Himalayan Journal vol.44
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
  4. ZHANGZI - AUTUMN, 1987
  5. BRITISH XIXABANGMA Expedition, 1987
    (LT COL M. W. H. DAY)
  6. MENLUNGTSE, 1987
    (S. K. BERRY)
  8. RATHONG, 1987
  10. MAKALU
  11. CHO OYU, 1987
    (W. J. POWELL)
  16. A RETURN TO LINGTI, 1987
    (J. K. PAUL and S. N. DHAR)
    (A. V. SAUNDERS)
    (N. D. JAYAL)



IN 1984 DICK RENSHAW and I visited the Malangutti glacier in the Shimshal valley. Bad weather prevented any really significant climbing and our stockpile of heavy, unused equipment ruled out the kind of long distance wandering which would have compensated for the lack of good summits. In 1987 I hoped to rectify these mistakes, travelling light, covering long distances, whatever the weather, and seeing some of that immense glacier wilderness to the southwest of Shimshal, right at the heart of the Karakoram.

The plan was to start from Skardu, head for Snow Lake and walk out northwards to Shimshal. Of course the idea was not original. In 1937, at the end of the historic Shaksgam expedition, Shipton had crossed the Lupke la and walked out down the Braldu glacier and out over the Shimshal pass. Two years later, with Scott Russell, he discovered a new pass on the northern Karakoram axis, the Khurdopin, but they had reluctantly to forego the descent on the far side and return quickly by the well trodden Hispar, after hearing the devastating news that Europe was at war. Forty-seven years passed before two Canadians, helped by Shim-shali porters, made the first actual crossing of the pass, finding a way down the wild Khurdopin glacier to the Shimshal valley. I had not heard about this journey when we set off the following year and we only knew about Ian Haig's ill-fated 1986 attempt from Shimshal. After a series of illnesses and accidents, he collapsed on the descent to Snow Lake. Two of his porters made an incredible journey without maps, equipment or food to Skardu to seek help, but by the time a rescue party reached Snow Lake Ian had disappeared in an avalanche. His death, a year after two Cardiff climbers disappeared in the same area, was a salutary reminder that Snow Lake is a very remote serious place.

In 1987 Dick was busy guiding in Sinkiang. However, an old friend and prodigious load carrier, Phil Bartlett, was keen on a Karakoram journey. Rumour had it that Jerry Gore and Duncan Tunstall were going to have a snoop round the back of the Ogre, so we asked if we could team up, whereupon Jerry announced that he would give the trip a miss as it all looked far too impromptu and disorganised. Duncan bravely threw in his lot with Venables and Bartlett, and met me for an 'expedition meeting'. After two hours he left with a list of things to do and we sent a similar list to Phil. We all met a month later, on 5 July, and flew to Pakistan.

Photos 40-41
Fold-out sketch 4

We were an incongruous team. Phil these days usually eschews hard technical climbing, preferring the big Shiptonesque journey with the big Shiptonesque rucksack. As middle age approaches apace, he loves to scorn the young, overdressed, over-equipped technocrats and clings obstinately to his old home-bent ice axe and cast-off clothes that give the appearance of some high altitude Worzel Gummidge. Duncan, a brash young yuppie from Shell,, sees himself, in an ideal world, pulling his portaledge up some Himalayan big wall, dynoing up immaculate granite, dressed in designer pastel co-ordinates and plugged into the latest graphic equalizer Walkman. I, being an exceptionally tolerant, broadminded,. balanced sort of person, fell somewhere between these extremes; also being a greedy sort of person, I hoped that on this Kara-koram trip we could complete a long, ambitious trek and do some reasonably technical climbing on the way. With that in mind, Tunstall and Venables insisted that the expedition baggage included a modest quantity of titanium and alloy gadgetry. The journey remained the main objective, but we hoped that we might have the chance to sacrifice the gear on some suitably imposing lump near Snow Lake, before starting the 'big push' north to Shimshal.

We left Skardu on one of those wonderful (and last July, rare) cool, blue, mountain mornings. Our jeep was piled high with luggage and eight porters who would carry to our base camp at the junction of the Biafo and Sim Gang glaciers. They were the nicest bunch of Karakoram porters I have had and we felt that the inevitable little labour disputes were a mere formality, carried out in a spirit of fun. My abiding memory is of one particularly clownish Balti sitting in the sun, with pink roses stuck behind his ears, joyfully singing his head off.

The route up the Braldu river; to Askole and left up the Biafo is a well-trodden classic, but for us it was all completely new. We had odd showers of rain and snow, but nothing drastic at our low altitude. Some days it was even sunny with fantastic views of the great granite towers of the Ogre and Latok group. We camped one night at Baintha, just below the Latoks. Higher up the Biafo, Duncan and J did a little HVS rock climb one evening above our camp. It kept the porters amused, so we called it 'Biafo Sideshow*. The following day, racing the snowfall, we coaxed the men up to the Biafo - Sim Gang junction. The approach had taken 7 easy days but we paid the men for the traditional 9 stages plus one day's rest. For the first time there was no comfortable grassy ablation valley, but just above the glacier we did find a boulder site with running water, which was to be our home for the next ten days. At about the height of Mont Blanc, it was a perfect place for acclimatizing before setting off for the Khurdopin pass (c. 5750 m).

Martin Conway was in 1892 the first European to cross the Hispar pass and see the huge snow basin which feeds the Biafo glacier. He gave it the name Snow Lake (Lupke Lawa). Subsequent expeditions by the Bullock Workmans (approaching from Hispar) and the Vissers (approaching from Shimshal) failed to sort out accurately the enormously complex topography of the snow basin and the peaks to the north which form the watersheds between the Hispar, Braldu, Shimshal and Shaksgam river systems. It was only as recently as 1937 that Shipton's Shaksgam expedition started to unravel the complexities of the area. The job was completed during the 1939 expedition, when two Indian surveyors produced a remarkable map of the Biafo-Hispar systems, which has never been bettered. The expedition discovered that the catchment area of the Biafo - the Sim Gang glacier and the bowl of Snow Lake - covers nearly 200 square miles. Forty eight years later, we found it hard to appreciate the immensity of that ice desert until we started actually to walk across it and realize with what depressing slowness landmarks moved closer. Our first trip-was to leave a cache of food and fuel on Snow Lake, ready for the journey to Khurdopin pass, which we had now identified. On another grey snowing morning we crossed the Biafo and climbed up to an improbable notch in the West Wall, the Sokha la, which Tilman had crossed in 1937 on his way back to Skardu. The next day Duncan and J climbed up an icefall into another cwm on the West Wall, to check out the route onto a particularly fine granite tower. It was very gratifying to discover that, as we had suspected, there was a hidden glacier ramp leading to the upper part of the tower, promising a quick route ideal for our limited resources. We returned the following afternoon. Panting up soft collapsing steps through the icefall, Duncan did not look happy and even his jaunty Panama hat seemed to have wilted a little. At the top of the icefall, where we stopped to bivouac, he quickly fell asleep to dream of favourite roadside crags.

The ascent of Pk. 5979 m was a model of tactical planning and smooth execution - almost. We left at midnight, dead on schedule, and made fast progress up the hidden ramp. It was still dark as we pitched the short traverse out left onto the huge central icefield, which hung Eiger-like between rock walls. As we soloed diagonally across this the sun brought our east face to life. At 7 a.m., when we stopped for a brew, the proposed route up the head-wall was starting to make noises. By 9 a.m the whole headwali Was dripping and throwing down troublesome blocks of ice, so we dug into the top lip of the icefield and settled down in comparative shelter for a leisurely day of eating and drinking and marvelling at the stupendous view out over the Sim Gang.

We had been forced by bombardment to delay the attempt on the headwall but the weather was fine and we planned to start at very first light the next day, climbing fast up the depression in the headwall to a col on the ridge between the south and main summits, continuing up the ridge and returning to the bivouac by nightfall. Unfortunately the lightweight approach did not quite work out. The mixed climbing up the headwall was quite hard - Scottish IV and V - and time-consuming, and the line pushed us too far left. After 9 pitches of wonderful, absorbing, intriguing climbing it was already mid-afternoon, when we reached the ridge far too close to the lower summit. The connection to the main summit was a knife-edged horror, bedecked with dripping cornices. Duncan's style of climbing, which maximizes body contact with soggy snow flutings and dripping runnels, had left him with sodden feet. Continuing would have meant an unplanned bivouac and probable frostbite, so we had sadly to descend to our prepared bivouac, leaving the unclimbed main summit for another day.

At dawn the next day ominous cirrus clouds massed in the south. Later that morning the first silver jellyfish floated out across the Biafo and by the time we rejoined Phil at base camp thick grey cloud was enveloping the Karakoram.

The storm lasted nearly three days, putting down a lot of new snow. In our tent we read Don Quixote and ate many meals. Dal samosas were very popular, but the highlight was ‘Greasy Dune's’ chip shop. Gastronomic preoccupations became so intense that Phil almost won his bet that a time would come when we stopped thinking and talking about sex. We also tried to raise the tone a bit by discussing pliilosophy and inevitably we talked over the imminent journey to Shimshal, deciding exactly how much to take and how much we could leave. When the weather cleared slightly and we packed up, a considerable dump was cached. Phil wrote a note offering the contents to any passers by, but I half hoped that J might come back this way myself in August to make another attempt on Pk. 5979 m.

We left our camp at the Biafo^Sim Gang junction on 28 July and arrived in Shimshal nine days later. Much of the time the weather was bad, but by incredible luck crucial sections of route finding always coincided with cloud clearings. After collecting the cache on Snow Lake, our sacks weighed 29 kg and on the second day we only managed six hours, shuffling along in snow shoes and leaning heavily on ski sticks. After all the new snow, snow shoes were essential, but I thought that skis would have been much better. Phil disagreed and, true to form, was happy with a faulty pair of snow shoes which regularly discarded bits, shrinking drastically during the journey; and instead of ski sticks he brandished two seven foot poles from the Skardu bazaar. Our Balti porters would have been proud to see him on Day 3 poling his way up the 50 degree ice-wall to the Khurdopin pass - a corniced saddle on the watershed separating the Braldu and $him-shal river systems.

Because it was such a steep climb, we had decided on two carries to the pass and for the moment we just dumped food and spare gear at the top, before returning to the tent on the south side. That night it snowed heavily and Phil suffered agonies of concern that we might become separated from our food up on the pass. Luckily the 300 m slope on our side was too steep to accumulate deep new snow, nevertheless the climb back up on Day Four entailed swimming through some alarming spindrift avalanches.

We camped right on the pass at c. 5750 m. Snow drifted up against the tent and inside the fug thickened. Our recalcitrant primus stove went on strike and tempers flared while matches fizzled out in the humid oxygen-drained air. Eventually we resorted to priming the stove with a bonfire of Don Quixote pages soaked in paraffin.

Day Five dawned fine and very cold and the morning struggle with tent poles and snow shoes was particularly character-building. So was the descent onto the upper Khurdopin glacier - only a short slope but classic windslab territory on the lee side below big cornices. Phil steered a skilful course; even so avalanches erupted menacingly either side of our track and we were very thankful to reach the big snow basin unscathed.

Duncan had now forgotten all about designer climbing and was thoroughly relishing our 'picnic on a glacier'. The descent to Shimshal had all the excitement of a multi-day technical climb. We were committed to five days through territory we did not know and every day brought new vistas, new surprises, new problems to solve, new decisions to make. The upper snow basin led us towards a great icefall and that afternoon, on Day Five, we felt as though we were being sucked inexorably towards the brink of Niagara, to tumble down to the lower Khurdopin far below. After stepping in numerous crevasses on the brink, we escaped to the right bank to discover rocks and gullies bypassing the ice-fall. In the morning we continued, profoundly thankful for good Visibility, to find our way over complex, loose cliffs and another fully down to the main glacier. The right bank was impassable, 10 we climbed through a fantastic jumble of tottering ice-blocks OUt onto the centre of the glacier. All that afternoon we climbed Up and down over the great striated waves of ice that characterise tho northern Karakoram glaciers, and it was only in the evening that we could escape with relief to the first ablation valley on the right bank, with its delphiniums and potentilla, and a solitary rusting cheese tin - a poignant reminder of Ian Haig's journey the previous year. We camped at the first hunters' huts, which suggested that there would now be a path all the way to Shimshal.

There was a path all the way to Shimshal, but it had many gaps. On Day Seven the ablation valley frequently petered out, leaving us to slither across- lethal mud slopes, peering through murky drizzle, wondering where to go. The next morning was fine, so we lingered at the camp, waiting for the sun to dry out and lighten the tent, before packing up and suspiciously weighing each other's loads. We had now reached the main Shimshal valley and were on the home run, eking out the last remnants of food, cutting up the final Mars bars into three with studied precision. After crossing the monstrous rubble of the Khurdopin and Yukshin glacier snouts, we climbed up into another ablation valley that seemed to lead to the Promised Land of Shimshal. Suddenly the path and cairns stopped dead at a 100 m cliff of conglomerate. Apparently erosion had made this route obsolete. 'At last grade 4 at Dover', Duncan grumbled, as we stopped to put on crampons for the descent. An hour later the~~rope came out again for an excruciating, thigh deep river crossing to avoid rock bombardment on the left bank. On the morning of Day Nine we crossed back beyond the lethal scree slope by a wire cable and from there it was plain sailing to the green fields and 'Dastoghil Cottage' hotel in Shimshal, which we reached at midday.

Two days later, four weeks after leaving Skardu, we walked out of the incredible marble chasm of the Shimshal gorge to Pasu, where they grow the best apples in Hunza. At Gilgit I said goodbye to Phil and Duncan, who were due back in England. We had completed a fantastic journey and, while friends on Spantik had been sitting out mediocre weather, waiting to start a huge technical climb, we had been continually on the move. However, I did have one niggling regret about the main summit of Pk. 5979 m, so in August I went back for another attempt. Steve Razzetti, a compulsive Karakoram wanderer, was free and agreed to join me on a return journey to Skardu, going up the Hispar to Snow Lake, then out over Tilman's Sokha la to the Basha valley, and so back to Shigar and Skardu.

On 11 August we drove up to Karimabad, en route for Nagar and the Hispar valley. The weather these last few days had been more settled, but there had obviously still been perturbation higher up. Reasonable weather developed into brilliant weather, with only one day's rain for over three weeks. With two men from Nagar to help with the luggage, we enjoyed an idyllic week's walking up the flower spangled ablation valleys of the Hispar. Razzetti had secured a plentiful supply of narcotic combustibles for the trip, so he was in sixth heaven and was happy, after leaving our porters and crossing the Hispar pass, to mellow out for a couple of days at our old Biafo Dump, while I settled the score with Pk. 5979 m or 'Solu Tower' as I had decided to call it.

We arrived at the dump on the morning of 23 August, overjoyed to find all the food still intact. I spent the day doing some serious eating and preparing for the climb and set off in the afternoon. Because we only had one stove, which it was only fair to leave with Steve, I had to carry four litres of bottled water for the climb. The icefall below the cwm was transformed. Fifty degree slopes had been tipped up to 60 degrees and the monster crevasse which Duncan and I had just managed to step across a month earlier was now 15 m wide, forcing a big detour. I left the bivouac at 11.15 p.m. and this time followed the hidden ramp right to its top, hoping to follow a line of ledges diagonally back left across the head wall to the main summit. I had to wait a couple of hours at the top of the ramp until it was light enough to start the real climbing. Sitting alone in the dark, I felt a bit apprehensive about the steep rock leading to the ledges and wondered how well I would be able to protect it (and get down the mountain) with only our remnants of gear - five little wire nuts, one peg and two ice-screws. But the rock was beautiful, I learnt how to backrope and it was wonderful to be doing some real climbing again . . . wonderful also to sit in the sun on a ledge, while a kite which had flown over from the Ogre hovered a few feet away, staring curiously at the strange intruder. The ledge system above did not require a backrope and linked up nicely in a series of enjoyable but wet snow and mixed pitches, leading to a hot, tedious, frightening snowfield and at last, a month later than planned, the summit. On the way down I used up all the gear on diagonal abseils, to minimise the unpleasant down climbing. At dusk, twenty hours after setting out, I arrived back down at my sleeping bag in the cwm and fell fast asleep.

Two days later Steve and I left for the Sokha la. For a man who had never done any ice-climbing, Steve moved remarkably competently up a 50 degree hard ice slope, above 5000 m, in enervating heat, with a 27 kg sack on his back - pretty good for a beginner! Then we descended the far side of Tilman's remarkable pass, winding down the Sokha glacier, enclosed between the daunting rock walls of Sosbun Brakk and other, unnamed, peaks. The Bullock Workmans suggested that this glacier defied nature and had no outlet, but in 1937 Tilman was a bit disappointed to diicover that of course it flowed out into a river like any normal self-respecting glacier.

On the second night we reached that river and camped in a luxuriant green valley, reminiscent of southern Kashmir, cooking the evening vegyburgers on a birch and juniper fire. In the morn-ing we hurried on down to the Basha valley, to exquisite timber houses, hot springs, ancient shady walnut trees, and fresh fruit and eggs, sold to us for ridiculous prices by charming rogues. Another two days walking brought us to the main Dassu-Skardu road and that night our jeep rumbled across the Indus bridge and back to the bright lights of $kardu. The journey was over.

(This article appears here by kind permission of the editor of Mountain magazine).

‘Solu Tower’ (5947 m) on Biafo-Solu watershed. South summit on left, and main summit on right. 										(S. Venables)

‘Solu Tower’ (5947 m) on Biafo-Solu watershed. South summit on left, and main summit on right. (S. Venables)

View north into Snow Lake from upper Biafo glacier. LupkeLawa Brakk(Snow Lake peak) is the big pyramid distant left. Khurdopin pass hidden to its right. 									(S. Venables)

View north into Snow Lake from upper Biafo glacier. LupkeLawa Brakk(Snow Lake peak) is the big pyramid distant left. Khurdopin pass hidden to its right. (S. Venables)