An Old Man Remembers...
Robert H. Bates
In 1932 none of the world's greatest peaks had been climbed. Everest withstood a series of British attempts. The Germans had been defeated on Nanga Parbat, and the Italians on K2. The French had not yet been to Annapurna, but they had failed on Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I). The greatest American climb in Asia at that time was Terris Moore's fine climb of Minya Konka. So few big climbs had been done, our years were later considered to be a Golden Age for high altitude climbers.
I learned to do steep climbing in Alaska with Bradford Washburn, my classmate at Harvard, who was active in the Harvard Mountaineering Club. He had previously made many difficult climbs in the Swiss Alps with two distinguished guides. We made many climbs together in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in winter, also learning about cold weather camping.
I learned to climb the hard way, mainly by doing it. For instance, I remember climbing up a gully and reaching above me to a hold that looked good. When I put my weight on it a huge piece of rock broke loose and began to fall on top of me. I fell back on the steep snow slope where we were standing and the man below me kept me from rolling down. After missing me, the rock continued to fall, breaking into big pieces and starting an avalanche below that we heard thundering down for many minutes afterward.
During our expeditions in Alaska we camped on glaciers and always were exploring, not climbing where others had climbed before. I spent two summers with Washburn in the Fairweather range, the second with two men who also became my life long friends, Charles Houston and Adams Carter. The next year the National Geographic Society employed Washburn to survey the peaks of the Alaska - Yukon boundary in the St. Elias range for altitude and location; he asked me, Carter, and others to go with him. The area was full of big glaciers with deep crevasses, so we went in the winter when the surface ice would be frozen. To transport supplies we hired a dog team from Kluane lake. To begin the survey we flew in from Carcross (Caribou Crossing) and landed west of the unmapped Alsek river.
That winter the temperature where we were was always below freezing, often dropping to 40° below zero F., and sometimes 50°. Washburn needed markers on the tops of many mountains for his accurate surveying, and Carter and I would ski to them to place the markers, making 1st ascents every time.
In 1936 I travelled to Europe to do some work at Oxford, and then went to the French Alps with David Robertson from Princeton to do some guideless climbing. I wanted more, and so the next year Washburn and I were flown in to the Walsh glacier in the Yukon, from where we worked out a route to climb Mt. Lucania, named by the Duke of the Abruzzi, then the highest unclimbed peak in North America. The pilot of the plane could not come for us and so we began to walk out to Kluane lake, where we could get shelter and food.
We first climbed over Mt. Steele, a peak nearly as high as Mt. Lucania, which Walter Wood had climbed in a futile attempt to get to Mt. Lucania. We next tried to cross the Donjck river. Our first attempt was to cross at a ford where Wood had crossed on horseback, but the current was too strong. We worked our way upstream to where the river broadened. Here we managed, partly by swimming, to reach the other side. By now we were nearly out of food and we subsisted on mushrooms we picked and squirrels I shot with an old police revolver. Fortunately, a small pack train to supply a cabin came our way. With them we went out to Kluane lake, about 60 miles away. From there we managed to get a flight to Fairbanks, Alaska.
In 1937 Charlie Houston was asked by the American Alpine Club to lead a team to Mt. Godwin Austin, or K2, as it is now known; to find a route by which it might be climbed. By this time we felt competent to climb any peak in Alaska; but, of course, K2 was something else. This was the big time! It would test us to the bone.
Charlie called me and we put together a team. He had been a key member of the British-American team that made the first ascent of Nanda Devi, the highest peak yet climbed. Our team consisted of Bill House, who had made the first ascent of Mt. Waddington in British Columbia, after it had defeated 16 attempts to do so; Dick Burdsall, who had climbed Minya Konka with Terris Moore; Paul Petzoldt, who had been a guide in the Teton range in The Rockies; and Norman Streatfield, who had been with the Bengal Mountain Artillery.
The guides for the Duke of Abruzzi, who had tried to climb K2 in 1910, said that it could not be climbed because its slopes were too steep to build a trail, and it was too big a mountain to climb in one day. Our
mission was to find a route by which it could be climbed. The first time most of our team got together we all went to the American Alpine Club to see Sella's great pictures. We inverted a waste basket and surrounded it with photographs of K2. We all walked around to see if we could see a possible route. None of us could - but, of course, we went anyway.
It proved to be a fine expedition. After spending a month traveling to the base of the mountain from Srinagar, over 300 miles away, including crossing rivers on rope bridges. We established camp at 16, 480 ft. Here we began to climb from the GodwinAustin glacier. Our first success came when Bill House and Paul Petzoldt found a snow patch at about 19,300 ft where we could pitch tents. It was below the broken rock ridge which the Italian guides had tried to climb, which I've named the Abruzzi Ridge. The weather was variable.
Gradually we moved higher, backpacking food for camps as we went. The climbing was steep but we continued to place camps. A key to our route was the ascent of a chimney in a hundred-foot band of rock that blocked our way at about 22,000 ft. It was Bill House and my turn to lead. I tried first to go through the chimney to a snow slope on the other side, but it was an impossible route. Bill, who was the better rock climber, now took over. I had only a poor belay for him, but he gradually managed to climb the chimney, known to later K2 expeditions as the House Chimney. It was a fine piece of climbing at about 23,000 ft. Above it we put in three camps, but the weather kept deteriorating. Our food supply was getting dangerously low and a storm looked likely. Storms had overwhelmed various previous expeditions in the Himalaya, such as the Germans on Nanga Parbat and the French on Hidden Peak. At Camp 7 we had a Council of War. We agreed that two men should go as high as they could with a day's extra food, and then we would all turn back. We needed two good days to reach the summit, but it was obvious we were not going to get them. We voted who the two should be for we were all in good condition. To go down was a tough decision to make but we all knew it was the right one.
If we had known how many climbers on later K2 expeditions had not descended before storm, and so had died, we would have felt better about our action. We all reached base camp before the big storm struck and returned to Skardu, at least satisfied that we had given K2 a good try, and that we had gone higher in the mountains that any Americans had gone before.
In the fall of 1940 I was involved in plans for the army's first mountain troops. The next year I joined Walter Wood who was anxious to
make the first ascent of Mt. Wood in the Yukon. We experimented with dropping loads, with and without parachutes, and were successful on Mt. Wood (15,885 ft) and also on Mt. Walsh (14,780 ft), both unclimbed big peaks. On Mt. Wood, Foresta Wood, Walter's wife, had frozen feet and I took her back to the base camp without going on to the summit. We also tested U.S. army survival rations. On our return home afterwards, the Quartermaster General's Office asked me to come to Washington as a civilian to help provide clothing and equipment for mountain troops. This I did, later being commissioned captain in the Quartermaster Corps of the U.S. army.
During this period we developed many items of equipment new to the army to be used in cold weather or mountain areas. Before the army purchased huge numbers of these items, we knew there should be a test of them in the mountains. Accordingly, at a joint meeting of the American Alpine Club officers and U.S. army officials it was decided to test some 30 items of clothing and equipment for the U.S. army on Mt. McKinley (Denali) 20,320 ft high. Lt. Col Frank Marchman, an old time Quartermaster
Corps officer was leader, and I the executive officer. We had a strong team, making the third ascent of Mount McKinley while testing the items. When four of us reached the summit we were wearing four different kinds of footgear. Mt. McKinley is the most northern big mountain and a very cold one. On it European climbers often froze their feet.
When the war ended, I finished my work for the Army in Washington and returned to teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. By 1951 I was eager for more climbing, and when Walter and Foresta Wood asked me to join them at their camp on the Seward glacier in Alaska, I accepted.
From their base camp we flew to the Hubbard-Alverstone plateau (15,015 ft), both big unclimbed boundary peaks. Loads had previously been dropped on Mt. Hubbard (15,015 ft), making our traveling easier. We avoided crevasses and kicked steps up a steep slope to wind-packed snow on the summit ridge of Mt. Hubbard. At the summit we remembered that Foresta Wood and her daughter, Valerie, that day were to fly over Mt. Hubbard (15,015 ft) on their flight back to New York. On the summit we had extensive views, but base camp at 8000 ft, 60 miles away, was under a deep sea of clouds. We heard the plane take off but couldn't see it. We heard it for several minutes but then the sound stopped after I heard something that sounded like a backfire. Wood did not hear that. The plane did not fly over us. We never heard it again. We returned to our camp, and next morning climbed Mt. Alverstone (14,565 ft), a more difficult peak with a huge cornice on top.
A storm was moving in, and that night, and for the next two days, it snowed. We were now very concerned about the plane which had not appeared. Normally we waited for snow to settle after a storm; but we were so anxious that, without waiting, we started to descend a glacier on our return to base camp. At one place I knew there was a crevasse, but how wide or deep I didn't know. I had already crossed several crevasses, and I thought I could cross this one. My mistake! I told my belayer to get a strong stance, and with my ice - axe ahead, I dropped as if a trap door had opened, and the rope ran out. The crevasse was a huge one, and I was forty feet down when the rope stopped me. Fortunately I had left a small loop in the rope for possible future crevasse problems. I now put a toe in the loop to take weight off my waist, and after a few minutes, Walter Wood dropped me another rope with a similar loop. With two ropes and
two loops I was able to slowly climb out of the crevasse. This was before the time when prusik knots were general knowledge. My belayer had been pulled over on his face but he had held me.
When we reached our base I now joined in the search for the missing plane. Terris Moore, my old friend, now president of the University of Alaska, flew searches all through the mountains and along the shore to see if any debris had washed up. I was with him. No luck. To this day, no information on the missing plane has ever been found.
In 1953 Charlie Houston eventually received permission to again lead a team on K2. All through the war years we had dreamed of going back to K2, but international affairs had intervened. Many climbers wanted to go with us and we decided to interview them all to get the kind of team we wanted. We believed that the ability to get along well under difficult conditions was more important than just technical skill. We settled on a mixed group, all good climbers and amateurs : a doctor, teacher, artist, atomic physicist, geologist, and a businessman. I flew to Karachi ahead of the others to arrange for our expedition food and gear to be transported from the freighter which had taken it from the United States. We first went to Rawalpindi, from where we would fly to Skardu, which we had reached in 1933 after two weeks of walking.
At Rawalpindi we met Captain Tony Streather, our British transport officer and Col. Ata - Ullah, our Pakistani liaison officer, both great people and important members of the expedition. Next, we met at Skardu our twelve Hunza porters who had walked twelve days to get there. Our previous route to Askole, the last village before K2, had changed, and we now had to take a zhak (raft) across the Braldu river, which proved exciting. We also crossed our first rope bridge on this route. With the addition of the porters necessary to carry our food and equipment, we had become a small army of about 170 men, many of them carrying porter food for themselves.
We placed a base camp where I had been in 1938, and began to carry supplies up the route we had made 15 years before. The weather was much worse than it had been in 1938, but we struggled up to where our
high camp had been. We brought enough food with us to survive a storm and placed a new camp, Camp 9, on a snow col.
It was here that the storm hit us. It smashed one tent with Houston and George Bell in it,
4. Bob Bates and Charles Houston loading supplies for K2. and through the
blinding storm they moved, each into a different two - man tent, already full. The storm blew so hard we were in danger of being swept off the mountain, tents and all. Our tent we stabilised with ice axes driven in to the hilt. Houston moved in with Streather and me. The storm was so violent and the tent fluctuated so much we could not keep a stove going: This meant no drinking water or cooking. We lay shoulder to shoulder with nothing to eat or drink. The storm went on and on, and we kept flexing our fingers and toes to keep them from freezing.
On 7 August we were all together at Camp 9 and we voted who should be in the first team to try to reach the summit, and who in the second one. We didn't want the names to be known, hoping eventually merely to state that two of the team reached the summit. The furious wind continued, until on 7 August there was a slight lull. Art Gilkey stepped outside his tent and collapsed unconscious. Charlie examined him and said he had thrombophlebitis with blood clots forming in his left leg. We hoped rest would improve his condition, but it did not, and our only hope, it became clear, was to get him down to base camp. When we were planning the expedition we had all agreed that if anyone had a broken leg or the equivalent high on the mountain we could never get him down. However, Schoening and Craig thought it was possible to get him down; and so we started down, only to realize that the route we had come up was immediately ready to avalanche. It took great effort, especially by Art, to get back to camp after our start. It was then that Craig and Schoening remembered a gully to the right of the Abruzzi ridge that might make it possible to slide Art down thus avoiding the dangerous slopes we had climbed before; it meant getting back to our original route in the Abruzzi ridge where we had had a cache called Camp 7.
On 10 August Charlie Houston, the doctor, announced, 'We've got to get him down.' 'What? In this storm?' said someone. The answer was 'It's life or death for Art.'
Art was well aware of the desperate undertaking we were beginning. When we asked him how he was he would always say, 'Just fine. Just fine.'
We wrapped him in the smashed tent and put his feet in a rucksack, tied ropes to him (one man ahead, one behind, and one on either side). We slid him on the snow with Bob Craig alongside him to direct the descent. The rope, however, started a small wind-slab avalanche that covered both Art and Bob Craig who was unroped and held on as the slide swept over them. That severely worried us until Streather shouted, after the avalanche, 'They are still there.' The ice slope we were on kept dropping steeply for a couple of hundred feet more and then plunged several thousand feet to the Godwin Austin glacier.
We were now spread out across this ice slope when what we had all feared occurred. There was a fall. George Bell, whose feet were frozen, slipped and slammed into the rope between Houston and me. The fall also involved Streather and Molenaar, and we all tumbled down the ice slope headed for the big drop to the glacier, more than a mile below. Fortunately Pete Schoening was belaying Art Gilkey, and Molenaar had tied on to one of the ropes we had used to lower Art. All our ropes crossed this one, held by Schoening indirectly through his rope to Art. It was a magnificent belay that saved all of us.
The next move was to get shelter from the terrible storm. We climbed onto the part of the Abruzzi Ridge where a few days before we had left a cache. There was not flat place where we could pitch a tent, but we cut some ice, drove in rock pitons and managed to get parts of two two-man tents anchored to provide some shelter. All of us were very cold and exhausted, not having eaten much for several days.
The moment the bivouac tents were up, three of us went back to talk to Art Gilkey. He was only 150 ft away, but a low rib of rock hid him from our sight. When we crossed the low ridge and looked into the gulley where we had all been, the whole slope was bare. There was no sign of Art or of the ice - axes that had supported him. Blowing snow stung our faces as we stared and stared. There seemed to be a groove on the lower part of the slope that had not been there before. A snow or ice avalanche must have swept him away a few minutes before we went to him. We called and shouted but realised there would be no answer. Nobody could have slid off that slope and remained alive. Completely shocked, we went back to the bivouac. During the preceding weeks Art had become a very close friend. We had admired him, but we had too many immediate problems to brood over our loss. My immediate thought on seeing the bare slope was that Art had given his life to save the rest of us; but then I realised that in his strapped position he could not possibly have pulled out the ice - axes that anchored him.
That was a tough night, even though the wind dropped. We survived with the help of sleeping bags and some hot tea someone had made. Charlie was in a state of shock but he stopped shivering and began
asking questions. 'Where are we?' 'Where is Pete?' I would call over to the tiny bivouac tent, 'Hey Pete, tell Charlie you're all right!'
Pete would call out, 'I'm all right, Charlie. Don't worry about me.' 'That's fine,' Charlie would say. A few minutes later he would ask the same questions again.
During the fall he had hit his head and he also had a chest injury which made his breathing painful. He thought his difficulty in breathing came from lack of oxygen in the tent, and he tried to claw a hole in the fabric. Finally he fell asleep and we had a chance to ask Pete about his belay. 'I was lucky,' he said. 'The force must have come in a series of shocks; but the rope stretched until it looked like a quarter-inch line. Once Art was secured, I came down to thaw out.'
The next morning we had trouble putting on frozen boots, especially George Bell.
But eventually we all started down. Bell had lost his glasses and his spare pair in the fall, but he still climbed down courageously.
Now we moved down about 100 ft when we found an ice - axe stuck in the snow. It was Charlie's axe lost in the fall. We handed it to Bell, whom it helped tremendously; but to watch Bell lean out over the slope and tap around with the tip of the axe was hardly reassuring to the others on the rope, who were standing on steep slabs covered with powder snow. Any slip here would send four men tumbling thousands of feet in a fall. We had to take our crampons off to climb down the steep rock face, but some fixed ropes helped. The others were there when we arrived at Camp 9. It was here that we saw a little bag that we thought had been Art's. It was not. It had been in Bell's pack which he lost in the fall. He opened it and at once pulled out his spare pair of glasses, loose but unbroken.
The storm was continuing; but next day we kept going down, got to the House Chimney and then past it. There was new ice on the slope now but we had to get them down to more food and permanent shelter. Finally we passed Camps 4 and 3 and headed for Camp 2 when out on the ice slope came three of our Hunza porters tied together with what looked like string. They swarmed out on the steep slope and embraced us with tears running down their cheeks. It was a bad place to show such emotion but none of us fell off, and the last of us reached the familiar tents. We were all down, all except Art! Our feeling of relief is too great to describe.
The Hunzas took our boots off and kneaded our legs. They fed us hot tea and cereal. They asked about Art and prayed for him. At that moment differences of language and race meant nothing. We were all fellow human beings sharing a great emotional experience.
Next morning the sun came out for the first time in many days. Streather and I went on down to base camp. We were worried about George Bell's badly frostbitten feet. At base camp there was another emotional arrival as the simple coolies, whom we had joked with and encouraged on the march in, threw their arms around us and, with tears in their eyes, told us how happy they were to see us return. Meeting Col. Ata - Ullah, who had kept in touch with us by radio, was our greatest experience. Ata just kept saying, 'Thank God, Thank God.'
A stretcher party was organised to get help to George. Just being there was enough for Tony and me. We had come a long way.
Art was very much in our thoughts. We boxed his personal belongings to send home. Then at a prominent point of rock where the Hunza men had built a great cairn to commemorate him, we had a small religious service. A more magnificent place for a memorial is hard to imagine. That was the last of my big mountain climbs.
In later years I went to the Ojos del Salado in Chile and the Ruwenzori Mts. in Uganda with my wife, whom I married in 1954. Finally in 1985, at age 75 I went to China with Nicholas Clinch to the unclimbed Ulugh Muztagh on the first Chinese - American mountaineering expedition. Other climbers were Tom Hornbein and Pete Schoening. Since then I have not climbed.
Two English climbers I admired greatly were Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton Tilman I only knew slightly. I never climbed with him. I met him in the U.S. when he would come to see his good friend, Charles Houston, who climbed with him on the successful British - American expedition in 1936 to make the first ascent of Nanda Devi, the highest peak climbed at the time.
Shipton became a close friend. We met at the 200th anniversary of the ascent of the Matterhorn, arranged by the Swiss government. We hit it off immediately and agreed to share a rope together on the exact day of the first ascent of the Matterhorn 200 years later. On the night before the exact date, the climbers and officers from all the main mountaineer countries met at the Hornli Hut on the Matterhorn ready to climb the peak next morning. Eric and I started from Zermatt in a leisurely manner to climb up
to the hut. The weather had changed and had become dubious. When we were near half way to the hut we saw someone wearing a black parka start up the same route we were taking. He climbed very much faster than we had been climbing. Accordingly, he reached the hut about the time we did. We were all welcomed at a table saved for us for dinner. Eric was placed at the end of a long table. I was on his right side and the stranger with the black parka was seated across from me. He stared at Eric fixedly and said in a loud voice, 'You're Shipton, aren't you? I've always wanted to thank you : you got me out of jail.'
In his most formal voice Shipton replied, 'I never got anyone out of jail I assure you.'
'Yes you did,' said the visitor, Heinrich Harrer, 'although perhaps you didn't know that.' He continued, 'I was with the German Shaksgam expedition and when we came back to British territory, the World War had started and I was interned in Dehra Dun. We were put in the officers' club there, a room with lot of books, including one of yours, (Blank on the Map.) I read it and found in it two maps showing routes into Tibet. I
confess I tore those maps out and they are what Aufschneider and I used to get into Tibet.
I later visited Eric often at his Tite St. residence in London. We did some traveling together, and he joined me and Adams Carter on a climb in the Alaska range where he and I spent two weeks sharing a tent during heavy snowfall that smashed the tent Carter was in. We always enjoyed being together.
At age 95 now, I can look back on a long life, savoring the mountain days with my favorite friends - Charles Houston, Bradford Washburn, Adams Carter, Tom Hornbein, Nicholas Clinch and Willi Unsoeld; and happy to share the rest of my life with my wife. I regret that I never spent more time in the great Himal, but my days on K2 are unforgettable.
Memories of Bob Bates, a lifetime in mountains.