NOTHING IN MOUNTAINEERING is certain, when Doug Scott first asked me on his East Karakoram expedition earlier in the year my imagination was fired that cold winter's evening in Cumbria. Thoughts of excursions up the Siachen glacier, tramping the Teram Shehr ice-cap and looking north to the fabled country of Shaksgam and the Aghil mountains drifted through my mind. Our objective the unclimbed Apsarasas II (7293 m) is almost at the axis of the Karakoram. where the Baltoro and Siachen glaciers meet to form the largest ice mass outside the polar regions.
As the count down to our departure for India drew ever closer uncertainty started to creep into our planned objective. Within a week of leaving reports started to filter through of increased fighting in this disputed border region, casualties were reported on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani conflict and a high ranking meeting of the two countries' Generals was planned for 26 May 1989 — the day Steve Sustad and I flew to India.
The rest, of our team flew into Delhi from many corners of the world, Doug met us at the airport, himself just in from a lecture tour of Australia. Rob and Laurie Wood from. Canada made it after financial troubles. Robert Schauer arrived from Austria followed by Sharu Prabhu's short flight from Bombay.
At the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi we were introduced to the Indian contingent of this loosely defined Indo-British expedition. Sonam Paljor. who had climbed Everest in 1984 was to be the over-all leader, with Mohan Singh, Tsewang Smanla and Kanhaiya Lai (KL) making up the climbing team.
Two days in limbo with IMF officials saw no decision on Apsarasas and we left for "Leh on 29 May sceptical that the permit would be honoured, but full of expectation that Doug who was to follow a week later would be able to negotiate a new and worthwhile objective.
Lazy days in Leh dragged as we waited with decreasing patience for news, while the boredom was briefly broken by forays into the mountains south of Stok which helped us gain valuable height to acclimatize.
21. Steve Sustad on the summit of Rimo II (7373 m). Rimo I (7385 m) in the background. Article 14 (Nick Kekus)
22. The final ridge of Rimo II (7373 m) from the high col between Rimo II and III. Article 14 (Nick Kekus)
On 9 June Doug arrived early at our hotel, grinning with self satisfaction as he proceeded to tell us how he'd negotiated our new objective — Rimo HI (7233 m) and specifically its SW buttress.
'It's come round full circle' he continued. Three years ago Doug had applied for Rimo HI and had been refused, then more recently in the autumn of 1988, but again had been refused because of another booking. Literally days before Doug came to join us in Leh the current permit holders pulled out making it all possible for us. The Rimo group lies to the east of the Siachen and its approach several days shorter than Apsarasas and the immediate zone of conflict. I remember Jim Fotheringham saying just before I left Britain, 'Ah Rimo, a great objective' always full of enthusiasm, 'take the first right up the Siachen, can't miss it'.
Three weeks of delays and frustration and at last something positive had happened, we were never so glad to see the back of Leh as we bounced our way over the Khardung la (5640 m) in the back of a battered army truck.
Once at Panamik in the fertile Nubra valley we thought our troubles would be over, in the mountains we could deal with people on our own terms. But it was not to be, a shortage of porters set us back another day, only to produce 15 men and leave us some 80 porters light. The army employs large numbers of local men at vastly inflated rates thus holding a captive work force for its war effort.
For Robert Schauer all this uncertainty was just too much, his short time scale had already been drastically eroded, deciding to cut his losses and return to Austria. We made several,pleas for him to reconsider, but he had made his decision many days ago in Leh, it had just been a matter of time.
Ironically that evening Doug persuaded Sonam to push on to the army base camp at the Siachen snout and in the morning we started up the glacier. We all sympathised with Robert, it was a difficult decision. Faced with the same problem 1 think I could not have returned without at least one look at the mountain. Following the rollercoaster of shifting moraine we forked right into the Terong valley and reached the aptly named 'Dust Camp'.
From here we employed shuttle tactics, utilising our limited porters to ferry from army BC to Dust Camp and then forward to base camp (4300 m) at the junction of the North Terong and Shelkar Chorten glaciers, then trouble erupted with the porters shortly after we had established base camp and we had a strike on our hands. The reasons why were never clear, but the nett result was to pay off the 8 young Leh porters we had employed to carry beyond base camp and temporarily carry the loads ourselves. Progress was so slow, despite shouldering monstrous sacs, that I imagined the ridiculous situation where we would' b& returning from the mountain, on our way home, just as the last of our loads arrived at BC. To make matters worse we extended ourselves further by opening the route to advanced base camp (4800 m) at Stephen Venables' 'Lake of Bones', like Stephen, we found no bones.2
Enforced load carrying forced a swift end to the dispute as we recruited a hard core of very capable Panamik boys who stayed with us to the end, keeping ABC regularly supplied with food.
The weather continued to be unsettled, typically the mornings were clear, however cloud soon built up, bringing rain at BC and snow higher up.
Despite our acclimatization recce in the Stok range, Steve and 1 felt we needed more time and so decided to climb to the Ibex Col (6200 m) which links the North Terong glacier to the vast Rimo glaciers on the eastern side of the Rimo group. The three Indians, Mohan, KL and Smanla agreed to accompany us. Snow conditions were appalling, KL and Smanla who had climbed Rimo I the previous.year remarked on how much new snow there was. They were.covering the same ground in a matter of hours while this year it took us 2 days to reach Ibex Col.
After spending two nights on the col we returned to find Rob Wood had been forced to go back to Canada. He had been experiencing worrying chest pains which had steadily increased and on the advice of the expedition doctor returned, while Laurie, his wife elected to continue with the expedition. Doug, Laurie and Sham had been busy in our absence. Having recce d a route to the cwm bounded by Rimo's I, II and the south buttress of Rimo III they found conditions on the peaks poor, our proposed route on Rimo HI was regularly swept by powder avalanches, in the present conditions it seemed unwise to consider it. As a consolation Doug spied a fine looking line on Rimo II (7373 m), its sweeping west ridge looked reasonably straightforward but importantly, safe as it gained the north ridge to follow a rocky crest to its virgin summit.
In view of the weather and our dwindling time we decided to concentrate on the Rimo II route. Still very much in our minds though was the possibility that should conditions improve the opportunity to try Rimo III was still there. We had to hope for a major improvement in the weather but equally important authorisation to attempt Rimo II from the IMF. As we had a relay radio link to Delhi this was not as complicated as it sounds.
Negotiating.the difficult mixed ground on way to Rimo II summit. (Nick Kekus)
Once again our fortunes were changing.
The morning of 7 July dawned crisp "and clear, for the first time we could study the grandious forms of the Rimo peaks, unhindered by clouds. Their icy walls shone silver in the brilliant morning sun, enticing us closer.
We all carried loads that morning to Cl (5400 m) in the narrow cwm beneath Rimo III. The snow was hard and the walking easy, we soon passed the site of our first camp on the Ibex Col approach. It seemed incredible that two days of fine weather had firmed up snow that had previously been bottomless powder. Our way to the upper glacier was barred by an icefall, forcing us to the right-hand side and awfully close to the dangerous cliffs of Rimo I's SW ridge. Once through the maze of crevasses the snow-basin opened out to offer a safe camp site in its centre. Doug, Laurie and Sharu had previously decided to stay up at Cl to acclimatize while Steve, Mohan, Smanla, KL and myself ferried loads over the next two days from ABC.
Sonam Paljor had earlier discussed the expeditions objectives with Doug. It had been made clear by Doug that the foreigners wanted to climb Rimo III in Alpine style but were quite prepared to help the Indians get established on a route of their choice. The Indians initially were interested in Rimo Ill's impressive west ridge. But after two recces from different sides of the mountain were undecided.
With our change to Rimo II we suggested the Indians to join us. Everyone seemed to be happy with this arrangement, while at the same time it satisfied Sonam's earlier requests to climb as a joint team.
On 9 July we again raised the suggestion at a sometimes heated meeting with Sonam and the Indian climbers in Cl. The weather was set fair, but for how long, we wanted to move in the morning. The Indians agreed to Rimo II and to an extension of our permit until the end of the month. Unfortunately the three Indian climbers preferred to tackle the couloir between Rimo III and Rimo II to gain the north ridge. We were not happy with this way, especially after Smanla had been struck on the head by falling rocks during a day fixing rope in the couloir.
Compromising we arranged to meet a prominent 'notch' some 400 m above the Couloir Col at 6600 m and close to where the west ridge joined the north ridge. This high altitude rendezvous to my mind was tenuous and doubtful, the idea of going our separate ways suggested trouble.
Three figures could just be seen in the half light, roping up and slowly moving up the ridge.
Steve and I wrestled our icy tent into its undersize sac. It was a bitter cold morning and I was eager to get moving.
‘I’ll catch you up' Steve called as he.scurried to find shelter to relieve himself in this inhospitable place.
The snow was firm and I soon caught up Doug and the girls, electing to break trail, happy to move unroped wherever the terrain was easy.
As I gained height I could look down to our solitary tent and follow our sinking footprints to the foot of the ridge. Steve was moving fast below me and had already overtaken the other three, soon to join me on the crest where the ridge became broad and opened. It was a good place to rope up, I led out over snow covered rocks. Steep at first, the angle then eased, the climbing more awkward than technical. Deep snow did not help, progress was tediously slow in the increasing heat of the brilliant day. Above we could just see the flat top of the serac wall which we anticipated would offer our first night's bivouac, as ever it never appeared far away, by mid-afternoon we were still 'not far'. In the deteriorating snow we zig-zagged from rocky island to island and at 4 o'clock we picked our way up the side of the promising serac to flounder through thigh deep snow to its flat top.
Compressing a platform for our tiny tent we crawled in to watch a sea of peaks bathed in alpen-glow.
Much later Doug, Laurie and Sharu arrived tired and thirsty, Doug had led every pitch while the girls, struggling with heavy sacs had been reduced to jummaring behind. The following morning Steve and 1 led away taking a line on to the steep buttress that continued to the notch and the allotted rendezvous.
The climbing was sustained for several pitches, steep ice gave way to awkward mixed ground to finally emerge back on the crest. Beyond the angle eased, leading to the north ridge.
As I sat belaying Steve 1 could hear the low hum of voices, at first I thought it the others below, but soon realise they were coming from above and belonged to our Indian friends.
I called out excitedly, soon three figures appeared on the rocky crest above waving and shouting enthusiastically. I assumed they were at the bivouac, but as communication was difficult could not confirm this. To our amazement they started back down to the col. When we eventually reached the site we could see they had fixed rope to this point and a string of coloured prayer flags and burnt juniper marked where they had just finished a puja — prayer ceremony. This was all very puzzling to Steve and I, but soon after we had erected our tent saw that they had struck their camp. As there were several blind spots on the ridge we assumed the Indians were now on their way back up to join us.
The camp afforded magnificent views, peaks stretched out west and north, K12, Saltoro Kangri and on the far horizon the familiar profile of K2. To the east the Rimo glaciers meandered on to the bleak sepia Depsang plains.
Four rope lengths below Doug, Laurie and Sharu had stopped and were busy pitching their tent. As the sun dropped low over the Teram Shehr icecap we settled into the tent, concerned and perplexed at the disappearance of the Indian lads.
By 6 o'clock the following (12 July) morning we were packing our frozen tent, Doug and the girls were similarly stirring, but still no sign of the three Indians.
Once again I scanned the ridge down to where we had previously seen their tent. To the left of the ridge and in the large snow-bowl that is formed, by Rimo's III and IV, I could make out a dark form that might be a tent, investigating further, three figures could be clearly seen on the SW flank of Rimo IV.
'What's going on here' I called pointing out the fast moving figures to Steve. We relayed the news to Doug below. Mystified at the antics of the Indian lads we set off for the summit, cutting loose from the burdens of tent, food and sleeping bags; going for it light and fast.
The first difficulties were a mixed buttress on the crest of the ridge, I moved left on to steep snow thinking it would be easier. I was wrong, the soft powder snow collapsed under my weight revealing difficult rock beneath. I struggled to gain height, clearing the powder to find axe placements in cracks or rock holds. 'Just like the Cairngorms' I bellowed down to a concerned Steve. On the following pitches we elected to stay on the rocky crest and made quicker progress. After eight rope lengths we reached the fore-summit and could see the easier ridge rambling to the fluted summit cone. It was 11 o'clock.
'Another hour' I asked Steve hopefully.
'Sure' he replied with confidence.
We moved together, putting in the occasional ice-screw or rock belay. A monumental rock pinnacle loomed larger, its walls frighteningly steep. 'Your lead' Steve called with a smirk on his face.
I peered up at the improbable walls, its left side seemed to offer the only reasonable way, where the steep flutings of the east face met its broken summit. I moved up cautiously, a few good rock-runners encouraged me to go further. Repeatedly I sunk into the bottomless mire of powder, digging down to the fractured rocks below to make progress. Fighting through the cornice I broke out to an airy saddle, the west face fell away in front of me, there I was au cheval between two crumbling pinnacles. 'Where now' ?
A wall of poised blocks and crumbling rock led us to a snowy shoulder. Steve made it look easy, while I struggled to follow. Beyond lay the summit. Again we moved together, the seeds of impatience were beginning to grow, 'can't be far now'. Steve tackled a short ice-bulge while I belayed. Soft snow continued, we ploughed on, then suddenly I knew we'd made it. Rimo I was so close Behind, some 12 m higher from where we stood on the summit of Rimo II. I collapsed in the soft snow next to Steve. We shook hands and lay back to catch our breath. No wind, clear and warm its the perfect summit day. We soaked up the vista of endless summits stretching out it.all directions. I snaped the scimmit photos gleefully, Steve enjoying a celebratory beedi. It was 3.30 p.m. I contemplated Rimo I, temptingly closer.
'We could do it in an hour' 1 mockingly suggest.
Steve paused, 'Not today' then took a long drag on the beedi, laying back to enjoy the warm sun.
The first ascent of Rimo II (7373 m) on 12 July by two British members of the Indo-British expedition to the East Karakoram in 1989. Rimo IV (7169 m)(2nd ascent) was also climbed on the same day by the Indian members.
23. Team Shehr Ice-cap as seen from Rimo II. Peaks of Siachen and K2 (right of centre). Article 14 (Nick Kekus)
Rimo IV, route of second ascent. (Nick Kekus)