Himalayan Journal vol.43
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
    (MAL DUFF)
  6. DHAULAGIRI 1984-85
    (P. M. DAS)
  13. BASPA AND ROPA, 1986
  16. SIA KANGRI, 1986
    (S. P. CHAMOLI)



ONE OF THE finest mountaineering books ever written about the Karakoram is: Karakoram, Fosco Maraini's account of the 1958 Italian expedition to Gasherbrum IV, His pictures are superb and he allows himself leeway to write about the history of the area, to capture the real spirit of its people, its mountains and its climate of intense contrasts. In one futuristic section he imagines the world of 2058: driving through the Braldu gorge, helicoptering up to one of the huts around Concordia (fortified by acclimatisation pills), and doing alpine-style climbs on the 8000 m peaks at the heart of the Baltoro. Perhaps we are already not far from that startling vision. In July 1985 some 15 or so expeditions congregated at the Gasherbrum base camp and spread along the narrow barren moraine in a linear 'village' complete with unsightly rubbish dumps. Almost every fine day helicopters buzzed overhead supplying the army camp placed a few miles away for the desultory frontier war with India. Film crews disported themselves on the glacier to record Jean-Marc Boivin's hang-glider descent from Gasherbrum II (after two ascents of the peak). Other French stars parachuted and skied down the same luckless mountain, the goal of perhaps 10 expeditions in one season!

The four of us, Des Rubens, Clive Rowland, Paul Nunn and myself, were taken aback to say the least. Although aware of the popularity of the big peaks, especially those over the magic 8000 m, I had still half imagined us penetrating a remote corner of the Karakoram. That was what it had felt like on my previous visit with Des - just a few days' walk from Hushe we had had a real sense of isolation, our one small tent on the glacier and numberless magnificent peaks (albeit under 7000 m) all around. Paul and Clive's background was slightly different - they had usually been to technically difficult peaks - but none of us was prepared for this jamboree.

Our choice of objective
1 had climbed a dozen or so peaks between 6000 m and 7000 m in the years since I first went to the Himalaya (and failed on at least as many), but had always kept away from the 'big' peaks for reasons of cost, crowdedness, organisational hassles and, perhaps, a lack of clear ambitions. But in spite of the stories that high altitude climbing is largely boring slog and feeling ill Des and I had wanted for some time to tackle an 8000 m peak -- out of curiosity to see how we would get on, and no doubt for the 'glory' too. With Nepal precluded by our summer vacations, and with the expectation that the 8000ers in Pakistan would be heavily overbooked, we hit on the idea of Gasherbrum III which was, according to one list, the highest mountain under 8000 m in the world. The pricing bands for peak fees currently operated in Pakistan meant that this would offer the best bargain in terms of metres per rupee! More to the point, it would attract less attention because of its humble elevation. Even so I was surprised to learn, on doing my researches, that apart from Cassin's solo reconnaissance in 1958, 1 and the remarkable Polish first ascent in 1975 no other parties had ever attempted the mountain.2
Photos 22-28-24
Initially we were looking for a climb that would be interesting but not too long and difficult. With a glacier approach up to 7000 m and then a mixed ridge, Gasherbrum III seemed well suited to our plans. In Fosco Marainfs book Cassin described his reconnaissance of what he calls the southeast ridge of Gasherbrum III; but it is clear from the photos and diagrams that it was the north ridge that he attempted.3 It appeared to have a very steep buttress near the top which we hoped we might be able to circumvent by hidden slopes behind. As it turned out we did not tackle this ridge at all, but the SSW ridge which rises near the icefall between Gasherbrum III and Gasherbrum IV. Possibly this was our biggest tactical error of all!

The approach
We left Dasso on 1 July with 39 porters and arrived at base camp on the 11th with 30 porters still with us. How did our experience differ from Maraini's 27 years earlier? While he took some 100 pages to describe the walk-in to base camp it is usual now for an expedition report to dismiss it in a single sentence. Yet it is still of course a magnificent and inspiring trek, especially when done for the first time. Perhaps the degradation of the oases at Payu and Urdukas would strike Maraini as the big|est change since his day. The authorities plan to build some sort of sanitation at these regular stopping places though one wonders whether people will use it It is hard to believe that in the long run the vegetation can survive the constant stream of trekkers aid expeditions right through the summer months: Urdukas has become a succession of sandy tent platforms with very little flat grass to be seen and the porters range far up the hill in search of wood. Yet these places still have great atmosphere - with porters from all the different expeditions gathering to exchange news and sing around the camp fires while climbers approaching the mountains keenly quiz the lean-faced parties returning. I remember a night at Payu, lying under a tracery of branches gazing out at a luminous full moon balanced improbably on the exact point of a formidable dark spire opposite. Such experiences have a mystery of their own, especially when contrasted with the great open spaces ahead.

1.See H.J. Vol. XXI, p. 137.

1. See H.J. Vol. XXXIV, p. 93.-Ed.

3. Strangely the error is repeated in Cassin's autobography. Gasherbrum III does not have a southeast ridge! See sketch map.

In one respect at least things have improved in recent times - we had no strike threats from porters and enjoyed very friendly relations with them, the official rates of pay being more or less accepted.

Sizing up the mountain
Having reached the foot of the South Gasherbrum glacier we spent our first few days ferrying loads up to a dump at about 5600 m above the heavily crevassed but usually dry lower icefall. At this time there were numerous other expeditions going up and down and various tracks and marker flags to follow, although later the glacier changed greatly in the space of a few weeks. We all moved up, together with our liaison officer, Captain Naseer, to Camp .1 at 5800 m and then again to Camp 2 at about 6000 m on the big plateau where the South Gasherbrum glacier opens out. The French filming expeditions had abandoned an astonishing amount of expensive food at the foot of the S rib of Gasherbrum II, some of which we appropriated, thus saving ourselves a bit of carrying between Camps 1 and 2. Beyond Camp 2 we were at last on our own, well away from all the Gasherbrum II expeditions, and it felt more like the mountaineering we had expected.

After a storm had confined us to our tents for about 36 hours Paul and Clive escorted the LO down while Des and I began work on the dangerous second icefall between Gasherbrum III and Gasherbrum IV. To begin with we went towards and up a couloir on the right till below some stupendous leaning towers with great arches beneath them. Unfortunately Des then developed a tooth abscess and we had to go down to base for a few days while Paul and Clive continued the routefinding. They established an apparently safe ice-cave tucked right under the corner of the leaning tower and then followed a blunt rib in the centre of the icefall as far as the great palisade that stietches right across at the top. Here they attempted to turn the difficulties on the right but decided that the objective danger was too great.

We all reunited at Camp 2 and moved up to the cave in the middle of the second icefall - passing en route the debris from one of the smaller ice-towers which had collapsed into our couloir leaving a hole like an uprooted tooth. Our perch was dramatic in the extreme, with a wonderful view of Baltoro Kangri beyond the crazily leaning edge of the outermost serac; but it was not as safe as we then thought, for two weeks later we returned to find the entrance to the cave virtually blocked by huge pieces of fallen ice. Having failed to get around the ice palisade on the right Clive cunningly proposed a route on the left. Crossing over fresh avalanche debris on the blunt rib, we went a short way up a depression on the other side and then broke out on to snow slopes on the left of the icefall where at last we were safe from the danger of falling ice. Luckily for us these exposed slopes were in reasonably good condition and at the top there was a narrow gully between the great curling overhangs at the left end of the palisade and the compact brittle limestone of Gasherbrum IV. Paradoxically, once over the lip of the icefall the snow slopes of the coire floor incline gently and welcomingly upward with virtually no crevasses. If one ignores the two brooding giants either side and fixes on the mild looking peaks further back one could almost imagine being in some pleasant, lesser-known part of the Alps. The Italians called this place the Combe a Vaches, but to imagine Alpine meadows up here seemed going a bit far even allowing for the enthusiastic Latin temperament!

Clive, Des and I established a camp in the coire and went to explore the back, hoping for a view behind the conspicuous steep rock step high on the north ridge, Unfortunately we set out in the afternoon and were unable to reach right up to the col at the back of the coire before dark, or to see around the rock step. The north ridge looked quite formidable from below, as indeed did the whole of the northwest face of Gasherbrum III. Next day, with the winds very strong and Des still feeling unwell I went alone through deep crust up to the NE col of Gasherbrum IV, but got there too late for a view. By an unaccountable stupidity I had not brought with me from home a copy of the Italians' photo of the north ridge of Gasherbrum III which was taken from quite high on the NE ridge of Gasherbrum IV. Looking at this photo again on my return home it seems probable (as indeed it had before we left) that the N ridge of Gasherbrum III will be easier than the SSW ridge, if the rock step can be circumvented. But at the time, with a very different view of the two ridges from down in the coire, and with the SSW ridge closer to hand, this was the one we decided to attempt.

Paul joined us in the coire on 2 August and dug a really well protected ice-cave in the wall of a crevasse. Des was still unwell however, and the weather clearly deteriorating so on the 3rd we decided to descend. In white-out conditions with deep fresh snow the route-finding was both tiring and difficult, but Clive led us through magnificently and we reached base camp early the following morning. Heavy snow continued to fall for several days and we were glad to be safe at base while other expeditions were trapped high on Gasherbrum II.

Social life at base at this time was enlivened by the arrival of Misha - a very strong, talkative and highly-strung German mountaineer who had come to do some filming. People coming off the hill exhausted might have a microphone thrust in front of them, even before a cup of tea, and find themselves being filmed shedding their rucksack and taking off their boots. Our badly built kitchen area (not a patch on the smart creation of our French neighbours with their piped water and apparently unlimited wine) became a crowded talking shop as Misha, a veteran of Cho Oyu and Gasherbrum I, and French Everest veterans chatted with Paul and provided good copy for Mountain Magazine. Unfortunately the continuous thick mist and steady fall of metre upon metre of soft snow day after day began to be mentally wearing, especially for our LO who had nothing to occupy his mind. He was a superbly fit officer, had been very helpful on the walk-in and was always ready to work - clearing stony platforms for tents, cooking or carrying loads to Camp 1. But as all the other expedition LOs departed he saw himself as the sole representative of Pakistani authority in a base camp still quite full of expeditions and their Balti cooks. He began to lord it over the cooks and with no outlet for his energies he resorted to making life unnecessarily complicated for other people. We ourselves were not directly involved but simply wanted to relax mentally as well as physically in our enforced idleness. With plenty to read I was not bored but was frequently disturbed having to soothe over some mysterious quarrel between our LO and a cook or other expeditioner. Finally a blazing row broke out and though it was patched up it was agreed that the LO would depart for Skardu with the cook and Clive, who now felt that he had insufficient time to attempt the mountain again.

By this time all the teams from Gasherbrum II had dribbled down safely to base camp, most of them victorious, On 10 August when we set off back up the mountain only a single party of Italians remained at base. They were in the main a trekking group but a few had mountaineering pretensions and misleadingly told us that the previous day they had remade a trail all the way to Camp 2. We found their tent only a little above Camp 1, just where the fresh snow really became deep, and it took us many more hours of heavy toil before we reached the buried tents of Camp 2. The weather was now fine again but the snow had clearly not consolidated and after a day's waiting at Camp 2 Paul decided he had had enough and went down, to leave for gkardlu alone. Des and I, still committed to the original concept, ploughed our way back up to the first ice cave, now partially collapsed, and on again through-deep snow to the upper coire. We had had to remake every step of the trail from Camp 1 in snow much deeper than before, but once in the coire the high winds and the settling over the last few days gave us rather better snow.

The summit attempt
We were well established in our ice-cave, perfectly protected from the weather and with plenty of food and fuel. The bivouac tent frozen in outside the crevasse was a useful store for gear and gave us a warmer place to lie when the sun was out, though the buffeting wind made it less than ideal. We set out soon after 5 a.m. on 14 August, somewhat against our better judgement. We had considered waiting a day, but feared that the weather might get worse as August wore on. Ironically, if we had given ourselves a rest day in this ice-cave we would have got the less windy day we needed when going for the top. After following a snow ramp for about two hours we traversed across to a prominent gendarme on the ridge where more difficult climbing started. From the second icefall below this right flank of the ridge had looked like a rather straightforward mixed face, but it turned out trickier than expected. Immediately behind the gendarme the rock rose quite steeply in what might have been in the Alps a soloable III/IV chimney line. Here we were forced to rope up and go further right. After a steep pitch we got onto easier ground for a pitch or two but then found deep powder snow over rather holdless slabs. These gave mixed climbing that felt at times like Scottish grade IV. All the while the wind was extremely fierce and blew painful spindrift into our eyes. From time to time we were in thick cloud or would get a clear spell with foreshortened views of a complex face above and a rather strange cut off view of the icefall far below. To me it was very reminiscent of a bad day on the Scottish hills in winter - no doubt the temperatures were much lower but we felt warm enough in our down suits while climbing.

Each pitch took about half an hour or more to lead and after about 10 of these pitches we traversed left to the ridge in the hope of finding some shelter from the wind and a bivouac site. The ridge here was quite broken and straightforward but the wind was still just as strong and to our disappointment we could find no bivouac ledges at all. We settled eventually for a sloping snow patch on the west side of the ridge with a stupendous view of Gasherbrum IV, the north face of Broad Peak and K2. The altitude was about 7400 m. With our limited breath we hacked away an unpromising shelf and attached ourselves to belays some 20 ft away to the side. We had separate 'mini-dome' bivouac bags and once inside our sleeping bags we were tolerably cosy. But the lack of friction between bag and snow was a problem. As soon as I got in I slipped off my little depression, and Des kindly trussed me up, bag and all? to a nearby peg. In the resulting constriction I felt like an electric switch: there were two independent positions in which I could lie in an approximately stable equilibrium, but no intervening position could be maintained. With commendable perseverance Des produced a brew but we had no strength for further cooking and as I lay listening to the savage battering of the wind on my bag I began to think we would have to descend,

A call, from Des about 5 a.m. got me going next morning and by 7 we were ready to depart. The wind was still strong but the morning fine. We left our rucksacks, sleeping bags and bivouac gear behind and took only climbing equipment. Foolishly I imagined we would reach the top by early afternoon. This was another major tactical error - an Alpine response, reinforced by too much weight given to the exploits of Messner and the like. After all my reading of Himalayan books somehow I forgot how the last day always takes so much longer and so many parties reach the summit near dusk.

Of course to climb without sacks gave us a wonderful sense of freedom, and we went much faster than we could have done carrying bivouac gear. With just a thin 7 mm rope coiled over my shoulder it was, apart from the cold, really quite enjoyable climbing up the broken mixed ridge. After two hours I stopped to wait for Des under a large tower. We traversed beneath this on the left getting tantalising glimpses of the ridge beyond, though it was difficult to estimate distance. We climbed up steep mixed ground to get above the tower and continued up the narrowing ridge, now becoming more difficult with awkward little gaps and gendarmes. Soon after 11 a.m. we roped up. The cloud had now come in and on the crest of the ridge was a difficult vertical tower. We bypassed this on the right, crossing a loose gully and climbing up another easy gully to the crest. But these two pitches took three-quarters of an hour each. Des seemed to be going very slowly (was it just my impatience?) and looked quite grey and ill. As I reached the crest this time the gale howled behind me and the spindrift whipped painfully into my eyes. The climbing ahead was still difficult and though what little I could see looked possible the choice of best route was not at all obvious. I reckoned we were only a few pitches away from the horizontal section of the ridge below the final large tower. Although this tower looks steep in the pictures, and may indeed be the crux, I didn't think it would hold us up unduly. At least there we would be on a broad buttress with several possible lines of attack, while here we had a choice only between the crest of the ridge itself, with its awkward gaps and gendarmes, and very tedious traversing across loose gullies on the right flank, (The left, west flank was too steep to contemplate.)

So why did we retreat? It was about 1.30 p.m. and we had been going for 6 hours. I did not feel especially tired but I think several factors daunted me. I was worried about the descent. The ground we had soloed up had felt quite difficult and it would be very dangerous to solo down it in an exhausted state. (In fact I overestimated the time it would take us to descend.) The weather felt very bad and a bivouac without gear seemed unthinkable. Although I thought of going on as far as the horizontal section^ somehow I felt there was little point if we were not going to make it to the top. All these things went through my mind quite quickly, without much reflection. Perhaps indeed my mind, a bit numbed by the altitude, just took the easy option - it certainly wasn't difficult to let go of ambition in spite of all the year's efforts that had got us to this point. All in all it was probably a learned response, whether appropriate or not I cannot be sure, but learned in specifically different, mainly Scottish, conditions. Intuitively I felt that the limit of safety had been reached and it was time to bale out. Our altitude was about 7700 m.

As Des reached the belay we agreed on the decision and without any discussion abseiled down the pitch we had just climbed. The next abseil involved tensioning across a gully wall to reach the point where we had first roped up. By going too low Des got himself in a difficult position from which he could only be extricated after I had gone across and lowered the ropes to him more directly. This all took a good hour and was perhaps a sign that the decision had been correct. By the time we were sorted out the cloud had gone and a spell of bright sunshine begun, though the ferocious wind did not abate. The descent to the big tower went more easily than expected and around 4 p.m. we sat down in a nook on the W side of the ridge to eat and admire the view.

Over Cassin's 'false col' at the head of our gentle coire we could see a river of dry ice running down to the Shaksgam, with the Aghil range behind. The air was extraordinarily clear, the mountains seemed approachable, not mysterious, alluring although barren. Towards the cumulus on the horizon were further peaks, perhaps the Pamirs. Round to the west we had magnificent views of K2 and Broad Peak with fine satellites like Skyang Kangri. These moments, at least, were some reward and will be cherished for ever. We were still suspended between earth and sky, not yet bound back to our usual toils. Anxiety pushed me on down the steep mixed section, while Des stayed to complete the photographic record. Once below the tower we could see the bivouac site and were sure we would reach it before dark. When I arrived it was impressive indeed to see our bivvy bags with all their precious contents flying 20 ft up in the air on their over long belay lines. The wind had never dropped!

Our second bivvy was, for me, no worse than the first. I managed to make a brew, and after comparing the feet with one inner boot on and one off I decided to have both on. Des perhaps had a worse night, for in the morning he complained of his feet and had great difficulty putting on his boots. (The bivvy sack was too small to be able to put them on inside. I had managed to sit outside with my hands and feet inside the tightly drawn door, and put my boots on blind. But because of the angle of the shelf it was harder for Des to do this; we both pulled and pushed, worrying about frostbite in our fingers as well, till finally his feet went in.) Packing up was a cold and bitter struggle.

As Des led off back the way we had come I became quite emotional for I had intended to retreat straight down the ridge. Fortunately after a few rope-lengths we were able to traverse back on to the ridge and we started to abseil down the more sheltered west face. This was surprisingly steep, and after only four or five abseils we reached the terrace below the initial gendarme. At the top of the ramp I neatly coiled and laid to rest Paul's 7 mm rope that had served us well. He had said he didn't want it back and we now had no further need of it. With frequent collapsings in the snow we descended the ramp and by 1 p.m. were back in our ice-cave, though it took me a further hour to find the energy to remove my boots.

We remained in the cave another day, slowly recovering, then wound our way down. There was a disappointment at Camp 1 where we found that our tent and its eagerly anticipated hoard of goodies had vanished, presumably filched by the Italians or their porters. As we trod somewhat dejectedly into a wet and deserted base camp we found our tents collapsed in a shambles owing to the melting of the ice under the moraine. A couple of days were spent tending to Des's feet, packing and tidying up some of the vast amounts of food and rubbish left by other expeditions. Then the porters arrived - four charming young lads from Askole and four equally friendly older men. We enjoyed a very pleasant walk out in their company, with Des courageously limping along all the way, somehow managing to keep his toes free of infection in all the dust, and being gallantly carried across the rivers by the irrepressible cook, Yusuf. He was whisked home from Skardu and recovered almost completely.

The Gasherbrum group from the base came: I to r: IV, III and II.

The Gasherbrum group from the base came: I to r: IV, III and II.

Gasherbrum III.SW ridge (left). The polish route is in the centre of face at top right. Scotish team reached the horizontal setion below the final towers.

Gasherbrum III.SW ridge (left). The polish route is in the centre of face at top right. Scotish team reached the horizontal setion below the final towers.

Gasherbrum I;NW face; from Gasherbrum III.

Gasherbrum I;NW face; from Gasherbrum III.

Kula Kangri (7554 m) from Monda La (5300) ; on left is Tubieson.

Kula Kangri (7554 m) from Monda La (5300) ; on left is Tubieson.

Sickle Moon. Route of French ascent.

Sickle Moon. Route of French ascent.

The Gasherbrum Group

The Gasherbrum Group