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Asia, India, The Derbyshire Himalayan Expedition

The Derbyshire Himalayan Expedition. Basil Poff and I reconnoitered the Pir Pinjal range in Kulu during June and July, 1958. We selected Indrasan (20,410 feet), an unclimbed peak at the head of the Malana glacier as a likely objective for a stronger party. The mountain became one of the objectives of the Derbyshire Himalayan Expedition 1961, composed of me as leader, Ray Handley, Derrick Burgess, Dennis Gray, Jack Ashcroft, Steven Read, Trevor Panther, and Nick Smythe. We were under the patronage of His Grace the Duke of Devonshire, M. C., and had the backing of the Mount Everest Foundation. Other objectives were the reconnaissance of Ali Ratni Tibba, a giant 18,000-foot aiguille which dominates the upper reaches of the Malana valley, the ascent of an unclimbed 18,000-foot ice pass on the Kulu-Bara Shigri divide, and the plane-table survey of a complex group of peaks in the same area. At Pathankot, the railhead, Captain Balgit Singh of the Indian Army joined, appointed official liaison officer at the eleventh hour. Wangyl, the sirdar, and five other Ladakhi high-altitude porters were picked up at Nagar bridge, 12 miles south of Manali, the road terminus. We had considerable difficulty getting our pack train across the 12,000-foot spur which forms the Beas-Parbati watershed and separates the Beas and Malana valleys because of the snow still lingering in late May from the heaviest winter fall in living memory. Eventually we reached Base Camp in the Malana valley at 12,000 feet.

Indrasan and its near neighbour, Deo Tibba (19,687 feet) sit on top of a gigantic three-tier cake of ice. Our plan was simply to put an intermediate camp on each shelf until we were in striking distance of the final 2000-foot summit cone of Indrasan. In round figures 3000 feet and three miles separated each shelf. From Base Camp the route lay along the gently inclined Malana Glacier, the first shelf, and veered off to the west, taking a tributary glacier which emerges from a névé at 16,000 feet, the second shelf. Above, a steep, transverse ridge forms the southern supporting wall of the third and final shelf, which is the upper névé of the Malana glacier. From the second shelf there are three feasible routes to the final plateau. The least hazardous appeared to follow a great couloir which was used by Mr. Jan de V. Graaff’s party when making the first ascent of Deo Tibba in 1952. Seeking the best approach to the couloir, the first pair of pathfinders took nine hours to climb it. The angle ranged from 45° in the lower half to 65° at the top. However, a second pair, using a tongue from the highest point of the second shelf and the ridge bordering on the western side of the couloir, cut into the great gully at a point halfway up and reduced the climbing time to six hours. Thereafter it became an established trade route, though liable to bombardment in the afternoon. Camp III was established on the third shelf near the top of the couloir. Later the bulk of the camp was shifted across the two-mile wide plateau to the north edge and placed in the col between Deo Tibba and Indrasan at 18,300 feet to become Camp IV. After a brief reconnaissance towards the west ridge of Indrasan and the fifth ascent of Deo Tibba by Derrick Burgess and Dennis Gray with Wangyal, all activity was suspended for a week by continuous and heavy snowfall. Conditions required a total withdrawal for two days’ recuperation at Base Camp. When the route was reopened to Camp IV, Deo Tibba was climbed again by Read, Handley and me with Jigmet and Zangbo. Simultaneously Burgess and Gray made the first attempt on the final west ridge of Indrasan. They encountered a cock’s comb, a ridge serrated by numerous gendarmes topping the nearly vertical north and south faces. Switchbacking was out of the question, but to bypass the obelisks they were forced alternately onto both faces. Progress was slow on the great walls, and they were halted less than halfway along the ridge, on the north face. The pair returned to camp and planned to make their second and final attempt the next day by the same route. About 800 feet below and a quarter mile away from the top they were stopped by the sheer difficulty of the climbing and the lack of time. A mile to the east, Read, Handley and I explored a line of weakness which seemed to offer an avenue to the foot of the steep east ridge. The rock route commenced in an overhanging chimney where artificial tactics had to be employed and a mere 200 feet of ascent cost six hours. We rappelled down from our seemingly hopeless position and in conference at Camp IV with the west ridge scouts decided to give the mountain best. Indrasan had successfully repulsed the first expedition to get a footing on her formidable flanks. All camps were evacuated down to Camp I, which was used as an intermediate camp for the Tos valley and the Ali Ratni Tibba groups.

Early in July the expedition divided, one party to strike east from the foot of the Malana glacier across a 16,000-foot watershed to the Tos valley, which runs parallel to the Malana, the other party to reconnoitre an approach to Ali Ratni Tibba and seek other likely peaks in the area immediately east of Base Camp. The Tos valley party, climbing and surveying in superb weather conditions, realized its objectives. The 18,000-foot ice pass was climbed on July 13 and from the col Burgess and I observed the incredible contrast between the ice-draped crags of Kulu and the virtually snowless summits of the Bara Shigri system behind the monsoon barrier. Returning over the eastern branch of the Tos glacier, which had been surveyed by Jack Ashcroft, we made the second ascent of White Sail (21,148 feet), a mountain of great beauty and still the highest peak to be climbed in Kulu. From camp at the junction of the subsidiary glacier with the Tos glacier, the route took the crest of a lateral moraine to avoid the icefall and to land eventually on the upper névé, where a second camp was placed. We gained the east ridge via the only col and found the lower section of the rock ridge to be alpine in nature. This section terminated in a distinctive snow dome. Beyond this step a line of beetling ice cliffs, defending the summit snows, stood athwart the ridge. Anxiously we scanned them for a weakness which would permit access to the summit slopes. By skirting the foot of the cliffs along an icicle-threatened catwalk, we reached a short, vertical ice wall which relaxed into a 75° ice slope and in 300 feet yielded a route through the cliffs to the final ridge above. The summit, a fragile blade of snow, was trodden at 1 p.m. on July 16. Fifty feet below the summit, a slab of rock bore a disintegrating cairn, evidence of Colonel J. O. M. Roberts’ ascent almost to a day 20 years before. The climbers, Burgess, Ashcroft and I, rebuilt it and attached a phospher-bronze plaque bearing the initials of the members and the date of the expedition. Meanwhile the eastern party, Gray and Handley with Wangyal and Zangbo, had made two first ascents by reaching the summits of the aiguilles known as the Manikaren Spires (17,692 and 17,000 feet). Shortly after prospecting a feasible route to the summit of Ali Ratni Tibba, they were forced to abandon it by the onset of the monsoon. Reunited, the expedition began the withdrawal from the mountains in monsoon conditions on July 20.

Robert Pettigrew, Alpine Club