It was soon after I was posted to Chitral in April 1935 that I met Mr. D. N. B. Hunt, r.e. We talked about mountains and rather light-heartedly decided to make an attempt to climb Istor-o-Nal, the great outlier of the Tirich Mir group of the Chitral Hindu Kush. In this group Istor-o-Nal, with a height of 24,271 feet, is second only in altitude to Tirich Mir itself, 25,263 feet. Neither of us had had any previous technical experience of mountaineering, though we had both been fairly high—Hunt, as a keen exponent of ski-ing, to about 18,000 feet, whilst I had been over 20,000 feet when shooting. We planned our attempt for the beginning of August, the only time when we could both get leave together.
Hunt (who did most of the work and eventually reached a point only about 200 feet below the summit) and I recruited three coolies from Hunza, in the hope that they would inspire the local talent with a certain amount of enthusiasm. Our hope was realized, for, although we only managed to get one of the three men we asked for, and though the other two were very poor specimens, the advent of all three men put the Chitralis on their metal and made all the difference. To the Chitrali, as to the inhabitants of many other parts of the Himalaya, the higher mountains are inhabited by every form of fairy and terrifying spirit, from beautiful red-haired maidens to glacial frogs as large as cows and with appetites of cannibals. These superstitious fears are a very real source of concern to the climber. A previous expedition, undertaken in 1929 by a member of the Survey of India and others whilst surveying in Chitral, succeeded in getting a camp up to 19,000 feet, but beyond this they were unable to go primarily owing to the quiet non-co-operation of the Chitrali coolies.1 The climbers themselves actually reached a height of 20,200 feet by a slightly different route from ours.
In 1935 we were fortunate in having with us a havildar of the Chitral Scouts who acted as quartermaster and coolie jemadar at the lower camps and was of the very greatest assistance. We were also exceptionally lucky with the weather, except during the last two days, when it broke and prevented us from making a second attempt on the summit.
Once we could get away we started with a rush, meeting at Uthul (9,000 feet), not far from Drasan (map 42D/sw), on the 27th July, Hunt having come in from Gharan, sixteen miles away, while I had ridden up from Chitral, a distance of fifty-six miles. We had sent all the stores and kit from Chitral several days before and found them waiting for us. At Uthul we spent four hours sorting this out and collecting coolies and their rations. We had been unable to sort the stores before leaving, and so for the first five days we were forced to spend three or four hours every evening packing stores for the higher camps.
On the 28th we moved to Shagram, a village in the Tirich valley, nine miles away. The road led over the I3,ooo-foot Zani An pass, with its easy though tedious climb and long descent to the village at 9,000 feet. The following evening we camped at Shekhniyak, a birch jungle half a mile short of the snout of the main Tirich glacier at a height of 11,800 feet (map 37P/se). Here we established our coolie base camp (Camp A), to which we intended to send back all except eight of the coolies as soon as we had pitched Camp I. Wood was plentiful here, and there was no object in keeping some 40 coolies waiting for us on the glacier. We had a total of 51 loads of 60 lb. each, of which 27 were rations for coolies, and 7 were their tents and ours for the lower camps and Camp I.
On the 30th July we marched up the glacier for five miles, making Camp B on the edge of the glacier at 13,300 feet. It was an unpleasant walk over moraine, and it took the coolies seven hours. We had previously arranged for wood to be dumped here and at our proposed Base Camp. The weather was cloudy and comparatively warm. A high wind was blowing on the mountain peaks, a fact which caused us considerable apprehension, for we knew that there was a long knife-edged ridge to traverse, and this would be almost impossible in a high wind. The next day we moved up to the Base Camp. From here we were able to get a good view of Istor-o-Nal.
The mountain can best be divided into four definite sections. The first was a long snow-field closely intersected by crevasses, rising from the proposed site of Camp I to the foot of a marked couloir, a difference of 1,500 feet in altitude. The couloir formed the second section. It gave access to the main west ridge, where we hoped to find a site for Camp II. It was about 1,000 feet from top to bottom, with a main slope of 50 degrees. The going was unpleasant, for there was very little snow in places and the whole was covered with hard ice. The third section consisted of a rock face 300 feet high which formed the right-hand boundary of the couloir. This had to be scaled in order to reach the long knife-edged ridge which formed the fourth section and continued almost to the summit.
On the 1st August we moved from the Base Camp to Camp I, a steep climb from 14,900 feet over shale and soft snow the whole way. The coolies went very well indeed, and we had tents pitched by 3 o'clock. We had to pave a considerable area with rocks owing to the melting snow. It was fortunate that we did so, for within a few days there were several large streams running through the camp under the paving stones. The day had been fine with very little wind and only a few clouds on the summits of Istor-o-Nal and Tirich Mir. All except the eight selected coolies now returned to the Base Camp en route for Camp A. On the 2nd we rested at Camp I which we straightened out. We also found plenty to do in putting down more paving stones and packing the stores for the higher camps.
Sketch map of Tirich Mir and Istor-O-Nal
The next day we set out to reconnoitre the couloir and the site for Camp II. We found the snow-field easy, though the snow was soft and most exhausting. The couloir also proved not too difficult, though it took us some time to climb, owing to the necessity of cutting steps and to a short snow-storm which hampered progress considerably. We were very glad to find quite a suitable camp site on the col at the top, sheltered on two sides by huge rocks perched on the knife-edge. The far side fell sheer to a glacier about 5,000 feet below. Hunt, with two coolies, went on a little farther and had a look at the rocks before returning to camp at 4 p.m. They decided that there was a practicable route overhanging the precipice, and we were considerably elated at the prospect of at last reaching the main ridge. Next day, the 4th August, I took up seven coolies with 30-lb. loads to Camp II. Again we had a short snow-storm whilst climbing the couloir, but we reached Camp II in five hours. This was an exceptionally good carry from 18,300 feet to 21,400 feet, over going that was none too easy for laden men. We were back in Camp I by 1 o'clock, having tobogganed down most of the snow-field in great style. Considerable repairs to clothing had to be carried out that evening.
On the 5th, Hunt took a few loads to the plateau just below the foot of the couloir in order to ease the carry for the 6th, when we moved to Camp II, leaving Hunt's Chitrali servant and two coolies at Camp I. This turned out a bad day. I was feeling under the weather and the coolies had to be rallied the whole time to keep them moving on. We eventually reached the camp site and had everything snug by 5 p.m. I then escorted the surplus coolies part of the way down the couloir, after which I returned to Camp II feeling very part worn. Hunt meanwhile had got some food ready, and after a surprisingly good meal of eggs and sardines we were asleep by 6.30 p.m. Hunt's bearer, knowing how sahibs rely on eggs, had managed to send up six dozen hidden among the loads. None were broken, and for the stay at Camp II they proved quite the most delicious part of our food. I doubt whether many people have eaten fresh eggs at over 21,000 feet, but we found them far more attractive than at more moderate altitudes.
We did not sleep well that night. Hunt left next morning at about 10 a.m. for an attempt on the rock wall. He had with him two Chitralis, both excellent men on rock. They found the rock fairly easy and reached the main ridge. Easy is really a comparative expression, and had there been no drop and no snow I would agree, but under the circumstances it seemed to me both difficult and dangerous. The route led slightly to the left and overhung the precipice, which fell sheer to the glacier 5,000 feet below. Where there was no snow on the rocks they were safe and easy, but we always found the snow-covered rocks towards the top rather tricky, and on the 8th put up a rope on pitons to enable us to move faster and to give us a sense of security. We got used to it, and on the last two days we went up and down quite rapidly and unroped.
1. Istor-o Nal, 24,271 feet, from the south (foreshortened)
2. The Col viewed westwards from the rocks above Camp II
3. The rocks above Camp II
4. Looking back down the ridge from 22,800 feet
5. Hunt and two coolies ascending at 23,000 feet
After a good though intensely cold night we left early on the morning of the 8th with two coolies and reached the top of the wall by 9.30 a.m. We then cut steps along the ridge for a couple of hours. Owing to cornices we had to move from 10 to 20 feet below the crest of the ridge. This meant that we were perpetually on ice at an angle of about 450, lightly covered with snow, and steps had to be cut the whole way. For some unknown reason we became afraid that what little snow there was would avalanche, and so returned home after fixing the permanent rope on the rocks. We reached Camp II at 1.45. To this day I do not know why this avalanche obsession took hold of us, for what little snow there was could have done no harm even if it had moved. The same occurred the next day, and we wasted much valuable time by returning early to camp. On each of these days, the 8th and 9th, we only advanced about 200 yards. On the return journey on the 9th the two Hunza men who were with us lost confidence on the steep pitches of ice, and we had considerable difficulty in getting them to move.
On the 10th, Hunt went off with the best of the three Hunza men and one Chitrali and did great work. They cut about 450 yards of steps and reached a point on the ridge beyond which it was unnecessary to cut any more, at about 22,300 feet, returning to camp about 5 p.m. At that point the ridge broadened out and was covered in deep soft snow, so that it became possible to walk along the crest of the ridge.
We had with us in Camp II six coolies, three Hunza men and three Chitralis. In order to keep them in good heart we used different men each day, taking them in pairs. A further reason for this plan was that we should have men who had not been overworked fit to carry loads up to another camp, should that prove necessary.
On the 11 th, which quite by chance turned out to be the great day of the expedition, we left Camp II at 7 a.m. The thermometer read 20° F. We reached Hunt's farthest point of the previous day at 9.10 and had a good rest. I was not feeling fit again, in spite of a rest the day before; and after we had been going for an hour in soft snow and reached a point at about 22,800 feet I got cramp and was unable to go on. It was a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky, so, leaving me safely ensconced, Hunt with the two coolies went on.
About 100 yards farther on, the ridge narrowed down to a width of about 4 inches for a distance of 20 yards. I watched them cross this like three tight-rope walkers and reach the wide ridge leading almost direct to the summit. The going here was very exhausting and at 1.45, having been moving almost without a halt for three and a half hours, they were within 400 yards of the summit and not more than 200 feet lower. Greatly to my disappointment, after having nearly an hour's rest, they turned and started back.
When they reached me two hours later Hunt told me that they were so exhausted at the farthest point they reached that further progress was impossible. At times they were moving in soft snow knee-deep, and although they could undoubtedly have reached the summit he was uncertain of their ability to return. After twenty minutes' rest we began to return to camp. Hunt was astonishing. Although he had done more work than both the coolies he was in fine form; but it was well that I was fresh, for the two coolies, who had really done magnificently, were very exhausted. On several occasions they slipped and had to be held on the rope. We eventually reached camp at half-past six.
We decided to have a rest on the 12th and if the weather still held good to make another attempt on the 13th. The 12th proved an unpleasantly cold and windy day, and we spent most of it inside our sleeping-bags. Both Hunt and myself, as well as the two coolies, were slightly frost-bitten, while Hunt was also slightly affected with snow- blindness in one eye.
On the 13th, after a windy night, we looked out at 6 a.m. There were many clouds about and a good deal of wind. An hour later I took one coolie along to the foot of the rocks to ascertain the state of the ridge. It was quite impossible, and with great reluctance we decided that we must give up the attempt and move down to lower altitudes.
At 10 o'clock we started down. The couloir was most unpleasant, especially for the laden coolies. In places the old steps had thawed and then frozen again, so that they were very slippery. We only had two 8o-foot Alpine ropes and found that four on each rope were too close to each other. Hunt and I, therefore, unroped to permit the coolies to have more of it, and to move more slowly. Near the bottom Hunt slipped but managed to stop himself with his axe after a distance of about 50 feet. He cut his hand slightly, but was otherwise unhurt. Once on the snow-field again we came on the ropes, as numerous crevasses had opened up. However, no one went in deeper than his waist and we reached Camp I by noon. Before arriving there we signalled it to be struck, and we moved on down the shale to the Base Camp. Here we found comfort in the form of a good dinner, wine, a reasonable size in tents, firewood, and Hunt's servant to look after us.
Next day we walked down to Shekhniyak, where we had left Camp A, and on the 15th reached Shagram. From here, after paying off the coolies, Hunt returned to Chitral, while I went off on a tour of about 200 miles.
A few observations in retrospect may not be out of place. One of the chief points of interest was the speed of acclimatization. For several months in my case and for a year in Hunt's, we had been living in Chitral at a height of approximately 5,000 feet above sea- level. During that time Hunt had been up to 15,000 feet for a few days and to 10,000 feet for a week, several months before the expedition, while I had not been high for about two years. During the expedition Hunt went from 5,000 feet to 24,000 feet in 14 days. Above 19,000 feet he felt well and was very fit. On the 11 th August he went from Camp II at 21,000 feet to 24,000 feet and back, carrying about 15 lb. He had had only two days' rest, both at Camp I, 18,300 feet. He felt the height far more at Camp I than higher up. I, on the contrary, felt the height at Camp II more than I expected, and only began to feel fit on the 13th and 14th, the day before and the actual day we came down. Neither of us suffered from lack of appetite and both of us made some very hearty meals at 21,000 feet. The coolies, two of whom went with Hunt up to 24,000 feet, acclimatized far slower and appeared to suffer more from height above 15,000 feet than we did, in spite of the fact that many of them live normally at 10,000 feet. I was unfortunate in not being very fit at the start, which was the cause of my being unable to go on with Hunt on the 11th August, owing to stomach cramp.
6. Tirich Mir, 25,263 feet, from 22,800 feet on Istor- Nal
Although there are, I believe, though I have not counted them, about a hundred peaks in Chitral over 20,000 feet, none of the main ones have been climbed. The chief reason for this is local superstition, and this superstition has been accentuated by a series of most regrettable coincidences, all of which are well known in Chitral. Of the party which attempted Istor-o-Nal in 1929, two members died violent deaths within a short period. Captain Coldstream was murdered in Peshawar in 1930, and Lieutenant Burn was killed by an avalanche on Panjtarni in Kashmir in 1932. Within two months of our expedition Dennis Hunt, who was a magnificent swimmer, was drowned in the Chitral river, whilst out duck-shooting. These events all tend to increase the already immense amount of local fear of any mountain that is ingrained in the mind of the Chitrali, and it will be, I fear, many years before any attempt on a high summit in this country will be successful, unless all porters are recruited from outside.1
Of the equipment and stores of our expedition nothing has as yet been said. Both Hunt and I had climbing boots and sleeping-bags of the Everest pattern. We wore ordinary ski-ing wind-proof suits. All the high-camp coolies were given warm clothing, army boots sufficiently large to take three pairs of socks, wind-proof suits, and four blankets each. On certain days for short periods we wore rrampons, but as none of us had ever used them before we found t hem clumsy and more of a hindrance than a help. Tents at Camp II were of the Meade pattern, but in Camp I we used an ordinary double-fly 100-lb. tent for ourselves and the army pattern 8o-lb. tent for coolies. Throughout the expedition we had no cases needing medical attention with the exception of one coolie who developed a bad fever, and the inevitable headaches due to altitude.
A point of which we were very proud was that when we were making arrangements we made out a large table showing exactly the number of loads, the contents of each load, and where each article was to be used. All through and until we returned, we never found the table to be inaccurate, and the loads were correct up to the last day. Those who have travelled in the hills with fifty coolies will appreciate what this meant. The table was made out on five evenings at about four days' interval and meant working till 3 a.m. each night. The amount of beer consumed during its compilation was staggering, but it well repaid us in the ease with which the show ran once we left.
We were rather disappointed with the result of the climb. Had we had any experience of mountaineering, of snow conditions, and of work on steep ice, we would not have wasted two valuable days by returning to camp early. We were both of the opinion that had we had one more day of good weather and the time to stay in Camp II for another two days we could without any doubt have reached the summit. The last 400 yards is merely honest plodding through snow knee-deep at a very easy gradient. But perhaps this is the opinion of all those who nearly, but just not quite, reach the top.
Of the difficulties of the mountain from a climbing aspect I am not in a position to say anything. No part was worse than the ground one would meet on an ordinary day after thar. We experienced no really bad weather such as full gales or very heavy snow-falls, nor, in my opinion, was any part dangerous from fear of avalanches. Naturally one's opinions alter from those one holds when actually on snow under suspicion.
As regards the coolies, perhaps the less said the better. With a few exceptions they were unreliable and anxious to get back home as soon as possible. The specially selected high-camp coolies all proved themselves first-class men and played up wonderfully, one man in particular, Pinan Jan, a road gang-mate, proving himself to be the best climber of the whole party. He and Hunt were responsible for most of the work and for circumventing nearly all the difficult pitches of the climb.
But whatever may be said about it, we found that this was as good a way of spending three weeks' leave as any we had met before.
Note by Editor
The belief in revengeful guardian fairies and malevolent spirits is, I believe, far more common among the peoples of Hunza, Gilgit, and Chitral than among those of other parts of the Himalaya. When Lieutenant Bell was carrying the triangulation up to Gilgit in 1912 he was frequently warned against provoking the spirits on certain mountains. The year was a disastrous one for the Survey of India. An earthquake caused a landslip which nearly resulted in a catastrophe. 'You have been warned', said his men. Shortly afterwards, one of his detachments on the survey station ofYashochish was struck by lightning, two men were killed and the Indian officer in charge died from shock soon after. Bell himself died suddenly after two days' illness on the Pamirs, actually of appendicitis, but, as I was told the following year, most certainly for offending the spirits of the high hills. When my party took over the work in Hunza in 1913 it was tactfully suggested to me that the Government of India must be a callous crowd to send us up to be merely the targets of ungodly wrath; and I have no doubt that though we all survived that year, the death of one of our number and the wounding of the other two early in the Great War was doubtless laid to the door of the Hunza fairies.
But we only disturbed the spirits of the lesser summits. Rakaposhi and Nanga Parbat we left severely alone. It is on these where the fiercest spirits dwell. Those of Rakaposhi are biding their time; those of Nanga Parbat have been provoked. They have an evil reputation. Mummery and the two Gurkhas, Raghobir and Guman Singh, were destroyed by an avalanche on the western flanks of the mountain in 1895. In 1930 an officer who defiled the sacred lake, fed by the snows of Nanga Parbat, with an outboard motor-boat, was drowned in the Indus soon afterwards. Of the parties which attempted to reach the summit in 1932 and 1934, nine lie dead on the flanks of the mountain, one at the foot, one in Sikkim, while two have been killed within a few months after leaving India-Rand Herron, who fell to his death on the 13th October 1932 from near the summit of the Chefren Pyramid, and Walter Raechl, who received fatal injuries during the traverse of the Watzmann in the Bavarian Alps on the 29th December 1934.
Nor is it only those who violate the domain of the fairies who are liable to punishment. To the superstitious, the destruction caused by the 1934 earthquake in Nepal, the death of the Dalai Lama, and other lesser disasters were the natural revenge of the mountain spirits for the violation of Everest by mountaineer and airman. Too much rain—or too little—blight on the crops—the birth of a daughter—are other manifestations which angered spirits may visit upon those who willingly assist the ungodly mountaineer.
Is it then really to be wondered at that the superstitious folk living under the shadow of high mountains have reason to be afraid? Burn, in his account of Chitrali superstitions already referred to, records that his jemadar, who was a tower of strength in other ways, and a born mountaineer, resolutely discouraged the coolies from helping the sahibs in their mad attempt on Istor-o-Nal. He implicitly believed that the sahibs would all go to their death through a supernatural agency which he could not explain, and that he was merely doing his duty in preventing such a catastrophe by fair means or by foul.
The difficulty is, however, not insuperable. There is a maze of legend and folk-lore surrounding these mountains. By understanding and sympathy it is possible to gain the co-operation of the people. Disbelief in the power of the mountain spirits is fatal to success. It angers the spirits and increases the fear of the people. Nevertheless, it is possible, by certain ceremonies, even to propitiate the anger of the gods. The people themselves will explain how it may be done.