THE MIRROR LAKE
THE AIR WAS STILL on that chilly morning in late September 1994. Not a cloud in the sky, and behind the Gasherbrum glacier there was the stark light of the early sun reverberating from icy walls of Karakoram peaks, glistening on garlands of cornices on sharp ridges below the intense blue vault, sliding further and further down over black and rust coloured ribs and hills towards the myriad of ice-towers which were raising their tops like a frozen forest over the glacier floor. Rollo and I had set up our tent on the even ground between the crest of the glacier's southern side- moraine and the scree-slopes and yellowish cliffs of 'Left Ear' - and 'Right Ear' - Peak, how Julie and I had called two pointed Dolomite shapes of about 5000 m eleven years ago. From a high saddle between them, across waves of grey-green loam, a tiny stream came down during daytime, and a short distance from our campsite it had formed a shallow little lake between the moraine and the mountainside. On this chilly morning the water was like a mirror, and in some places had turned into a shining surface of ice.... Surrounded by the dark moraine and our hidden corner which was still in the shade of the two Ear-peaks, the mirror was reflecting the bright pyramid of K2, the fluted crest of Broad Peak, the pointed shapes of Julie's and my 'camels' one of them almost 7000 m high and even more bizzarre than the mighty eight thousanders in the distance. It was a picture of magic beauty, and really made you understand, why you come here, to such a place at the end of the world. Rollo and I, each on his own, strolled along the lake, moved up and down between the rocks on its edge, discovering again and again another fascinating view - when we met, we almost whispered, as if too loud words might disturb the mirror!
Then something happened, as if it came out of this shiny surface: in my mind, I saw the lake eleven years ago, it was greenish- grey with hundreds of small ripples. Julie was laughing, as we suddenly stood in front of it, because it was the last tiling we expected to see when we passed around a rusty rock pillar! There was even a couple of ducks flying away.... the whole tiling was such a funny surprise - for them certainly no less than for us. Next day, together with our friends from the Italian K2 expedition, it was just here that we found a steep passage from the edge of the moraine down to the glacier floor. Then we continued our exploration, reaching, after a bivouac and an exposed traverse across ice-pinnacles above a glacier lake, the site for, who knows.... perhaps a future base camp of ours, below Gasherbrum II?
Now, by 1994, the old passage of 1983 down to the glacier floor has disappeared, the whole moraine wall had simply broken off and been swept away, I saw that yesterday, and a wilderness of huge ice towers blocks every access towards the large middle moraine of the Gasherbrum glacier. Dreams, beautiful dreams....
The lake is still, like under a spell it seems, so intense is its silence. From this chilly place without sunlight the pointed towers of ice appear as a haunted parade of dark blue figures in front of the glistening mountain world behind them. Something of magic, like a soundless voice, penetrates the air over the lake, linking the present time with the past....
You could not explain that to anybody, but it is there, this something, in the Shaksgam, again and again... if you listen. I have been six times now to this valley and its great glaciers. And I always felt to have to return again.
It caught me for the first time, when I stood on the top of Gasherbrum II in August 1979. We had climbed it from Pakistan and my Austrian friends had already left the summit. Now I was alone, yes -1 wanted to be there a little longer... It was an unusual day for standing on a summit, and moreover my feeling was far from being happy. More than twenty years ago I had experienced the Baltoro as a lonely place, now it was crowded with expeditions. The weather was like an echo to my mood: looking westward I saw grey darkness creeping over the sky, the summit of K2 was shrouded by a veil and a strange light was spreading out over the ragged ocean of Karakoram peaks. An atmosphere of menace dominated, of 'Twilight of the Gods'...
Recalling the final hour of climbing to the summit of this eight thousand metre peak I told later in Spirits of the Air.
Never in my life have I arrived on a summit in such gloom. The struggle higher, full of fatigue, stopping time and again... Really, we should be ascending one of the most enthralling peaks on earth. But today? Clear view into the distance, but with a strange twilight above overlaying everything, like a burden... I cannot help thinking of the fantastic sunset display Hermann Buhl and I experienced on the summit we shared - on Broad Peak, just over there - an unearthly play of light seemed to penetrate our very souls. The gods were close to us then. Not now. Did they flee from the many people here into the distant spaces of Sinkiang, this immense mountain world stretching to the horizon......................................................
No, I was not happy at all up there. Then, somehow, something changed:
As I looked down into the pale mountain desert on the Chinese side of the peak, with its soft pastel colours between brown and blue, with a transparent haze and patches of sunlight touching lonely valleys and big ice flows with thousands of pointed towers, it was to me like a whisper reaching me from down there: 'come, it's your place'....!
I felt it at once: this atmosphere of silence and loneliness, of fantasy and unknown country, it is that I was longing for... 'Kurt, you must get down to this valley' I said to myself. And I would.
On this day a great wish was born.
It was the beginning of my Shaksgam year.
Tilman's Loop and Beyond
Shaksgam explorations between Gasherbrum and K2
'The next morning Tilman arrived. He had managed to reach the Staircase glacier and to follow it down. In the bad weather he had seen very little but it was an interesting trip, and his compass bearings have been a help in plotting that section of the map.'
This laconic and somewhat enigmatic statement of Eric Shipton in Blank on the Map about his companion's lonely exploration was all Julie Tullis and I found out from his book about what we used to call 'Tilman's loop'. Luckily it was well marked in red on Michael Spenders map: a thin red line, a circuit of longish shape, which holds a nameless peak of 6350 m in its centre, climbed by the pair together in one of those days of 1937.
The loop almost touches Skyang Kangri (7550 m), but Tilman, who came from the northern K2-glacier, left the wide snow-and ice-circus below it, climbing over a narrow gap of roughly 5300 m (or more - it's called 'Tilman's gap' later in this story), and after a steep descent onto a lateral glacier arm, eventually reached the huge ice-stream, which they used to call the 'Staircase glacier' (Skyang glacier on Spender's map). He followed it down to its end until he could enter and pass a wild, deeply cut-in-gorge ('But did he really?' Julie and I wondered when we passed through it in summer 1983). Otherwise he had to traverse, hundreds of meters above the chasm, a steep, rotten wall of horrible loose rock, for which he would certainly deserve "the golden hoof'.... in a competition of agile Karakoram mountain goats. Whatever he did .... in some way he managed to tackle what became the unexpected crux of my and my friends' traverse between the Gasherbrum and the K2- glacier in August/September 1994, an obstacle that would force us onto an escape route of dirt-covered slabs to be climbed on crampons and would send to hell our schedule of time and food in a way that for the first time in my life made me crunch a pack of dry, uncooked Spaghetti, dug out from a K2 garbage dump.
Back to 1983: Reaching Tilman's 'Sanctuary', this 'Staircase glacier', was one of those things, Julie Tullis and I were dreaming of in the breaks when we were not filming our Italian expedition on the north spur of K2. We even envisaged to repeat the whole 'Tilman loop' in the one or other direction - and though lack of time did not allow that then, it was there, that my dream of a much bigger traverse over new ground was born.
Somehow I had read or heard and it stuck in my mind - even though I was not sure where from - that Shipton and Tilman at first tried the gorge together in order to reach the Staircase glacier, but had to give up at a wall with a waterfall. When Tilman later on reached the glacier by himself 'down his way', Shipton perhaps might not have got too many details about this remarkable undertaking. Therefore, to Julie and me, nothing was very clear about it but when we looked at the entrance of the gorge between steep mountain-slopes and enormous shoots, both of us agreed not to be keen on long traverses on sliding scree... and we entered the cleft/chasm.
... We are wading through the glacier torrent, after initial jumps and zigzag crossings we are more and more constricted to stay in the water; often it reaches up to our highs or even higher - the vertical walls at either side have narrowed down to a dark corridor of a few meters, with domes of rock above our heads which seem to be overlapping... you are like a sparrow between two mighty hands, cold hands... and while we try to keep each other in a good mood by occasional jokes there is no way not to realise to be in a really hairy enterprise; thinking of all the water, that might come down here, gives a sinister feeling of that invisible huge glacier higher up; we keep an eye on the level, ready to turn around any time, but by and by, when two hours have passed, we understand, in a mixture of joy and madness - that there is not much choice any more, we decided to get through here, and now we are in here! A strange climax of life... Still, at every curve we hope the next corner reveals daylight. That there could be much more water than now, is confirmed by huge bridges of ice, over which we work our way or under which we crawl through - once we are climbing through a big tube of ice, proceeding in the water; even by the time we are pretty sure it would definitely not rise, the wish to make it to the glacier pushes us forward with might and we are relentlessly moving arms, legs and our will of decision as fast as we can....
At a certain point - as Julie recalls in Clouds from Both Sides... An enormous boulder blocked our way and on the top of it balanced a big sheet of thick ice at an angle of about 50°. It was all sloping towards a cascade which fell in a rushing white curtain of water down for sixty feet. For the first foothold to get onto the boulder we had to find a small rock to form a step and then, with a couple of delicate moves, reach the ice slab. We had no climbing equipment with us, so Kurt cut steps in the slab with a stone and his ski stick, and I watched him anxiously as he moved carefully from hold to hold on the slippery, semi-transparent, shiny blue surface.... And onwards we ran: 4 1/2 hours after our start, at six o'clock we were finally sitting on a large rock buttress just below the glacier. We had made it. Not far from us were the pointed shapes of huge ice-towers! We reached base camp by torchlight at ten o'clock... Both of us doubted, that this could have been Tilman's route. He must have found some sort of traverse higher up, we said.
Yet another day we were sure to be where he was: in the sunshine of a late afternoon we had reached that narrow white gap, through which he sneaked below Skyang Kangri.... We looked up to the shimmering seracs of the enormous mountain and glanced deep down, where beyond the edge of the gap a row of shadows of peaks was projected onto the white floor of a side-valley like a dark procession of figures that moved right, towards the Staircase glacier... we could clearly see 'our' line of ice-towers in the distance!
The fascination of this glacier grew the more we realised, how difficult the access from every side was. Another break in our film work on K2, and we stood at 6000 m on the east side of 'Shipton's Peak' - as we used to call the nameless mountain at the centre of 'Tilman's loop'. From here we could look up the Staircase glacier a long ways... But also to an intricate system of glaciers and peaks, where one might have to find a way through - if ever one wanted to get beyond this area.... over, perhaps, to the Gasherbrum glacier, where we had been on exploration just in earlier days of that summer. 'Anything but an easy tart - but really fascinating', said Julie at a low voice, and her dark eyes mustered the labyrinth of saddles, peaks and glaciers that extended in front of us towards southeast, where beyond icy domes and behind cliffs that might well have stood in our Dolomites, the characteristic shapes of Teram Kangri and its neighbours had appeared on the horizon. It was a wonderful landscape, which made you wish to step into the unknown... We would come back.
Autumn 1991: eight years later, I am on 'the other side', still in China, but on the northern Gasherbrum glacier - together with my friends from Catalonia we explore and attempt the unclimbed east face of Broad Peak. And Julie? My good friend remained forever on K2, only three years after our Werben (wooing, courting?) for the 'Tilman's loop and perhaps beyond'. However, I did not forget that old promise in our minds... I want to find out the access to the Staircase glacier from the Gasherbrum side now! Some maps show a separating ridge between it and the East Skyang glacier, others a saddle. What is true? This time I move up alone.
carrying a mobile camp with me, and at the second go I find access to an unknown saddle, which, I guess, must lead over to Shipton's 'Staircase glacier'. Does it really? I cannot look over it, have to stop short from it - the hour is too late and there are many crevasses.
One year later, I am back again with my Catalans. We earn the success, which we prepared the year before: Oscar Cadiach, Lluis Rafol, Enric Dalmau and Alberto Soncini reach the top of Broad Peak Central, 8016 m high. Even though I went to camp 2, my field really had become exploration - and I am on the move most of the time in the area; but being alone I cannot enter areas with hidden crevasses - so I climb high on nameless mountains and find out routes from good viewpoints. Nevertheless, it is a fact: I must come back with a friend, a partner that has a pleasure in exploring saddles and peaks and glaciers!
I find him, Rollo Steffens from Germany, thirty eight years young and full of enthusiasm for my plans. This time, the Staircase dreams must come true! Perhaps even others! Erika Prokosch from Vienna, another experienced mountaineer, joins in, and in August 1994 the three of us move with two Uigur camel drivers, with teacher 'Benny' - a Chinese base camp companion - and six camels up the Shaksgam valley towards the Gasherbrum glacier. Before that we took a bus ride from Islamabad along the Karakoram highway over the Khunj erab pass to Kashgar, then moved onwards via Yecheng and across the Kuen Lun ranges to Mazar, from where we marched with our camels over the 4780 m Aghil pass.
Our enterprise almost finishes in tragedy at the very beginning. Crossing the Shaksgam river an hour up stream of Durbin Jangal, Erika's camel gets into a strong current - she is carried away by the ice cold river water for half a kilometre and is very lucky not to drown. In the incident we lose three loads, mainly food and some gas, but luckily had taken plenty of that and split all our equipment before the river crossings.
We establish our little base camp at about 4150 m on 16 August near a little stream that comes down from the Gasherbrum glacier - a spot pretty close as well to the East Skyang Lungpa glacier valley, through which our route will lead (Shipton's 'Staircase glacier' is also referred to as north Skyang Lungpa glacier on a map and as North Skyang glacier on Jerzy Wala's recent SFAR- map). One thing is clear to the three of us: not any of the peaks but making the great traverse between the Gasherbrum - and the K2-area has first priority! Besides its fantastic landscape it will offer to future visitors a way, a sort of mountaineering 'Haute Route' between two base camps, from Sughet Jangal in the Sarpo Laggo valley to the snout of the Gasherbrum glacier - or vice versa. Without all the dangerous crossings of the Shaksgam river when the valley is flooded! To be picked up them by camels on the other side, when the river is lower - or to do the traverse twice, is a matter of logistics. Being on the first-ever go without knowing the outcome we certainly would/will have to do it twice, covering nearly 100 kilometres through mountain wilderness, which - as it turned out - took us over two weeks in the second half of August and in early September 1994. It could be done in less time, if the route is known, but we still had to find out part of it, especially at the far end, on Tilman's ground....
After some days of acclimatisation we start, heavily loaded, but having initially the benefit of knowing the route I found out in 1991: We climb the black snout of the East Skyang Lungpa glacier over a steep sheet of scree-covered ice from the left, then, bent down under our packs, we stumble upwards with fatigue between enormous hills of moraine - and enter a fantastic landscape of Dolomite shapes, clothed sometimes in glacier: towers, faces, ridges that lead up to over 6000 m ... a climbers heaven! Some petrified shells remind us that this was once bottom of an ocean.
For the next five days we are engaged with reaching the unknown saddle opposite Windy Gap to which I had come so close. Crossing the northern slopes high above the glacier we avoid useless zigzagging between its ice pinnacles - and while good Rollo runs back to fetch some more food and gas to correct our seemingly still too small stock, I climb with Erika a fine white peak of at least 5600 m (our aneroid happened to show 200 m less than the map in other places of the Shaksgam); result of this reconnaissance: from the summit we catch a splendid view down the 'Staircase glacier' finally I know, the saddle below us is the pass I wanted to find! Far out in the distance, perhaps twenty kilometres away, there is a rugged white line of pinnacles... these must be 'our' ice towers. Julie's and mine - at least somewhere there is the spot that we reached after our marathon through the gorge! My happiness is immense and around us is a great world of glistening glaciers and peaks, ice covered pyramids, domes and rugged colourful Dolomite shapes! Already during the past days we saw K2, rising behind the Windy gap, not even a glimpse of Broad Peak, and, of course, the mighty Skyang Kangri was ever present.
Nest day, after a crevasse zigzag and a subsequent descending traverse we make our way into the Saddle - it would have been a total nonsense trying to reach it from below, that is from the Skyang glacier valley floor, nothing but broken ice, crevasses and towers from down there! The three of us hug on our saddle - the joy is no less than on a peak reached for the first time. As for height, we get 5245 m ... but again, as I told above, it could be rather more. Then we spread our wings and fly.... no, we hurry up our steps and quickly move down the glacier - happy as if we would enter a new land, our land!
We leave a depot for the way back (one of several cache's) at the foot of a huge yellowish 'dumpling' of limestone - which can be seen even from far distance and then continue over the wide glacier floor. Crevassefields change with easy ground, to our left another glacier flow joins in and we notice, that on this side, below Skyang Kangri, there are various possibilities of crossings over gaps in a ridge of peaks that divides our glacier from the valley we came from. By evening we meet an impressive row of ice towers that joins/marches in from a valley at our left at about 4800 m, and find a perfect flat spot on soft black sand between the pinnacles and our glacier. We pitch our tent for the first time in this sanctuary that now, for days, will be ours. In the distance, thrusting skywards, K2 has appeared again.... beautiful, in another shape of magic...
Next morning I discover 'Tilman's gap' and the steep white slope below, - rising at the far end of our side valley, just in direction to K2. There is some hesitation, whether to use it as a way out from here - or rather to continue with our 'Staircase glacier' to the very end, hoping to discover Tilman's exit or tackling once more Julie's and my gorge (we have rope and pitons for an abseil). If there for any reason we fail to make it through to Sughet Jangal... well, then we might unfortunately be forced to return here and take the route via 'Tilman's gap', which would be a considerable loss of time; not only time... before all - of food! Nevertheless, we decide to stay with our glacier. But now, with pinnacles increasing in number and size all around, with growing humps of debris wherever we look, we prefer to climb up a big old moraine that accompanies it at its left side.... And look there! - after an hour we find an explorer master's sign.... a big black rock and a black direction stone pointing down the valley, both sitting on a bright boulder. Tilman's? We believe, it is... In this position, such a sign could resist well fifty years and even more. The old moraine is very solid and even some flowers show here and there.... In the course of the day several smaller glacier valleys reach us from the left, where high mountain walls and ridges thrust upwards... each time the interruption of our comfortable 'highway' causes a lot of effort to get again onto it after a deviation over the main glacier or chaotic younger moraine hills. It is late, when finally we climb down a steep ditch just alongside the snout/front of the glacier, an enormous wall of black ice, discharging boulders and water, a vertical landscape filled with the roar of the mighty river, that appears foaming from a black mouth not even a stone's throw away....
'So much for our gorge, Julie', I think. Then I run, jump through cascading water, because more rocks are rattling down all around from this black monster of ice.
...We have pitched our tent on a fabulous place. Tafts of green grass, flowers - and in front of us, the river. Too much water for tackling the gorge, it's obvious. But the V-shaped valley with its incredible flanks... exposed 'castles', vertical ribs of rock, giant chimneys... must be a paradise for mountain goats! We find their footsteps everywhere, real trails... no wonder, good old Tilman made it through here! Hei, Kurt... Tilman was not old then, in 1937! 'True - but where the goats get out, we will get out', I think, 'perhaps this place was even an old pasture ground, when people still used to go over the Mustagh pass and a fanner was living in Sughet Jangal'...?
We are exhilarated. Of course, we have made it! Rollo builds a big cairn, crowned with a couple of horns of blue sheep (lots of those here!) and puts an empty tin with the message of the first traverse into it.
No more depot here, we eat and drink... and next day we make good progress, follow the mountain animals paths across the slopes, cross boulder fields - and go and go, it is truly a long way, sometimes up, sometimes down, in and out.... Deep below us, the rushing river.... And the gorge? my friends ask. I am puzzled, I don't see it - Down there, in the riverbed, Julie and I must have run like hell towards the glacier.... but that is not the gorge! At any rate, eventually it will arrive...
It did arrive. And at the same time, we saw the "V" of stone - an awful shape, the real lock, that shuts off this valley! Scrutinising, we discovered on loose scree slopes between vertical pillars and steep gullies finally some tracks of the mountain goats - where they get through. Real mountain goats passages... perhaps 300 m of impressive abyss into the far roar of the chasm below.
Rollo let hear a deep sigh, threw his pack to the ground and tried to find out, whether there was a possibility - but he returned with a long face: too much risk! All is loose! It is so easy there to do a fatal step.... and we don't have four legs! he mumbled.
What a blow! With the remaining food it would have been a gamble to go back and try the whole thing via "Tilman's gap" now! So what? Climb over the high mountain ridge above us and descend to the K2 glacier on the other side? A desperate solution... nobody can know how and where we may be able to get down there... But there was not much choice. This or give up.
We made it, but I shall never forget!
Next day we climbed over boulders, loose scree, crumbling ribs, sand and whatever fantasy can work out for a climbers hell about 800 m up to 'Rollo's gate' (this devil deserves a monument) and down the other side - which was not less and worse.... with the climax at the bottom: an old glacier slab, covered with 1-2 fingers of dirt, about one hundred meters up in the air above a boulder field... tackled with ice axe and aluminium crampons - I don't wish it to anybody! We were busy all day long and slept a stones throw from the front of the K2 glacier, just about where we had come down.
Nobody wants to share my 'black-ink-soup', the remaining water from boiled Sughet Jangal mushrooms - it is true, they were a bit old. Shall I confess my thoughts, when I saw a pair of ducks, playing between the bushes... I hesitate, being a guarantor of Mountain Wilderness. However, this really was an extraordinary situation: having lived in the end of a tin of fish and a soup per day I had no problems now in devouring a full glass of sticky sweet Pakistani jam in one go - it usually never passes my lips. A real gift to find five of these 'plugs' for an Austrian stomach between the boulders! Erika prefers Russian fish.... dug out from a last years dump. Rolo waves packets of spaghetti, which he encountered near a donkey-shed on the way down to this beautiful green spot at 3850 m, all meadow and bushes, small meanders of the Sarpo Laggo river, small fish in it, little birds singing... Sughet Jangal. And nobody there. They are all gone. The American, the Spanish, the Italian K2 - expeditions....
Wisely I had agreed with Don Arturo, that they left a drum of food at a place halfway up the K2-glacier, but never was totally sure we would really encounter it. For the way back we could count on our small depots, however now... A visit to Greg Mortimer's base camp? Rollo and I were on the verge of giving up when finally, after a couple of hours stumbling and circling through the valley that leads towards the Mustagh pass we found a single tent - with nobody. They were all up, somewhere on Chongtar peak, even the nice lady we expected to meet had gone. What a pity! We wrote a letter, chewing Australian cheese and chocolate...
I guess, it must have been exactly the day, when the guys reached the summit - it was the highest unclimbed peak on earth, Chongtar main, 7370 m!
To tell of our return to the Gasherbrum glacier would be a story of its own
It was a very hard adventure. Fresh snow had fallen, we had to break trail for hours and hours to get back over our saddle. And it shall not be kept a secret, that my young German friend ploughed most of that ditch to its top. Before that, we had done the other half of 'Tilman's loop', coming up the K2-glacier and then climbing, over his gap below Skyang Kangri. Below this 'Staircase Peak' - which obviously had influenced Eric Shipton in calling 'Staicase glacier' the one so close-by and so hidden- away flow of ice which attracted Tilman so much that he went off to reach it - from above, and alone.
Yet, there is something else to tell briefly about the results of our explorations in the summer 1994: Once more I wanted to give a close look to the north face of Gasherbrum II. I had been to its base in 1983 already with Julie and some other companions of the Italian K2 expedition. But the real viewpoint - understood during my explorations in 1991 and 1992 - could only be just exactly in front of the face and high up!
After our traverse to Sughet Jangal this was the main thing burning in Rollo Steffen's and my brains. So a fine day we crossed the ice pinnacles of the Gasherbrum glacier, reached its southern side-moraine and pitched our tent at a little lake between it and the brown-yellowish faces of Left Ear Peak and 'Right Ear Peak' ... how Julie and I had called two vertical Dolomite cliffs of some 5000 m that stand there. Next morning we wanted to get behind a saw-tooth ridge of limestone that blocked our view to the face, but it turned out to be a complicated matter, as the moraine has been carried away to a fair extent by erosion and the glacier is rather chaotic. All of a sudden both of us fall upon the same idea: Climb up a frozen little stream towards a yellow tower high up in the sky... there is a gap, and one must then be able to see the Gasherbrums beyond/behind the 'Saw tooth ridge'!
We climb for two hours, and then the view from the gap is down to the Urdok glacier! Verdammte Schweinerei - Rollo is swearing and points to the final crest of the 'Saw tooth ridge' which is still higher and blocks the view. This time he is on the point of giving up - and its' me to convince him to go on.
We shall never regret...
There they are: Hidden Peak, Gasherbrum II, III, IV, ... then 'the Camels' - an insider name for a couple of beautiful peaks - ... and then Broad Peak and in the end: K2....!
On a day of days, seen from a place, so exposed, so much out in the air - that one might not even call it an eagles nest. It is simply a flake of limestone we are clinging to... We shall never regret to have gone on, that day. Sometimes one has simply not to give up. It was the greatest view we had during our expedition.
And one, that might well be a key for the future....
Recalling author's several visits to the Shaksgam valley.
Mirror Lake, reflections of Broad Peak and Camel Peak. (Kurt Diemberger)