, supplemented by a stone-walled, polythene-roofed kitchen, made a comfortable home.
We were keen to find out more about the Malangutti basin and the next morning Dick and I set off to explore the glacier. Several hours of struggle over rubble hummocks and elaborate weavings among labyrinthine crevasses, under a steadily lowering cloud layer, added little to our knowledge of the area. However, we did establish that any venture into one of the three upper branches of the glacier would involve a protracted battle with the tortuous icefall and that, for the purpose of rapid, 'alpine-style* ascents of low peaks, the side valley, a few miles higher above the east bank of the glacier, would serve best. A modest but attractive peak, in the angle between this valley and the east branch of the Malangutti glacier, was just visible below the clouds and we decided to make an early attempt on this ‘Corner Peak’.
The following day, 8 September, we enjoyed our first proper rest day since leaving England. Sunday dawned grey and wet so we shelved plans for Corner Peak. Later in the morning things improved so Brian, Dick and I went for a long walk to Shimshal and back, returning to the Malangutti glacier in time to witness a radiant evening and our first long-awaited view of the north face of Disteghil Sar. Back at base camp, we could see, beyond Corner Peak, at the head of the side valley, a magnificent snow-pyramid, reminiscent of the Weisshorn. 'Shimshal Weisshorn' seems a good name for this 6400 m peak which we later failed to climb and which remains a superb objective for future visitors.
On Monday the weather remained fine. Don and Brian left to attempt a peak above base camp. Dick and I set off back across the glacier towards the cwm below Corner Peak. Resting in the middle of the glacier, we examined the possibilities above. The east branch curves up towards Yazghil Domes North and South: the central branch rears up to the foot of Disteghil Sar's north face. An ascent of the icefall would be a complex, dangerous undertaking, and once established on the stupendous spur of the north face, one would still be threatened by higher serac barriers. The northwest face might be safer, once reached, but 7000 ft of steep, snow-dusted granite, with only a few moments of sunshine each morning, and hard climbing to 25,000 ft, would be a daunting challenge. The west branch of the glacier curves up in another spectacular icefall towards Malangutti Sar, a virgin 7000 m peak. The defences on this side were formidable and we were deterred from closer inspection by the sight of a huge avalanche sweeping the glacier at the foot of the north face. To return to Disteghil Sar, the only reasonably safe prospect on this side of the mountain appears to be a route up the face of a Pyramid peak below the north face leading to the long spur, which sweeps round in a gentle arc to the east summit. All routes to the main, west summit seemed unduly hazardous.
We continued across the Malangutti glacier to the east bank, passed a shepherds' hut (which suggested that jShimshal villagers have a route all the way up the east bank to this point) and climbed very slowly up boulder slopes into our cwm, camping in a parched meadow below the north face of Corner Peak. We had still spent little time at altitude, so we waited a day, acclimatizing at about 4200 m. Then, on 12 September, we left at 2 a.m. to climb Corner Peak. We spent several hours climbing a snow-gully and snow-smothered slate ribs to a shoulder at the foot of the summit ridge, where we stopped for breakfast. On the summit ridge we had our first taste of Karakoram autumn conditions - hard ice overlaid with powder snow, necessitating slow, belayed climbing, instead of the quick crunch up firm neve that we had hoped for. A 50 degree slope of ice delayed us below a false summit. Above, another icefield created more delays; then we had to race along 600 ft of sharp snow ridge, soft and mushy in the afternoon warmth, rushing to beat Dick's 1.30 p.m. deadline - we had no bivouac equipment and, as the day sped by, he stipulated that, hoped for. A 50 degree slope of ice delayed us below a false summit. Above, another icefield created more delays; then we had to race along 600 ft of sharp snow ridge, soft and mushy in the afternoon warmth, rushing to beat Dick's 1.30 p.m. deadline - we had no bivouac equipment and, as the day sped by, he stipulated that, summit or no summit, we must turn back by 1.30 p.m. to ensure that we would not have to spend the night on the mountain. At 1.29 p.m. we collapsed on the summit; the altimeter read 5600 m. Afternoon cloud had long since put paid to any hope of views and we both felt exhausted, so there was little sense of celebration. However, we had removed one more from the long list of un-climbed Himalayan peaks.
Malangutti glacier 1984
Returning to the tent was something of an ordeal. To reverse the two ice-pitches we had to make 4 abseils, from bollards hacked laboriously from the iron-hard ice. It was already dusk when we reached the shoulder and by the time we were back in the couloir night had fallen. Dick raced on ahead; I followed more slowly, collapsing for ever more frequent and prolonged rests, painfully aware of my lack of acclimatization. The tedious slide down loose slates buried in snow continued until finally, 18 hours after setting out, I arrived back at the tent, to rejoin Dick for mugs of tea and a long, profound sleep.
The sun was shining again next morning but we decided not to proceed immediately to our main objective - the ‘Shimshal Weis-shorn’ Our ‘training climb’ had taken a lot out of us and we needed a short rest; also a quick review of food and equipment supplies suggested that replenishment would be a good idea; so we spent the morning walking back down to base camp. In the afternoon Don and Brian returned from an abortive attempt on their peak.
On 16 September we set out again for the cwm on the far side of the glacier. The cwm contains two glaciers, and this time we crossed the larger south glacier to a better, watered camp-site below the snout of the north glacier. We were still barely acclimatized and we wanted to see if there was a good approach to the north ridge of Shimshal Weisshorn from the far side of the ridge, so in the morning we climbed up the north glacier to the head of the cwm. A quick look over the col revealed that an approach from the far side of the ridge was out of the question. To complete our day's exploration we climbed a little peak of about 5200 m in the northeast corner of the cwm - an insignificant summit, but very enjoyable, with wonderful views towards China and, far away to the east, K2. On our way down we met Don, who repeated the climb.
The time had now come to attempt Shimshal Weisshorn. We left at 2.30 a.m. Clouds started to blot out the stars and by dawn the sky was completely overcast. We returned to the tent and by midday it was snowing. Don and Brian climbed slightly higher on their attempt on Pt. 5800 m, but also had to descend. It was time for Brian to return to Britain, so they left the base camp. Dick and I remained at the high camp. It snowed for about 30 hours, and the mountains were transformed. We continued to wait, hoping that the mild sun might be consolidating the new snow on our;
proposed route. On 28 September we returned to the fray, loaded down with food and equipment for a five-day climb. In the dark we waded through knee-deep snow. At dawn Dick expressed doubts about the conditions and shortly afterwards his concern was justified when an enormous slab of snow broke away 20 ft above him. We were belayed to ice-screws, nevertheless it was a huge mass of snow and we were very relieved that the avalanche had passed us by on either side of a small rib. Continuing up several hundred more feet on similar, open snow-slopes to the start of our north ridge was obviously out of the question, so we returned to the tent. The mountain was quite simply not safe, so, without further ado, we descended ta base camp and on a bleak, snowy morning the following day packed our rucksacks to leave. On 28 September we arrived back in Pasu and the following day we returned to Gilgit.
From Gilgit to the Shani Glacier (Dick Renshaw)
After a two-day rest and buying more provisions in Gilgit, we left for Nomal on 27 September. Don Hillman accompanied us, intending to go to Shani base camp, then cross the Daintar pass and walk down to Chalt. From Nomal we caught the evening jeep up to Naltar.
We indicated to the villagers who gathered at the hotel that we needed four porters to go up to Shani base camp, but we were mystified when the four porters materialised in the form of two donkeys. When we asked where the four men were, suspecting a bit of skulduggery, as the rate for a donkey is generally a lot less than that for a porter, we were told that four men would be accompanying the donkeys. By this time we were beginning to accept the strange ways of Naltar. The drizzly start to the day did not detract from the beauty of the valley. It was quite Alpine in aspect, with birch, larch and pine trees covering the hillsides, and the village slopes even boasted a ski-lift. It was a pleasant 12 km stroll to the Naltar lakes, by the side of a clear-running, turquoise-blue river. We stopped there for the night and after a heavy frost during the night, we awoke to a sparkling blue sky. It was a brilliant autumnal day. Algae growing at the bottom of the lake gave a deep green appearance, and the still clarity of the water reflected the reds, browns and yellows of the autumn-tinted leaves on the surrounding trees.
The porters had insisted that it was a three-day walk to base camp, but we had heard otherwise, and in fact we arrived at the camp after a gentle five-hour walk and paid off the porters for a two-day walk, which they accepted. Shani peak appeared out of the clouds and we were very impressed by its steep, formidable appearance. Up the southeast side, which we could plainly see from our camp, there was a prominent ridge which looked feasible. On the side moraine above the jShani glacier where we were camped there were numerous huts to house herdsmen and their cattle, but no sign of them.
On the following bitterly cold morning the southeast ridge caught the early morning sun, and we quickly decided to attempt that ridge rather than going for the shady north face. We said goodbye to Don and went our separate ways: Steve and I were going to sort out the approach route to the foot of the ridge, and Don to cross the Daintar pass. A closer look at the ridge revealed that there was going to be some steep rock climbing on the lower section, but beyond the half-way point the angle relented, there was a prominent snow-ridge and then mixed ground led to the summit. As we walked down to base camp it started snowing, and it seemed that this was going to be the general weather pattern, with fine mornings deteriorating in the afternoon with snow-showers.
1 October brought no improvement in the weather and we spent the day preparing food and equipment for an attempt the next day. We set off on the 2nd in promising weather and started climbing at midday. It was enjoyable climbing on good granite, but in the middle of the afternoon it started to snow. We came to a suitable ledge and settled down to bivvy. There was a heavy snowfall during the night and it continued intermittently throughout the next day. After a wet and cold night we awoke on the morning of 4th enveloped in thick cloud. As soon as it cleared we had no hesitation in retreating.
Back at base camp we recalled the prophecy that we had heard at Naltar that the first winter snow falls on 10 October. The climb on Shani was out of the question until the rock was clear of snow. Optimistically, we were hoping that the elusive spell of settled weather which we had been expecting over the past five weeks would appear. Rather than sit around at base camp, we decided to explore the surrounding area and may be climb a small peak. Since our arrival, cattle very similar in appearance to yaks had appeared from higher grazing grounds, seeming with each day to be grazing lower down the valley.
On the 5th we had a rest day, and then left on 6 October. The map showed two passes to the west of our base camp: the Naltar pass lay directly above the end of the Shani glacier and on the other side led down to Phakhor in the Ishkaman valley: to the north of the Naltar pass was the Gaz An pass which led down to Imit in the Karambar valley. On the way up the Gaz An pass we disturbed a flock of srx Lammergeyers. It was the closest view we had ever had of these huge birds, and we were impressed by the size of their footprints in the snow, which measured about four inches in length. We arrived at the top in a snowstorm and pitched our tent, but when visibility improved later in the day we were puzzled by our location. We had followed the route indicated by the map and had taken bearings, yet we were eventually convinced that this was in fact the Naltar pass and realised that there were some radical errors in the map. We were rewarded by good views of the north face of Shani peak and the Twins, and the next morning could see the Hindu Raj away to the West. We decided to descend and attempt to locate the Gaz An pass. After climbing up the ridge where we thought it should be, it became evident that it was not, as the way down the other side looked far tod steep. We decided to camp just below the crest of the ridge arid climb the peak above us on the following day. At four o'clock the next morning we set off from the tent. In places the accumulation of fresh snow looked avalanche-prone and we decided to stick to the rocks on a well-defined ridge. Just as Steve was stepping off a slope onto some rocks the section of snow on which he had been standing came away in a large slab. We got to the summit just as the sun was rising behind Kunyang Kish, lighting up a spectacular snow-plume which rose hundreds of feet above the summit. As the sun slowly rose the massive bulk of Nanga Parbat, the Silver Saddle clearly visible, changed through a variety of shades of pink and red. It was a dazzling display of colour, and we lingered on the summit for an hour. To the north in the next valley above Daintar we could see the Gaz An pass. We hurried down to the tent before the sun hit the snow slopes up which we had climbed, packed up our tent and were back at base camp by mid-afternoon. It snowed later on that afternoon and also during the night, and with the passage of each day it seemed to get more wintry.
On 9 October it was a bitterly cold morning and as soon as Steve had done the washing up a thin film of ice had formed in the mugs. There seemed little chance of the freshly fallen snow melting or being consolidated, and from what we had seen the snow-slopes seemed very avalanche prone, so we decided to leave. We left our excess food in the herdsmen's hut and set off with heavy loads shortly after midday. The trees lower down had completely lost their leaves and it seemed as though winter had arrived. Four and a half hours after leaving base camp we pitched the tent 3 km from Naltar. It had been one of the quickest walkouts we had ever known.
Early next morning we set off in the dark to walk the remaining few kilometres to the village in the hope of catching the early morning jeep to Nomal. It was 10 October and heavy snow started falling as we walked into Naltar, but on arrival in Nomal the contrast was extreme, being hot and dusty with no sign of any precipitation. We had missed the only bus to Gilgit that day. We were told that we could cross the Hunza river and get onto the Karakoram Highway, where there was a good chance of getting a lift back to Gilgit. Arriving at the river, there was no sign of a bridge. We caught sight of a raft made of poles lashed together and made buoyant by inflated cowhides. The boatman, skilfully using the current and oars, quickly crossed the river. On the Karakoram Highway we hitched a ride in a Suzuki truck and were back in Gilgit in time for supper.
Our expedition was probably only the fourth British party to visit Shimshal. Previous British visitors were: Schomberg,. whose journey is described in his book Unknown Karakoram,
Eric Shipton, who walked out to Hunza this way, after months of exploration on the north side of K2, and afterwards recorded his experience in Blank On The
Map. More recently, Lord and Lady Hunt trekked up to Shimshal in 1980, under the auspices of The International Karakoram Project, and contributed a chapter to Keith Miller's story of the expedition, Continents In Collision.
View WNW from Sentinal N summit. (S. Venables)
Looking west from Phakor pass. (S. Venables)
View south across Shani glacier from Phajor pass. (S. Venables)
On Sentinel N summit.
View SW from Sentinel N summit.