American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Kongur, Sinkiang

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1982

Kongur, Sinkiang. Our 10-man British Mount Kongur Expedition had two main objectives: to make the first ascent of Kongur and to conduct a programme of medical research into the reaction of the expedition members to altitude. The mountain was successfully climbed and the scientific programme provided copious data for later evaluation. We climbed alpine-style. The leader was Dr. Michael Ward. The four- man climbing team consisted of Peter Boardman, Alan Rouse, Joe Tasker and me, while the scientific team comprised Dr. Charles Clarke, Dr. James Milledge, Professor Edward Williams and Dr. Ward. Jim Curran was cameraman and David Wilson acted as interpreter. Accompanied by a six-person trekking party, we arrived at the Karakol Lakes (11,650 feet), fifteen miles southwest of Kongur, on May 22 and moved up to Base Camp (4750 meters, 15,584 feet) on May 28. Base Camp was on an idyllic, grassy meadow covered with wild flowers, squeezed between two glacial moraines. For acclimatization, with several members of the trekking party, we climbed a 5490-meter (18,012- foot) col on the west side of the Koksel Glacier. The previous year Ward and I had climbed the Koksel Glacier Icefall to reach the upper Koksel Glacier Basin by a difficult and dangerous route. Farther east, we now found a route up the glacier to the north of a minor peak, which we named Rognon Peak. This route led to a col from which Advanced Base Camp at 17,725 feet in the Koksel Basin could be safely and easily reached. There were two possible routes to the foot of the summit pyramid, one from the Koksel Col up the south ridge of Junction Peak and the other up the long, easy ridge which led to the ridge joining Kongur Tiubie to Kongur. Unsettled weather and heavy snowfalls kept us from our plan of acclimatizing on some of the surrounding peaks, and so the climbing team concentrated on making a thorough reconnaissance to 21,000 feet (6400 meters) on both the south ridge and the southwest rib. In order to reach the main summit of Kongur, we had to climb over a subsidiary summit, “Junction Peak.” We thought the south ridge would be a safer and technically more interesting route than the southwest rib. The climbing team set out from Base Camp on June 23 and moved up past the Koksel Col onto the south ridge the following day, reaching 21,000 feet near the end of the shelf that leads to the steep upper part of the ridge. On June 25 we climbed the south ridge in a long, very hard day, stopping on its crest at 7250 meters (23,786 feet). There were two steep ice pitches and the upper part of the ridge was on steep deep snow that presented avalanche risk. On June 26 we traversed below the crest of the subsidiary tops of Junction Peak in worsening weather but were forced to stop at midday because of poor visibility. During the night the wind rose and threatened to blow the tents away. On the following morning we had our first glance, through driving spindrift, of the summit pyramid of Kongur. Only then we realized how big and steep Kongur’s final pyramid was. We crossed the summit of Junction Peak, dropped down to the col just short of our objective and dug a roomy snow cave. With fierce wind and unpredictable weather, we set out, travelling light without bivouac gear, on the morning of June 26, hoping to reach the summit that day, but the knife-edged ridge leading to the foot of the final pyramid proved to be extremely difficult and it took six hours to traverse the ridge. We had no choice but to return to the snow cave. The next morning was as windy as ever; food and fuel were nearly exhausted. We decided to return to Base Camp. On the way back, instead of returning down the south ridge of Junction Peak, we descended the long ridge linking Junction Peak with Kongur Tiubie and then down the southwest rib. The slopes which at first had seemed avalanche-prone, proved safer than anticipated. Boardman, Rouse, Tasker and I set out from Advanced Base on July 5 to climb the route we had just descended. Milledge and Wilson helped with loads for the first 3500 feet. That night we snow-holed at 21,150 feet. The following day we traversed to the 22,300-foot Kongur Col, the lowest point on the ridge between Kongur Tiubie and Kongur, and then arduously climbed over the long shoulder and over Junction Peak to the snow cave prepared on the previous attempt. We rested on July 7 and on the 8th traversed the difficult knife-edge, hoping to find suitable snow for a cave in a gully observed before. Another storm was sweeping in from the west. Disappointingly, there were only three feet of snow on hard ice. This meant we could only cut narrow slots, rather like coffins, with a thin, fragile wall of soft snow on one side and hard ice on the other. We spent four nights in these “coffins” while the storm raged. One collapsed on Rouse; everyone had to rebuild his snow hole during the storm. Sleeping bags became damp and food was nearly finished. July 12 dawned fine and we set out for the summit. It was bitterly cold and the first 500 feet were technically difficult, over steep, loose rock and icy patches. It was two P.M. before we had climbed around the rock tower barring the bottom of the ridge and reached its crest. Above that point we could move together and progressed more quickly despite the increasing altitude. We reached the summit (7719 meters, 25,325 feet) at eight P.M. It was still windy and cold, but between gusts of spindrift the view was superb. Two hundred miles to the south K2 was visible and to the northwest, Pik Lenin and Pik Kommunizma. We still had to dig a snow hole about 100 feet from the top, finishing it at eleven P.M. The next morning, perhaps because of the different angle of the sun, the northeast summit of Kongur appeared to be similar in height, if not higher than the summit we were on. We decided to reach this summit before going down. It took two hours to reach it and we crossed precariously along the unstable ridge of an intermediate rock peak. Looking back and checking the altimeter, the first summit was undoubtedly the highest. It took until 4:45 to return to the main summit and we immediately started down. Whilst rappelling on the steep rock step at the foot of the ridge, Boardman was hit a glancing blow on the head by a large stone dislodged by the rope. He was momentarily knocked unconscious, but, fortunately, did not fall off the end of the rope and quickly recovered. Luckily the weather remained settled and we reached the Junction Peak snow cave shortly after midnight. We returned to Advanced Base on July 14, and were met 1000 feet up the southwest rib by Ward and Curran. A comprehensive research programme on the effect of high altitude and oxygen deficiency was successfully completed by Drs. Ward, Clarke, Milledge and Williams. Some of Dr. Ward’s observations follow: “On the Kongur expedition, at our laboratory at Base Camp, our previous studies were extended by the programme of scientific work carried out there. No cases of retinal haemorrhages were recorded on this expedition by Dr. Clarke in contrast to the study carried out by him on Everest in 1975. Experiments carried out during exercise showed that our high-altitude climbers had a smaller increase in breathing rate compared with sea- level results than had the scientists. They were also less sensitive to oxygen lack. These factors indicate a more efficient system for transporting oxygen in the body, such as occurs in Sherpas. The best known response to oxygen lack is an increase in the number of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the tissues. In one climber who reached the summit of Kongur, no such increase was noted, an observation previously made in some Sherpas. Many blood samples were obtained for the estimation of erythropoietin, the hormone which controls red cell formation in the bone marrow. Numerous similar samples were also taken for the study of those hormones which control fluid shifts.”

Christian Bonington

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.