Friday, 20 November 2009

Come Walk with me

Richard Haszko started climbing in 1966 in the dying days of the old style climbing equipment i.e. a hemp waistline and steel karabiners. This led to a life-long aversion to falling off. However, despite this he was soon leading some fairly hard rock climbs and in 1968 joined the North London Mountaineering Club where he assisted Tony Willmot in his quest to climb every Extreme in the Avon Gorge. He started Alpine climbing in 1969, doing routes like mont Blanc’s Brenva Spur and the  Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn. After one particularly “exciting” season he attempted to give up climbing but, being weak willed, gave up the attempt after a year.
He moved to Sheffield, his birthplace, in 1974 and had a succession of manual jobs interspersed with many parties. In 1976 he went to Yosemite, mostly doing free routes. In 1978 he returned to Yosemite and climbed The Nose with Marius Morstad. On returning to England in 1980, after a year living in Calgary, he did a Masters degree in Human Resources but failed to settle into a proper job, instead taking the Government Climbing Grant (the dole) to continue partying and climbing. This ended when he began part-time lecturing and supply teaching in 1984 whilst sharing a house with Alan Rouse. A long-held desire to go the Himalaya was finally realised when he put together a small expedition to Nepal where, with Tom Richardson and Martin Whittaker, he climbed a new route on Tent Peak in the Annapurna Sanctuary. Returning from this he took a job with Chris Bonington as his “roadie” for a couple of on Chris’s annual lecture tour. This set a pattern which lasted for the next 14 years -  a month on the road with supply teaching to pay the mortgage on the house he’d managed to buy with no visible means of support (one of the first examples of sub-prime). More Himalayan trips followed, notably to Tupopdan in the Karakoram with Joe Simpson, getting back into climbing after the Void incident, and a young Andy Cave on his first foray outside Europe. Expeditions to Ama Dablam, Gangchempo and Pumori followed but he didn’t summit on any of them. It wasn’t all failure though, as, in 1990, with Joe Simpson, John Stevenson and Bruce French he climbed the three main Scottish sea stacks (Old Man of Hoy, Old Man of Stoerr, Am Buachille) in a long weekend from Sheffield.During this period he spent four years as a paracender instructor.
In 2003 Tom Richardson persuaded him to return to the Himalaya and he summitted Mera Peak, breaking his duck at last. About this time he began working for World Challenge as an Expedition Leader, getting a group of young people up Kilimanjaro. After  few years as an instructor he took up full time work with World Challenge, having no prospect of  early retirement after too many years of play. In 2009, not long after his 60th Birthday, he reached the summit of Pik Lenin, 7134m, a fact of which he is still slightly puzzled.

Above: Richard Haszko on a recent first ascent in Morocco.

The Walk-in.

“Right then, we’re agreed are we?  Tomorrow we go down.”  Heads nodded slowly in agreement as we sat in our makeshift  kitchen  staring out at  the  snow-covered  slag heap  that  passed  for a glacier in these parts.  John, Jungle and Valerie were obviously happy enough with the decision but Wojtek seemed unconvinced. “Maybe the weather get better and we climb something”.  “Wojtek”  I replied”,  It’s been bad since we got here, all the mountains look hard and dangerous and you’re still ill.  There’s no sense in it.”  He clearly wasn’t happy, but then, Polish climbers aren’t noted for giving up easily.  His presence was a minor miracle in itself.  Getting out of Poland hadn’t been easy and he’d had to spend four days in hospital in Delhi recovering from an ingrown toenail operation two days before leaving. He was also still peeing blood from a gallstone problem. 
    So, the Gharesa Karakoram Expedition was coming to an end.  Not wildly successful in teams of summits reached it had certainly had its moments and taken us into some wild and very rarely visited country.  I’d wanted to go somewhere obscure and Paul Nunn had suggested the Gharesa Glacier, something he knew of but had never been to.  Everyone I’d spoken to about it said “Where?  Never heard of it”, so it sounded ideal.  The only reference I could find to it was in Wilf Noyce’s book To The Unknown Mountain, about the ascent of Trivor in 1960.  Since then only a couple of parties had been up the glacier and the only information we had to  go on was what was in Noyce’s book and a map that  showed it  as a side valley at the start of the Hispar .  This made the venture quite exciting and the campaign plan didn’t need the back of even an envelope: get to Nagar, cross the river , turn left  and see where we ended up.
    Getting a team together was no problem. Long time friend Valerie had for some time wanted to get lost on some bigger hills than the Glyders, John Stevenson and Jungle (Steve Ralph) were keen on a return visit to the Karakoram and Wojtek we’d met at a party somewhere when a Polish team came to Britain for some winter climbing.  Our little team was soon swollen by the addition of Valerie’s friend Charlotte, two Sues, Robbins and Webb who wanted to walk up to Base Camp with us, and Joe Simpson, on his way to Skardu for a foray in the Hushe valley.
    We all, with the exception of Wojtek , met up in Rawalpindi after a few minor travails and the little organization for our expedition was soon done, enabling us to repair to the British Embassy Club for some light refreshment.  Some hours later, refreshed as newts, it was down to a "relatively” sober Charlotte to pour the team into our hotel for a few hours sleep and out to the airport at five the next morning for a flight to Gilgit.  Unfortunately her valiant efforts came to naught as the flight was cancelled, not entirely unexpectedly as it was pouring with rain.  We now had a choice: wait for the weather to improve and keep coming back to the airport and risk the same problem or get a bus up the Karakoram Highway.  John, Joe, Jungle and I were somewhat reluctant to do this after our experiences on the way to Tupopdan  two years earlier but we reasoned it could never be as that again. So, Joe and John wandered into town and a couple of hours later returned with a Transit van and reasonable-looking driver.  At least he didn’t appear to stoned out of his crust and half asleep.
    It was quite a good journey in the end, just the usual assortment of mudslides, rock falls and divers natural impedimenta and in a mere 19 hours we were in Gilgit. After a pleasant couple of days Joe left to go to Skardu and now having no-one to argue with we hired a minibus and set off for Karimabad.  We weren’t displeased to leave Gilgit as there was an air of unease in the place after the massacre of possibly hundreds of people locally in a dispute over the end of Ramadan.
    Charlotte set off for home from Karimabad and we were soon ready to leave this wonderful oasis in the midst of dramatic Karakoram scenery.  A short but exciting jeep ride took us across the valley into the kingdom and village of Nagar where we debouched onto the verandah of the (closed) Government Rest House.  Nagar is a delightful place, cut off from the hustle and bustle of the Hunza Valley and very tranquil.   We had tea on the palace lawn with the Mir, discussing events in Pakistan and life in Slough.  Slough?  Yes, Slough .  It emerged the Mir had visited relatives there and seemed disappointed when we had to confess our ignorance of the town.  At the end of tea his son solemnly informed us our route up the Gharesa Glacier was quite impossible for porters and armed with this somewhat discouraging information we set about organising some. There was no shortage of volunteers and negotiations over wages and clothing went well.  Then came what we thought would be the tricky part.  We’d been led to believe by Victor Saunders that the men of Nagar would only walk for two and a half hours or so and call this a stage.  We wanted none of this and chief negotiator John insisted they must do double stages each day.  They looked at each other, did some quick talking, and to our astonishment agreed.   Settling down to sleep that evening we felt very pleased with ourselves, thinking we’d pulled a fast one on the wily locals.
    At 5.45 the next morning our eight men arrived, shouldered their loads and we set off.  A bridge long past its cross-by date led across the Hispar River and we were soon on a faint path traversing a long, steep scree slope.  A slip on this would have meant certain death, but only after a long slide whilst reviewing life’s cruel and bitter ironies.  After five hours exciting walking we were in a narrow gorge and the porters stopped at some large boulders to begin making tea and chappaties.  This was evidently a campsite and we settled down for an afternoon of lazing around enjoying the scenery.  However, our festive mood was rudely interrupted half an hour later when the porters packed their things and carried on walking.  Why were they going on?  We’d done six hours already.  Perhaps they knew a better site a little further on.
    A little further on proved to five hot, grueling hours and we finally stopped on a sandbank by the river .  As I gave Valerie a drink of water from the river (”Don’t  look at it.  Just drink it “)  I  realized we’d collectively shot ourselves in the foot.  To these men of Nagar a stage was five or six hours and we’d made them agree to do DOUBLE!  We were all too tired to think it through so convinced ourselves it must be a one-off and they couldn’t possibly walk as far tomorrow.  With that thought we slid into our sleeping bags while the porters made a big fire to cook their food for the next few days.  It would have made a brilliant photograph; crouching bodies silhouetted against the flames, sparks flying up into the blackness.  Unfortunately we barely had the energy left just to lie down and watch.
    Dawn. We eased our aching bodies into some semblance of life and made tea.   None of us felt too good but Sue Webb looked exceptionally ill and was moving around as if in a daze.  She insisted she would be alright and we got underway at seven, slowly picking our way through prickly scrub and boulders, the heat building all the time.  Sue was going more and more slowly until after an hour she slumped to the ground.  It was pretty obvious this was as far as she would get but it took over an hour to convince her that she had to go down.  Eventually she agreed and we arranged for one of the porters to go with her.  Our other Sue, terribly disappointed, felt she ought to go with her friend, and the three of them turned back.
    Around mid-day we crested a small rise to the left of some cliffs marking the snout of the Gharesa Glacier.  The view from the top was depressing.  A river of rubble stretched as far as we could see: no path, no ice, just rocks and boulders leading up into the clouds.  We looked at the way down onto the glacier.  “Jesus” said John.  “Bloody hell “said Jungle.  “Eek” said Valerie.  “Oh my God “said I, my knees rapidly turning to jelly while a giant crazed butterfly did somersaults in my stomach.  A horrifically steep three hundred foot slope of loosely compacted soil and boulders led down.  I began to think maybe the Mir’s son had been right all along.  After some debate one of the porters walked to the edge, and with a cry he trusted to the will of Allah and hurled himself at the abyss.  Everyone watched with fascinated horror the ensuing cloud of dust and stones. When it cleared there was our brave pioneer sitting safely at the bottom.  This raised a great cheer and one by one the rest of the porters followed suit.  Unfortunately we had no option now but to follow, which we did: very, very slowly and in a state of abject terror.  Going back up it on our way out didn’t bear thinking about, so we didn’t and started walking again.
    It was an endless, grinding slog.  The cloud cover meant there were no views, just our feet, one step after another along that highway of shifting stones and it was a weary and dispirited party that eventually caught the porters up at a huge boulder.  They soon made themselves a shelter from rocks and tarpaulins while we dug out a flat space for ourselves.  We’d been on the go for eleven hours.  Exhausted and hungry we rapidly demolished a mulch of Smash and tinned fish which in the circumstances was wonderfully delicious.
    The porters were up and away early.  We hadn’t slept well and were very reluctant to emerge from our pits.  When we finally did it was a mad scramble to pack and catch up with our team who were disappearing behind another mound of rubble.  I silently cursed those who’d told us the men of Nagar were lazy and untrustworthy and we were not a jolly little group as we followed them.  The normally irrepressible Jungle was very quiet, lost in his thoughts.  John looked a pale shade of green as he plodded along and Valerie worried about feeling dizzy and nauseous.  I felt pretty dreadful too but tried to cheer her up by singing a song, until a well-aimed stone persuaded me to stop.  Feeling awful was hardly a surprise though as we were at about 14,000 feet on only our third day out.
    Our tiredness and depression steadily increased as we reached the top of each pile of stones, only for another to be revealed in front.  It wasn’t until the early afternoon that the sequence was broken when we came across some bare ice.  At this point our intrepid body of porters shot down a slope of loose rocks and then proceeded to climb what looked like a vertical wall of gravel.  Valerie, who’d just done an involuntary bum slide when a rock deliberately tripped her up, gave me a look that said “I am not going up that.”  I think we all had the same thought but as all our gear was by now fast vanishing on the backs of our highly-trained racing porters we had no choice but to close our eyes and attack the slope.  Fortunately the angle was quite reasonable once we’d embarked on it and after a short level stretch we found our beaming chaps sitting in a small, grassy hollow.  We’d arrived.  Base Camp!
    It wasn’t too bad a spot for a Base Camp.  Compact and bijou, some flowers, but no water.  For that we had to scramble down the moraine and hack bits off the glacier. We got the tents up and soon had it made it into something resembling a not totally unpleasant spot. Wojtek turned up in the morning and told us of his adventures while our altitude sickness slowly dissipated.  We stayed there for ten days in very poor weather, long periods of rain or snow only allowing us a couple of forays up the glacier towards Trivor or Lupghar Sar.  When we did see the mountains they looked awesome; all extremely steep, most unclimbed and unnamed.  We bivvied out on one of the forays, only to end up covered in deep, wet snow and demoralisation gradually set in until the  decision  was made.  Down.
    It didn’t take long to pack.  What we couldn’t carry we made up into four loads, cached them securely in a small cave, and set off down that long road of builders rubble, the sun now seeming to mock our running away.  John and Wojtek thought they could see a better way at the side of the glacier and went over to try it.  Jungle pushed on ahead but we met up with him at the huge boulder of our campsite on the way up.  There was no sign of John and Wojtek.  We shouted for a while but there was no answer, so in the absence of any better ideas we had some food, left a note and carried on.  By 5.30 we were very hot and tired and still quite a way from the gully of our nightmares.  Valerie had had enough for that day and wanted to stop.  I was glad of the opportunity but Jungle had run out of cigarettes and was determined to go on as far as possible, in the hope of finding John who might have a couple left.    
    Spotting a stream on the other side of the glacier we began to slide and fall through the boulder field towards it, cursing and grumbling.  Suddenly we came across a small, sandy beach, just big enough for two sleeping bags end to end.  A tiny, clear stream flowed past.  We couldn’t believe our luck; it was perfect, an oasis in the chaos of the glacier. That evening was a good one, lying in our bags drinking hot chocolate and watching the sun set behind Bojohagar.  Sleep, though, didn’t come easily.  We had that gully to climb in the morning.
    We were away at six and sitting near the bottom of the gully an hour and a half later.  There was no sign of the others and we felt very isolated.  Looking up the gully I said “We go in from this side, cross over there and then up that bit”, pointing vaguely uphill.  “No we don’t” Valerie replied.  “We get in there, cross that bit and then up.”  “No, no” I countered, gesticulating wildly.  “It’s bloody obvious.”  “We came down that bit, crossed there and finished on this side here.” “Rubbish” she answered, jabbing her finger in the direction of the problem. “Richard , you’ve got the memory of a squashed slug. In a bag. We go across from here, up that bit, cross over and then up.”  “Cobblers.  We get in there, go up that bit, then cross and up.”  “THAT’S WHAT I JUST SAID.”  “YOU DID NOT.’’  “I DID.”  Just on the point of mutual strangulation we stopped and began to laugh as it dawned on us that our furious shouting was due to the fact that we were both utterly terrified at the prospect of climbing the wretched thing.
    Order restored we approached the bottom. In a fit of uncommon chivalry I volunteered to go up, leave my sac, come down and carry up Valerie's load.   It was every bit as bad as I had imagined it would be and I really didn’t want to do it twice, but there was no choice.  Fortunately, my bout of temporary insanity lasted just long enough and we were soon both sitting at the top, after a nerve-jangling experience.
    Fifteen minutes later we came across the others, still in their sleeping bags.  We swapped stories and I was pleased to hear they’d been just as worried coming up the gully.  It was good to be all together again, though this didn’t last long.  Wojtek’s toe was very bad  so he wanted to walk down slowly with Valerie and me but  as John was down to his last three cigarettes  he and Jungle wanted to get to Nagar fast to resupply, which was fine as they could then organize porters to go up for our gear still at Base Camp.  They set off as soon as they were up, leaving the three of us to amble along behind.
    The rest of the walk out was uneventful, thankfully, and late the next afternoon we were eating fresh apricots in Nagar.  That same evening we got to Karimabad and met up again with John and Jungle.  Six days later our gear arrived, the ‘unreliable’ men of Nagar having surpassed themselves, wading through two feet of snow to get it.  Now it was time to go home, a little disappointed maybe, but richer for a great experience in a wild and remote area and, in the words of Rum Doodle,” the porters were splendid. “  

The Team

Richard Haszko 2009©
Photographs: Haszko Collection©