American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Ascent of Istor-o-Nal

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1956

The Ascent of Istor-o-Nal

JOSEPH E. MURPHY, JR.

The Princeton Mountaineering Club Expedition to Chitral, West Pakistan, and the ascent of Istor-o-Nal resulted from Thomas A. Mutch’s facetious suggestion that he and I make our next trip to the Himalaya. At the time, Tim and I were sitting on the bank of a river in the Coast Range of British Columbia on an earlier Princeton Mountaineering Club trip. When the idea of a Himalayan venture first occurred, we considered it an impossible dream, for we had neither the capital nor the experience necessary to undertake the enterprise. But the "impossible” is always intriguing and we kept the idea of a future expedition in the back of our minds with a tentative date set for the Spring following our completion of military service, June 1955. It would be an opportune time since neither of us would be tied down by the demands of business or marriage, circumstances which generally preclude the chance to join an expedition.

During the next two and one-half years, plans progressed and letters accumulated. Choosing a suitable climbing area for a small party, selecting the right equipment, getting permission to enter the mountains, obtaining my release from the Army in Japan—all took time. We consulted men who had been to the Himalaya, studied books and journals, ordered from equipment catalogs, and contacted the State Department and foreign embassies. We planned on spending what we could pool from our Army savings: $5,000, a fraction of the cost of most larger expeditions. Soon, high-altitude tents arrived from England, Prima stoves from Sweden, light "mummy” down sleeping bags from California; each item selected after much deliberation. Negotiations for permission to climb, the most uncertain factor, dragged on for over a year. India was closed. The report from Nepal was unfavorable. Pakistan gave vague assurances that we would receive authorization. When Tim sailed, permission still had not been granted.

Forty days after his departure Tim met in Karachi the one man who could grant permission, Dr. Imdad Husain, and eventually got the permit. An American Embassy official was amazed at this, as he thought it would take months. Getting permission to climb was not the last problem to confront Tim, for at the unloading dock seven crates of equipment nearly disappeared into a train, when Tim, seeing the familiar baggage being hoisted away, stopped the disastrous operation. From the docks, the equipment was taken to the customs office and a prohibitive tariff was assessed on our equipment. Three days later, however, the Treasury Department issued a license canceling the duty, which allowed Tim to shuttle the supplies off to the station and the train for Lahore.

In Lahore, with the invaluable help of the Reverend R. M. Ewing, President of Forman College, Tim assembled the equipment and awaited my arrival. In the meantime, the Pakistan Government was most generous in assigning Major Ken Bankwala of the Infantry School to our expedition as liaison officer. On the 7th of May I arrived by plane from Japan, and the next day we left by train for Chitral on the border of Afghanistan, later traveling by bus and ultimately on foot.

Since the State of Chitral is hemmed in by mountains we entered the district from the south over 10,000-foot Lawrie Pass. On the 11th of May, just below the pass, a snowstorm forced us to find shelter, which we discovered around the next bend in the form of a "hotel”; a small mud hut where Tim, Ken and I, 10 porters, and 12 donkeys spent the night. Early next morning we trudged through the snow on the pass and hiked down to a nearby fort along a steep, winding road. Traffic along the narrow road was heavy with coolies and burros carrying wood and grain to Dir and staples back into Chitral. At the fort we hired a jeep to take us to the main post at Drosh, where we watched a wildly played polo match. We spent a night there and then continued driving north until we reached the town of Chitral with its bustling market and Royal Palace set beneath the giant white dome of Tirich Mir.

The next three days we spent in Chitral, where we attended dinners, visited a nearby mining operation, played tennis and, when we were given the chance, sorted and repacked our food and equipment into four-man day and 80-pound loads. In response to a call for porters, 34 hardy coolies appeared one morning and lined up in one long, uneven rank. Ken and I inspected the line to select the 10 strongest men, though if they were the best, it was by luck, for a man’s looks give little indication of his endurance. The agreement on wages had met with our stipulation that they be no more than the local rate, and the porters seemed happy. By the evening of the 15th our arrangements had been completed. After drinking three bottles of homemade wine offered by one of the Princes as a farewell gesture, we felt slightly out of condition. Nevertheless, we planned to depart for the mountains early on the 16th.

When the sun penetrated the morning mist, Tim, Ken, and I shouldered our 30-pound packs while the porters readied their 80-pound loads for the march. For five days we walked up a long, winding valley with its sharp contrast of green vegetation and hot, barren desert. We spent the nights at village guest houses and stopped for lunch at small tea shops along the way. Fifty miles from the town of Chitral, beyond snow-laden Zani Pass (12,800 feet), in a cluster of weather-beaten dwellings called Souche, additional porters carrying ata (roughly ground wheat) joined the party. We filed out of Souche on the 24th with 18 porters and turned west toward the Lower Tirich Glacier, establishing camp three days later at 13,000 feet in a driving snowstorm. Soaked to the skin by the wet snow and tired by the long, difficult march, the coolies balked for the first time—the tough Chitralis who had vowed they would go to the top wanted to return home. Only our faithful cook, Gulnawaz, wished to go on.

The next day was clear, and with it came renewed optimism. We needed five volunteers, and as many stepped forward, willing to continue. On the 29th we placed Base Camp at 15,000 feet on the main glacier below a large couloir. We could easily see the route used by the two previous attempts. Camp I was pitched two days later on the crest of a minor ridge at 18,500 feet. The ascent to Camp I was a long snow climb across the rough debris of an old avalanche, several city blocks in area, and then up the steep, narrow couloir.

From Camp I, Tim and I started out to make a reconnaissance for the next site. Beyond a treacherous couloir rose a short but steep ice pitch. I began cutting steps in the blue ice, and the chips flaked out and down past Tim and the three porters. It looked as though it would take several hours to cut our way to the top until we found a vertical crack several inches wide in the ice face. It led diagonally toward the top. Notching ladderlike steps on the edge of the crack was easier, and within an hour I had struggled over the brim into soft snow. Tim came up and brought the porters up on belay. Shortly before noon we selected a site for Camp II on a large snow- field at about 20,000 feet.

We descended to Camp I by an alternate route through a dense fog and met Ken, who had brought up more supplies with the other two porters. Our plan to occupy the new site the next day, June 1, was altered when the porters refused to budge from their tent. Headaches, lack of appetite, and superstition kept them to their sleeping bags while Tim and I, restless because of the delay, puttered about camp. By noon, light storms closed in, and soon snow and wind made thoughts of going on even more impractical. For the next two days snow fell on the camp with little interruption. Intermittent winds whipped across the ridge and lashed at the tents. We stayed in our tents, wondering when the snow would cease, venturing out during the lulls to view the mountains, 20,000-foot rugged peaks of ice, rock, and snow which towered above us.

On June 4 the mists cleared, and Tim and I with three porters started up toward the new site we had selected two days before. Ken returned to Base Camp, his feet having been slightly frostbitten. Though not a serious condition, it was best that he get down to lower altitudes. Our previous tracks had been obliterated by the snowfall, and we now had to make new steps, a long and exhausting task. We reached the snowfield by 3 P.M. and could see the summit ridge above us clearly outlined against the blue sky. The porters were too exhausted to help us pitch the tents, so Tim and I packed two five-by-seven-foot platforms in the snow and erected the two tents. One porter helped for a while and then sat back in the snow with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands like the others. The porters were suffering from the effects of high altitude, and we hoped a night’s rest would bring relief.

Our plan for the next day was to find a location for Camp III and deposit two loads there. The sun was up by the time we left camp and started for the large couloir which dropped down from the summit ridge. At the base of the couloir we encountered an ice face which took over an hour to surmount. Steps had to be cut for the entire distance. Balancing carefully, we worked our way up the steep, dark ice until we gained the top. The route up the couloir was tiring, and we alternated the lead until we reached the top at 3:30 P.M., where we deposited our loads beneath a large rock on the right side of the slightly dipping saddle. Clouds settled on the ridge. It became cold, and after a 15-minute rest, we turned back and descended along the earlier tracks to keep from getting lost in the dense fog which had enveloped the couloir. Rock buttresses loomed out of the mist and assumed grotesque shapes as we hurried downward in the eerie silence.

Early on the 6th of June we packed the remainder of our gear and struck one tent for the move to Camp III. The porters were in no condition to go on, so we sent them back to Base Camp with a note to Ken. Camp II would remain intact with one tent and could be resupplied from below by fresh porters. Then Tim and I retraced our tracks of the previous day, balanced our heavy packs to negotiate the tricky ice wall, and by noon established Camp III at 21,400 feet on the col above the couloir. The key to the summit ridge was the 300-foot rock face which rose above the col beyond Camp III. By 7 A.M. the next morning we had finished our hot chocolate and were striking the tent. We intended to pack everything but extra food to a higher camp and abandon this one. With our heavy packs we carefully traversed the narrow snow cornice for 200 yards and gained the rock. To our left the mountain dropped away suddenly, leaving 4,000 or 5,000 feet of space between the rock wall and the narrow, winding glacier below. An anchor rope, left by the previous expedition, was still visible except where it disappeared in the snow-filled openings in the rock face. Tim belayed me from the cornice while I climbed the first pitch, and then we alternated the lead, keeping to the snow whenever possible.

By the time we made the top of the rock wall, we felt cold and tired and had to rest. Beyond us the ridge rose toward the distant summit. We edged along the narrow corniced ridge several hundred yards until we came to two large boulders jutting out 100 feet below the crest. The snow was unsteady in places and the steps didn’t hold well. It would take several hours to climb to another site large enough to accommodate our tent, which meant pitching camp after nightfall. We decided to place Camp IV here at 22,400 feet. To make a level platform for the tent, we dug into the snow with our ice axes and stamped out an area slightly larger than the base of our high-altitude tent. Anchored with ropes and several 10-inch tubular aluminum stakes, it seemed sturdy enough. After we had crawled inside, Tim prepared supper, and we talked over plans for the next day, when we hoped to reach the summit. We rolled out our sleeping bags, I stuffed my boots into the bottom of my sleeping bag to thaw out the leather, and we turned in. The night was quiet and clear.

At 6:30 A.M. on June 8, after a light breakfast, Tim departed on a reconnaissance while I waited for the sun to come up to thaw out my boots, which were still stiff. Fifteen minutes later, Tim returned out of breath, almost exhausted by the intense cold. He fell asleep after entering the tent, and I waited 30 minutes before waking him. We drank another cup of hot cocoa, put on our down jackets and started up from camp, hoping to reach the summit by 1:00 P.M.

We worked our away cautiously along the crest of the ridge, for it was sheer on the left side with overhanging cornices and slanted steeply away on the right. In places the crest was less than a foot wide. Where the snow was likely to slide we made each step carefully and kept moving forward. A half mile beyond camp the narrow ridge expanded into a broad plateau which rose to what we thought might be the summit. Just below the highest visible point was where the English party had turned back in 1935. We inhaled five or six times after each step and climbing slowly, alternated the lead to share the task of breaking steps in the knee-deep snow.

It was a clear day, and we could see the twin peaks of Tirich Mir behind us and the mountains of Afghanistan to the west. To the north, the next ridge swept westward toward an unnamed 24,000-foot peak. Small gusts of snow and wind blew up from the ridge. We had hoped that Istor-o-Nal would not produce exasperating illusions in the form of false summits, but our wish was not fulfilled. The first high peak of snow proved to be a false summit. We continued climbing along the ridge. Beyond a second false summit we could see the ridge narrow and curve toward the right. Its south or inner face was precipitous, and its narrow crest rose gradually to a point and then descended. Now we were nearly certain that our goal was in sight.

Keeping below the crest of the ridge to avoid overhanging cornices, Tim moved forward slowly, breaking steps in the snow. Clouds began to drift in from the south, periodically limiting visibility. We trudged upward for some time until we finally reached three small mounds of snow. Fifty yards beyond, the ridge leveled and several hundred yards farther, it fell away. We had reached the summit, 24,242 feet above sea level.

It was 4 P.M. and quite cold. We caught only a glimpse of the distant peaks as clouds began to envelope the summit ridge. Planting our P. M. C. flag and Ken’s regimental flag, we took two photos and munched some dried fruit and nuts, hoping for a break in the weather. The margin of time remaining for the return to Camp IV was slim. At 4:15 P.M. when the clouds showed no sign of clearing, we decided that it would be risky to remain if we hoped to reach camp before nightfall.

We started down, retracing our steps along the narrow summit ridge to the point where it broadened, and then we descended until we reached the steep, narrow ridge leading directly to Camp IV. This last ridge was tricky as before and seemed eternally long. As the sky cleared and the sun dipped in the west, long shadows streaked across the glacial valleys and changing shades of orange silhouetted the peaks against the pale blue sky. We moved slowly over the cornices, which in places leaned far out over the precipice, and reached camp just before sundown. We celebrated by digging into the most precious of our stores. Tim heated the soup, cocoa, and oatmeal while I started restoring the circulation in my feet, which had been frostbitten. After supper, Tim worked on the feet until 9:00 P.M., when the natural color was restored. We crawled into our sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning we didn’t move until the sun came up. The day was clear and bright. I started out first with a light pack, and Tim packed up the tent and followed. It did not take long to reach Camp III, where we retrieved some of the food we had cached there two days earlier. At Camp II, we found a tin of fried chicken and hard boiled eggs sent up by the Major, which we shared with the porters who had brought them up.

The descent was long and tiring, and reaching Base Camp was like coming home after a long journey. Ken met me several hundred yards from camp and half carried me the rest of the way, though I was perfectly able to walk. The porters were full of congratulations, and it was good to see our faithful cook, Gulnawaz, again. The Chitralis were so emotional that their enthusiasm brought tears to our eyes. Tim arrived a few minutes later to a similar reception, and then we all drank hot tea and opened a bottle of brandy presented by a fellow climber to celebrate the occasion.

In order to prevent gangrene, it was necessary that I keep off my feet and be carried on a stretcher across the glacier, a rather embarrassing prospect. From the terminal moraine we could travel by horseback. Ken sent for eight more porters and arranged to have horses meet us below the glacier. Two days later we left. I was on the stretcher while the rest walked. It was a rather exciting ride, as I was tied up like a mummy in my sleeping bag and bound tightly to a makeshift frame of poles and cross-sticks. The porters carried me on their shoulders over the uneven glacier. One minute I was looking at the dark ice and the next at the sky. Twelve hours later we arrived at the moraine.

Tim and I went on the next day, while Ken remained behind to hunt ibex and handle the baggage. Below Zani Pass my horse gave up, utterly exhausted, and the local villagers carried me on their backs the last 2,000 feet through rain and snowstorm over the 12,800-foot pass. On the other side, at a village called Uthul, we acquired horses and rode the next 56 miles into Chitral. We arrived on the 16th of June only to hear rumors in the form of news reports that we had been lost in a crevasse on Tirich Mir and found two days later by the porters.

On the whole, the area we visited offers many advantages to a small expedition. The country is both interesting and attractive. There are reputedly more than 100 peaks over 20,000 feet, of which only two or perhaps three have been climbed. The local inhabitants, if trained and given sufficient experience, would probably make excellent high-altitude porters. Furthermore, the State officials and the Chitratt people were extremely generous in providing assistance. In view of this, it is surprising that more expeditions have not visited Chitral.

TRIP NOTES

FOOD: We found out, contrary to many reports, that diet does not have to be loaded down with a variety of delicacies. High altitude rations included only the following items: tea biscuits, mixed nuts, raisins, cocoa, and sugar and dried milk mixture, lemon powder, Ovaltine, cheese, dehydrated beef, dried soup, shortcake. Rations were packed in four-man day quantities, the most satisfactory size for us to handle.

ACCLIMITIZATION: Neither of us suffered any “altitude sickness” or unusual effects from the high altitude climbing. This was possibly due to several facts.

1. Our diet was fat-free and stressed optimum intake of water. Melting snow is always time-consuming and must be recognized as the primary cooking problem. A mixture of snow and raisins provided good snacks while climbing.

2. We kept out of the sun as much as possible and attempted to complete each day’s climb by noon.

3. While we moved quickly up the mountain, we spent several weeks at altitudes over 9,000 feet. Our climbing pattern was fitted to this particular mountain. If it had been 2,000 feet higher, we would have probably discovered that we were physically over-extended, far below the summit.

EQUIPMENT: Commenting on only a few items;

1 Boots: Army thermal boots are excellent in all respects, much better in many ways than the best leather climbing boots.

2. Jackets: We used down-filled jackets made by Mr. Siminow of Camp & Trail, New York City. They were of superior construction and—of all our equipment— the most appreciated item.

3. Porter equipment: We had particular trouble with boots. The easiest and safest solution would have been to bring a large number of rubber thermal boots. These boots tend to fit a large number of differently shaped feet.

FINANCES: (For two men, approximate) $5,000:





Tramsportation to Pakistan and return from U.S.A.

$2,600



Travel in Pakistan (including porters)

1,100



Provision bought in Pakistan

300



Equipment and provisions purchased in U.S.

1,000



Summary of Statistics

Ascent: Istor-o-Nal, 24,242 feet, Chitral, West Pakistan, first ascent, June 8, 1955; second highest summit reached by an American expedition.

Personnel: Major Ken Bankwala, Joseph E. Murphy, Jr., and Thomas A. Mutch.

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