The Role of Italians



THE FIRST OCCIDENTALS to approach the Karakoram were missionaries. Pride of place in this respect can probably be attributed to Father Ippolito Desideri da Pistoia, who crossed the Zoji-la pass with another friar in the middle of May 1715 and ascended the Indus valley as far as Leh, the chief town in the Ladakh range. At the end of August, they set off along the Tibetan tableland to Lhasa, the 'forbidden' city. This first, minuscule contact with such a grand cohort of mountains was duly recorded in a letter written by Father Desideri describing a chain of peaks and a pass called Karakoram on the road between Yarkand and the Ladakh. Apart from this, however, the 18th century is silent and the first explorations, even of the lower valleys, began a hundred years later.

In the 19th century, in fact, questions of a political and military nature among other things generated a pressing need to find out more about this part of the world. The British and the Indian topographers acting on their behalf carried out extensive surveys: the main valleys were visited, and some hardy souls pushed into the secondary cwms and sometimes as far as the tongues of the great glaciers. For over twenty years (1853-1875), a Piedmontese nobleman, Osvaldo Roero di Cortanze, who had taken up residence in India, undertook a series of journeys and excursions out of pure curiosity and driven by the spirit of adventure, since he had no specific scientific training. The first of these travels took him to the Ladakh. The routes he took in his occasional wanderings cannot be exactly worked out. There is reason to suppose, however, that he did not go further than the southern limit of the chain in the section between Baltistan and the Ladakh.

The Schlagintweit brothers were equally busy explorers during this same period. Adolf was the first European to reach the Old Mustagh pass on the Baltoro (1856-57). Godwin-Austen, too, advanced along the bank of the Baltoro as far as the Concordia and was thus the first to admire the grandiose pyramid that officially bears his name, though it is always referred to as K2. Mention may also be made of Sir Francis Younghusband's journey at the end of the century. Arriving from Central Asia with a caravan and wishing to enter India through one of the cols used by the mountain dwellers, he was the first European to cross the Old Mustagh (over 5400 m) with its long ice route on both sides.

* Reprinted (abridged) from Italian Mountaineering In The Karakoram, edited by Aldo Audisio, Museo Nazionak Delia Montagra, 1991, with the kind permission.
Panoramas H-I

The first true expedition arrived on the scene. Its leader, strangely enough, was an art historian and a professor at the University of Liverpool, William Martin Conway (knighted in 1895), in addition to being a well-known mountaineer. The group also included other leading figures. Oskar Eckenstein, an innovator in the techniques of progression on both rock and ice, and designer of the jointed crampon, which was produced at Courmayeur by the Grivel brothers and made his name a household word for mountainers all over the world.

In 1902, he himself led an international expedition that reached a height of 6500 m on the north ridge of K2. Other members of Conway's I'.party were Charles G. Bruce, who led the second British expedition to I Eerest in 1922, during which Finch climbed to 8300 m, and Mac Cormick,the renowned mountainscape painter. Cameras abounded, of course, in those far-off days. Even so, they had not yet entirely usurped the role of illustrations produced by the human hand, nor could their mere black-and-white or sepia representations sway the convictions of an artist eager to put his palette to work on the first portrait of K2. The result is an epic picture. A foreground of ice and rock topped by a thrilling «wlrl of clouds, some black and stormy, some transparent, through which tht siark pyramid stands out in a dazing light, an annunciation and revelation, asn Invitation to the thinker, not the climber.

The expedition climbed the Hispar glacier, crossed the Hispar pass, and reached the Biafo glacier, which runs right down to the confluence In the Braldo valley. After a brief halt at Askole, the caravan went up The Baltoro and established a base camp on the lower slopes of Baltoro kangri They then succeeded in scaling one of the group's minor summits, Pioneer peak (6970 m). There were no immediate sequels to this fortunate overture It was not until 1898 that the Kashmir witnessed the arrival Of a curious American couple, the Workmans, engaged on a bicycle tour of India. They crossed the Zoji la into the Ladakh, spent some time At leh and probably reached the Karakoram pass. For these venturesome tourists with no experience of the mountains behind them, it was a case of love at first sight and the rapid birth of a passion. They were back again the following year, this time with Mattia Zurbriggen at the helm. The little caravan wended its way up the Biafo glacier to the Hispar Pass and then retraced its steps to Askole. Nothing new here, of course, sine the Biafo had already been trodden by the Conway expedition. By now however, the urge to climb had taken hold of the two Americans and Zurbriggen was not hard put to it to lead them up three virgin Peak in the Braldo valley. Nachpu Gang (5670 m), a 5930 m peak that received the name of Fanny Bullock Workman, and the fine Koser Gunge (6410 m) overlooking the Shigar valley. Their felicitous acquaintance with these highlands and their glaciers encouraged the Workmans to plan a more substantial expedition. In May 1902, Carlo Oestreich was engaged to carry out surveying tasks and scientific work in general, and a second guide was added: Giuseppe Muller, also from Macugnaga. The group went to Arandu in the valley of the river Bascia and explored the basin of the Chdgo Lungma glacier, including some of its lateral branches, the biggest of which runs towards the Haramosch. Despite the considerable work of exploration, the Workmans decided to visit the area again in 1903, this time with a completely different team.

The topographer was B. H. M. Hewett and the guides Joseph Petigax and Cyprien Savoye of Courmayeur, together with Joseph's son Laurent as porter. After following the now customary route through the Zojila, Skardu and the Shigar valley, the party widened its area of exploration before returning to the Chogo Lungma glacier, from which the climbers set off along a lateral confluence to reach the top of Chogo (6554 m) and Lungma (6880 m), as well as an unnamed pass at the head of the Sobson glacier, which was baptised Colle Petigax-Savoye.

By now, not a year went past without a caravan arriving in the Karakoram. Italy's contribution, however, was still entirely dependent on the activities of the Workmans, who led an expedition to the Kashmir section of the Himalaya in 1906, with Italian guides as usual, before returning to the Karakoram in 1908.

The Duke of the Abruzzi

Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duca degli Abruzzi, made his name as a far-ranging explorer of great repute over a decade or so straddling the old and the new century. The expedition he led to the Karakoram in 1909 undoubtedly represented the realisation of a long-pursued dream and the crowning of his activities as a mountaineer and an explorer. The whole party left Marseilles on 26 March on board the Oceana: the Duke, Federico Negrotto, responsible for the photographic surveying, Filippo De Filippi, Vittorio Sella and Erminio Botta, together with guides from Courmayeur. Joseph Petigax, Alexis, Henri and Emil Brocherel, Laurent Petigax, Albert Savoye and Ernest Bareux.

Three weeks later, the caravan was at Askole and before long was engaged on the strenuous walk-in along the ice and shifting debris of the Baltoro. A large camp was established at Urdokas to serve as the distribution centre for the groups of coolies that trekked up and down the glacier for the next 77 days. The base camp was set up at 5000 m oh the Godwin-Austen glacier. Vittorio Sella roamed the local slopes to take his panoramic photos, while Negrotto with the aid of De Filippi was engaged on his photogrammetric surveys and the duke with his guides began their attack on K2 along the S.E. ridge.

K2, however, was not inclined to assent to such a tidy programme. Its sheer size rather than technical difficulties set the pace. It was soon evident that the timetable established for the party's progress along the ridge could not be met. Withdrawal was but an acceptance of the inevitable.

Over the next few days, the duke climbed the Savoia glacier as far as the Saddle (6625 m) at the base»of the N. W. ridge of K2. Then he reached the Saddle of the Winds along the Godwin-Austen glacier and set out from this col with Joseph, Laurent Perigax and Henri Brocherel to climb Skyang Kangri (7544 m) along the ridge. Once again, he was blocked by crevasses. Undeterred, he directed his attention to the upper Baltoro glacier, whose orographic left side is flanked by two large mountains. Baltoro Kangri and Chogolisa. As we have seen, Conway's expedition had already climbed one of the lower summits of Baltoro Kangri.

Eight days of hard work and bad weather passed before they crossed the great wall of seracs, reached the Chogolisa Saddle and planted a camp at 6640 m. Bad weather blocked their progress at 7150 m the next day and another five days passed before they could try again. On this occasion, their tent was pitched at 6835 m, but the weather was not promising when dawn broke on the day of the final attempt (18 June). At 7400 m, a rocky tract along the ridge allowed them to reach 1 7493 m, not far from the summit. Here, however, the visibility was too poor and the danger posed by the cornices along the neve (as Herman Buhl found to his cost 48 years later) imposed a halt. The weather refused to clear, however, and yet another withdrawal was necessary.

In 1911, the Workmans returned to the Karakoram, once again with Cesare Calciati and Cyprien Savoye. There was also an assistant topographer, Dante Ferrari, and the porters were Emile Glarey, Simeon Quaizier and Cesar Chenoz.

In the interim, the chain had been trodden by other explorers. The Workmans' attention was particularly drawn to the discovery by T. G. Longstaff of the Siachen glacier, the largest of all. The new expedition surveyed the valleys to the south of Masherbrum and Chogolisa, then climbed back up the Saltoro valley and the Bilafond glacier to reach the basin of the Siachen. Delays at the start and bad weather meant that not much could be done. The Workmans, therefore, organised a second expedition to the Siachen the following year. This time the surveyor was G. Peterkin. Cyprien Savoye, Quazier and Chenoz were once again In the party, along with Adolphe and Julien Rey. While crossing the Bilafon, however, Chenoz fell into a crevasse and died. After burying him on the edge of the glacier, the expedition crossed the Bilaphond pass and descended the Lolophond glacier on the other side to reach the main flow of the Siachen. A base camp was set up. The great ill.icier was surveyed, together with its tributaries upstream from the Lolophond glaicier.

The party then crossed the Sia la (5700 m) and concluded its exploration work by descending the whole of the Kaberi glacier.

The Filippo De Filippi Expedition

The fine volume on the Duke of the Abruzzi's expedition that appeared in 1912 was written by Filippo De Filippi. The bibliographical researches Squired for the preparation of this extensive and detailed account rendered II obvious that there were many geographical problems still unsolved. He, therefore, decided to organise an expedition of his own.

De Filippi was a doctor and a biologist. As a climber, he had been with the duke on Mt. St. Elias as well as in the Karakoram, and was an excellent organiser.

Organisation of the expedition was completed during 1913 and by September its members were in Srinagar, where they met Mario Piacenza, Borelli, Calciati, Savoye and Gaspard on their return from the first Italian conquest of a 7000 m peak; Kun (7096 m) in Kashmir.

By the beginning of June, the base camp had been established at 5362 m on the Depsang plateau. From here, small caravans spread out in different directions. Dainelli and Martelli made a long journey to the east on the Tibetan tableland, while the surveyors with Wood and Spranger explored a valley running north-west from the Karakoram pass, reaching the Yarkand river and following it to its source.

One of the tasks of the expedition was the exact identification and exploration of the Rimo glacier and the uncertain stretch of watershed between it and the Karakoram pass.

Exploration of this huge glacier was undertaken by several groups in turn and provided several surprises. One of these was the complexity and size of the ice basin over 700 square kilometres formed of three first-magnitude glaciers more than 30 kilometres long filling valleys from 5 to 8 kilometres wide. The catchment basin was described as "a transition term between the valley and the tableland". Another interesting discovery was that this glacier is at the same time the source of both the Shyok river, a tributary of the Indus, and the Yarkand, which flows down to Central Asia. During the course of the exploration, a saddle (5908 m) of its northern branch was reached. From here, a tongue of ice runs down, crosses the watershed and gives rise to the Yarkand.

Bad weather, however, made it impossible to get to the upper part of the Rimo, which it was assumed, faces the Siachen glacier, a question that Dianelli himself came back to solve 17 years later. The expedition was often out of touch with the rest of the world for some time and news of the outbreak of the first world war did not reach the camp until 16 August. Alessio, the second in command, left and was replaced by Major Wood. Antilli as already mentioned, and Alessandri, who were officers in the army and navy respectively, were also recalled and their work was taken over by other members of the party.

By 20 August, the camp had been broken up and the expedition set off once more. Divided into several groups following different routes, it crossed the Karakoram pass and then several 4.500. m cols in the Kuen Lun chain. Still engaged on its surveying work, it came down into Chinese Turkestan.

At Yarkand, the ancient capital of the region, the explorers received a very hospitable welcome, and at Kashgar, another 200 km further on, they were received by the British and Russian consuls as well as the Chinese authorities. On 27 October, the caravan departed on its last slog 400 kilometres through the Tien Shan chain via the Terek Dauan pass on the border with Russian Turkestan.

Panorama H. The Masherbrum group with the Baltoro glacier in foreground. (The Duke of the Abrizzi expedition, 1909)

Panorama H. The Masherbrum group with the Baltoro glacier in foreground. (The Duke of the Abrizzi expedition, 1909) Article 17 (Vittorio Sella)

Panorama I. The Pyramid of Masherbrum (7821 m) from the Baltoro glacier. (The Duke of the Abruzzi expedition, 1909)

Panorama I. The Pyramid of Masherbrum (7821 m) from the Baltoro glacier. (The Duke of the Abruzzi expedition, 1909) Article 17 (Vittorio Sella)

Their long march came to an end at Osh, the first town on Russian soil. From here, they went by rail to* Tashkent, where Abetti set up his last geophysical post, thus bringing to an end the series begun at the Indian Trigonometric Office's station at Dehra Dun, over 3000 km away.

The war naturally delayed the processing of the huge mass of data and information gathered by De Filippi's expedition. Indeed, it was only after 20 years that the last of the 15 volumes in which its scientific results are systematically set out was published (1935).

The 1929 Geographical Expedition

In 1928, the City of Milan called on Giotto Dainelli to organise an expedition to the Himalaya and Umberto Nobile to finance an expedition to the North Pole, the aim being to provide a worthy means of celebrating the tenth anniversary of the end of the war. At Dainelli's suggestion, K2 was chosen as the objective with Broad Peak as an alternative. The patronage of the Societa Geografica Italiana was obtained and an accompanying scientific programme was proposed by the organisers, headed by Dainelli. During the course of the complicated procedures required to get the expedition together. Dainelli ended up by refusing to act as its leader and his place was taken by Aimone di Savoia Duke of Spoleto. Ardito Desio, already appointed by Dainelli, was left in charge of the geological and geographical research.

Time was now running short and it was decided to postpone the expedition proper to the following year. Instead, a logistics group composed of the duke, Mario Cugia, Umberto Balestreri and a Kashmir forestry inspector went to make preliminary arrangements for the transport of most of the equipment and provisions to Askole, the last port of call before the Baltoro. This party completed its work between May and October. On the way back, Balestreri left the group at the Skoro-la (5707 m) and made a solo ascent of Cheri Chor (5450 m).

In Italy, however, the Nobile disaster had been responsible for some drastic rethinking. The logistics party retruned to find that the attempt on K2 had been wiped off the slate. The venture had now become simply the "Italian Geographical Expedition to the Karakoram". By 10 March 1929, the twelve members of the expedition and all their equipment were on the quais of Bombay harbour.

The party crossed the still snow-covered Zoji-la and reached Askole by the first of May, and on the eighth the base camp was installed at Urdokas. Balestreri and Chiardola then set off to reconnoitre the Old Mustagh pass. They reached it on the 23rd and returned to prepare the caravans of porters: one for the exploration group, the other as the back-up group to prepare the provision dumps along the route. A start was then made on exploration of the Shaksgam valley. If possible, this was to be completed by making a complete circuit around the K2 group. On 7 June, Balestreri and Ponti scaled the ice dome (5931 m) overlooking the Mustagh pass to assess the route from above and baptised It Kharpo Gang. Once through the pass, the caravan descended the Sarpo Lago glacier and along the valley of the same name to its confluence with the Shaksgam valley.

At the first camp on the Sarpo Lago, the party split into two. Chiardola, Caporiacco and most of the porters went back to Urdokas through the pass. Balestreri, Desio, Ponti and Bron went up the Shaksgam valley and on 17 June set up their camp near the front of the Gasherbrum glacier. Above and to the right, they could see the glacier that comes down from the Saddle of the Winds.

It took a whole day to get across the rugged tongue of the Gasherbrum, which fills the entire valley. This brought them to the Urdok glacier. In the hope of finding a way through to the Conway Saddle and the upper Baltoro, they climbed it in three stages to a height of 5096 metres, but thick, persistent snowfalls prevented them from achieving their purpose. By now, their food was running short, so they returned to the Shaksgam valley, where another split was made. Ponti and Bron left all the reserves for the main party and went back to the dumps by forced marches. Balestreri, Desio and only eight porters continued along the valley. After going round the left of the Urdok glacier, and then' the Stagar glacier some ten kilometres further on, they were brought to a halt by the Singhi glacier, which blocks the valley at this point. A whole day was needed to cross this fantastic tongue of ice with its glaring white pinnacles.

Once across the Singhi, a day's march took them to the front of the Kyagar glacier, the starting-point for the completion of their survey of the valley.

On 29 June, Balestreri and Desio began their return journey and reached Urdokas on 14 July.

In the meantime, the main party had continued its work on the Baltoro and planted a camp on the Conway Saddle. His long stint in the Shaksgam had not drained all Desio's energies and he set out again with other companions to explore the Trango glacier on the right side of the Baltoro. He followed this glacier to its catchment basin and then returned to the base, where he organised yet another excursion, this time to the Dumordo valley, where he covered five more glaciers: the Panmah, the Nobande Sobande, the Biacerahi, and the Choktoi Chirji.

Now that its set tasks were over, the expedition began to get ready for the walk-out. Bad weather, however, made the carrying of such a lot of material along valleys with flooded rivers hard going, and it was not until 12 September that they could enjoy a period of well-earned repose at Srinagar.

Dainelli's withdrawal from this expedition was by no means evidence of a wish to turn his back on the Karakoram. In 1930, in fact, he arranged his own expedition. This decision was partly spurred by his continuing work on the scientific reports of the De Filippi expedition. Indeed, the main aim of the new venture was to complete the exploration of the Siachen glacier and see whether it was really linked to the Rimo. It will be remembered that confirmation of this supposition had been prevented by bad weather on the previous occasion. The 1930 expedition was a liny affair: Dainelli and his secretary Elly Kalau, and two topographers from the Alpini Corps, Enrico Cecioni and Alessandro Latini.

They climbed up from the Shyok river along the Nubra valley. On reaching the front of the Siachen, they split into two parties to reconnoitre and carry out stereophotogrammetric surveys. Cecioni and Latini went up the Teram Shehr glacier, the Siachen's main tributary, and reached a liroad, virgin col at 6100 m, which they named Passo Italia. This proved to be the pressume link between the upper basins of the Teram Shehr and the central body of the Rimo. The data collected by this expedition were later processed and inserted in part by Dainelli in his account of the work of the De Filippi expedition.

In 1934, the Baltoro basin played host to a truly new venture undertaken by an international team and financed by the film industry. Led by a Swiss, G. 0. Dyhrenfurth, this was composed of two parties with different, iyt partly overlapping purposes in mind: the shooting of a feature film ind the first ascent of Hidden Peak (8068 m). The script of the film envisaged the alternation of faked scenes with real climbing shots. For ill this, a troupe of specialists was at hand: Andrew Marton, director, his wife Jamila, an actress, Gustav Diessel, actor, and Richard Angst, an already well-known director of photography. The climbers included Dyhrenfurth and his wife, Marcel Kurz, Hans Winzeler and Andre Roch from Switzerland, Belajeff, an Englishman, two Germans Ertl and Hocht, ,ind an Italian, Piero Ghiglione. Hidden Peak was discarded after several .illempts and the expedition set its sights on the peaks overlooking the Conway Saddle: Baltoro Kangri and Sia Kangri. The eastern summit (7260 m) of the former was reached on 3 August by Roch, Belajeff and. Ghiglione. All Sia Kangri's pinnacles were also conquered: the western peak by Ilic Dyhrenfurths, Ertl and Hocht, also on 3 August; the middle peak by Belajeff, Ghiglione and Roch on the 10th, and the main peak (7422 m) and the eastern peak — both by Ertl and Hocht — on the 12th Ind the 22nd respectively. At this point, of course, it is clear that our nlory has fully crossed the divide between exploration and mountaineering I ii ire and simple. From now on, the summit's the thing, coupled with ilir appropriate rhetoric that makes each summit a victory, accompanied by the inevitable fluttering of a national flag. Eventually thought would I if given to each enterprise as an end in itself. Let us say farewell to this epoch.


A brief survey of the early explorations in the Karakoram, specially the role of the Italians.


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