1906. Pinnacle Peak

Publication Year: 2002.

1906. Pinnacle Peak

Kitty Calhoun

“What do you think of the trend of todays’ climbers pushing harder and harder?” The question came at a recent mountain symposium, but it could just as easily have been asked a century ago. If you consider the knowledge and equipment that climbers had back then compared to today, I would say that the old achievements are just as impressive, if not more so, than those of today.

In the early 1900s maps of the Himalaya were crude, when they existed at all. Mountains were often unnamed, and climbers could not tell which drainage would most easily lead to their chosen peak. Moreover, none of the airports and few of the roads and bridges that are commonly used today had been built back then, which meant that expeditions began in the lowlands. In those days one of the “easiest” approaches was to K2 in the Karakoram: it was only 350 miles, and took a mere month. Equipment consisted of heavy cotton tents, wool clothing, nailed boots, hemp ropes, and long wooden axes. Although climbers roped together on the glacier, they knew little about snow or ice anchors, and if one member fell on a route it could mean the death of the whole party. Avalanches were poorly understood, and nothing was known about high altitude illnesses.

Despite these challenges, climbers in the 1900s pushed hard, and Fanny and William Bullock Workman were at the forefront. When William, a surgeon, retired early because of poor health, the couple began a series of long bicycle tours across Europe, Algeria, Ceylon, and India. Their first Himalayan expedition came in 1899, when they climbed and named several peaks in Kashmir, including 21,000-foot Koser Gunge. Between 1899 and 1912, they organized seven expeditions to the Karakoram.

The high point of Fanny’s expeditioning came in 1906 with the ascent of Pinnacle Peak (22,810 feet) in the Nun Kun region of India. It was immediately recognized as one of the outstanding achievements of its time, the highest summit yet reached by a woman (and not far short of man’s disputed altitude record). The couple had an unusual “avant-garde egalitarianism” in their partnership, and in fact, Fanny is credited with being the “mastermind” of their well known 1912 Siachen Glacier expedition. It was on this excursion that she climbed a smaller and more technical mountain, Hispar-Biafo (Watershed Peak), which she enjoyed as much as Pinnacle Peak: “Altho not as high, it yielded nothing in thrilling incident and arduousness of ascent, and in magnificence of panorama, to my highest Himalayan peak.”

The Bullock Workmans’ legacy continues not only in the inspiration they gave other climbers, but also in the maps they produced and the numerous travel accounts and magazine articles they wrote. Founding members of the American Alpine Club, their explorations were chronicled in five attractively illustrated books on the Himalaya: In the Ice-World of Himalaya (1900); Ice-bound Heights of the Mustagh (1908); Peaks and Glaciers of Nun Kun (1909); The Call of the Snowy Hispar (1910); and Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram (1917).