The First Decade

Climbing, rambling and exploring in the Kishtwar Himalaya, 1965-74

Charles Clarke

Time passes

Fragments ofjourneys long ago.. ..Some were full of wonder. Some were hell. They all blend into soft and easy memories. These were some of the things we did, new ventures in fine mountain country in the east of Jammu & Kashmir. A few stage props rekindle 1965, thoughts of youth, and of utter irresponsibility. Of the latter.. .on a shelf on the landing is an old Stubai, steel screw-gate karabiner. God they were heavy, those old krabs. It weighs half a pound (250 g). A deep rough groove cuts half through the steel D. I was descending through meadows near Tasch, above Zermatt. A disused ski lift ran beside the path, its wire cable spanning several hundred feet between the pylons. 'That's a great way to descend', I thought. So I clipped the krab around the cable, ran a few yards and jumped off the ground. The slope became steeper; the ground fell away. I was plucked into the air and shot down the hillside, the wire hawser carving into the krab, deepening the groove each second. I made sure I escaped at the next pylon, the krab smouldering with friction, never to be used again. Crazy.

In the bookcase is the report of The 1965 Cambridge-Indian Kishtwar Expedition [1]. Nearby is a photo of six fresh-faced youths beside a Land Rover - Ferdowsi, named after the 16th century Persian poet. We were a haphazard band, linked by Cambridge, friendship, India and mountains. Today, Michael is a judge in the High Court, Simon a retired BA pilot, and Hen E works for Schlumberger. Dilsher is in British Columbia running a computer business; Henry D a retired Royal Engineers Lt Colonel - and I'm a neurologist. So at least, we have all survived.

That 1965 report for the Mount Everest Foundation is terse, almost anonymous (I remember we felt we shouldn't put our portraits in the photo section - too show-off, we judged) but it is meticulous. The accounts record that it cost £65 (all petrol, oil, repairs) for the entire journey from Cambridge to Kashmir. (A single London-Delhi plane ticket was around £160 at the time; by sea about £90).

Remember. For a brief moment around 1965, Europe, the Middle East, India and Pakistan were at peace. You simply asked for the route from the AA, ordered a carnet, jumped behind the wheel of a Land Rover and rolled, rattled and spluttered through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. Then you popped over the Khyber into Pakistan, through Punjab and up to Kashmir. There were alternatives - a gentler southern route. You could ship the car to Basra and drive through Iraq. Basra... A far cry from 2005. Henry's Royal Engineer son Ben was on duty there in 2004. In 1965, Cambridge to Kashmir was 21 days, 6000 odd miles. We drove up the hairpins into Kishtwar, to hear the muezzin calling from the minaret of the mosque.
2 Kolb, Fritz. Himalaya Venture. Lutterworth, 1959.
Little was known in the climbing world about the Kishtwar Himalaya. Two anglophile Austrians, Fritz Kolb and Ludwig Krenek had been there shortly after internment in India during World War II. They had been on a lightweight trip and had written a delightful book 2, one of those hallmark, inspirational books like Road to Rakaposhi, and Pumasillo. And so we scraped around for a place to go in the long vacation of 1965. It had to be India (I loved it there and knew the country). It had to be new (for a Mount Everest Foundation grant) and it had to be feasible in the monsoon. Sickle Moon (6574 m- 21,570 ft) and Brammah (6416 m - 21,050 ft) seemed reasonable objectives, so off we went in June 1965 after a May Ball, with less than a dozen Alpine seasons between us.

'Kishtwar. You can't go there now', Harish Kapadia told me in 2004 as we drove along the Chenab river gorge from Manali. 'Full of terrorists'. Harish, Chris Bonington, Suman Dubey, an old friend from Cambridge and I were en route to Lahaul [2] in July 2004.

In '65, Kishtwar, a peaceful town, tucked beside a splendid maidan (meadow) was district headquarters, the southern road head of eastern Kashmir. To the north of Kishtwar lay mule tracks to Nun Kun, Anantnag and towards Srinagar. To the northeast were the routes to Zanskar, over the Umasi la, and to the east Lahaul, Spiti, the Rohtang and Manali. And just several days' march away was the network of valleys we were heading for - Nanth nala, Kiar and Kibar nalas - and unexplored peaks. We hired mule and porters and set off. This country would come to dominate my next ten years.

'I'm sure we'll find some easy 6000-ers' I had announced to everyone. 'I expect it will be like Manali'. After four days of forest paths, birds of paradise, civet cats and the occasional bear, we broke through into the lush meadows of the Nanth nala. A massive south face filled the northern side of the valley, silhouetted in the morning sun. Even on Survey of India maps, it's still known as 'Kishtwar Eiger', the name we gave it in July 1965. I gather the face is still unclimbed. The valley curved round to the east, and on its southern flank was Brammah, a perfect pinnacle soaring out of a green alluvial plain below the Brammah glacier. No gentle snow humps here. This was harsh terrain, lower rock aiguilles, and fine ice above 5600 m. Nothing looked at all easy. Nothing was.

In 1965 we busied ourselves exploring the tedious moraines of the Brammah glacier and lower peaks, and even made one foray up the Eiger before showers of rock fall made us think twice. We spent three weeks through late July and August largely in the rain, making no first ascents in this paradise of peaks. Towards the end of the trip, the weather picked up. We looked carefully at Brammah. Henry D pointed out a route on a snow ramp up to Brammah's southeast ridge. On 17 August we made a spirited attempt to reach it. After five hours of delightful climbing, we broke through a small cornice to emerge on a broad snow col in brilliant weather. Next day, Simon and Hen set off for the summit.

Expedition Report: 'August 18th. It was cloudy at midnight and at 1 a.m. Brown and Edmundson left their tent at 4.30 a.m. under a good moon. Steep snow bulges.. .rocky knife edged ridges. a Brocken spectre in the mist.. .a dozen or so gendarmes.. .the penultimate passed after seven

hours. Ahead was the long steep snow climb to the summit.......... but to

reach it we should have to traverse the Final Massive Gendarme. The ice was so glassy our axes merely produced shallow craters in its jet-black surface. Instead, we climbed to the crest.. ..and walked to where we could begin to rock climb round its east side. The face was ... a long way beyond our capabilities.

The lure of the summit was so strong that nevertheless we attempted the ice traverse. Edmundson slipped .and both dangled from an ice screw that was secure for only two inches. Edmundson was able to pendulum across and belay on a rock..the retreat was started in thick mist and falling snow and the tent reached by 7.45pm.'

Our time was up, and Simon and Hen had had a narrow escape on the ridge. As a swansong, Hen and I decided we would try to descend to the south, down the unknown Kibar icefall and meet the team somewhere, after the two valleys met. Looking back on it, the idea was tinged with lunacy had there been an accident. In the event, Hen and I had several great days on our own. We found the icefall easy and we all met up later as planned.

Just the drive home to Cambridge lay ahead, it seemed. But this was not to be. India and Pakistan were at war. We were to discover this (we had had no radio in the hills) only on returning to Kishtwar. So we drove towards Delhi. We heard gunfire and saw the puffs of smoke of the terrible tank battle on the Jammu-Pathankot road. Once in the capital, we stayed as guests of the General and Mrs Dubey, father of Suman, a Cambridge (and Lahaul 2004) friend. Ferdowsi, the Land rover was impounded and never seen again. And we came home by air and sea, at vast expense. I often wonder if I will see that familiar number plate somewhere in an Indian village. '476 HPU'.

As the first expedition to the Kishtwar region, there was some interest on our return. Some deft photo-journalism even landed Hen cutting through a cornice on the front cover of the Illustrated

London News (now no more) - the ILN was then a sort of up-market Hello! magazine.

Such were the trials of medical student life, I had to wait until 1969 for the next Kishtwar trip. There seemed no slot in the curriculum for the continuous period between February and early November 1969 - the period I planned to stay in the Himalaya, existing largely on two Mount Everest Foundation grants. I consulted the professor of medicine at Guy's, John Butterfield, something of a wheeler-dealer himself, it seemed. 'Send me a telegram after a few months', he said. 'Tell me you are unwell, and need to delay your Finals'. So that was what I did.

In the pre-monsoon '69 season I went to Kanjiroba Himal with John Tyson (and with Simon, from '65). This left the post-monsoon months free for Kishtwar '69. I wanted to go to the north, to look at the Kiar valley and the approaches to Sickle Moon (6474 m - 21,570 ft). We were a smaller team 4, and travelled light. In September '69, John, Barbara,

Kiran and I went back to the Brammah glacier and climbed an 18,000 ft rock spire we called 'Crooked Finger'. Autumn was coming, the air crisp, clear and icy. John and I moved north to explore the Prul glacier in the Kiar nala and managed a few small nameless peaks. Barbara, dutifully, had had to be back for university term. Kiran (he was later to die on Everest) went off to hunt, and came back with an ibex - as politically incorrect then, as now.

Kishtwar No. 3 was in 1971 [3]. I was just married, and in asking Ruth to engage on that project, had suggested we go an expedition honeymoon. Well, I was going anyway. The wisdom of this was soon cast into in doubt, especially since we had only one communal sleeping tent for the entire expedition. However, our marriage has survived. This 1971 expedition was to be the definitive attempt on Brammah. We approached from the Kibar nala, retracing the route Hen and I had descended in 1965. Camp was on the broad col with good weather. All seemed set for success. David and Hen dealt swiftly with the ridge and the Final Massive Gendarme of 1965. Before them lay the summit snow slope, in fine weather. But the snow was crusty and breaking up. Slab avalanches seemed a distinct possibility and thus, wisely they turned about. We were all struck by lightning on the way down, base camp was hit by a mud slide, and a brown bear walked into base camp to see Ruth and Sara.

We left the area via the northern mule tracks, passed Nun Kun to reach Anantnag, a delightful journey, and then on to Srinagar with a houseboat (+ private bedroom) on the Dal lake. We still have the carpets we bought. The carpet shop's card, Habibullah Malik & Sons, Reiteng, Khanyar, Srinagar still sits on the mantelpiece, over thirty years on.

Finally, there was 1974. I went to Kishtwar alone 6. Various 'might come' people had fallen by the wayside. I was restless. Ruth sensed this restlessness, and despite Rebecca (aged one), Sheridan the retriever, her work and mine, I set off again. There seemed little point in going back to Kishtwar valleys where I knew I could climb nothing, so devised a plan to explore a new valley with two Kishtwari locals, Radakrishnan and Chunilal (from '71). The Kijai nala was on the route towards Manali, and it seemed natural to continue towards the Rohtang along the Chenab gorge.

A rickety jula (rope bridge) led across the Chenab towards the Kijai nala. The locals said the valley was impenetrable. As usual we paid no attention to this advice until we were blocked by a cirque of cliffs around 13,000 ft.

And so, on towards the Rohtang along the Chenab. A road now runs along the northern side of the gorge, for small trucks and jeeps between Udaipur and Kishtwar, the route of the 2004journey with Harish Kapadia. From the road one can see the remains of a track winding its way along the cliffs on the opposite southern side of the gorge, still in places propped up by wooden piers. In the gulleys, the path is now washed away. This was the route I used in 1974, a week or so's journey to Udaipur.

I finished the year by joining a Canadian [4] expedition to Swagarohini II, a virgin 20,000-er in the Upper Tons valley, above the Doon valley. This was a mountain Jack Gibson, principal of Mayo College, Ajmer had attempted. I had worked at Mayo in 1962 and been enthralled by Jack's account of the area. Dilsher (of Kishtwar '65, by now Canadian) had organised the trip. We set off from Dilsher's mother, Maidi's house in Dehra Dun.

Swagarohini II was an easy plod. I was fit, acclimatised, impatient and irresponsible. We ambled to the summit on a brilliant, icy cold October day. It was my first virgin 20,000-er. On the descent I realised my feet were frozen solid. I was badly frostbitten and unable to walk. I travelled back to Dehra Dun on horseback, heavily bandaged and was to spend the next three months in and out of a wheelchair.

But there was a sequel to 1974. On our return to Maidi's home in Dehra Dun, there was a telegram from my mother. 'Chris Bonington has asked you to go to Everest South West Face next year. We thought you would like it, so have said definitely YES'. And that was why, at least in part, some thirty years later, I was standing with Harish, Suman and Chris talking about that mule track on the southern wall of the Chenab gorge.


Visits to the Kishtwar Himalaya.

[1] Kishtwar 1965: Charles Clarke (leader), Simon Brown, Henry Day, Henry (Hen) Edmundson, Michael Tugendhat, Dilsher Singh Virk, Jagatram, Amar Chand (Kishtwar). Cambridge-Indian Kishtwar Expedition. Mount Everest Foundation Archives (Royal Geographical Society, or Alpine Club, London).

[2] 2004 Lahaul: Harish Kapadia, Sir Chris Bonington, Bujor Banaji, Ryan Banaji, Charles Clarke, Rebecca Clarke, Julian Davey, Suman Dubey, Kate Keohane, Gerry & Louise Wilson.

[2] Kishtwar 1969: Charles Clarke, John & Barbara Harriss, Kiran Kumar; Amar Chand, Chunilal (Kishtwar).

[3] Kishtwar 1971: Charles Clarke, Ruth Clarke, Sara Day, Henry (Hen) Edmundson, David Gundry, Ruth Seifert, Arun Chauhan; Amar Chand (Kishtwar).

[4] Canadian Swagarohini II expedition 1974: The Alpine Journal 1975.