This July saw the motley crew of BMC CEO Dave Turnbull, sports climber Rich Simpson, and gnarly alpinist Stuart McAleese jet off to visit Beijing at the invitation (and, yes, expense), of the Chinese Mountaineering Association. Quite what the Chinese made of this fine crop of British climbers is uncertain, but one thing is for sure - how times have changed.
Just over 25 years ago we were angling for permission to climb Mount Kongur (7719m) - a real blank on the map. No climber had even set foot on the peak. Eric Shipton had mentioned it in a book - being in this region in Xinjiang during the Second World War when he was British Consul in Kashgar - but few photos and no detailed maps existed. Michael Ward, consultant surgeon and 1953 Everest veteran, was to be the driving force behind securing our access, and in his own words: “this antique land had captured the curiosity of travellers with a sense of history. Kongur, in southern Xinjiang, possibly the highest unclimbed peak in the world would be our choice.”
Michael spent five years corresponding with Beijing with the help of Sir Douglas Busk and the Mount Everest Foundation, and at last, in 1980, a recce was organised. Chris Bonington, Al Rouse and Michael Ward set off for China via Hong Kong, then still an outpost of the British Empire. A single meeting with David Newbigging, chairman of Jardine Matheson, the Hong Kong-based trading company, secured sponsorship for the entire venture into this remote area of western China. Few westerners had ever been there.
The story of Kongur is one of the most remarkable, and little known, mountaineering achievements of the 1980’s - an alpine-style ascent of a peak of nearly 8000m. And dovetailed into the main trip would be a scientific altitude physiology expedition. Between May and August of 1980 Chris, Al and Mike carried out a detailed recce of the entire Kongur massif, only punctuated by Al breaking his ankle in a tumble on a scree slope. Mike and Chris climbed into the Koksel Basin and reached the Koksel Col. They also explored the Gez Gorge to the north, but decided that the approach to Kongur should be from the south, approaching from the plateau north of Mustagh Ata (7564m) whose ungainly bulk fills the horizon south of the Kongur massif. On their return, Rouse allegedly quipped in a Sheffield pub: “Well, Kongur. It looks like a snow plod, I doubt if we’ll need a rope.” His words would come back to haunt him.
In May 1981 the definitive expedition set out. Michael Ward was the overall leader. Chris Bonington led the climbing team of Peter Boardman, Al Rouse and Joe Tasker - a formidable quartet. Michael chose the altitude scientists - Dr Jim Milledge and Professor Edward Williams. Jim Curran was to make the film; David Wilson, Political Adviser to the Governor of Hong Kong and a fluent Mandarin speaker, provided the detailed, sensitive and witty interpretation. And finally a certain Charlie Clarke was to be the doctor.
Chinese customer relations were yet to be honed to their present state of excellence, but we were royally entertained on our journey to Kashgar by air, and then by road, to the Karakol Lakes below Mustagh Ata. A trekking party from Jardines came with us to Base Camp, and with the splendour of high peaks, Kirghis nomads, camels, yaks and glimpses of the rare prized Marco Polo sheep, the early stages of the trip had the flavour of an exclusive luxury holiday.
We spent nearly a month acclimatising, climbing minor peaks and moving equipment into the Koksel Basin. Happy days, but not without incident. A wind-slab avalanche nearly put paid to a quiet Sunday morning stroll for a party on one minor peak, and Chris developed a chest infection that turned into lobar pneumonia. He became gravely ill. The four doctors managed to agree about both diagnosis and treatment - possibly a first!
Towards the end of June several things became clear. Kongur would be no pushover. The route was complex, serious and mixed. The weather was fickle. They’d need a rope or two. Furthermore, a Japanese party were acclimatising on Mustagh Ata, in preparation for a siege on Kongur from the north. Time was running out. But the good news was that Chris was on the mend and the rest of us were well.
Chris’s initial plan had been to climb the south ridge of Junction Peak (7350m), traverse it, and then attempt the summit pyramid, an unexpected tower that led to an apparent summit plateau. After one exploratory attempt via this route, an alternative route via the SW rib and Kongur Col was chosen - it was easier to reverse in bad weather. Chris, Al, Pete and Joe left Advance Base on the 4th July. Chris had recovered spectacularly from pneumonia but there had been much fresh snow and it was a long, tedious struggle to reach the snow cave on the SW rib. Snow conditions high on the mountain were treacherous, especially on a knife-edge snow ridge leading towards the summit pyramid.
Joe Tasker wrote: “It was the most gripping lead I did on the entire climb. I was wading through steep, waist-deep snow and it took me an hour to climb 300 feet. I had to stamp down every step before I dared put my weight on it. I was quite frightened but thought, Chris is belaying me. He’s on the ridge and can always jump down the other side if the slope avalanches away.”
Bonington had other thoughts as he watched the approaching weather: “I could see a huge wall of turbulent dark cloud rolling in from Russia, swallowing Mustagh Ata. This heralded a major storm. This was soon upon us. Below the base of the summit pyramid, around 7100m, we frantically looked for a site for a snow cave, but probing revealed only shallow snow. Eventually four individual snow coffins were all we could manage. We were trapped there for four days until the storm abated.
Early in the morning of the 12th July I probed my spy-hole in the snow with my ice axe, enlarged it and peered into a bright still morning. I shouted at the blank snow slope beneath which Pete and Al were hidden and also woke up Joe. We were away by nine o’clock. The climbing on the pyramid was steep, like the north face of the Eiger in winter - serious stuff, but good hard ice and crisp snow. Several pitches led up steep ground until the gradient eased and the sun peeped over the crest of the ridge. I pulled up to the ridge itself and found myself in a different world, on a broad platform bathed in sunlight and relatively windless. A winding broad ridge led up to the summit. We were going to make it - but we’d already taken five hours to climb 150 metres.
We pressed on, gaining height along the easy ridge, with the usual false summits. The wind picked up, and on one crest, Joe pulled out in front. ‘I think you’ll like what you see up here,’ he said. With a sudden burst of energy he set about filming the occasion. We’d done it. Wow! The four of us were standing on top.
It was to be 2 am by the time we snuggled into a snow cave just below the summit. Dawn on the next day was crystal clear. We looked out from the summit snow cave over central Asia, across to Mustagh Ata, over to the Tien Shan in the northwest and west to the Soviet Pamirs. The northeast horizon was blocked by Kongur’s northern summit, a kilometre or so away. Could it be slightly higher, we thought? There was nothing for it - we would just have to go and climb it. We spent a slightly anticlimactic day doing so, finding it was just lower than our first summit.
Still, Kongur was climbed. The job was done. All that remained that evening was to start the journey down, and pray for some settled weather. Peter Boardman was soon at the top of the difficult step on the final pyramid. He set up an abseil, began to descend steep ground, and knocked off a football-sized rock as he did so. Joe and Al watched helplessly as it struck Pete on the head. Unconscious, he shot out of sight. Shortly afterwards a voice came from below, announcing survival and inferring that he had not slipped off the end of the abseil rope. It had been a close run thing. When they reached him, Pete was sitting with his head covered in blood and his left hand bruised and bleeding – it had jammed in the abseil karabiner and saved him sliding off over a thousand metres to the glacier. We all pressed on down that evening. By nightfall, about 11pm we reached the snow cave at the foot of the ridge.
The following morning we tramped wearily over Junction Peak, and down the SW rib. We spotted two tiny dots in the snow far below us. It was Mike Ward and Jim Curran who had spent a macabre week at ABC, with each day of silence (we carried no radios) increasing the likelihood of disaster above. The following day, it was grass, flowers and streams; fresh food, warmth and a long, long sleep at Base Camp.
We really had all stuck our necks out on Kongur. Looking back, Fortune was very kind to us. I took as many liberties as I have taken on any mountain. I don’t think I have ever been so isolated as we were on that summit, with its steep final pyramid and the fragile ridge back down - in that remote spot in Central Asia.”
The Kongur 1980 and 1981 expeditions were made possible only with the financial help of Jardine Matheson, Hong Kong. Invaluable preparatory work and initial financial backing came from the Mount Everest Foundation. Thanks also to the Chinese Mountaineering Association for assistance throughout our stay and The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.