The North London Mountaineering Club Expedition
I WAS DELIGHTED and surprised to be allowed by the Editor of this journal to contribute a piece on our antics pf 1984. Delighted because it gives me the undoubtedly therapeutic opportunity to inflict our baleful story on you, the literate mountaineer. Surprised, because I spent much of summer 1985 under the leadership of the same Editor in the Eastern Karakoram, where the British element of the team displayed many of their traditional characteristics, particularly, stoic disorganisation. Are you sure you want the rest of this story Ed.?
It was in 1984 that a contingent from the North London Mountaineering Club set out to attempt Bojohagur, a high peak in the Western Karakoram, and this is a part of their story.
Bojohagur Duanasir is the second highest peak of the Ultar Group and lies just 8 km north of Karrimabad. This proximity coupled with its elevation (one of the world's highest unclimbed peaks at c. 7329 m) excited our initial interest. It seemed that here was an interesting coincidence which could be exploited to provide a low cost high altitude expedition. The new road would permit public transport to a days walk from base camp. Porter costs and time spent walking would be the very minimum. This in turn would allow an expedition to take place as part of a slightly extended annual holiday. Ordinary working climbers with small financial resources would be eligible for high altitude mountaineering.
The idea was proposed in the Globe
in 1982, and, a team of six (or rather, three of two) grew from the early discussions and, strangely, remained unchanged. We were Mick Fowler, Chris Watts, Mike Morrison, Dr John English, Phil Butler and myself as leader. We are referred to by initials below.
The entire group had previous experience of Andean and Himalayan trips to heights of 6000 m to 6400 m. It was a logical extension of the collective experience to attempt a peak of some 7000 m. Maps and photographs were minutely studied as if some new feature might appear at any moment. It became clear that the vertical interval would be large. We underestimated it to be as much as 3300 m.
PB and AS left a week earlier than the others to fix the bureaucracy as far as possible. At a result the entire team was able to leave Rawalpindi within 24 hours of the main body arriving. This was surprising considering we were doomed to arrive in mid-Ramazan and attempt to leave for Gilgit.
Atabad goup, Northof Baltit.
The intervening week also provided time to purchase expedition supplies, weigh and bag them into 25 kg porter loads. Further supplies of pulses and fresh vegetables were purchased at Gilgit. The food strategy was essentially simple - eat local food at base camp and advance base, and bring lightweight food from UK for the climbing. The local food would be a staple of dal, rice and chapaties with fresh vegetables, chickens and eggs when available.
We travelled by bus to Gilgit in 20 hours, this included time off for fanbelt trouble, and food stops. After a night in the hotel and a morning in the bazaars a four hour journey brought us to Karrimabad, and another hotel night. We hired 10 porters for the ascent to base. Only a few hours long, the shepherds track approached base interestingly through the spectacular Ultar nala. High on its vertical sides the incredible water courses, weeping. Like the legendary dragon, the serpentine glacier slept with its snout at the entrance at the gorge.
Base was too low at a little over 3000 m but rather pleasant, it was as far as we could persuade the porters to go, and besides, it felt a safe distance from the mountain, from the monstrous lower seracs of the Hunza and Ultar glaciers which balanced on a ring of steep cliffs, relentlessly grinding their way down, tumbling over the cliff like lemmings.
The Ultar glacier originated in what we came to know as 'Death Valley', a giant cirque defined by Ultar to the east, Bojd to the north and a long ridge on its west. Icebergs lined the high sides of the cirque, the threat materialising in erratic spontaneous avalanches which propelled snow-clouds as far as base (3 miles away). The chilling wind and snow blotted out the sun and on one occasion destroyed advance base. Death Valley was the principal scene from base and it was difficult to take one's eyes off it; it formed a spectacular backdrop to an idyllic site. We were camped in a perfectly flat natural paddock with spring water on one side and conveniently rocky lavatory slopes downwind. The green-brown hills rose gently on the west side to a fretful sharpness on the horizon. The easterly slopes ran down to a small stream valley guided on the far side by the lateral moraine. The mountain was attractively remote. By contrast, advance base, which was reached by two hours scrambling, up long buttresses to the high alps, was positively morose. It was overhung by enormous granite walls, the leering icefalls dribbled stones and boulders of all sizes. The mountain felt awfully close. Worse still, it turned out to be goat infested.
The original sports plan was the product of our ignorance. We knew a little of the south side from photographs. The map and Landsat indicated possibilities on the northwestern and northeastern flanks too. In the absence of further information it was a natural plan to use the 3 teams to reconnoitre the 3 faces during the acclimatizing period.
Having established base, Hassan the head porter, took MF and AS up a rocky spur overlooking the icefall. We followed an old hunter's trail which sported several very difficult pitches. Hassan told us how old men sauntered up and down the route with dead animals slung across their shoulders. It made me wheeze just to think of it. Our vantage point was a notch in the ridge at about 4500 m. From here it was clear that the Japanese had attempted the only safe line on the south side. It also looked reasonably easy. We decided to shelve the original plan and explore the Japanese line for acclimatization. MF and CW would then try the nasty looking buttress at the entrance to Death Valley. The rest of us, the B team would attempt the Japanese line.
The following day we turned our attention to the formidable task of establishing a safe route on to the glacier. Base was sited above the right bank of the lower Ultar glacier. Advance base was close to the icefall that articulated the convergence of the Hunza and upper Ultar glaciers. The route to the upper glaciers lay through the middle of the hanging snout of the Hunza glacier, across the melting seracs to a fold in the ice at the junction of the two upper glaciers. From there the Japanese line climbed the left bank of the Hunza glacier. MF and CW crossed the upper Ultar to its left bank and excavated a snow-hole with the intention of studying their prospective buttress for a couple of days. After they completed the hole an enormous billowing powder avalanche covered the entire glacier they had crossed. This was not too surprising to the rest of us. They had crossed the entrance to Death Valley.
The most lethal section of the route appeared to be the start of the 'Hanging Snout'. It was necessary to cross a ravine with a cascading torrent, which sprang from a cave in the side of the snout and frequently spouted boulders as well as water. The left bank of the steep Hunza glacier also had its trying parts, when the sun released fusillades of rocks and gravel. Above the Hunza glacier the snow and icefields to the col were also raked by stones and ice during sunny periods. The entire 1981 Japanese team except the doctor had been injured during the 2 months they spent fixing the route to the col. We were able to avoid this sort of injury by night climbing all the dangerous bits.
The face below the col was long, about 1000 m but structurally simple. A lower snow-icefield, about 50°, was separated from a similar upper field by an area of mixed ground penetrated by shallow couloirs and ice-walls. We found we had to bivouac below this face on the Hunza glacier at the 'Flat Boulder', half way up the face at the Dump (also called Camp 2), at the col at a projecting slab which we took to be the Japanese Camp 3. (This bivouac was later to be the scene of 'Watt's Dangle'.)
As PB and AS were prospecting among the less likely gullies leading towards the upper fields, MF decided to solo up to join them. Unfortunately he was caught in the open by the sun, and forced to spend the remainder of the day at the Dump. A necessary condition of life dictates that misfortunes do not occur singly. Accordingly he had brought with him food and stove but no pan. Being rather desperate for liquid he eventually succeeded in setting his helmet alight trying to melt snow in it. A later claim states that the failure was due entirely to the paint. 'It was going all right until the paint began to burn.'
Meanwhile the weather deteriorated and avalanches flushed down the gullies with obvious enthusiasm. PB and AS descended the next day, laboriously setting up an abseil piste for future retreats.
While MF was busy boiling his helmet, CW, MM and JE started to re-cross the Hanging Snout. The expedition acquired its first casualty. While traversing a serac a crampon point broke, and plunged JE, back first, on to boulders 20 ft below. He was in extreme pain. With difficulty and fixed ropes the others coaxed and bullied him across the traverses and abseils of the 'Snout and Ravine'. When JE had his injuries X-rayed, 5 weeks later in England, he was told he had a broken back.
Two days later the entire team had reconvened at base. The camp had transformed itself into a small busy village. George and Steve had joined the party to share the base for trekking. The cook, Hadayat Shah, struggled to feed the 10 of us. As an interesting diversion he threatened to quit after falling out with our liaison officer. Cook was, moreover, indisposed to collecting fresh food from Karrimabad having developed various chronic ailments of which he was quite unaware when hired. To cap it all, everyone was refusing to continue with our staple diet of rice and dal and blaming us for it.
In search of a little peace the remaining 5 climbers staggered up to advance base, during the night. Climbing gear, clothes, and some food had been cached there. On arrival we discovered the tent had been blown away by an avalanche from Death Valley. The goats had got among the contents. A helmet and a karrimat were missing. Another helmet had the leather straps eaten off it. MM and JE's entire supply of hill-food had been raided. Perhaps worst of all, AS found the animals had urinated on his clothes. He was to stink of goat to the end of the trip. In a fit of rationalisation MM decided to return to base for a while.
Three days later the four had hauled the unnaturally heavy sacks to the col. Although the climbing was straightforward there was an ambience of seriousness. The sun reached us just before we reached the col. At 7.30 a.m. precisely the gendarmes overlooking the snowfields released man-eating rocks, which loped past hungrily. Porridge snow-avalanches slithered after in hot pursuit.
Our bivouac was a projecting slab the size of a single bed, stuck to the ice at its pillow end. With us, our rucksacks, ironmongery, and ropes, it was messy, crowded, uncomfortable and irritating. We slept piled on top of each other. Sometime during the early night MF shifted his uncomfortable legs. Unhappily CW had been held in balance by their weight - and he now found himself catapulted into space. The belay ropes tightened with a jerk. Everyone complained loudly about CW's lack of consideration.
Peering over the edge into the black night, head torches revealed a slowly rotating sleeping bag dangling from a single rope. We lowered slings and ascenders and CW was able to prussik up inside his cocoon. While making his way back to the slab his jacket slowly and tantalisingly detatched itself, he watched helplessly as it slid into the dark. His boots had been ripped from the carabiner, which now boasted a pair of zip fastener earrings. One boot was found jammed between rock and rope. The other was gone.
We took stock at dawn. We had drafting tape, and karrimat. A little creative tailoring would provide CW with a makeshift boot. With luck crampons might be fitted. It was decided that AS and PB might as well go on to explore the upper part of the west ridge. The hopping descent by CW and MF is described by MF in the Alpine Journal
1985 (p. 81). The 400 m rib above the col was turned by a 60° icefield; this led to a broad shoulder which we followed in deteriorating weather. Soon we were looking for sites to escape the wind and spindrift. During the early afternoon we discovered a sort of bergschrund. It was a possible bivvi but inside the ice-shelves sloped awkwardly, ice-fronds and spicules encrusted all surfaces so that all movement was accompanied by a tinkling class of noise. Though windless it was far colder than outside.
‘Do you want to bivvi here?’
'It is bloody cold.'
'There's no wind. Best place in a storm.'
'Then lets return when there's a storm.'
The breathclouds measured the sentences. We would freeze here.
'Come on Vic. This is a death trap.'
Haul monster sacks back to the lip. Squeeze out of tiny entrance. Spindrift and gloom. Nowhere in sight. But we were smiled on, two pitches and a small rock buttress looming in the mist, of uncertain size, provided small ledges - one each. Brews, luke warm, lowered by rope, and in the swinging billie our Main Thing: Salami and Mash. We spent three nights at this storm bound site. During this sojourn I consumed large quantities of ineffectual DF.118s and succeeded only in achieving a chronic state of high constipation while the migraines roared on. Back and neck massaging helped to pass the time. The Man from St. Petersburg
and Marco Polo's Travels
provided the possibility of fantasy within fantasy. On the third morning I felt too ill to continue. We ate breakfast and packed up in a state of deep depression. Phil dropped his karrimat. Gently the sun emerged r
the sky cleared. It was the morning after the storm - an invigorating miracle.
'Come on Lob, its your pitch.'
'But your head?'
'Ignore it, we can't waste the weather, you can share my karrimat.'
The headaches dissapated after the first pitch, never to return. I had been suffering from a severe attack of hypochondria. Depressed internally by the very real external threats, the ageing body had busied itself inventing excuses for descent.
The route followed an ice-arete above the bivouac for several pitches, till it ran against the base of seracs guarding the upper peaks of the ridge. We took to arguing about the best possibilities of breaking through the jumble of ice-cliffs above. It began snowing again so we excavated a miserable snow-hole. It had a gap in the side connecting it to a crevasse, and this let in a steady draft of super-cooled air. It was cold enough for me, but Phil had no karrimat.
The next day we began the interesting task of finding a route through the seracs. The key turned out to be a pitch of perfectly flat, hard ice, not too steep, about 70°, but very tiring with our blunt crampons and axes not biting properly. This led to a long pitch traversing under cornices and a sudden and delightful exit to easy ground. Again the weather closed in and forced us ta evacuate a bivouac in stormy conditions.
Our ninth day brought easy climbing and bad weather. We sighted our route during the brief cloud clearances. By midday we were strung out along the top of an enormous ice-cream roll, in the middle of an electrical storm. Things were beginning to look distinctly ugly. Through the gloom I could see Phil in spasms, jerking, and knew he was being played on by the static electricity. My turn next.
down Lobby!' a hoarse whisper into the wind. What a time to lose the voice.
I lay cowering, rucksack pulled over my head. The first invisible stabs reached my end of the rope. I clipped the ice-pegs and karabiners to a long sling and hurled them from me. Next I threw my axes as far as their slings would allow, and tried to bury my feet so the crampon points would not become lightning conductors.
On neighbouring peaks the lightning flashed and boomed. Any moment, I thought, any moment now. I knew then how it felt to be a mouse teased by a cat. The world seemed likely to end with both a whisper and a bang. I supplied the whimpering.
After twenty minutes we began to crawl off the side of the ridge hugging the snow as closely as possible. We descended to a snow-bowl which was permanently inhabited by a gale. It was still fairly early and we had time to create a spacious snow-hole, or rather, Phil did, while I brewed up and admired his energy. We took stock that night. The snow-cave was at about 22,500 ft. There was food for two more days, plus a few more days down at the col. We had enough gas for seven days of liquids. The 'Snow Cave' was a haven from objective dangers and weather. Outside it was cold enough for it to be rather unpleasant climbing in the wind or dark, Duvets were worn continually. The sleeping bags had begun to fill with ice from the interstitial condensation. We both had had woodenly cold feet. Ronicol was taken religiously by Phil and occasionally by me. It was Phil who eventually contracted frostbite.
The following day we rose with the first grey light which grew into a beautiful dawn. We left 5 gas cylinders and 3 novels in the Snow Cave, and slowly climbed to the top of the ‘Ice-cream Roll’, apprehensive and happy. By 9 a.m. we could see the final obstacle for the first time. An impressive face at an apparently easy angle, behind it the summit ridge. By calculation the face could not have been more than 400 m high, but it still looked enormous. It was now apparent that the route from the next saddle would be a matter of time and snow conditions. It was technically straightforward. But we could not get to the saddle from the top of the Roll, it was protected by bands of overhanging snow-mushrooms. We retraced our steps to the 'Windbowl' and began to traverse directly to the saddle. The climbing was over steep granite ribs, seamed with ice-cracks and corners. Delightful Scottish IV. The weather began to deteriorate of course. By the end of the first difficult pitch the cloudless sky had transformed itself to dark and threatening. The rising wind and loose snow-flakes gave notice of the impending gloom. The inevitable argument at rope length ensued, both contestants pulling towards their respective nearest easy ground. With only one rope and one stove, splitting up was out of the question, so the forces for life won the day. Not having enough supplies to sit out another storm it was essential that once we had decided to descend we wasted no time. We started down at midday on day 10.
By late afternoon we reached the top of the serac barrier where we met, to our astonishment, the team of Japanese climbers who had been based at Hassanabad. They had fixed a route up to the col from the other side and were now fixing the ridge. They had enough rope to reach the Ice-cream Roll. We exchanged opinions about the climbing. They gave us pieces of dried horse flesh and seaweed. We were happy to use their fixed ropes back to the col. We managed to stay on the ledge all night this time. The predawn start was missed through exhaustion, but looking down the face we could see three spidery figures making their way towards us, stopping to rest their heads on the ice at increasingly regular intervals. It began to seem as if they were either nodding off or perhaps stopping to pray. They were, of course, the A team.
They reached us a few minutes before the sun. As we sat in our sleeping bags, blinking in the glare, it made us laugh. They were tinged with a sense of the ridiculous. Mick wore his usual three layers of sunglasses and goggles; Chris wore John's boot and gaiter on one foot with his own on the other. Mike had mended my helmet replacing the goat eaten leather with bits of green sling crudely stitched together. We chattered wildly at each other and the A team moved on.
Bojohagur Duanasir south face.
While the A team struggled above the col, Phil and I took 3 more days to descend to base. We felt weak, exhausted, hungry and very very tired. The routine of setting up abseils became a purgatory. The rucksacks grew unaccountably heavier and heavier. The rope stuck on five occasions. With anger we shouted at the mountain and our stupid ropes.
Our twelfth bivouac was particularly miserable. We cut a ledge in the soft ice. Small, wet avalanches flowed over and around us all night. Somehow the ropes, gear and clothing managed to become simultaneously wet and frozen. It was during this night that the music started, or rather, the rational resolution of the random noise of the wet snow slurrying past. The over-tired brain found it easier to interpret the accidental rhythms. I lay back happily listening to the celestial harmony.
'Can you hear the music too?'
'Are you joking?'
'Oh dear', I thought.
I dropped the subject, but the music stayed for the next three days.
Needless to say, the sting was in the tail. The Hanging Snout had changed for the worse during the intervening fortnight. With impressive displays of enervation and lethargy we forced ourselves across the glacier, falling asleep at half hourly intervals. One sleeping interlude took place at the edge of the 'Dangerous Ravine*.
'Come on Vic, wake up.'
'Huh! Oh dear.’
'The sooner we cross the ravine, the sooner we reach base camp.'
'Mumble, mumble . . . the sooner we get down there the sooner we'll be in the main line of the stone fall.' But I was too tired to wait for twilight. Ominously, the music began to consist of funeral dirges.
I abseiled down the gorge. It was not so much a stream as a series of connected waterfalls, gushing from a hole high in the Hanging Snout. A skip and a leap were sufficient to reach the half way boulder. A glance up was obligatory here to check the source for stonefall. To my horror the sky sported a flock of leaping rocks. I crouched behind the boulder, terrified. The rocks crashed and bounced past. After five minutes, a very hurried peep, and an asthmatic lunge, I had splashed across the remainder of the torrent to relative safety. A frightening scene began to unfold before my eyes. Phil was still on the far side, crossing under a bluff. Above him the Hanging Snout balanced on the smooth slabs. A small stream flowed under the ice and made a thin waterfall crossing Phil's path. As he reached this waterfall it began to dribble rocks. Phil stepped back. The falling rocks grew in size and number, as they crashed and ricocheted. Phil squeezed himself into a shallow corner under a small overhang. The rockfall grew into a thundering rock avalanche, rucksack size blocks rained around him. I put my hand to my mouth. 'Oh, God, he's going to die!' I thought. Without warning a stone smacked into my lace. 'Good grief the thought was misty with pain and surprise. 'I could die here too!' Leaving a thin trail of blood and self pity I crawl-climbed up the ravine wall. Exhaustion dragging at the limbs. On reaching safety I lay down. Phil crept back from the gorge to wait for nightfall and a safer crossing. In our tiredness we had ignored the safety rules we set ourselves.
When the other three returned empty handed, it became clear the team had run out of time. It would need a week of rest and food before another attempt on the route could be made.
We were thin and tired, we had tried our best. It was felt everyone had contributed their utmost; the contributions were recognised and appreciated. We had been friends before the trip and we were still friends, closer perhaps. There are plans for the same team to climb again in 1986.
Before returning to the UK, the team made a rather strange discovery. There was, living in a small village below base camp, a community who spoke a language of their own. They also had the Hunza monopoly of music and metalcrafts. This left us bewildered and cast a surreal gloss on the last days of the expedition.
In conclusion, although the team did not reach the summit, several of its aims were successfully fulfilled. It showed in particular, that a low cost, lightweight concept would permit an ambitious project to be attempted in a short timespan; and that a group of friends could undertake such a project during the course of their (slightly extended) annual holiday. We felt that this expedition showed serious Himalayan climbing can be, and is available to the ordinary working climber in the same way as Alpine holidays were available to our predecessor generation.
View from Kush Kalyan: Bandarpunch West, Banderpunch and Kalang (1to r) Note 7 (Ashok Dilwali)
Bojohagur south face. (Dr. J. English)