Friday, 1 December 2017

Doug Scott's 'The Ogre'...Reviewed

Making plans at Base Camp. L–R: Tut and I intend to climb the South Pillar; Nick with Chris, and Clive with Mo, are planning to climb up to the West Col together.

The OGRE.   Doug Scott. Vertebrate Publishing.  £20.
Biography of a mountain and the dramatic story of the first ascent.

This book is the story of the Ogre in two parts, the first is concerned with its geological evolution and exploration from the earliest times, the second part is the story of the mountains epic first ascent.

The Karakoram has within its range, some of the world’s highest mountains, but also many of its most dramatic peaks in terms of difficulty to ascend and the Ogre is one of these.  To those who are unlucky, and have never visited the Karakoram, it is hard to find words that do justice to the first sight of mountains such as the Trango Towers, The Mustagh Tower and K2 which impress on the climber as they walk into their glacial fastness. All is on the grandest of scales, and in an attempt to convey this, The Ogre begins with an explanation of the geological forces that have formed these incredible peaks. The book then moves on to detail an ancient history of exploration, putting into context the geopolitical and historical importance of the barriers to travel formed by the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Karakoram mountains.

The early explorers were driven by many different forces, some by conquest as in the campaigns of Darius the Great of Persia who as early as the sixth century BC conquered northern Pakistan, and just three centuries later the invasion by Alexander of much the same territory. I noted myself whilst in the Swat Valley how some of the local men still dressed in similar attire to classical Greek studies. The Karakoram on its northern- slopes spreads into Xinjiang, and it was passing through that territory that drove merchants and religious pilgrims, across the huge and perilous expanses of the Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts, following what became known as the Silk Road (a name coined by Von Richtofen in the 19th century). This was never a single pathway, for it diverted, moving west or north and south leading into Central Asia, India and Europe. And though detail of these events, are of necessity superficial, Scott does a good job in distilling down the essential early history of the region. My own favourite traveller story is that of the Chinese monk, Xuanzang  (Hsuan-Tsang). He left what is now Xi’an in the mid-7th century to travel to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. He returned 16 years later, armed with 75 of these having travelled across some of the most challenging places on earth; the deserts and the Himalaya, travelling as far south as Sri Lanka. His adventures are told in the ever popular Chinese classic, ‘The Journey to the West’ and every school child in that country knows of these from the ongoing CCTV series ‘Monkey’. These have enlivened many a dull hour when travelling around China for myself.

Clive Rowland
Scott then moves on to the early European travellers, including the Venetian Marco Polo, who although it now seems accepted in Europe, that the story of his journey with his uncles to visit Kubla Khan, the Chinese Emperor (Yuan Dynasty) in the late 13th century is believed to be true, Chinese scholars are not so inclined to accept many of his claims. It is interesting that just as Buddhist monks travelled west from China, Jesuit priests were travelling there at the start of the 17th century as part of their gospel mission. Scott then goes on to detail the machinations that led on to The East India Company establishing itself on the sub continent and the Scottish contribution to Empire. As these entrepreneurs spread out, they eventually were to reach the natural barrier of the Himalaya, in the Punjab, Kashmir and the Karakoram. This led on to Empire the Raj and The Survey of India.

Strategic necessity then forced the surveyors such as Godwin-Austen deep into the mountains. And he was the first westerner into the environs of The Ogre (Baintha Brakk) in 1861 fixing its height at 23,914ft. It is interesting to note that where possible the surveyors always tried to find out the local name for any of the peaks they were interested in. Besides the surveyors there were still keen explorers appearing on the scene, most notably in 1887 the soldier Francis Younghusband; he made some significant journeys across China, and into the Karakoram but is now remembered most as the leader of the ‘1903 invasion of Tibet’ which like the Iraq war in modern times was the result of a failure of intelligence. After slaughtering with Maxim guns several hundred badly armed Tibetans, he had a religious experience on a hilltop above Lhasa, and spent a large part of his life thereafter promoting interfaith dialogue. However he was also a driving force after The Great War in the planning of the early British expeditions to Mount Everest.     

By the end of the 19th century mountaineering was under away in the Karakoram, and one of the major figures in bringing this about was Martin Conway. Anyone who has read ‘The Alps from End to End’ or Simon Thompson’s modern interpretation of this will know what a forceful, entrepreneur and self publicist Conway really was. Marrying an American heiress, whose stepfather bank rolled him out on many of his schemes he nevertheless put together an outstanding exploratory expedition to the Karakoram in 1892. Amongst its members were Eckenstein the inventor of the 10point crampon, Bruce and Zurbriggen a Swiss guide. They made a journey up the Hispar and down the Biafo before reaching the Baltoro Glacier. However there was dissension in the ranks and Eckenstein who was keener to climb some peaks rather than exploration and mapping, argued with Conway and left the expedition. It is thought it was Conway who gave the ‘Ogre’ its name although there is some confusion over this, for a mountain nearby is now known to climbers as ‘Conway’s Ogre’, Uzun Brakk on the maps.  His expedition was a first in many ways; Bruce a Gurkha officer and a future leader of the earliest attempt on Mount Everest, brought four of his soldiers with him, starting the tradition of employing Nepalese hill men; Sherpas on many future expeditions, and adding much cartographic detail to Godwin-Austen’s work, plus several equipment innovations, including beside crampons a lightweight silk tent designed by Mummery. 

Camp I – Mo, Clive and Tut having a brew at this exposed campsite but safe from rockfall.

Post Conway exploration in the Karakoram quickened. The first expedition to K2 took place in 1902. This was led by Eckenstein, but it ran into difficulties from the first, when he was held under arrest by the deputy commissioner in Rawalpindi. It took him three weeks to extricate himself and rejoin the expedition, without any explanation as to this action. Subsequently both Aleister Crowley and Guy Knowles who mainly funded the expedition, believe that this had been done at the behest of Conway whose standing in the London establishment was by then forever rising. It is incredible in retrospect that Crowley was a lead climber on this first attempt on K2, for he became known as ‘The Great Beast 666’, involved in drugs, sex and black magic. During the expedition he even threatened Guy Knowles with a loaded revolver. Maybe Nick Bullock is right, ‘there just are not the original characters around in British climbing any longer?’ Nevertheless the expedition did add quite some knowledge about the mountain and its approaches.

Scott makes a swift revue from thereon of developments in the Karakoram over the next period as more and more parties arrived to explore and climb its mountains. One such, were the American couple, the Bullock Workman’s, Fanny and Hunter. In eight visits between 1898 and 1912 they walked more and climbed more of the mountains than any other party hitherto. In 1909 the Duke of Abruzzi led the first of many outstanding Italian expeditions into the Karakoram. Making determined attempts on K2 and reaching a height of 24,600feet on Chogolisa, but being unfortunately dogged by bad weather throughout their stay. Vittorio Sella was the photographer on this expedition and his black and white prints of the peaks of the Baltoro region and of K2 inspired generations of future climbers.

The Italians were back in 1929 and 1930 exploring in several areas of the range, surveying and mapping and a Dutch couple the Visser’s made four expeditions in the eastern Karakoram. In 1937 Shipton and Tilman  undertook a four month sojourn in the range mapping and exploring and Shipton returned in 1939 with another strong surveying and mapping team, who with great relevance to The Ogre story, produced an accurate map of the Biafo and the Uzun Brakk glacier systems. The stage was now set for the post war period of rising climbing standards, equipment innovation, and knowledge of the importance of altitude acclimatisation that allowed for attempts to be made on the Latok Peaks and The Ogre. It is thought its local name, Baintha Brakk means ‘The Rocky Peak above The Pasture’.  

Chris sitting it out, battered but not broken, playing the waiting game for a total of five days until Nick arrived with our porters.

The author having rattled through these early explorations of the range, in Part two concentrates on the history of the attempts and at last the successful ascent of The Ogre by himself and Chris Bonington. The first to try in 1971 was a Yorkshire expedition led by Don Morrison and including Clive Rowland, who spotted a route up via the South West spur leading to the West Col. From where it might be possible to climb the West Summit of the mountain, but also to gain the slopes leading to the final rock tower of the main summit, which has been re-surveyed as 23,900 feet. Like many other expeditions to the Karakoram they were stopped by a bad run of inclement weather. Over the next six years several expeditions explored around the Latok peaks and the Ogre, and inevitably in that era most were Japanese. Although Don Morrison returned in June 1975 his party ran into serious porter problems, and ended by trying to in relays from Askole, which is now the road head, to carry in their own equipment to the Ogre base camp. They soon realised that this left them not enough time for a realistic attempt on the mountain, and so they turned their attention to three more accessible peaks nearby. In 1976 a strong Japanese party reached the West Col via the South West Spur and climbed some way along the west ridge, but for some unexplained reason abandoned this obvious route to the summit. And so the scene was set for Scott and his party made up of Clive Rowland, Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite, Mo Anthoine, Nick Estcourt and Chris Bonington in 1977 to make their attempt to climb The Ogre. They were a part of a golden age of British Himalayan climbing, and few parties have left the UK with such mountain experience behind them.

Initially the party split, Scott and Braithwaite set out to attempt the imposing south pillar of the mountain, whilst the other four concentrated in following the South West Spur. However climbing in the Himalaya is ever-dangerous, and whilst climbing a gully leading onto the south pillar, Scott dislodged a rock which ploughed into Braithwaites leg, immobilising him for the rest of the expedition and leading to a first crawl down by him back to Base Camp.

Meanwhile the other four had made good progress in climbing the South West Spur, and in typical fashion Bonington supported by Estcourt, made a dash for the summit. Reaching the mountains West Peak but being forced by technical difficulties to retreat from climbing on further to attempt the huge summit block, protecting the mountains summit. All then returned to Base Camp to recuperate. After which Rowland, Anthoine, Bonington and Scott climbed back up to the West Col. During all this activity they were blessed by unusually good weather, and to cash in on this as soon as possible Scott and Bonington set off for another summit attempt.

They made good progress in this, and after some tricky ridge traversing, reached the final summit block, which composed of marvellously sound granite, reminded Scott of his climbs on Yosemite’s El Capitan. The climbing from thereon demanded some of the hardest aid and free climbing then achieved in the Himalaya; however all did go well and they reached the summit. But it was on the descent from this that the meat of the story develops. On the way up the summit pillar, they had needed to make a huge pendulum to reach a crack system, and in reversing this Scott swung off wildly into space slipping on verglas, and hammering his legs by the impact at the end of his trajectory. Hanging on the ropes he realised he had fractured both legs. Somehow he and Bonington managed to recover from this and began to abseil back down the mountain. However they ran out of daylight and had to spend the night cowed together bivouacking on a tiny ledge. Next day they continued abseiling and on reaching the ridge leading back across to the West summit they were met by Rowland and Anthoine. Somehow with their unstinting support and help Scott managed to crawl back along the knife edge ridge to an ice cave they had cut below the West summit. But then the weather broke and what followed is one of the great survival stories of mountaineering. They ran out of food and after days holed up in the ice cave decided they must descend, despite a blizzard blowing outside.

This descent developed into a fight to survive; and due to a misunderstanding during this, on one of the abseils, both Scott and Bonington almost shot off the end of the ropes into space and oblivion. Chris unfortunately fractured his ribs during this happening. This epic lasted for days, including Scott needing to crawl all the way down the glacier and moraine system to reach Base Camp.

On arriving at Base Camp they were gob smacked to find it empty, for Estcourt (who had developed a serious throat infection) and Braithwaite believing their team mates had perished, had on the arrival of porters from Askole set off for home to relay the sad news of their friends demise. Mo Anthoine immediately set off, and by almost none stop moving and jogging managed to intercept them before they had managed to mistakenly post their companions as deceased to the outside world. It was fortunate that this had not happened today, for with solar panels, and mobile phones this false news would have reached the media, before it could be corrected. They returned with the porters from Askole, and after fashioning a stretcher, these Balti hill men carried Scott down some of the roughest terrain, to where a helicopter could pick him up and drop him into hospital. However a final twist to the story is that on this journey the helicopters engine stalled; and it crash landed on its approach. So it was to be several days before another replacement chopper could be found to go and pick up Chris who remained in agony with his damaged ribs.

A postscript to this impressive feat of survival is that the real heroes of the epic, Clive Rowland and Mo Anthoine who shepherded both Bonington and Scott off the mountain received little or no plaudits in the press reports for their part in saving the lives of their companions, who would not have made it to safety without them. Fortunately, even though it is now 40 years since the epic on the Ogre, both Chris and Doug in a series of lectures around the UK this winter, at this anniversary are both attempting to put the record straight by highlighting just how much they owed to Clive and Mo for a safe return, who unfortunately is no longer able to receive their heartfelt thanks having died of cancer some years ago now. 

The Ogre

This book deserves to become like Touching the Void, Into Thin Air and Annapurna and be regarded as one of the great classical survival stories of our sport. Photographically it is well illustrated, and though in fact it is only a slim volume considering the history it covers, just for the pictures alone it is worth the purchase price. I understand Doug intends to follow this up with similar volumes about the other mountains he has been associated with in his long mountaineering career; Kanchenjunga, Makalu, K2, Nanga Parbat, Everest etc. If they are as good a read and production as The Ogre they will all I believe become accepted as yet another outstanding effort by someone who has put back into the mountain world more than he has taken out. I am thinking of his charitable initiative,  Community Action Nepal which has done such good works in Nepal, building schools and hospitals in some of its remote mountain regions, and organising a safe and hygienic water supply for the Karakoram village, Askole as by way of his thanks to its denizens who carried him down to safety in his hour of need.  

Dennis Gray: 2017 

Images supplied by Vertebrate Publishing