Article 18 CERRO KISHTWAR
THERE WERE LOTS OF RISKS associated with going back to Cerro Kishtwar. This magnificent granite tooth had first attracted me in 1989 when with the normally hyperactive Mike Morrison suffering from a debilitating viral illness - connected in some way to sheep - we bravely failed to even cross the bergschrund. In deciding to return in 1993 1 was acutely aware that if, for whatever reason, we failed to mount a decent attempt then little new would have been achieved and a general air of gloom and despondency would result. Mike Morrison and Mike O'Brien from the 1989 team were willing to take the risk.
With seven days to go the Indian authorities still had not given us written permission. Meanwhile Mike O'Brien was having last minute problems and wondering whether to drop out. Ultimately though, the sea of confusion resolved itself. Steve Sustad agreed to join requiring a superhuman effort to clear his order books within seven days and, after Mike Morrison had failed to find another partner, Mike O'Brien decided he could make it after all.
More setbacks were to follow. In response to my attempts at string-pulling the British Embassy faxed me two days before leaving to say that permission looked unlikely. Despite a further £80 invested in telephone calls the Indian Mountaineering Foundation still could not give a definite answer. It was all looking horribly uncertain and the afternoon before leaving saw Mike Morrison and I spending a fraught few hours in the Alpine Club library failing to find an inspiring alternative.
Matters had not moved forward when we arrived in Delhi. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation seemed surprised to see us and it required four days of sustained bureaucracy before permission was finally given to approach the peak via the Rohtang pass and Udaipur in the upper Chenab valley. Apart from tiring us out and costing lots of money it did seem mildly ridiculous to spend the first three days of a seven day walk-in going downhill from one roadhead to another. As we quite truthfully observed on reaching Atholi, 'Here we are at the low point of the expedition.' From here, though, things improved. The roadhead had been extended to Atholi since our visit in 1989 but apart from a concentration of road-builders and army tin-roofed huts little had changed but the atmosphere. It was much more tense. Two weeks before, thirteen passengers had been dragged from a bus and shot dead 40 km away on the Doda to Kishtwar road. This type of incident was the reason for the Home Affairs Ministry's reluctance to grant us permission to visit the area. We sneaked through Atholi as quietly as possible.
Our mule-driver from Purthi had never been to the site of our base camp in the ablation valley of the Haptal glacier. This was very useful in negotiating the number of stages but rather backfired when it became clear that our mules were not exactly the strongest and fittest specimens on the market.
A rain-soaked and dispirited round of ad hoc negotiations resulted in yet more expenditure and a combination of gear-ferrying, pushing, prodding and cajoling to eventually arrive at base camp fifteen days after leaving England compared to nine days in 1989. In continuing sharp contrast to our previous visit it rained. Our second cook - the mule-driver was the first and he walked out on us - assured us that the four weeks prior to our arrival had been perfect. This did not help. For us it rained - for ten days. Not only did this dump lots of new snow on the mountain, it also ate into our available time at base camp which had already been cut back to a mere eighteen days as a result of the bureaucratic delays and enforced longer walk-in. I couldn't help but consider that we could have done several good routes in the Alps by now. Instead we sat ensconced in damp tents in moods varying from "the mellow Sustad approach ('plenty of time to read my book) to the caged animal ('I've got to get out climbing) Morrison approach.
Acclimatisation forays resulted in a great-stash at the foot of the face and had the desired effect despite a fair degree of dampness and unpleasantness along the way. By the time the weather improved Steve and I had worked out that our proposed line should take about eight days from base camp and we had thirteen days left - it was time to go. Steve, of course, was not on the 1989 attempt and so the slog across the glacier up a tedious grass and moraine slope and along the upper glacier to the foot of the face was new to him. I had struggled this way four times before and still failed to cross the bergschrund and can't say thrashing about on such familiarly exhausting ground brought back pleasant memories. I made a mental note to get up this time.
It took six hours spread over the evening of one day and the early morning of the next to reach our gear* stash at the foot of the face. Whilst we were doing this the weather Had gradually improved and by the time we crossed the bergschrund it was fine at last.
'Crossed the bergschrund.' - such marvellous words describing an experience not enjoyed on our visit four years ago. We were underway at last. Crisp, frontpointing up deep convoluted avalanche runnels allowed quick progress.
Steve is not prone to unnecessary cursing but the sound of sotto voce mumbling continued. Even the word 'down' surfaced at one point. I had guessed the problem. The sight of his Barracuda pick broken clean off at the shaft simply confirmed my fears. To get a replacement axe would take three days - one down to base camp and two back up. Perfect weather would be wasted. Axes can be swapped between climbers and seconding with an adze surely couldn't be too difficult. The dither was short, the result decisive. On we went.
Snaking up left we headed for the start of the huge ramp-line cleaving the north-west face. Steve was flowing quickly up the short awkward steps that we came across. Eventually, though, steeper steps reared their heads and out came the ropes. After a total of eight weeks climbing holiday in India I was about to start my first roped pitches.
Soon the ramp opened out above us and we could see more definitely what was involved. I had been concerned that it could be powder snow plastered on to steep granite slabs but from this angle it looked like a thin snow covering most of the way up. The only real gap came in the first section and fortunately this fell to Steve. The broken axe was handed over and with two picks Steve climbed rapidly to where the ice petered out, whilst I wondered how I was supposed to climb the 80° ground with only one pick.
A long tension traverse to the right saw Steve gain a very thin ice-streak dribbling off the edge of the slab. This looked hard to me but whoops of joy from above suggested good ice and Steve was soon re-established on the main ramp-line. My efforts were less controlled. A crampon-screeching pendulum which had me thinking of Doug Scott on the Ogre, led to me dangling on smooth walls somewhere near the ice streak. Thereafter furious scrabbling allowed an axe placement and the streak was gained.
I was still concerned about the snow above. Although it was three or four inches thick, the layer of ice beneath it was by no means constant and it was clear that at least some scrabbling on 70° slabs would be necessary. A fortuitous line of flakes on the wall above provided a reasonably comfortable night but no chance of pitching our tiny two-man tent. Instead I wrapped myself in the tent fabric while Steve buried himself inside his bivvy bag. This was to be standard practice at bivouacs. Above us the ramp stretched away towards a sharp col on the north buttress. The next day started with steady 65°-70° slabs but a 60 m vertical and overhanging section below the col provided a nasty-looking sting in the tail. There was clearly no reasonable bivouac site below the col and so our aim had to be to reach it, come what may. The distance involved looked to be about 250 m.
From my photographs taken on the 1989 trip I knew that the thickness of the ice on this upper section was particularly suspect. Photos from that year show sections of what look like thick black verglas with numerous small embedded stones. This year the spell of bad weather meant that everything was plastered in powder snow, although a curious speckled appearance visible from the glacier had me worried. On closer acquaintance this turned out to be the rippled nature of the underlying rock which was exposed through the new snow in a fascinatingly regular pattern. It did not look at all easy and seemed an area pregnant with serious and time-consuming nastiness. Progress was unnerving but steady. A fault-line in the back of the corner provided intermittent protection possibilities which gave sufficient confidence to venture out onto the protectionless sections of thin brittle Ice on the slabs. By alternating the leads - and the axe - the steep section below the col was reached at 3 p.m. Three and a half hours of daylight left to climb 60 m. I started to get that uncomfortable we-are-about-to-get-benighted feeling. A couple of possibilities presented themselves but after a time-wasting grovel in an overhanging chimney of surprisingly rotten rock, a steep rocky groove-line followed by ,i traverse back into the main corner seemed the only option. Being t north-west face there had been virtually no freeze-thaw since the 11.id weather and powder snow was blasted into every crack, pouring past me in a continuous spindrift flow as Steve fought to dear vital holds. Even with them readily visible it was a hard pitch to second. I was suitably impressed, both with the difficulty and with Steve for I wiving led the pitch with no gloves. It is amazing how a good boost n( adrenaline can warm the extremities.
It was now 5 p.m. and we were still over a hundred feet from the col with only about one and a half hours of daylight left. The ground above looked distressingly steep. An initial thrash in a short overhanging corner convinced me that my sack was far too heavy for this type** of action.
Either way I felt a new man on leaving the sack hanging from a sling. Superb back-and-foot climbing and bridging on loose overhanging ground led to a capstone forming the final obstacle before the col. A direct ascent was out of the question but a tenuous line of holds up a gently overhanging wall to the right seemed to offer a possible solution. Efforts to emulate a Dover-style drive-in ice-screw placement by hammering one straight into the rock proved unhelpful. The rock merely disintegrated into thousands of granules. Steve looked concerned and encouraged me not to fall off.
His belay was poor so I searched studiously for more protection. It was there of course, a Lost Arrow driven halfway into a more solid crack in the side-wall. Not bomb-proof but an awful lot better than nothing. From here the rock looked better out to the right and offered a traverse on some loose flaky holds. Then I needed to somehow surmount a gently overhanging section to reach what looked to be a good hold and possible resting place level with the capstone. Such plans rarely work out as imagined. The traverse of the flakes went well but the angle proved steeper than expected and I was badly in need of a rest by the time I reached the foot of the overhanging section. No problem, a good sky-hook placement presented itself. I reached down to pull it up from my harness-crutch karabiner.
Steve looked worried. So did I, I had failed to make allowance for the incompetence factor. It is easy to remember things in retrospect but in a burst of organisation earlier on the route 1 had tied the sky-hook onto the back of my harness to stop it from getting tangled with other equipment. Now strength was fast draining from my already weary arms as I fought to extract it from its invisible position. Sod's law dictates that tangles will occur in such situations and sure enough the knot on the sky-hook sling had somehow become inextricably tangled in my harness. An alternative course of action was called for. Up to my right a thin ice smear adorned the overhanging wall. A hopeful axe placement had surprisingly positive results. In such situations it is all too easy to ruin a good placement by trying for an even better one.
The axe had definitely 'twanged^ in. Time was running out and failing strength meant that options were severely limited. Gently and unavoidably I clipped in and trusted my weight to the axe. So far so good. Although my new position reduced the physical strain it was hardly mentally relaxing. Less than a quarter of an inch of the pick was biting and any movement resulted in worrisome pivoting. Carefully I untangled the sky-hook and transferred to a hook placement over a solid edge on my left. A poor peg placement relieved the immediate tension but the darkness was almost total as I pulled across onto steep ice above the capstone and floundered up bottomless powder to the col. It was snowing.
There was an unspoken hope that this would be a good site for the tent - it looked to be the only one on the route - but the reality was an outrageous knife-edge of feather-light powder. In the last rays of light I swung up to a good peg belay. Two problems now presented themselves as I struggled to haul up my sack and belay Steve. First, in my panic I had put runners on both ropes <ind had no rope with which I could haul the sack. Second, my headtorch was in my sack. This latter point soon became a real problem. Steve could undip the runners to enable me to haul but I was unable to pull the sack up in one go and had to keep tying if off to the belay. In the darkness though I dared not undip anything and so the belay krabs rapidly grew impressive and totally confusing I lunches of knots while I became worryingly cold.
It was 9 p.m. by the time sack and Steve were safely at the col and 11 p.m. before we were able to struggle into sleeping bags and begin to warm up again. I ended up hunched on a small step scooped out of the snow while Steve opted for slidng the top off the crest of the col and sleeping on the cornice suspended over the northeast face. The next morning was our laziest start time 8.30
Our intended line moved round onto the northeast face which we had not been able to study closely before. We knew it to be largely I snow and ice face but from the col it appeared to be set at ,1 distressingly steep angle. Also from this position it was obviously 'lu.irded by a terrifying pitch of powder snow stuck on steep slabs. Steve set off. By now I was beginning to appreciate that this sort of ground is one of his fortes. Although the slabs were set at perhaps sixty-five to seventy degrees, powder snow over two feet deep had
IMomehow accumulated. I had only ever seen such conditions in Peru. Rtt-ve though was persistent and methodical, sweeping away the snow and then balancing up with his crampon points grating noisily on the tiny rugosities on the granite slabs. Protection was very limited and I think I must have been as relieved as him when after two hours of continuous effort he reached a solid ice-smear, belayed and brought me across. More conventional but very steep icy ground followed leading in 180 m to a point beneath vertical walls rearing up for the final 230 m to the summit. A possibility of outflanking these walls to the left presented itself but having spotted areas of very deep-looking powder snow set at a steep angle a unanimous decision was made to opt for a rising fault-line leading back right to the crest of the north spur. Hard free and aid climbing were the order of the day with my rucksack again being abandoned mid-pitch. This time though with sky-hook ready for action and Steve with his etriers out our progress was more efficient. Benightment did occur but half an hour after sunset we were hacking two single-person ledges out of a fortuitous small snow slope. Placing the belay pegs my hammer head - which had been loose for the last day and a half - finally parted company with the main body of the tool. The soft alloy structure of the casting would suffice for a few peg removals but would not stand up to any prolonged heavy use. Still, at least we had one hammer and one adze still in good working order.
One surprise remained for us before settling down to an evening's cooking. Just to one side of the bivvy site was a blue sling. We knew that the British team of Andy Perkins and Brendan Murphy had reached a highpoint somewhere near here via a line up the centre of the northwest face in 1991 but to find one of their abseil slings gave us a better idea of our position and opened up the possibility of using their abseil points to facilitate our descent. This became increasingly appealing as we surveyed our equipment and contemplated the number of abseils necessary.
The summit was now only about 180 m above us and we decided the time had come to leave our tent and sleeping bags and go lightweight for the top. The ground ahead looked extremely difficult and the chances of yet another benightment seemed fairly good. Steve was persuasive though, pointing out that even if we failed to climb and abseil in the dark we could always sit it out and avert frostbite by wiggling our toes in each other's armpits. If it was good enough for Doug Scott and Dougal Haston near the summit of Everest he felt sure it was good enough for us. What could I say? I was convinced. The lightweight push was on with the added incentive to get back down to our bivouac site. An awkward snow-covered rock pitch with a challenging little walj led to another sling and what appeared to be the Perkins and Murphy highpoint So close, yet so far. To fail so close to the summit must have been unbelievably frustrating.
Above us reared a just-off vertical corner smeared with a thin coating of ice and leading to an ice-choked overhanging crack at 150 feet. Beyond this nothing could be seen other than that it was at least another 45 m of very steep ground to the summit. Time was ticking by and I felt more and more that an uncomfortable night with Steve's toes was in store. The corner was my lead. The ice mainly formed an eggshell like structure about one inch away from the rock. Frightening to climb on but just strong enough to take my weight and allow fast progress. As luck would have it protection turned out to be reasonable in those spots where I chipped the ice away. The final steep disintegrating bulge was avoided by aiding a crack in the right wall and I was belayed beneath Steve's pitch. A real nasty with no obvious protection and insufficient ice.
Steve looked worried. It was the first time on the route that I had seen him look worried. Most people who look this way search for alternatives or offer the lead to someone else. There were no alternatives and a very limited number of 'other people' to whom he could offer the lead. I need not have worried - Steve is made of sterner stuff. He is after all the man who once insisted on taking his turn to swim out to an Irish sea stack in a storm when he can't actually swim. What followed was an education for bumbly .iid-dimbers such as myself. Aid from tied-off ice screws, an inverted [)«g behind a loose flake, friends between rock and ice and finally .•triers on ice axe placements. On the final move the thin ribbon of ice fractured with an audible crack but the pick held. To try ¦gain for a more secure placement would risk splitting the ice and releasing the lower axe. A calculated risk was called for.
I did. With a louder crack the ice around the top axe split away. The fall was only 2 m but the strain came directly onto the pick of the lower axe. It held. It could just as easily have given way U <ould the runners below. Not a scenario to dwell upon. A further •Iti-mpt was called for but with the ice strip only three inches wide inn- had to be taken not to demolish the whole formation. To do b would render the pitch virtually unclimbabie. I need not have worried, « gentle central placement, some thrashing with the etriers and Steve was up - on to 75° ice plastered in twelve inches of powder which was, relatively speaking, no problem. My seconding efforts were less elegant. Two heavy-handed central placements split the ice longitudinally just as Steve was congratulating me on getting over the difficult section. I ended up** dangling free and could just about reach the remains of the ice and joined with Steve in a form of combined pull-and-hold technique which ultimately landed a heavy-breathing Fowler up on the stance.
Only 15 m above a small cornice overhung the face. The deepest powder snow yet on very hard ice led to the final breakthrough and a release from the cold and inhospitable face. Warm sun filtered down and a magnificent panoramic view was spread out before us. A short section of easy snow ridge led to the summit and that indescribable sense of elation that somehow makes even the most masochistic climb seem worthwhile. We stood formally and shook hands - it seemed a suitably British thing to do, particularly for an American.
Including the 1989 fiasco I'd spent ten weeks of my life trying to climb this mountain. Ten weeks in India and only four days of upward climbing above the bergschrund. On this trip alone we had spent more time in Delhi dealing with the bureaucracy than on the face. Was it worth it? Neither of us had any doubts. Those four
days were unbeatable ___ there are some mountains that just have
to be climbed.
An account of the first ascent in four days of the 1000 m northwest face of Cerro Kishtwar (6200 m). The route had 25 pitches, five pitches of Scottish VI and one of A3 and was completed in pure alpine style. The two-member British team reached the summit on 19 September 1993.