The objective for his holiday this year was suggested to James Waller by a random glance at the Survey of India quarter-inch map 5 2 A, which showed the mountains enclosing the Siachen glacier. Peak 36/52A is a peak fixed by triangulation by the Survey of India, so that its position, lat. 350 24' 01", long. 76° 50' 55", and its height, 25,400 feet, are known with considerable accuracy. The only topographical information about it, with very few details, was to be found in the Workmans' book Two Summers in the Ice-world of the Karakoram. Situated in the Saltoro range of the Karakoram, separating the Kondus and Siachen regions, its neighbourhood was visited by the Workmans in 1912. Several photographs of it appear in their book, and these gave Waller hopes that it might be climbed. Information about the area, though not of the mountain, was obtained from Dr. Longstaff.1
With so little detailed knowledge of the peak it was clear that some time must first be spent on careful reconnaissance as soon as we reached its neighbourhood. When, therefore, the whole party2 assembled at Srinagar at the end of April, the non-arrival of certain stores from England decided us to move out in two parties. Waller and I went ahead with the two Darjeeling porters, Da Tondrup and Palten,3 to start the necessary reconnaissances, should the other two be unduly delayed. It should be mentioned here that these two porters had been included in the party partly because we felt that the local inexperienced Balti coolies could not be relied upon for high- altitude carrying, and partly so that they could assist us to carry during the actual climb above the base. The enlistment of a larger number of Darjeeling porters, as on Nanga Parbat, was out of the question, owing to the expense.
As matters turned out, both parties started within two days of each other, and each took twelve days to reach Khapalu (S. of I. map 52A), on the Shyok, when a move was made to Dansam, at the junction of the Kondus and Saltoro valleys, an excellent centre from which to start the various reconnaissances. A message from the second party, which reached us on the morning when we were about to start our reconnaissance, the 14th May, enabled Carslaw and Brotherhood to take part, a piece of good fortune which probably influenced the route eventually chosen and therefore the whole course of the expedition.
The reconnaissances were arranged as follows: Waller and Da Tondrup were to explore the Sherpigang glacier and its basin. Pal ten and I were to ascend the Bilafond glacier to the Bilafond La, or Saltoro pass, which leads to the middle Siachen glacier. The route to Ali Brangsa had been taken as long ago as September 1835 by Vigne, though I believe he did not actually reach the pass. Ryall, of the Survey of India, may have reached the pass in 1861, but the first accurate account of the route was made by Longstaff in 1909.1 The same route was taken by the Workmans in 1912, and though the maps made by these two did not agree with each other, this approach appeared to be the obvious, if not the only, route to the mountain, unless we were to journey right round by the Siachen glacier.
Carslaw and Brotherhood, on arrival, joined Waller and extended the exploration of the side glaciers of the Sherpigang.
Space need not be wasted on a detailed account of each reconnaissance, but on reassembling at Dansam some days later there were some interesting revelations. Waller had, by a great stroke of luck, discovered that one of the tributary glaciers of the Sherpigang, shown comparatively insignificantly on the map, made a sudden right-handed bend near its snout, thus concealing its size and main direction, which is roughly north and south, draining the foot of the south-east ridge of the peak. Waller hoped to make this his line of approach, although certain difficulties were expected at a point where a steep descent would be necessary from a cornice-capped col that gave access to the upper glacier.
My reconnaissance of the Bilafond La (18,200 feet) led me to doubt whether the mountain could be climbed from that side; I was under the impression, which proved erroneous, that the east face of the mountain rose from the 'Bilafond plateau' itself. The difficulty of distinguishing the 'Bilafond Wall' from Peak 36, when seen from the pass was evidently encountered by Longstaff in 1909, and was confirmed by Brotherhood later.
The third reconnaissance, by Carslaw and Brotherhood, confirmed the expectation that a small glacier to the south of the Dong Dong glacier abutted against the great south face of Peak 36, and offered no route to the foot of the south-east ridge, by which at that time we hoped to attack the mountain.
All these parties had a foretaste of the type of weather we were to experience later. Of the five or six days, one only had been fine, while the remainder had been subject to snow and blizzard.
As a result of these explorations, it was decided to take Waller's route. We accordingly moved up the Kondus valley on the 23rd May, and, recruiting coolies with much difficulty at Korkondus, the last village in it, we established Camp 1 the next day at the snout of Waller's glacier, known locally as the Likah, at about 14,000 feet. Here trouble occurred with the coolies, who held out for higher wages. Negotiations went on till it was too late to start on the 25th, so we decided to stay at Camp 1 for the day and make the col, from which the upper glacier was to be reached (the 'Likah Col'), in one day, instead of two as planned. Meanwhile Waller and I reconnoitred the route and remade the fairly intricate way through the first ice- fall, found by Waller on his reconnaissance. Fresh snow had entirely obliterated his tracks.
Neighbourhood of Peak 36, Satoro Karakoram
1. Carslaw with coolies on the 2nd ice-fall, Likah glacier, near Camp 2
2. Camp 3a, with Peak 36 in the background. South-east ridge on skyline to right
3. Base Camp, about 18,000 feet, with south east buttress of Peak 36 in background
4. Waller on the reconnaissance of the south east ridge
We had presumed too much of the physical strength of our coolies. Having passed the ice-fall, where the lower glacier is abandoned for the moraine, and then the hill-side on its right, several men unroped and lay about like corpses. It was only with great difficulty that we brought by evening all our fifty loads to a camp pitched on a promontory of moraine boulders—Camp 2—some 1,500 feet below the Likah Col.
It snowed in the night, and appeared likely to snow again when we started up for the col on the morning of the 27th. Only half the coolies were fit, and thus two relays to the col were necessary, causing considerable delay. By the time all loads were up, a howling gale Was in force on the ridge and a temporary camp had been pitched for shelter. Waller and Carslaw, who had gone on and descended through the cornice to the upper Likah glacier after fixing a rope, returned to the col and reported that in the deep snow the 8oo-foot descent was most difficult. It was now clear that nothing more could be done about it that day, and we had no alternative but to pay off and send down our coolies, except eight selected men, escorted by Palten and Da Tondrup to help them over the difficult ice-fall. A strong blizzard blew that day and night.
The next few days nearly spelt catastrophe for the party. Lowering loads on to the upper Likah glacier was carried out in a terrible blizzard throughout the 28th. As the continuity of the slope is broken by various outcrops of rock and changes of gradient, it was not found possible to lower the loads direct. Moreover, our few coolies were rendered quite helpless by the cold, and most of the work was carried on by ourselves alone. We sadly missed the two Darj eeling porters who had not returned from Camp 1. By evening we had only a few tents at the bottom, but luckily the sleeping-bags as well. Two of us were just considering the question of returning to the col, owing to the difficulty of pitching the tents in the gale and to avoid a serious situation, when the arrival of the other two bringing a little cold food decided us to remain. We therefore camped at the foot of the slope, leaving half the coolies, a cook, and most of the loads at the top or on the way down.
The storm continued during the next three days without a break. Two of us suffered severely from snow-blindness, and for the first thirty-six hours no cooking was possible. On the second day, however, Waller made a great effort and reached the col, bringing back with him our two splendid little porters, as well as stores and cookers; we thus had our first drink for two days. At the end of the fourth day, which was fine, all loads except those irretrievably lost under some 3 feet of fresh snow had been shifted from Camp 3 at the top of the col to Camp 3a at the bottom, but the work entailed had left us all with the rooted feeling that this line of communications must be changed at all costs.
On the same day, moreover, I had carried out a long reconnaissance on ski up to and beyond the head of the Likah glacier. It is enclosed at its upper end by the south-east ridge of the mountain. A low col on the south-east ridge gives access to another glacier flowing from its far side down to the Bilafond glacier, with a steep fall of some 2,000 feet, as we discovered later. By skirting the ice-cliffs at the head of this glacier, on the far side of the col, I reached, after about a mile, another low ridge leading from the south-east ridge arid forming in its continuation the 'Bilafond Wall'. From this second ridge I had a fine view of the junction of the Teak 36 glacier' with the Siachen and could see a hopeful start on to the east face of the mountain from Teak 36 glacier', the upper basin of which could be attained by descending from the col I had reached.
Not being able to see the extent of the drop down to the Bilafond, the glacier between the two ridges seemed to me very similar to the 'Bilafond plateau', which I had reconnoitred earlier, and I returned to report as much. This caused no surprise, as it was expected by all of us that the Likah glacier would lead to the Bilafond La. Brotherhood therefore elected to go down on the following day (the 2nd June) to close our present lines of communications and open them along the Bilafond route. Paraffin, of which we had lost quantities in leakage and evaporation, was causing anxiety, and he was to bring up a supply of wood fuel by the new route.
During the week that followed important developments occurred. Base Camp was gradually established at the head of the Likah glacier under the south-east ridge; with only seven coolies this took us a week to accomplish. An ice col was apparently accessible from Base Camp, about 1,500 feet higher up to the ridge, but above this the ridge abuts the mountain with towering cliffs of ice. When first seen, a desperate route seemed just possible, giving access to the higher slopes, but our hopes were soon dashed by the frequency with which the ice broke away from the cliffs in huge avalanches on either side of the little col. An attempt by Waller and myself to reach this col was thwarted by bad weather. It had involved a good deal of arduous step-cutting, and though the col was undoubtedly attainable, the work was not an inviting introduction to the effort promised above it.
Our next move was therefore down to Teak 36 glacier'. Waller and I found a way down from the farther ridge, which I had reached on my reconnaissance on the 1st June (Teak 36 col') by means of the track of a gigantic avalanche on the far side. Frofn here we were much encouraged by the possibilities of the route up the east face aln idy mentioned. There is a low ice plateau surmounting a promontory jutting out from the face towards Teak 36 glacier', and about 1,000 feet above it. Though the sides of 'the plateau' are precipitous, a low ridge was seen to project farther into the glacier basin from the north side, which seemed to offer a possible route. We therefore decided that we should make the attempt by way of 'the plateau' from an advanced base on Teak 36 glacier'.
By now, however, Carslaw had established the fact that no connexion was possible with the Bilafond La from this side. The glacier which I had thought led to the Bilafond plateau joined the Bilafond glacier about two miles south of the pass. Brotherhood had therefore departed on a false errand unless he could find a safe route from the Bilafond plateau to the 'Peak 36 glacier'. On the day he was expected to arrive at the pass, Waller and I, with the two porters, carrying heavy loads, took a temporary camp to 'Peak 36 glacier', in the hope that Brotherhood, arriving at the top of the Bilafond Wall, would see us, and plans could be discussed.
Palten and I went ahead, and travelling fast had hardly reached the site chosen when Brotherhood's party, twelve tiny dots, appeared at the top of a col on the Bilafond Wall overlooking 'Peak 36 glacier'. Separating us was a very steep slope of ice overlaid with snow and guarded by a bergschrund. Shouting from the bottom was out of the question, so Palten and I roped up, and putting on crampons were fortunate in finding a part of the slope swept by an avalanche which had conveniently bridged the schrund. We made our way up till we were level with the col; it was established that no safe route for coolies could be made down, and after three loads of wood had been thrown down and lost in the schrund, we decided that Brotherhood must return and re-establish our old line of communications. This was little short of tragedy, and at the time it was expected that we also should have to retreat for lack of fuel. The effort of getting up to the col had been great and at the foot of the slope I more or less collapsed.
Bad weather continued on the 8th, when Waller and I crossed the glacier to the foot of'the plateau' on the east face, where we selected a site for an advanced base and spent the night there. On the way a tremendous ice-avalanche broke away from the face above 'Peak 36 col', sweeping down and over the col and obliterating our tracks of the day before for a distance of some 600 yards. It was a terrifying sight. Da Tondrup, who had been sent back to the Base Camp an hour before, had a lucky escape, and it was at once clear that this was no safe route for a regular line of communications. On our return to the Base Camp the next day, we tried to cross the ridge at several points, but an ice slope and huge open schrund prevented this, and the best we could do was to shorten the route by some 300 yards. On this day, however, Carslaw had sent all high-altitude rations from Base Camp to the col, and the coolies were successfully- sent on to our advanced base, whence they returned to Base Camp that evening. This was the end of a spell of fairly fine weather. The succeeding four days were a nightmare of blizzards, and all efforts to carry forward from Base Camp failed at Teak 36 col5. Snow was waist-deep and the descent to the glacier dangerous.
Brotherhood's return on the 13th revived our spirits. The day commenced fine, and with the telescope at Base Camp trained on the Likah col, three miles down the glacier, we soon saw his party at the top of the cornice. Carslaw and I ran down on ski to meet him, and Waller made a track down for his coolies.
Plans were now radically modified. We were all convinced that an attempt on the peak should be made without delay. Fresh food was running very short; deterioration, from living at or over 18,000 feet for about eighteen days, was making itself felt; and, worse still, I think, was the mental strain and depression caused by the inaction forced on us by the weather and the misery of spending days on end confined to our tents. The coolies were therefore sent back under our second cook with instructions to return on the 22nd, and we decided, weather permitting, to make the 15th the 'zero day', and proceed with Waller's plan for the assault.
The morning of the 14th was, however, so fine that it seemed foolish to wait. We had retained three selected coolies, and with these, fully equipped for the mountain, we left for the assault. Ploughing through deep snow was hard work, and hardly had we reached Camp 4 (originally intended as advanced base, but altered under the new plans), than it was apparent that the weather had changed for the worse. By evening it was snowing, and a blizzard got up in the night. It continued all through the 15th and 16th, thus eliminating zero+i and zero+2 days from the plan. It would be difficult to describe our disappointment. Keyed up for the assault as we had been, this anticlimax, confinement to our sleeping-bags in intense cold with only one magazine to read between us, was a great blow to our confidence. Moreover we had now made the unwelcome discovery that our three selected coolies could not carry all the stores above Camp 4 in one day, and that two shifts would be necessary. This increased the number of fine days needed for success, and diminished our chance materially. It was decided to move to Camp 5 on the plateau in two parties, the first pair sending back the coolies and porters on arrival.
On the 16th a slight clearing tempted me out. Access to the plateau, 1,000 feet above Camp 4, is by a low ridge, at the foot of which we were camped, and which abuts the promontory below a very steep slope cut by a schrund and capped by a cornice. Wishing to test the safety of this slope after so much snow, Palten and I set out up the ridge, waist-deep in snow, and after a gruelling climb reached the foot of the steep slope. To my surprise it appeared safe, and thus cheered we returned to camp. Light snowfall set in and continued all night.
5. East face of Peak 36, showing route, from a reconnaissance camp at about 18,000 feet on ‘Peak 36 glacier’, 8th June 1935
6. Camp 5, about 20,000 feet, and part of the route towards Camp 6 (foreshortened)
7. The north east buttress of Peak 36, from Camp 5
On the 17th it was decided to attempt to reach the plateau at all costs and to establish Camp 5. The supply situation did not permit of further delay. The light snow turned to a heavy fall as Garslaw and I, the first party, remade the tracks up the ridge, but the shower stopped unexpectedly as we rested under the schrund below the lip of the plateau. The slope above is one of the most strenuous leads I have undertaken. Very steep, the surface of this slope would normally be of ice; instead, several feet of loose snow covered it, and in order to progress it was necessary to clear a track above us with the axe. The ascent of about 220 feet took me nearly an hour. The coolies gave some trouble here: despite a fixed line they succeeded in demolishing the bridge over the schrund and caused a lot of delay.
Camp 5 was pitched at the upper end of the plateau at about 20,000 feet, after a further spell of thigh-deep ploughing, after which the three coolies and porters were sent down as arranged.
On the brilliant morning of the 18th, Carslaw and I succeeded in making some 1,600 feet of the route towards Camp 6. A slope of 800 feet above Camp 5 gave a lot of trouble. Set at an angle of about 65 degrees over some of its length, the deep loose snow lying on ice had to be trodden with the greatest care to avoid breaking through the steps. Any such slope in the Alps would be of ice. The angle was definitely steeper than the well-known north face of the ficrins, and the same applies to two or more of the slopes between Camps 5 and 6.
Waller and Brotherhood, with the remaining loads, had arrived by the time we returned to Camp 5 and all were in good spirits with the prospects for the climb. The weather seemed more settled than at any previous period, the apparently difficult ground ahead had proved to be passable, and we were all under a misimpression as to our height.1 In retrospect, it seems that we were over-estimating by from 1,000 to 1,500 feet at the various camps, including the Base. This had a fateful bearing on the decision then taken, for, not trusting the weather, it was decided to rush the summit from Camp 6, which we intended to pitch at about 23,500 feet, cutting out a Camp 7, proposed in Waller's plan. This new plan assumed that Camp 5 was at 21,000 feet. As it turned out, the decision, even though it was based on a fallacy, was a wise one from the weather point of view, but it rendered the summit impossible of achievement in view of the actual height of Camp 6.
The 19th was brilliantly fine, after a windy night. Brotherhood and I led, to remake the tracks. Carslaw most unfortunately fell sick near the start and decided to return to Camp 4; it was extremely bad luck after coming so high with me the day before to have to give up at this stage. I found the snow firmer than on the 18th and the going less tiring. About 1,000 feet above Camp 5, a large ice- avalanche of seracs had fallen across our tracks for a space of about 500 yards, filling in a certain troublesome crevasse. Just above, on a slope which had been quite safe the day before, I started a wind- slab, which swept Brotherhood off his feet. It was fortunate that I was near the break in the slab and could hold him. Waller and the porters were resting below the slope and out of reach. It was clear that from here onwards the slopes were dangerous after the night wind. Four hundred feet higher another wind-slab, of a much more dangerous nature, was dislodged, and this time both Brotherhood and I were swept down. For a moment it seemed certain that we would be carried several hundred feet into the open couloir on our left. A chance thrust of my axe, however, anchored me to the hard underlying surface and brought the whole mass, including Brotherhood, to a rest before we had gone many yards, on the edge of a considerable drop. It was a narrow escape. The others, below and out of sight, had no idea of the occurrence.
Two large and badly bridged crevasses gave trouble in turn, and then Waller came up and took over the lead. We were on new ground, and track-making was exhausting. We were soon at the lower lip of an immense crevasse, which splits the whole face at this point, and which had caused much speculation from below. Its upper edge rose about 50 feet above the lower. A bridge existed some 200 yards to the left, but Waller made a good lead up a sharp ice arete formed by a subsidiary crevasse, breaking into the upper edge at an angle. A fixed line was placed here to help the porters on this somewhat difficult passage. Much time was spent here, and a little higher, on the lower lip of another monster crevasse, we decided to pitch Camp 6. The two porters and the one local coolie, who had helped to carry and who had behaved magnificently, were sent back to Camp 5.
The night at Camp 6 was intensely cold. Two of us doped to sleep, but the third member asserts that it was colder than any night we had experienced. As we had had temperatures of — 8° F., or 40° of frost, at the Base Camp, it is not unlikely that the temperature here fell to about —180 F. High hopes were, however, entertained for the morrow. The slopes above lay at an easier gradient, and were we not at about 23,800 feet, with only about 1,600 or 2,000 feet at most to go? Alas! the actual height of this camp was about 22,200 feet.
8. Porters approaching Camp 6, about 22, 200 feet, below the great crevasse
9. View eastwards from about 24,000 feet on Peak 36
Each led in turn on the 20th, the morning of which was fine. Except for two troublesome crevasses no technical difficulties were encountered, but the height made itself felt. We were individually taking from four to six breaths for each step for the greater part of this day. As we eventually approached the crest of the south-east ridge, the truth regarding our height gradually dawned on us. It was nearly one o'clock; if the summit was not close,, we could not reach it in the time available. Moreover, a sudden change had occurred in the weather. Great brown mists were being blown vertically up over the ridge from the south, and were pouring over Teak 36 col5 into the basin of Teak 36 glacier'. Snow was being driven about everywhere, and the fine view was rapidly blotted out. At last on the ridge, we saw the summit and prominent gendarme, still about half a mile away along the ridge, though not considerably above us. The game was up. Progressing as we were at about 300 feet an hour, we could not hope to reach the summit, and the weather decided the issue. The point then reached is immediately beneath a very prominent bump, or subsidiary summit, to the south-east of the gendarme. Brotherhood and I continued for some distance beyond this bump on its south side, and got a clear view of the summit in a break of the mists. It was my impression then, and photographs strengthen that view, that we were at that point not more than 600 feet below the top. Turning back, we hurried down to catch up Waller, but the strain was telling on Brotherhood, who almost collapsed near Camp 6, and had to be assisted.
Thus failed the attack. The immediate disappointment was, I think, lessened for each of us by the certainty that, apart from other considerations, we had not the physical strength to do that last half mile. We had ascended nearly 2,500 feet, expecting that less than 2,000 feet remained above Camp 6, and the attainment of the ridge was the limit of our powers for that day. The route thence to the summit was free of difficulties.
A rapid decision was now necessary. If the weather were to grow worse, prudence indicated that a descent must be made that evening over all the difficult ground below to Camp 5. Brotherhood and Waller rose to the occasion, and despite very heavy loads, we set out at about 5 p.m., after an hour's rest, abandoning most of the stores. Our weariness and the failing light retarded us; in the twilight I suddenly went in up to my elbows in a very big crevasse, saved by a miracle from going right in. Above the steep 8oo-foot descent we managed by shouting to arouse the inmates of Camp 5, who advanced up the last steep slope to relieve us of our loads. It was pitch dark and snowing when we bedded down for the night.
Next morning, abandoning more stores at Camp 5, we groped our way down to Camp 4 through deep new snow, and in a terrible blizzard. Here it was quickly decided to return at once to the Base Camp. We packed up the one remaining Meade tent, abandoned a yakdan of stores, and ploughed our way up and over 'Peak 36 col'. We could hardly see a yard. An enormous ice-avalanche had again swept this col and its approaches, and it was a relief to be beyond it for the last time. The storm, the worst we had had, continued throughout the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd, and we all felt that, had we not left Camp 6 when we did, we should still be there. Our coolies surprised us by arriving at the Base Camp through the blizzard on the 22nd, and we were able to descend and return on the 23rd and 24th. On the latter day it was evident that the storm was still raging higher up.
Space does not permit of reflections on the result of the expedition, but a word may be said about the route. The mountain lies off the south side of the Siachen glacier, and except for Waller's route by the Likah glacier and col, the only approach is by the Siachen itself. From the Saltoro side, the Likah route is far shorter and can be recommended, provided that the col is properly negotiated, by which I mean that the route should be made throughout fit for coolies.
It is fairly certain that the only hopeful route to the summit is that taken by us, on the east side. This appears to be the only break in the continuous line of ice-cliffs between the great precipices of the south and north faces. The south-east ridge has been discussed. It remains a bad second choice, and should be discounted on account of the positive dangers mentioned.
Success will go to the next party which attempts the mountain, given time and good weather—of that there is no reasonable doubt. We can, I think, claim that in spite of the few details available to us beforehand, and in spite of the foul weather—such as I never hope to experience again on any mountain—much has been achieved, and we sincerely hope that the ground has been well prepared for those who follow.