(Translated from French by Deepak Shah)


I WOULD HAVE liked to be Francis Younghusband, or Eric Shipton, to be among the first explorers of the Karakoram. For months, I would have roamed the unknown valleys, climbing secondary summits to chart the map, bringing back a lot of information and scientific observations. On my return, I would have given a conference under the golden ceiling of the Royal Geographical Society, and had discussions with my distinguished fellow explorers.

The times have changed, but the mountains of north Karakoram still retain some of their original mystery, as they are remote and difficult of access.

We, four French mountaineers, connoisseurs of the Karakoram; left to traverse it on skis in the spring of 1993. We were Marc Breuil, Claude Pastre, Bernard Odier and Philppe Nonin. Our ambition was to become familiar with the Shaksgam valley and the northern slopes of the giant summits of the Karakoram.

Kurt Diemberger, a specialist on these places, gave me information with enthusiasm, and wrote to me:

It is good to learn that in the modern times somebody is still interested not simply in bagging the biggest number of the highest peaks in the shortest possible time,— but that he is going just on an exploration and wants to know what's at the end of a glacier valley or behind the next corner of a massive mountain.’

Colour Plates 7 to 12 Photos 23 to 21

Cover Photos Fold-out 4

The Trans-Karakoram Routes

The Trans-Karakoram Routes

Exploration in Shaksgam Valley

Exploration in Shaksgam Valley

He also made me promise never to use the helicopter that the Russians, least concerned about saving the wilderness of the place, wanted to bring here. I, of course, agreed at once.

Finally, on 16 September 1993, a week after having left the town of Kashgar, we arrived at Aghil Col (4776 m), with our caravan of 13 camels, 3 camel-drivers, one interpreter and one cook. The cook is very important, especially for us Frenchmen who give a lot of importance to the quality of food! We were not disappointed; vegetables, fresh eggs, mushrooms, various Chinese specialities one after the other were prepared; a feast! The administrative details having been taken care of, we set off to enter the Shaksgam valley.

The valley is famous for its difficult river crossings, which are impossible or at best very dangerous in the month of August. By mid-September, the water is already shallow. On 17 September, we made ten river-crossings on foot but with water half-way upto the thighs. The current was still very strong and the water very cold. So, from the next day, we made it a habit to cross all rivers on camel. The atmosphere of this valley is certainly very peculiar: a broad and very flat valley, covered with sand and pebbles enclosed by enormous walls of a mixture of flint and red compact soil, segmented by small, abrupt, and very narrow gorges. No sign of habitation, very little vegetation, at the most a few shrubs for the camels to graze on. From time to time we saw a bird or an eagle, and sometimes, rarely, a flock of bharals.

North faces of Gasherbrum II (left) and Gasherbrum IV (background).

North faces of Gasherbrum II (left) and Gasherbrum IV (background). Unclimbed range Nakpo peaks (6800m to 7300m) in foreground. (B.Odier)

In the evening, at Sughet Jangal, the distant view of the K2 is as impressive as all the literature about it has claimed since Younghusband became the first explorer to visit this place in 1887. The following days, leaving our camels and our Chinese colleagues in the plain of Sughet Jangal, we once again went up the K2 north glacier. First along the right edge, and then we painfully crossed over towards the left to walk on a sort of a more comfortable avenue between two magnificent rows of ice-penitents, at the end of which appeared K2. Splendid!

We explored the bottom and noticed at once that all the summits and routes were steep and difficult, except perhaps the Chongtar pass. This pass, at more than 6000 m, would allow someone to rejoin, (thanks to an incline of 400 to 500 m at 45° ) the South Chongtar glacier, and then the glacier of Sarpo Laggo. The glacier of K2 is now visited every year, as shown by various camps and alas by their garbage.

On 28 September, we made an attempt at Tilman peak (6350 m), on the right bank of the K2 north glacier. We quite easily attained a position at 6000 m, where a very beautiful view of the surroundings, including the terminal pyramid of K2 awaited us. We also had a very beautiful view of the Chongtar cluster which appeared very interesting. This cluster comprises five summits of more than 7000 m each, all virgin and unexplored. Only the main summit has been attempted in 1985. The northern front of Chongtar South (7330 m) is superb: 1800 m high, very steep snow and ice as it never sees the sun!

Then, from 1 to 4 October, we again climbed the Shaksgam towards the base camp of Gasherbrums. On the first day, a violent and glacial wind carrying sand descended on the valley. The ambience is wintry. The mountain walls, when one sees them, seem to be plastered by fresh snow. Some flakes of snow fall on the camp in the evening, even though the altitude is just 3800 m. The subsequent stages — towards Shaksgam Camp 1, Durbin Jangal, and then the base camp of Gasherbrums — are regally beautiful. Beautiful weather, superb light, less water in the rivers which we now traverse easily. A very big white mountain at the end of the valley and our schematic maps pose us a problem. Doubtless, it must be the Teram Kangri? However, excellent Chinese maps exist at 1:50,000, which are unfortunately reserved for the military.

North faces of Gasherbrum group.

10. North faces of Gasherbrum group. L to R: II East (7772m), II Main (8035m), III (7952m) and IV (7980m). Article 14 (B.Odier)

A rare view of K2 east face.

11. A rare view of K2 east face. Article 14 (B.Odier)

Unattempted peaks of Staghar seen from the Shaksgam valley.

12. Unattempted peaks of Staghar seen from the Shaksgam valley. On left Peak I (6492m) and Peak III (6156m). Article 14 (B.Odier)

The Singh glacier, in the upper Shaksgam valley.

13. The Singh glacier, in the upper Shaksgam valley. It almost blocks the main valley.

On 5 October, we climb a summit of 5150 m above the Gasherbrum base camp, on the left bank ridge of the Gasherbrum north glacier. The view is unique on the northern faces of Gasherbrums, of the Hidden Peak, of Gasherbrum IV, and of the Nakpo, an entirely unexplored virgin chain of mountains approximately 6500 to 6900 m high. For,three days, we then explored the North Gasherbrum glacier. At first, we move along laterally to the left of the glacier, but then a rocky section forced us to move upon the glacier itself. We walked painfully slowly on an alley of pebbles and flint. This alley was wide at first but contracted eventually into a cul-de-sac after half a day of walking. It was impossible to advance or to go .on the sides of the glacier. In fact, just after having walked on the glacier, we had to return on the lateral moraine on the left of the glacier.

Tired of these troublesome moraines, Marc and I preferred to once again climb up the top of the Shaksgam; while Claude and Phillippe went on to scale the ridge which separates the glaciers of Urdok and Gasherbrum, in order to see the northern face of Broad Peak. The front of the Gasherbrum glacier posed us serious problems. As the water-level was low, we succeeded in passing into a narrow passage between the rocky left wall of the Shaksgam and the menacing seracs near the tongue of the glacier. We advance with glacial water (0.5 °C) half-way upto the thighs, and the current very strong.

Higher up, towards the Staghar glacier, it was necessary to break the ice to traverse the rivers. And this had to be done on foot, since the camels had gone back down to Durbin Jangal. On 11 October, we arrived at the Singhi glacier. This glacier has only rarely been visited in the past few years: by a team of Chinese and Italian geographers, then Kurt Diemberger with a Balti porter Balu. The glacier completely blocks the valley, touching the rocky walls of the opposing bank. On 12 October, at 5 p.m., we attain the fore-summit (6000 m) on the left side of the Shaksgam, which dominates the Singhi glacier. This glacier is made up, from top to bottom, of an unbelievable forest of ice-penitents; and we could not see any easy passage here. To cross it would require a great deal of effort and spindles of ice!

North face of K2 north glacier.

North face of K2 north glacier. (B. Odier)

Beyond that, the high valley of the Shaksgam contracts and mysteriously climbs back to the east towards the Shaksgam pass, not far from the Karakoram pass. What an ambience! All around high unknown mountains of around 6000 m to 7000 m, that no one has yet tried to scale. We were just the two of us in this massive desolate place, 15 days from the nearest village. The impression of solitude at the end of this day is very grand.

When we returned to the tent at night, we got the feeling of having experienced a great day of exploration. One day perhaps, we will be able to go towards the east upto the Karakoram pass, to terminate our exploration of the northern slope of the Karakoram!


A journey through the northern glaciers of the Karakoram, the Shaksgam glacier, the K2 north glacier, the Staghar glacier and others by a team of four French skiers in September-October 1993.


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