Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.58

Publication year:
2002

Editor:
Harish Kapadia
Index
  1. TWO POEMS
    (REV. ROY GREENWOOD)
  2. HIMALAYA: MYTHICAL SHANGRI LA TO GLOBALISING COCKPIT1
    (A. D. MODDIE)
  3. QUEST FOR SOURCE OF THE MEKONG RIVER
    (TAMOTSU NAKAMURA)
  4. FIRST ASCENT OF TIRSULI WEST
    (MAJOR KULWANT SINGH DHAMI, SM)
  5. NANDA GHUNTI FROM BOTH SIDES
    (MARTIN MORAN)
  6. MERU PEAK: THE GATE TO THE SKY
    (VALERI BABANOV)
  7. A CLIMB IN THE CLOUDS
    (ARNAB BANERJEE)
  8. PERMIT ME, SANCTUARY
    (STEVEN BERRY)
  9. NANDA DEVI JUGGERNAUT
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  10. THE TRIDENT OF SHIVA
    (COLIN KNOWLES)
  11. LAST MINUTE JOURNEY
    (ANTONELLA CICOGNA and MARIO MANICA)
  12. A DATE WITH THE TIMELESS MOUNTAINS
    (Lt. Col. A. ABBEY)
  13. IN THE LAND OF ARGANS
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  14. BARBAROSSA
    (MARK RICHEY)
  15. BRITISH SOLU EXPEDITION 2000
    (DAVE WILKINSON)
  16. TRAVELS WITH DONKEYS IN THE KUN LUN
    (COLONEL HENRY DAY)
  17. TO THE ALPS OF TIBET
    (TAMOTSU NAKAMURA)
  18. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  19. BOOK REVIEWS
  20. IN MEMORIAM
  21. CORRESPONDENCE
  22. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 2001
  23. CLUB PROCEEDINGS

BRITISH SOLU EXPEDITION 2000

DAVE WILKINSON

Introduction

Dave had been up the Basha river valley (leading to Arandu) on four previous occasions. Over the river from the jeep road was the village of Bisil, and beyond it the start of a little-known valley leading to the twin Sokha and Solu glaciers. A few parties had crossed the Sokha La to/from the upper Biafo glacier, but no climbing seemed to have been done, and there was no record of parties even visiting the Solu.

The unknown is always tempting, and the idea had been forming for some years in Dave's mind to visit one or both of these glaciers. Some pictures of the Sokha peaks (by Steve Venables) were found in an old magazine. These looked attractive but quite serious.

Ken, Paul, and Karl had been to the Hindu Kush during '99 on an 'official' expedition with liaison officer and all the trappings. They quite liked the idea of a smaller, more hassle-free trip. The Sokha and Solu peaks are mostly below the witching height of 6000 m, so would require no permit, peak fee or LO.

During the planning stage, Dave had a phone call out of the blue from Ian Arnold. He had read of our planned visit in the BMC's Summit publication. He had been to the Sokha glacier twice before, firstly to cross the Sokha La, then in 1992 he climbed one small peak and made a very good attempt at a serious route on the north face of Sokha Brakk, point 5956 m. (apparently still unclimbed). He was planning to visit the Sokha glacier again in summer 2000, at about the same time as us.

Happily, this contact developed cooperatively rather than confrontationally, and Ian even obliged by loaning us a large part of his collection of 1992 photos, a most generous act. These were helpful, but mainly in a negative sense, showing many serious objectives on the Sokha glacier. One photo up the Solu glacier from the junction showed some more friendly mountains: point 6102 m. and its subsidiaries, so, when the time came, we opted to go to the even more unknown Solu.

Photos 47 and 49

Approaches

Dave and Karl flew out to Rawalpindi on 11 July and bought the bulk of the food and other supplies. Three days later, they met Ken at the airport with hired minibus, and drove straight away to Skardu. Paul had continuing work commitments, and would catch us up later at base camp. In Skardu we met an old friend Abbas from Satpara village, who would be our cook/head porter, along with his assistant, Hamsali. Two days later, a jeep was taken up the Shigar and Basha valleys as far as a wire pulley bridge, which led across to Bisil. We crossed over with our 18 porter loads.

The Bisil men have a slightly unfavourable reputation. The only problem we had with them was on this day of our arrival. There are actually two villages; the original one Lower Bisil marked simply as Bisil on the Jerzy Wala map (Swiss foundation for Alpine research, Zurich 1990), and the newer Upper Bisil marked as sulphur spring. The lambadar (village headman) presides over both villages, but there is considerable rivalry between some of the villagers. We were confronted by a shouting haggling array of men from the lower village hoping for work as porters. Few expeditions or treks go up their valley, so the work is much coveted. Had we employed a team from the lower village, this would have caused trouble in the upper one, which we had to pass through. Abbas, at first alarmed by the turmoil, persuaded enough of these men that we would not employ anyone immediately, and their best interest would be served if they carried our loads free of charge as far as the upper village, where the lambadar lived.

We lodged for one night at the rest house in the upper village, to escape from the madding crowd of would-be porters, but we would not recommend this place, being filthy, overpriced, and with an unfriendly guardian. Later that evening, the lambadar came to see us. He proved to be good-natured, honest and helpful, and he chose for us a reliable team of porters, some from each village.

Next day, our first day's walk took us to the summer village of Dabadas, where we bought a goat, which was slaughtered and eaten by our porters, us, and all and sundry. We now had to pick a glacier. We chose the Solu, a greater step into the unknown, and also as it appeared from Ian's photo to have a few more amenable peaks. We continued the next day to the smaller herdsmen's village of Pakora, then the next day to the similar encampment of Sugulu.

We learned from the locals that an expedition had been here a few years previously (1995?), their base camp site was pointed out (across the

side glacier west from Sugulu), and they were said to have climbed three mountains. But no-one knew who they were, what country they were from, or exactly what they had climbed. If this information was at all correct, we guessed they had done point 6102 m. and a couple of it's adjacent peaks (those to the west?). These would have been easiest and also most accessible from their base camp. This was slightly embarrassing. We were supposed to be exploring new peaks, and had been given substantial grants by the BMC and MEF to do so.

We also had to find a base camp of our own. Camping with the herdsmen is quite sociable, but not ideal. They had a few boys with them who could be tiresome. Animals can trample on tents. Animals also mean flies. We were told of another place, this one unused as pasture, an hour further up the glacier, so we were taken there on the third day of our walk-in. This proved to be a good place, a small ablation valley with its own lake, well placed for exploration further up the glacier, altitude c. 3850 m. We noticed an error in the Jerzy Wala map: it did not include the side glacier to the north and immediately west of our base camp.

With porters, it is usually a good idea to negotiate in advance, and agree on daily stages, and rates of pay, provided there are precedents, and you know where you are going. We did no such thing this time, as the valley was little visited, and you can't agree when you haven't yet decided on your destination. But they seemed reasonable men, and now the portering was finished, it was a fait accomplish, so the strong cards were not all in the porters' hands. Compared with other parts of Baltistan, the Basha valley porters seem to do shorter stages, but they are happy to do more than a stage a day, and demand less pay per stage, so it totals out quite fairly. A short negotiating session, and both sides were happy. Money changed hands, tea and biscuits consumed, hugs and handshakes all round, and off they went back to their villages, leaving us to our business. We then had a day of digging tent platforms, starting home-brew beer, and generally getting sorted.

Reconnaissance

We now had to find suitable objectives. There was no shortage of mountains nearby, and all very scenic, but most of them seemed horribly frightening. Many of the actual peaks looked reasonable, but the approaches didn't. We were hemmed in by the steep lower slopes of the mountains. All around were steep cliffs, smooth slabs, stonefall-raked mixed slopes and steep rubbly moraines. There were side glaciers, but passage up these was guarded by steep icefalls abutting against side walls of rubble and compact rock. What had we committed ourselves to? The winter and spring that year had, by all accounts, been abnormally dry. Lack of snow may have exacerbated problems with stonefall, crevasses and suchlike, other years might be better.

Our first three days in base camp were dominated by rain, often heavy. This did not matter too much while we were acclimatising, but it did delay our reconnaissance. One afternoon, Dave had a solitary walk up the Solu glacier as far as the next side glacier to the left (north). During the walk- in, a couple of attractive peaks could be seen which appeared to be up this way. But access to the side glacier was guarded by a huge and seemingly impregnable ice-fall. The main Solu glacier also had a sizeable ice-fall, which defended access to the upper part of this glacier and other good-looking peaks.

A couple of days later, Ken & Karl attempted to pass the icefall in the Solu, but were defeated by sustained crevasses and seracs. During a snowier year, this might be easier. This pair also gained some height on the slabby ground directly above base camp. This would have lead to the side glacier mentioned above, or the small one further west (not marked on the Jerzy Wala map). But the slabby terrain would have given a time-consuming ascent, and the final access to either of these glaciers was not clear. Meanwhile, Dave had visited the herdsmen at Sugulu, and walked a considerable way up the hill behind. This gave a good view of the big side glacier between base camp and Sugulu, showing some minor but accessible peaks on the Hispar divide, and also a bird's eye view of a hidden valley, which bypassed the lower slabs and icefalls which guarded access. A couple of days later, Dave ascended this hidden valley, which led to secret passage going rightwards to a subsidiary snout of the glacier, which was then gained on gritty 450 ice.

Next day, Ken and Karl followed this way onto the glacier, and left it after a short distance to follow a minor ablation valley, complete with tiny babbling stream and a site for camp 1 at c. 4200 m. Looking down at base camp, it was hard to believe that this camp was little more than a thousand feet higher. It had been hard work getting here, due to the need to walk down the Solu glacier from base camp, then up some complicated and tedious terrain. Next day, the pair explored a scrambly line leading towards the small glacier below point 6102 m, before descending to base camp.

Meanwhile, Paul had arrived at base camp. Unable to persuade his employers to give him quite the full amount of leave, he had ventured to travel alone and catch us up, following a trail of clues we had left. Straight away, he accompanied Dave to camp 1, and part way up to camp 2, following a tedious and tortuous line on and off the glacier edge following rubble and broken crevassed terrain, to a point where the glacier lay back and the line to its upper basin was clear. Bad whether again forced a retreat to base camp.

Climbing and Attempts

Two days later, the united team shouldered big sacs, and trod the now familiar route to camp 1. Next day, an early start took us to Dave and Paul's high point. A long but gentle ascending traverse, with one heavily crevassed section, led to a col behind a prominent rock rognon. A short scramble gained its top and a good site for our camp 2. This had fine views in all directions including, we later discovered, a remarkable glimpse of base camp.

For starters, we decided to go for a small peak right at the head of this side glacier. Although a minor summit, this would be ideal for acclimatisation, and seemed to be on the divide with the Hispar glacier, so we looked forward to some good views to the north. An early start saw us plodding steadily up the easy glacier in the dark. A steeper section, and we made an unlikely find; two dragonfly corpses lying on the snow at 5000 m. We could think of no purpose for their presence here. Perhaps they were driven here by freak winds to perish in the cold, far from their home down below. The sun rose a short way before we arrived at a romantically situated col to the east of our little peak. Taking off our crampons, we scrambled up the loose bouldery ridge to the summit block. Better rock gave a pitch of V. Diff., one pair taking the crest, the other a groove to its left, and we arrived together at the summit.

We sat and soaked up the sun and the hoped-for panorama, which was not at all short of expectations. Apart from the way we had come, the view extended to all the big Hispar peaks and those around the Hispar la, a short way to the east. We were back at camp 2 for lunch. Ken and Karl returned to camp 1 that evening, but Paul and Dave had hopes of another climb the next day. But the weather was generally ill-disposed that summer, and snow and rain saw us all back at base the following day. Further ascents beckoned from camp 2, so we had left a tent, equipment and supplies. We were committed to return.

But there followed a week of mainly wet weather, starting with another abortive trip up to camp 1 and down again. The expedition was taking on some resemblance to a Keystone Cops film. The summer pasture at Sugulu, which we had visited on the walk-in, was only an hour away. Every couple of days, we had herdsmen as visitors, curious to meet the strangers, seeking medical attention, or simply for a brew and a snack, a break from the monotony of their pastoral existence. One day we had different visitors, these were white men. Ian Arnold and his companion Dave Millman had walked over from their base on the neighbouring Sokha glacier. They stayed for three days, a sociable interlude timed to perfection during this spell of bad weather.

After their departure, better weather saw us setting off up again with monster sacks, including food enough for six days. Karl was troubled with his piles, although he did set off, it soon became clear that he would be unable to continue, so sadly he returned to base. We planned another two peaks, with sufficient supplies for that and some sitting and waiting. In a burst of enthusiasm, we went in one day to camp 2. Late arrival and fatigue meant we could not manage an early start next morning (i.e. that night). So we had a rest day, and prepared to leave the following midnight. But the weather played one of its tricks.

Clear starry skies and early evening frost saw us settle down optimistically. When we awakened at 11 p.m. the sky had clouded over, the peaks had disappeared into the murk, the lying neve had gone soggy, and gentle snow had started to fall. We went back to bed hoping for better the next day. Intermittent snow continued to fall till noon, and the weather then cleared to another crisp starry evening, then the cycle repeated itself. This pattern is not uncommon in this range. It is much worse for climbing than the opposite pattern - the familiar Alpine one of clear in the morning, cloudy/stormy in the afternoon, which is not too bad for early-day routes. The unfavourable pattern continued for four days, and actually got worse rather than better, so eventually our patience gave out and so did our supplies. Time was now running out, porters were due in a couple of days, so we reluctantly fled down with all our gear in a whiteout, and arrived back in base camp after almost a week away, much to the relief of the others.

Return

Due to a misunderstanding, the porters arrived a day early, but we were ready for them, and returned to Bisil in time to enjoy their hospitality for 48 hours. We had plenty of time to view their wheat harvesting, bathe in the hot springs, and seriously reduce their stocks of chickens, apricots and walnuts. Then our jeep came and whisked us back to Skardu. We then took the NATCO bus to Pindi where we spent three days waiting for our flight, with various shopping for local crafts and pirate CDs, and an archaeological day at Taxila.

Not the most successful trip any of us has had, but we got on well with most of the locals, we did get up one small peak, and had an interesting reconnaissance of a little-known valley. This has impressive scenery, and has got potential for future trips, but not a great deal that would be easy, and the approaches to the peaks are not easy either.

SUMMARY

Venue : Solu glacier, west/central Karakoram, Pakistan. Approached via Skardu, Shigar, Tissar, Doko, Bisil.

Reconnaissance of Solu glacier and a side glacier to the north.

Ascent (probably first ascent) of one small peak on Solu/Hispar glacier divide.

Our name for this: Sekha Brakk (Dragonfly Peak), c. 5400 m. Members : Dave Wilkinson, Ken Findlay, Karl Zientek, Paul Hudson.