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THE ASCENT OF ISTOR-O-NAL, 1955

JOSEPH E. MURPHY, JR.

Istor-o-Nal (7403m) is the third highest mountain in the Hindu Kush, in Chitral, Pakistan. It is actually a great massif comprising eleven peaks of over 7000m. Istor o Nal is to the south-east of Terich Mir, the highest peak in the Hindukush. In Khowar, Itror o Nal means ""Horse Shoe". Istor-o-Nal was first climbed on June 8, 1955 by Major Ken Bankwala, Joseph E. Murphy, Jr., and Thomas A. Mutch, of the Princeton Mountaineering Club expedition. Here is the report of the expedition, written by Joseph E. Murphy.

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THE Princeton Mountaineering Club Expedition to the Hindu Kush in the state of Chitral, West Pakistan, and the ascent of the 24,242-foot peak, Istor-o-Nal, resulted from Thomas A. Mutch's facetious suggestion that he and I make our next trip to the Himalayas. At the time, Tim and I were sitting on the bank of a river in the Coast Range of British Columbia on an earlier Princeton Mountaineering Club trip. When the idea of a Himalayan venture first occurred, we considered it an impossible dream for we had neither the capital nor the experience thought necessary to under­take the enterprise.

But the 'impossible' is always intriguing and we kept the idea of a future expedition in the back of our minds with a tentative date set for the Spring following our completion of military service, June 1955. It would be an opportune time since then neither of us would be tied down by the demands of business and marriage, duties which generally preclude the chance to join an expedition.

During the next two and one-half years, plans progressed and letters accumulated. Choosing a suitable site for a small party, selecting the right equipment, getting permission to enter the mountains, obtaining my release from the Army in Japan—all took time. We consulted men who had been to the Himalayas, for advice, studied books and journals, ordered equipment catalogues, and contacted the State Department and foreign embassies. We planned on spending what we could pool from our Army savings, $5,000 or a fraction of the cost of most larger expeditions.

istoronal High-altitude tents arrived from England, Primus stoves from Sweden, light 'mummy' down sleeping bags from California, each item selected after much deliberation. Negotiation for permission to climb, the most uncertain factor, dragged on for over a year. India was out. The report from Nepal was unfavourable. Pakistan gave vague assurances that we would get permission, but no written promise had come by the time Tim was due to sail.

Fortunately, he sailed. Forty days later, in Karachi, Tim met, almost by coincidence, the one man who could grant permission, Dr. Imdad Husain, and got the permit. An American Embassy official was amazed at this; he thought it would take months. Getting permission to climb was not the last problem. At the unloading dock, seven crates of equipment nearly disappeared into a train, when by chance Tim, seeing the familiar baggage being hoisted away, stopped the fatal operation. From the docks, the equipment went to the customs office and halted suddenly under ban of a prohibitive tariff. Three days later, the Treasury Depart­ment issued a licence removing the duty which allowed Tim to shuttle the supplies off to the station and board the train for Lahore.

In Lahore, with the invaluable help of the Rev. R. M. Ewing, President of Forman College, Tim assembled the equipment and awaited my arrival. In the meantime, the Pakistan Government was most generous and assigned Major Ken Bankwala of the Infantry School to our expedition as liaison officer. On the 7th day of May I arrived by plane from Japan and the next day we left for the north-west state of Chitral on the Afghan border, by train, later travelling by bus and ultimately foot.

Like Switzerland, the state of Chitral is hemmed in by mountains and 10,000-foot Lawrie Pass forms the south entrance. On the nth of May, just below the pass, a snow-storm forced us to find shelter which we discovered around the next bend in a ' hotel', a small mud hut where Tim, Ken and I, ten porters, and twelve donkeys spent the night. Though the manager insisted that his establishment was comparable to the Waldorf, it was not quite that luxurious, as is indicated by the low rate, two annas or five cents each per night. Even the donkeys complained.

istor_o_nal_peak_chitral Early the next morning we trudged through the snow on the pass and hiked down to a nearby fort along a steep winding road. Traffic along the narrow road was heavy with coolies and some burros carrying wood and grain to Dir and staples back into Chitral. At the fort, we obtained a jeep to take us to the main post at Drosh where we watched a wildly played polo match and spent the night. On the following morning we continued driving north until we reached the town of Chitral with its bustling market and royal palace set beneath the giant white dome of Tirich Mir.

The next three days we spent in the town where we attended dinners, visited the nearby mining operation, played tennis and,, when we were given the chance, sorted and repacked our food and equipment into two-man per two-day rations and eighty pound loads. On the second morning, in response to a call for porters, thirty-four hardy coolies appeared and lined up in one long uneven rank. Ken and I trooped the line to select the ten best, though if they were the best it was by luck, as a man's looks give little indication of his endurance. The agreement on wages had met with our stipulation that it be no more than the local rate and the porters seemed happy. By the evening of the 15th, our arrangements had been completed; after drinking three bottles of home-made wine donated by one of the princes as a farewell gesture, we felt slightly out of condition, but planned to depart for the mountains early on the 16th.

As the sun began to penetrate the morning mist, Tim, Ken and I each shouldered a thirty pound pack while the porters lifted their eighty for the march. For five days we walked up a long winding valley with its sharp contrasts of green villages and hot barren desert. We spent the nights at village guest houses and stopped for lunch along the way at small tea shops. Fifty miles from the town of Chitral, beyond snow-laden Zani Pass (12,800 feet), in a cluster of weather-beaten dwellings called Souche, more porters joined the party bringing Ata (roughly ground wheat). We filed out of Souche on the 24th with eighteen porters and turned west toward the Lower Tirich Glacier, establishing three days later Intermediate Base Camp at 13,000 feet in a driving snow-storm. Soaked to the skin by the wet snow and tired by the long difficult march, the coolies balked for the first time—the tough Chitralis who had vowed they would go to the top wanted to return home. Only our faithful cook, Gulnawaz, wished to go on.

The next day was clear and with it came renewed optimism. We needed five volunteers and as many stepped forward game to continue. On the 29th we placed Base Camp on the main glacier below a large couloir in view of the route used by the two previous expeditions. Working upwards from 15,000 feet we pitched Camp I two days later on the crest of a minor ridge at 18,500 feet above the couloir. The ascent to Camp I was long, a snow climb across the rough debris of an old avalanche several city blocks in area and then up a steep narrow couloir.

From Camp I, Tim and I struck out to make a reconnaissance for the next site. Beyond a treacherous couloir rose a short but steep ice pitch. I began cutting steps in the blue ice and the chips flaked out and down past Tim and the three porters. It looked as though it would take several hours to cut our way to the top until we found a vertical crack several inches wide in the ice face; it led diagonally toward the top. Notching ladderlike steps on the edge of the crack was easier and within an hour I had struggled over the brim into soft snow. Tim brought the porters up on belay and shortly before noon, we selected a site for Camp II on a large snow-field at about 20,000 feet.

istoronal_peak_chitral /> We descended to Camp I by an alternate route through a dense fog and met Ken who had brought up more supplies with the other two porters. Our plan to occupy the new site the next day, 1st June, was denied when the porters moaned and groaned and refused to budge from their tent. Headaches, lack of appetite, signs of high-altitude sickness, and superstition kept them to their sleeping bags while Tim and I puttered about camp, made restless by the delay. By noon light storms closed in and soon snow and wind made thoughts of going on more impossible.

For the next two days snow fell on the camp, ceasing only periodically. Intermittent winds whipped across the ridge and lashed at the tents, filling them like nylon balloons. We stayed in our tents, wondering when the snow would cease and ventured out during the lulls to watch the mountains—the rugged peaks of ice, rock and snow which towered more than 20,000 feet above sea level.

On 4th June the mists cleared and Tim and I with three porters started up toward the new site we had selected two days before. Ken returned to Base; his feet had been affected by the cold, not seriously, though it was best that he get down to lower altitudes. Our previous tracks had been obliterated by the snow-fall and we now had to make new steps, a long and exhausting task. We reached the snow-field by 3 p.m. and could see the summit ridge clearly above us outlined against the blue sky. The porters were too exhausted to help us pitch the tents so Tim and I packed two areas five feet by seven in the snow and erected the two green tents. One porter helped for a while and then sat back in the snow with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands like the others. The porters were suffering from the effect of high altitude and we hoped a night's rest would bring relief.

Our plan for the next day was to find a location for the next camp and deposit two loads there. Tim cooked oatmeal for break­fast which, together with hot chocolate, made a delectable meal. The porters refused to eat and had not recuperated. The sun was up by the time we left camp and started for the large couloir which dropped down from the summit ridge. At the base of the couloir we encountered an ice face which took over an hour to surmount. Steps had to be cut for the entire distance; by means of these and careful balancing, we worked our way up the steep, dark ice until we gained the top. The going up the couloir was tough and we alternated the lead as before until we reached the top at 3.30 p.m., where we deposited our loads beneath a large rock on the right side of the slightly dipping saddle.

Clouds had settled on the ridge. It was becoming cold and so after a fifteen minute rest, we turned back and descended along the earlier tracks to keep from getting lost in the dense fog which had enveloped the couloir. Rock buttresses loomed out of the weird mist and assumed grotesque forms as we hurried downward in the eerie silence. Back in camp Tim cooked hot tea for us and the porters.

Early on the 6th of June we packed the remainder of our gear and struck one tent for the move to Camp III. The porters were in no mood to go on so we sent them back to Base Camp with a note to Ken. Camp II would remain intact with one tent and could be resupplied from below by fresh porters. Then Tim and I retraced our tracks of the previous day, balanced our heavy packs to negotiate the tricky ice-wall, and by noon established Camp III at 21,400 feet on the col above the couloir.

The key to the summit ridge lay in the three-hundred-foot rock face which hovered above the col beyond Camp III. By seven o'clock the next morning we had finished our hot chocolate and were striking the tent. We intended to pack everything but extra food forward to a higher camp and abandon this one. With our packs loaded and heavy, we carefully traversed the narrow snow cornice for two hundred yards and gained the rock. To our left the mountain dropped away suddenly, leaving four or five thousand feet of space between the knife-edge ridge, the rock wall and the narrow, winding glacier below. An anchor rope, left by the previous expedition, was still visible except where it disappeared in the snow-filled openings in the rock face. Tim belayed me from the cornice while I climbed the first pitch, and then we alternated the lead, keeping to the snow whenever possible.

By the time we made the top of the rock wall, we felt cold and tired and had to rest. Beyond us the ridge stretched forward toward the distant summit. We edged along the narrow corniced ridge several hundred yards until we came to two large boulders jutting out a hundred feet below the crest. The snow was un­steady in places and the steps didn't hold well; it would take several hours to climb to another site large enough to accommodate our tent, which meant pitching camp after night-fall. So we decided to place Camp IV here at 22,400 feet.

To make a level platform for the tent and thus avoid sliding away during the night, we dug into the snow with our ice-axes and using our boots, stamped out an area slightly larger than the base of our high-altitude tent; when anchored with ropes and ten- inch tubular aluminium stakes, it seemed sturdy enough. After we had crawled inside, Tim prepared supper and we talked over plans for the next day when we hoped to reach the summit. We rolled out our sleeping bags, I stuffed my boots into the bottom of my sleeping bag as usual to thaw out the leather, and we turned in. The night was quiet and clear.

June 8. At 6.30 after a light breakfast, Tim departed on a reconnaissance while I waited for the sun to come up to thaw out my boots which were still stiff. Fifteen minutes later, Tim re­turned out of breath and almost exhausted by the intense cold; he fell asleep after entering the tent and I waited thirty minutes before waking him. We drank another cup of hot cocoa, put on our down jackets and started up from camp, hoping to reach the summit by one o'clock.

We cautiously worked our way along the crest of the ridge, for it was sheer on the left side with overhanging cornices and slanted steeply away on the right. In places the crest was less than a foot wide; watching our balance, particularly in places where the snow was likely to slide or give way, we made each step carefully and kept moving forward. A half mile beyond camp the narrow ridge expanded into a broad plateau which rose to what we thought might be the summit. Just below the highest visible point was where the English party had turned back in 1935. We inhaled five or six times after each step and climbed upward slowly, alter­nating the lead to share the task of breaking steps in the knee- deep snow.

It was a clear day and we could see the twin peaks of Tirich Mir behind us and far into the mountains of Afghanistan to the west. To the north, the next ridge swept westward toward an unnamed 24,000-foot peak. Small gusts of snow and wind blew up from the ridge, breaking the monotony. We had hoped that Istor-o-Nal would not produce exasperating illusions in the form of false summits, but our hope was not fulfilled. The first high peak of snow which we thought was the summit, was not. The distance to the end of the wide ridge increased instead of diminishing and we passed a second false summit. Beyond these we could see the ridge narrow and curve toward the right. Its south or inner face was precipitous and its narrow crest rose gradually to a point and then descended. Now we were nearly certain that our goal was in sight.

Keeping below the crest of the ridge to avoid overhanging cor­nices, Tim moved forward slowly, breaking steps in the snow, and I followed. Cloud formations began to drift in from the south, periodically limiting visibility. We kept trudging forward and upward for some time until finally we reached three small mounds of snow—fifty yards beyond, the ridge levelled and several hundred yards further, it fell away. We had reached the summit, 24,242 feet above sea level.

It was 4 p.m., late to be at the top, and cold. We caught only a glimpse of the distant peaks between two drifts of cloud when the second drift began to envelop the summit ridge. Planting our P.M.C. flag and Ken's regimental flag, we took two summit shots and munched some dried fruit and nuts, hoping for a break in the weather. The margin of time remaining for the return to Camp IV was slim. At 4.15, when the clouds showed no sign of clearing, we decided that it would be risky to remain if we hoped to reach camp before night-fall.

istoronal_peak We started down, retracing our steps along the narrow summit ridge, to the point where it broadened and then we descended until we reached the steep, narrow ridge leading directly to Camp IV. This last ridge was tricky as before and seemed eternally long. As the sky cleared and the sun dipped in the west, long shadows streaked across the glacial valleys and changing shades of orange silhouetted the peaks against the pale blue sky. We moved slowly over the cornices which in places leaned far out over the precipice, and keeping to the old tracks, we reached camp just before sun­down.

We celebrated by digging into the most precious of our stores. Tim heated the soup, cocoa and oatmeal while I started restoring the circulation in my feet which had been frostbitten. After supper, Tim worked on the feet until 9 p.m. when the natural colour was restored; we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning, we didn't move until the sun came up; when it did, Tim cooked a hearty breakfast. The day was clear and bright. I started out first with a lighter pack and Tim packed up the tent and followed suit. It did not take long to reach Camp III where we retrieved some of the food we had cached there two days earlier. At Camp II, we found a tin of fried chicken and hard-boiled eggs sent up by the Major, which we split with the porters who had brought it up.

The descent was long and tiring, and reaching Base Camp was like coming home after a long journey. Ken met me several hundred yards from camp and half carried me the rest of the way, though I was perfectly able to walk. The porters were full of congratulations and it was good to see our faithful cook, Gulnawaz, again. The Chitralis are so emotional, it makes tears come to your eyes, despite your efforts to prevent them. Tim arrived a few minutes later to a similar reception and then we all drank hot tea and dug into our unopened bottle of brandy presented by a fellow climber to celebrate the occasion.

In order to prevent gangrene, it was necessary that I keep off my feet and be carried on a stretcher across the glacier, a rather embarrassing prospect. From the moraine we could travel by horseback. Ken sent for eight more porters and arranged to have horses meet us below the glacier. Two days later we left, I on the stretcher and the rest on foot. It was a rather exciting ride, as I was tied up like a mummy in my sleeping bag and bound 11 tightly to a makeshift frame of poles and cross-sticks. The porters carried me on their shoulders up and down over the undulate glacier; one minute I was looking at the dark ice and the next at the sky. Twelve hours later we arrived at the moraine.

Tim and I went on first the next day, while Ken remained behind to hunt ibex and handle the baggage. Below Zani Pass my horse gave up, utterly exhausted, and the local villagers packed me on their backs the last 2,000 feet through rain and snow-storm over the I2,ooo-foot pass. On the other side, at a village called Uthul, we acquired horses and rode the next fifty-six miles into Chitral. We arrived on the 16th of June only to hear rumours in the form of news reports that we had been lost in a crevasse on Tirich Mir and found two days later by the porters.

On the whole, the area we visited offers many advantages to the small expedition. The country is both interesting and attrac­tive. There are reputedly more than 100 peaks over 20,000 feet, of which only two or perhaps three have been climbed. The local inhabitants, if trained and given sufficient experience, would probably make excellent high-altitude porters. Furthermore, the state officials and the Chitrali people were extremely generous, in providing assistance and help. In view of this, it is surprising that more expeditions have not visited Chitral.

(The Himalayan Journal Vol.19, 1956)

Also read ...
ISTOR-O-NAL AND SOME CHITRALI SUPERSTITIONS. By LIEUT. D. M. BURN.

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