Cerro Kishtwar Mountain Review Article
This article appeared in the prestigious Mountain Review in late 1993, 2 years after a great adventure with Brendan Murphy on Cerro Kishtwar
Planet CK: In the capsule for seventeen days
Two of my heroes are Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, principally for their ascent of Changabang’s awesome west wall in 1976. This route covered ground previously thought impossible in Himalayan conditions, and was more impressive for being accomplished with only two people and without the siege tactics then in common use. They employed a method that was to become known as capsule style. A fixed quantity of rope is gradually run out from a bivouac. Then, when the rope is finished and – hopefully – a new bivvy site is reached, all the gear is transferred to the top of the ‘capsule’, the ropes are pulled up and the whole process repeats itself. Capsule style comes into its own on sustained technical ground where bivvy ledges are more than two pitches apart, it is likely that it will take more than a day to get between the ledges and the length and nature of the route means more than about ten days of ‘guidebook time’. This isn’t exact, of course, but personally I find it difficult to carry more than ten days food and gas, particularly if the terrain demands a lot of climbing and bivouac hardware.
It isn’t as pure as alpine style but, unlike siege style, a sense of commitment and self-containment accompany the capsule. Furthermore, the ability to rap straight back to a tent and a brew after a hard days cragging without having first to chop a ledge and pitch a tent or portaledge has definite attractions when on a north facing wall at over 5500 meters.
I read The Shining Mountain, Pete’s account of Changabang, in the early 80’s and at the time the prospect of doing such a route seemed pure fantasy. But as the years passed, experience accumulated, brain cells crumbled and I reached that happy balance when one is still stupid enough to attempt ludicrously difficult and gnarly hills but wise enough to know how to combine good action with a healthy sense of self preservation.
The main problem was to find an appropriate objective – enter Mick Fowler. Mick made an uncharacteristic mistake by showing a picture of Cerro Kishtwar to Andy ‘Sleaze’ MacNae. Who then showed it to Brendan ‘Sideways’ Murphy, who showed it to me, and in August 1991 Bren and I flew out to Delhi, a week or so behind the main team. An initial crisis of Bren’s rucksack being lost in transit was resolved, and we followed the vanguard, flying to Leh, bussing and hitching down the Zanskar, then walking over the main Himalayan chain into Kishtwar and base camp.
A week of load ferrying followed, during which we were able to contemplate the ridiculous nature of the route we planned to attempt. Mixed terrain rose up from the bergschrund at 5100 meters to a Patagonian-style sweep of granite draped with ludicrously steep tendrils of ice down a central corner line to the right of Mick’s line which we rejected as being too obvious (Ha!).
After a day and 500 meters of climbing, we hung the bivvy tent from the wall, which sprouted from the mixed terrain. This was the only section on Mick’s photo that didn’t have an encouraging white line, and proved to be the first of two technical cruxes.
Two days of desperate climbing ensued, Scottish VI on half-inch thick ice smears, pendules on ice axes, bat-hooking and four bolts. Being a supporter of adventure climbing in Britain I felt uncomfortable about them, but after a 30-foot fall onto the first one, which saved me from serious injury, I’m confident it was the right decision. The ramp above gave us the only ‘easy’ pitches on the wall and, by the end of day six we were ensconced at the Kishtwar Hilton, the most out-there campsite I’ve ever had, level with the base of the corner which was the meat of the route. Day seven gave the most perfect Scottish ice climbing – Point Five with granite wall, then the ice disappeared and Brendan spent day eight on one pitch while I shivered at -20°C on the stance for five hours. On day nine the tables were turned when I spent four hours on a pitch that involved changing from boots to crampons three times and a massive pendule across an overhanging wall; in short, full-bore action. We reached the top of the corner with no bivvy ledge in sight and, after being pinned down in a blizzard on day ten, moved from the Kishtwar Hilton to a hideous bivvy on a nowhere sloping slab.
Day thirteen saw us established in a more comfortable site at the foot of the Texas flake. Neither of us was superstitious – just very cold. I was leading another technical pitch 30 meters above the bivvy, when I forgot to resling my axe and I watched it spin away into the void. In those few seconds, there was hope as it appeared to be heading straight for the ledge, then sheer horror as it plunged through the roof of the tent.
Brendan was remarkably understanding and, after repitching the tent upside down so the hole faced the floor, he pushed on and we gained the top of the Texas Flake and then by a desperate spindrift-lashed scratch-‘n’- torque experience the all-important Scissors snow ledge, where we hoped the terrain would ease. Day fourteen – two weeks on the same route – what a ridiculous situation.
On day fifteen we cruised leftwards around to the northeast face hoping to find an easy gully leading to the summit. Sadly, the ice turned to powder snow and our physical and mental condition demanded a very careful assessment. My pit was soaked in useless clumps of down after nights of spindrift in the tent. I’d given Brendan quite a fright one night by throwing a mild fit and mumbling something like “My mind’s gone” when he asked if I wanted a brew. Brendan had nearly dropped a lead rope and I’d fallen twenty feet off a nominally safe hanging stance. Altogether it was getting to be a very edgy situation and we’d only two days of food left with at least that time required to rap the route. It was a desperate decision to have to make, perhaps 150 meters from the summit but, lashed daily by spindrift, cold, hungry, very debilitated after fifteen days of continuously hard climbing we wanted to survive the descent. To glimpse into the void is a very sobering experience. You’re a long time dead. We elected to abseil and two days later reached advanced base at 9pm, dangerously over the edge with no reserves of food or energy.
Walking out I was very depressed at having stopped so close to the summit, but soon after I was able to rationalize it all and now I’m happy that it’s the highlight of my mountaineering over the last fifteen years. It’s a direct yet natural line on a beautiful Tolkienesque peak. It demanded all the techniques of both climbing and survival that I’d built up over the years, and some new ones. Specially designed and selected items of equipment from bivvy tents to harnesses and skyhooks performed perfectly, enabling us to push ourselves close to our limit by a very narrow margin for a sustained period of time, then retreat in good order without injury – apart from the loss of a few more brain cells. The choice of capsule style was perfect, enabling us to cut loose on a Himalayan big wall, to teeter on the edge of the possible in an isolated world and become as aware ands alive as I have never been, before or since.