American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Masherbrum La

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1975

Masherbrum La

Richard M. and Patricia H. Emerson

IN the summer of ’74 our party1 discovered that the Masherbrum La does exist, it is passable, and it opens up one of the most splendid mountain tours in the world.

Virtually all previous trips into the major peaks of the Karakoram range were forced to enter and return by one of the two principle drainage systems: either up the Shigar and Braldo Rivers to the Baltoro Glacier; or up the Shyok and Hushe Rivers which give access to the Masherbrum, Ghondokoro, Chogolisa and Saltoro regions. The Masherbrum La connects these two systems back in their common Karakoram source. By crossing the La we made the first completed circuit: from Skardu via Askole up the Baltoro Glacier; under the great north wall of Masherbrum and over the Masherbrum La (17,600 feet); down the Ghondokoro Glacier to Hushe, Khapalu and back to Skardu.

We provide here the bare essentials of the route and its history. (The reader should have available the A.A.J., 1964, opened to page 122, so that John Noxon’s map can be consulted.)

Our search for the La was prompted by an interesting history2 of speculation and exploration for a southern approach to the Baltoro— and by some personal loathing at the prospect of recrossing the rope bridge near Askole. In 1911 the Workmans visited the Ghondokoro Glacier which flows south from the mountains forming the southern flank of the upper Baltoro. They concluded that no feasible pass through these mountains existed. However, Waller’s expedition to Masherbrum in 1938 revived speculation about such a pass.3

“—the Khondokoro Glacier forks into three main tongues. One area of ice falls from the east of the Masherbrum massif; one appears to flow past it from the north (emphasis added) ; the last comes from the east.”

Concerning the east branch of the Ghondokoro Waller added:

“From a study of the map it appears almost certain that on the other side of these (hills to the east) must lie the Vigne Glacier, which flows northward to join the Baltoro Glacier near its head. There is a persistent belief that somewhere in the Masherbrum area a pass leads over to the Baltoro Glacier from the south. I think this must be the pass—.”

Waller was correct about the location of the Vigne, but incorrect about the pass. The 1955 Harvard Karakoram Expedition (whose map-work is in the A.A.J., 1964) established that there is “no pass out of the upper Ghondokoro” to the Vigne Glacier.

“But halfway up the Ghondokoro there does in fact exist a break in the wall separating this glacier from the Yermanendu and the two do appear to join each other—”

The break in the wall referred to is the north tongue of the Ghondokoro mentioned by Waller. He was intrigued with that tongue “which appears to flow past (Masherbrum) from the north,” not as the pass he was looking for, but as a possible route of access to the east ridge of Masherbrum. As a result, two members of his party went to explore it:

“At tea-time Roberts and Graham Brown trudged into camp, a day before I expected them. Their news was much what I had feared it would be. They had set off up the glacier to the north, and had had difficulty in finding a way through the maze of crevasses and seracs. —They had had a spell of most interesting climbing, but had gained no further information.”

We now can provide the information. Having come up the Baltoro Glacier, we ascended the Yermanendu Glacier to the point where it makes a right-angle turn under the north wall of Masherbrum. Turning eastward, we climbed a moderate icefall to the Masherbrum La, turned south there and explored our way down the northern Ghondokoro which Roberts and Brown (and later a Japanese party4) had attempted to ascend. Before describing this route some general comments are in order:

The Yermanendu had never been explored by climbers beyond its juncture with the Baltoro. Nor did we meet any Balti who had wandered up that glacier. But the Balti people on the Askole side know the pass by name (the Masherbrum La) and by general location. Their traditional knowledge defines it as impassable. Therefore, living Baltis have not bothered to travel up the Yermanendu.

The Masherbrum La (17,600 feet by our altimeter) is located exactly where Noxon guessed: on a north-south axis between P 19,300 and P 22,000 on his map. This illusive place is not visible, nor is its presence easily deduced, when looking up either glacier. The Ghondokoro appears to lead into a tight cluster of peaks (P 22,000; P 22,450;

P 21,950); the Yermanendu appears to bump into the north wall of Masherbrum. Waller suspected that they might join, and Noxon drew his map on the assumption that they would. (Photos from the summit of Masherbrum supported that assumption.) Noxon’s map is essentially accurate except that the glacial tongue pictured east of the “U” in “Yermanendu” does not exist.

3. Exploring major icefalls from the top down involves tricky route- finding.4 It is nice to be able to rappel down a wall which would require a string of ice screws to ascend. But the knowledge that one might be forced to retreat up makes the game very exciting. Thanks to the ever- changing detail of a glacier, subsequent parties crossing the Masherbrum La from north to south will share with us the pleasure of this game.

Route:

By jeep from Skardu to Dasso; trek in three stages to Askole.

Askole to Payu Camp, near the terminus of the Baltoro—three stages.

Payu Camp to the mouth of the Yermanendu—three stages.

Up the Yermanendu to the “E” in “Glacier”—one stage.

Ascend to the pass via the north edge of a mild icefall; descend about 1,000 feet to the upper lip of the first icefall on the Ghondokoro, located due west of P 20,600—one stage.

Descend the first icefall entirely on its eastern flank until gaining the flat glacier west of P 19,050. Cross to the tip of the spur ridge which descends from Fanny (P 23,600) and make camp somewhere—one stage. (This western swing makes it possible to walk around the second icefall.)

Find your way down and across to the east bank of the lower Ghondokoro and camp somewhere near the summer grazing station called Andoro by the families from Hushe who summer there—one stage, down to the first “O” in “Ghondokoro.”

Andoro to Hushe—one stage of easy travel.

Hushe to Khapalu, through apricot orchards and villages you will not want to rush past—three stages.

Jeep from Khapalu to Skardu.

This trip requires climbing experience. It entails heavy load-carrying and possibly some load shuttling, because the pass-crossing should be done without porters. If the stages listed above are added up it will appear that the loop can be completed in 19 or 20 days. If you do it in less than thirty days you should re-examine your priorities.

1 Our party consisted of Chris Brown, Betsy and Nick Clinch, Dick, Leslie and Pat Emerson, Momin Hamid, Kathy, Lynn and Tom Hornbein, Jawaid Iqbal and Saeed Malik. Momin, Jawaid and Saeed represented the newly forming Alpine Club of Pakistan. We had two objectives: to attempt an ascent of Payu (Paiju) Peak (21,650 feet); and to locate and cross the Masherbrum La. After the tragic death of Momin Hamid in a fall at 18,000 feet on Payu, we turned our back on the mountain and devoted all of the remaining time to the evacuation of Momin’s body and the exploration of the La. Betsy Clinch accompanied us only as far as Base Camp on Payu.

2 We credit Nick Clinch for alerting us to the historical controversy about such a pass.

3 James Waller The Everlasting Hills, London, 1939.

4 Unknown to us at the time, a 1974 Japanese party attempted to reach the pass from the south while we were approaching it from the north. Like Roberts and Brown in 1938, they turned back discouraged by the icefalls on the Ghondokoro—no doubt because they could see them better than we could.

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