ON 22 MAY 1929 in splended weather conditions, we cross the Concordia Circus. There is a superb view over all the major peaks of the Baltoro. For myself, as a geologist, the crossing is of maximum interest as I discover some marine fossils on a moraine coming from Gasherbrum, which are added to the burden of stones already carried by my porters.
We cross numerous waves of ice, skirt narrow winding frozen lakes and set up camp on an extensive morainic elevation next to a group of slender pinnacles of ice. Tomorrow three porters are to set out for Urdukas to take news to the command and ask for permission to delay our return by a few days. During the night the temperature drops much lower than usual reaching 18° below zero. The schedule for the next few days is the exploration of the Baltoro tributary which descends between the Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I, 8068 m) and the Golden Throne (Baltoro Kangri, 7312 m).
Our intention is to proceed as usual on the moraine which, in this part of the glacier, forms long passageways between the more rugged areas of pinnacles and crevasses. Sometimes, when there is no obvious way from one to the other, we have to pick our way patiently through. On the 23rd we find ourselves faced with this situation, but as it is a fairly narrow strip of pinnacles, we decide to take the shortest way across them. We clamber over several ridges of ice, helping the porters with the rope and, just as we think we have got through, we find our way barred by one of the usual passageways. This one, however, is deeply embedded in the glacier with vertical walls and a freezing layer of icy water on the bottom. We must either retrace our footsteps and look heaven knows where for another easier way through or tackle the obstacle. We opt for the second solution.
Cutting steps into the ice and held by the rope, Evaristo Croux1 climbs down to the bottom and starts to venture on to the icy surface. It shudders beneath his weight and as I cautiously let out the rope I am sure it is going to give way at any .second. A few metres from the opposite bank he leaps for safety, but the force of the jump cracks the mirror of ice and he falls into the water. With a number of steps cut into the wall of ice he manages to reach the safety of the ledge above him. Now it's our turn. The ice is now cracked and it will not take the weight of the porters and their loads. We therefore sling a rope between the two banks and I ask one of the Balti to cross over holding on fo the rope so as to lighten the weight on the ice. All goes well until he thinks he is out of danger and starts to walk with exaggerated indifference on the motionless mirror. The icy crust breaks close to the bank and he is plunged into the water beneat.
42. Labuche Rang north face. East ridge on left and north ridge on right. Note 1
43. Labuche Rang west ridge from north. Route of first ascent.
44. Everest West Ridge from north: Route of British expedition. Note 2 (Lt. Col. G.D.B. Keelan)
I get over without any great difficulty. Another Balti follows hanging from the rope like an acrobat, supporting himself solely on his arms despite the load he is carrying. The man who follows him hesitates and falls in half way across, plunging to the very bottom of the pond. This is 'lucky' in a sense as we are thus able to get all details of the pond's temperature and depth. Each crossing, however, takes far too long to complete and so I suggest to my men that the best thing would be to undress and wade across. Poor them! Without uttering a word they strip off, shin over the rugged ice and drop into the icy water up to their waists. An authentic scene from the 32nd Canto of Dante's Inferno! Just a few hours later though, all my men are with me on the far side. The going is fairly easy and before sunset we manage to reach the bend in the upper Baltoro beneath the Golden Throne, where the unexplored part of the glacier starts. The route for the next day looks far from easy.
In front of us stretch seracs; in the centre are signs of a moraine half-buried in the snow which we must reach, but between lies a series of these tremendous flooded passageways we have met with already.
It is starting to snow again as we set up camp (C6) on the moraine.
We now have only the three days extension granted by the expedition's Command, headed by Aimone di Savoia Aosta, Duke of Spoleto, in which to carry out the programme of exploration of this unknown branch of the Baltoro. I have sent to ask for another three days from Concordia. We haven't much time left.
It is freezing cold and the thermometer remains at 18°C below zero for much of the night. There is the constant rumble of avalanches in the direction of the Golden Throne and Hidden Peak. At six o'clock it is still dark and foggy but we decide to start out regardless. To give the company greater speed I suggest that three porters should remain at the sixth camp. In view of the expected difficulties involved in the crossing, my suggestion is accepted with alacrity, though it means that I shall be left with no wood and no tent. We set forth with our small caravan towards the seracs and snow is falling once more. This time, however, luck is with us in our choice of passageways and thanks to the early hour the bottom is still frozen which means we can reach the moraine ahead fairly rapidly. We proceed quite some distance and come at last to a long wide passageway which takes us to the right hand moraine of the western glacier of Hidden Peak. Beyond this we are forced to turn again towards the glacier: there are a considerable number of crevasses partly concealed by the fresh snow and this means we must rope all the porters together. A short while before this, two of them had been walking distractedly outside our footprints and just missed being swallowed up. And still the snow keeps falling. It is coming down so heavily now that visibility is virtually nil. Croux is at the head and he can no longer make his way forward. The compass is consulted again and again and is the only way we have of keeping our bearings.
After several hours of exhausting progress through the soft snow, a thick fog comes down and cuts off all visibility. We simply can't go on. We call a halt and huddle together hoping conditions will improve. After an hour the weather starts to clear slightly and we can see our position: we are right in the middle of the valley.
Before long we set out again over the fresh snow, veering to the right in the hope of finding a suitable place to camp. There is a scree which might serve our purpose. We walk on for a couple of hours over the icy undulations, but the roar of an avalanche deters us from moving close to the sides of the valley. Before nightfall we set up camp (C7) on the snow at 5470 m, in unexplored territory. The topographical map of the expedition headed in 1909 by the Duke of Abruzzi stops a short distance before. With the murky conditions we have no way of knowing how far the valley we are following extends to the east, nor what lies at its head. Is there a saddle as Conway supposed, or is it closed by the George V group (i.e. Sia Kangri 7428 m) which the Work-mans had glimpsed from Siachen.
The storm rages the whole night accompanied by the continual hubbub of the avalanches. It's like being at the war front during an artillery attack. By morning the weather looks to be clearing slightly: the head of the valley is still enveloped in an impenetrable cloud of mystery.
I spend the day peeping through a chink in the tent and peering eastwards. By evening it has stopped snowing and the curtain of fog lifts slightly to reveal another high ridge not far away at about 7000 m. A little to the south I can just make out the foot of a cascade of seracs. But does it come from a saddle or a ridge?
At about one o'clock in the morning I am jerked awake by the rumble of an avalanche close by. I jump to my feet and look out at the moonlit scene where, clearly visible above the seracs, lies an ice-covered saddle. The sight is just a fleeting glimpse, but the mystery is now solved.
I rouse Croux and the decision is made to set out at dawn with two porters. Then I can't get back to sleep again. My thoughts are constantly whirring on observations to be carried out on the saddle, on the problem of getting back to Urdukas by the day fixed for the return, which is much too close for comfort now. I run through the calculations of the hours necessary for the return and the amount of provisions we have left. I realize there is not enough time left to explore the Vigne glacier, not to mention exploration of the other effluents of the Baltoro upstream from Urdukas.
Just before five I'm on my way with Croux and two porters. The very first steps we take, though, are enough to bring home to us the fact that the fresh snow is more than a foot and a half deep and even with the help of snow-shoes we sink down too far. We desperately wish we had our skis, left behind at Urdukas in our attempt to lighten the baggage load since we had hardly any snow at all during the rest of the trip. Progress is therefore very slow and every now and again we are assaulted by gusts of wind which lift the powdery snow so it whips around us. The temperature remains very low, around 10°C below zero. In front of us the clouds chase across the saddle first disclosing one part, then another. After an hour's walk more or less on the level, we drop down into a depression in the glacier scattered with huge blocks of ice. We are now sinking in above our knees and it's a tremendous effort to haul our legs out for the next step. There's more than a metre of fresh, soft, powdery clinging snow which even sticks to our ice-axes. After a short rest we start on the climb with the vague hope that snow conditions will be better on the slope. In fact they are worse, with even more snow, lower temperatures and a stronger wind. Then it starts to snow again.
The two Balti, terrified by the threatening weather conditions and worried by our intentions, cry out calling upon Allah. Up and up we go, slowly skirting crevasses, crossing others on bridges of snow, stopping for brief rests. The storm is more violent now and the fog swirls round us. About ten o'clock we reach another ridge of ice which hangs over a partly closed crevasse. We can see other ridges higher up. We've been climbing for five hours In these frightful conditions and though we are very tired, we still don't want to give up. We decide to wait an hour in the hope that the weather will improve. We must be about two thirds of the way up, or a little over. After half an hour conditions are appalling. It would be sheer madness to attempt to go on and even the descent would be fraught with danger. All traces- of our footsteps have been blotted out and in the fog we can't even see to choose the best way through the maze of crevasses. We leave our precarious shelter and launch ourselves into the descent. Lower down we occasionally come across tracks which enable us to move more rapidly. By midday we're already down at the bottom and the occasional ray of sun pierces the clouds. We reach the tent after a short walk in the blazing sun, exhausted after our efforts. The two Balti collapse senseless in front of our lent and fall fast asleep on the snow, still with their snow-shoes on their feet and rucksacks on their backs. I have to shake them vigorously to wake them up. One has considerable pain in his toes: a symptom of frostbite. Fortunately it is slight and massage reactivates his circulation without further consequences.
We spend the rest of the afternoon sprawled in the tent while outside the snow comes down relentlessly till nightfall.
Agreements made with the Command were that I was to get back to the base camp on 28 May, the next evening. We're at least four days' walk from Urdukas and with bad weather it could fake even longer. Provisions are starting to run out: we have to get down as soon as possible. I think the best idea is to send two men without packs to the base camp so they can inform them that we shall be arriving shortly and to move the two men left with the dwindling supplies to the fifth camp. Once the orders for the next day have been given we are now resigned to giving up our plans for exploring the upper Baltoro. The night is uneventful: only the rumble of avalanches disturbs the solitude with a thousand echoes. When we awake it is already 7 o'clock and a bright light filters through the eyelets of the tent. I come out io rouse the camp and am not surprised to see before me the saddle clad in dazzling snow silhouetted against the purest of blue skies. Not a cloud, not a breath of wind and a temperature of 10°C below zero.
Croux and I decide to try again but there are other difficulties: the porters have almost finished their food supplies and we too have very few provisions left. I go over to the Baltis' tent and find them huddled together, teeth chattering with the cold and complaining of mountain sickness. They are thrown into consternation by my sudden change in plans. I do my best to put heart into them handing out cough lozenges and quinine and then ask whether anyone is willing to follow us up towards the saddle, but unlike the other times, nobody stirs now. I repeat the invitation with the offer of biscuits and cigarettes but in vain. What now? To go without porters would mean jeopardizing the success of the venture which was certainly going to beextremely tiring. We need to take two with us and lots are drawn to decide who shall come. The two fate chose say not a word; they pick up their snow-shoes and set off listlessly behind us. It is already 8 o'clock.
I shall refrain from a detailed description of the exertions of that day. I can't remember ever having suffered a more challenging experience — and Croux agreed he had never done so in his whole career as a guide. We climbed through the fresh snow for almost nine hours. At each step we sank in up to our knees and above, and had to bend the leg backwards as we pulled it out to then throw it forward for the next stride. The snow stuck to the bottom of our snow-shoes weighting us down and the manoeuvre necessary to lift them brought muscles into play that were not involved in a normal stride so progress was extremely painful. The mountain defended itself tooth and nail against our assault and there was even the danger at the very last that it would tip us all into a crevasse.
We were crossing a steep slopes diagonally between two wide overlapping crevasses. Croux was at the head, I followed and the two porters brought up the rear. Suddenly a large lump of snow started to move taking Croux with it as it went. It was a split second: instinctively I drove in the ice axe and wrapped the rope round, but just as I was about to jump towards the top crevasse to act as counterweight to Croux he was already out of danger. In its descent the lump of snow had crumbled into a thousand pieces revealing the layer of ice beneath on which Croux suddenly found himself and promptly thrust in his ice axe. I was about to move but a bridge of snow had given way and left me with one foot dangling in space. However, we got out of the trap and moved on upwards.
The rarefied air had given us no trouble at all, no symptom of mountain sickness or particular difficulty in breathing. As we talked together, we concluded that a nine hour climb in the Alps in those conditions would have proved just as hard and just as tiring.
The saddle now seemed very close. I took over from Croux at the head of the rope; we crossed other bridges of snow, skirted other crevasses and reached one top part of the glacier from which we could see no others. Before us stretched an enormous field of snow on a slight rise. I too was weary from the extremely hard trek across fresh snow and I tried to get the porters to take over from me at the front promising them a handsome reward. They both tried in turn but after a few steps they fell exhausted. It was already four o'clock in the afternoon and if we didn't get a move on and reach the summit there was a risk we would either have to spend the night at that altitude and without any form of shelter or make our way down in the dark. Croux, who had now got over the fatigue and shock of the risk he had run, took over and we proceeded for another hour, stopping on average every twenty paces. At last, just before five, we saw a rugged peak appear beyond the saddle, then another and then a whole series of peaks and ridges. We gave a shout of joy. With a final supreme effort we covered the last few hundred metres to reach the summit oi the wide eminence of snow, which was apparently the highest point (5973 m) of that gigantic saddle to which the peaks and ridges we had seen gradually appear had in fact seemed to be joined. While the others rested for a quarter of an hour I took a barometric reading. Using a surveyor's compass, I tried to fix the position of the saddle (which 1 christened 'Conway's Saddle') in relation to the wellknown surrounding peaks, and I took a series of photographs. It was already six in the evening when we started the return journey. I don't know where we found the strength to climb down and so quickly too. The tracks made on the upward climb and the black dot of the tent just visible below were of great help to us. In just over an hour and a half we made the descent of the seracs and in another hour we were back at our little canvas home. Ten hours for the ascent, just over two and a half to come down. The porters greeted us joyfully. We worked on until almost midnight to get everything ready for our departure.
At dawn the next morning we struck camp from the glacier. I had dedicated to the venerable name of the Duke of Abruzzi and prepared to return as rapidly as possible to Urdukas. We had hoped to find the first provisions at C6, but when we got there there were no traces of the porters having stopped there the day before. We strode on for another hour over the medial moraine and had just pitched the tents when the porters' joyful cries announced the arrival of their companions from C5 bearing the first provisions.
The next day we continued on our way over the median moraine which, after such vicissitudes, seemed more like a highway than anything else. We were hoping we should meet the porters we had sent to Urdukas from Concordia and, in fact, about 10 o'clock we heard a shout in the distance. And there they were: two of them on the top of a morainic mound beyond the aiguilles, and then another two. My team were overjoyed at the arrival of the supplies and we even had post to read, sent on to us from Urdukas together with a note from the Commandant authorizing me to extend my absence till the end of the month. There was no time though to climb the Vigne glacier and the only possible decision was to get back to our base. Croux was not feeling too well and anyway there was the departure, now imminent, lor exploration of the Shaksgam valley. The next day, 30 May, while the Balti proceeded with their irregular steps chattering as they went, Croux and I strode out at a considerable pace despite the snow which was swirling around us once again. After 17 hours of walking almost non-stop we reached Urdukas, the base camp of our expedition.