Saturday, 16 October 2021

Mount Everest finally on the map


The first detailed map of Mount Everest was produced exactly one hundred years ago in 1921. 65 years previously, the mountain then known as Peak XV had been conclusively identified as the world’s highest by the British Survey of India. In 1856, this appellation was replaced by ‘Mount Everest’ on the instructions of the Surveyor General of India, Andrew Waugh, in honour of his predecessor Sir George Everest. Measured at 29,002 feet, it marked the culminating point -  literally and metaphorically - of the Great Trigonometric Survey which had mapped India from south to north.

The Survey of India's triangulation of Himalayan peaks

Straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest remained unexplored in close-up for six more decades. This was because Nepal was out of bounds to all foreigners – a ban that would remain in place until 1949 - and to enter Tibet, on the northern side, diplomatic permission was required. By the end of the First World War however, Britain began to prioritise the conquest of Everest. Having failed to win the race to both the North and South Poles, the world’s highest mountain was looked upon as the ‘Third Pole’. At the time, no explorer had got to within a hundred kilometres of Mount Everest, but after much diplomatic toing-and-froing, the British were eventually granted entry to Tibet by the Dalai Lama. So in 1921, a military-style reconnaissance mission was mounted to explore the northern approaches to the mountain with the ultimate aim of making an assault on the summit. The lead climber on the 1921 expedition team was George Mallory.

The remit for the cartographic survey to be carried out as part of the 1921 reconnaissance mission was as follows: Mount Everest is flanked to the west by a high group [of mountains] reaching to 26,750 ft, to the north by a group reaching 23,640 ft, to the east by the Makalu group (27,850 ft)  and to the south by many high peaks. Permission to enter Nepal not being available, only the area north of the boundary could be considered. A map which will explain Mount Everest clearly and will show its connection with the neighbouring mountains and with the drainage of its vicinity, must include the mountain groups mentioned above. In fact they, with Mount Everest itself form one great mountain mass, the whole of which may be described as the Everest group. 

The person chosen to perform this survey was the Canadian, E.O. (Oliver) Wheeler. Under the command of his senior Henry Morshead, he was assigned as secondary surveyor to the mission and was charged with the detailed mapping of the terrain at a scale of one inch to one mile (1:63,000). After serving on the Western Front in the First World War, Wheeler was working at the headquarters of the Survey of India based in Dehra Dun. He came from an illustrious family of surveyors and alpinists who had helped open up the Canadian Rockies with the aid of photo-topography, at the time a revolutionary new surveying method. Wheeler described this “Canadian” method as “plane tabling by photography”, the camera replacing the field-surveyor’s eye and cartographic details being filled in later on the basis of the photographs. This technique lent itself in particular to high-altitude mapping, for example: much larger areas could be covered; field data could be transferred onto maps afterwards in the office; and, not unimportantly, “there is no necessity to do accurate drawing [in the field] with numbed fingers”.

Numbed fingers or not, surveying over 3100 square kilometres of country in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain was not going to be a walk in the park. The whole five-and-a-half-month mission presented a huge logistical challenge for the party. Starting out on 18 May 1921, the month-long trek from Darjeeling, through Tibet to the base of Everest at the snout of the Rongbuk Glacier was 480 kilometres. For his part alone, Wheeler required heavy surveying equipment (camera, theodolite, tripod, levelling equipment and fragile glass negative plates) which amounted to almost 50 kilos in weight, along with tents, food and other provisions, all transported to isolated stations, often above 6500 metres.

Wheeler operated separately from the rest of the reconnaissance party, often spending days on end waiting for the weather to clear before he could take readings and photographs. He was supported by 3 high-altitude assistants, who shared a tent, and 10 permanently engaged coolies who also acted as mail runners and fuel gatherers, none of whom were fitted out with warm clothes or tents and had always to sleep at the main camps, ferrying stores up to Wheeler’s survey stations or moving camp. Often Wheeler would camp alone. By the time the British reconnaissance team started out on their return to Darjeeling in late September, Wheeler had spent 41 nights on moraines and glaciers at altitudes between 18,000 and 22,200 feet. He shot 240 images, which would sometimes be developed in tents on dark nights at high altitude or during occasional breaks at base camp, where he would once again be able to enjoy the company of fellow expedition members. 

Wheeler enjoying a break with his assistants











In one account not untypical of his sojourn in the high mountains, Wheeler told the story of how he arrived back into a camp on the West Rongbuk Glacier one day soaked to the skin. He wrote “I was ... [here] ...for five days: most of them spent huddled under rocks waiting for the clouds to lift. I had one beautiful day, my only one in six weeks, and got some very nice photographs of Mount Everest and its West ridge. It is surprising how a little good weather and the feeling of having really done some work affects one’s spirits!”

Wheeeler was credited with unlocking a route to the North Col via the East Rongbuk Glacier, which other expedition members (like the begrudging Mallory) had failed to identify in their reconnaissance. From the North Col, it was possible to access the north ridge of Everest and it was this approach to the summit which would be targeted on the expeditions of 1923 and 1924, ultimately ending in the demise of Mallory and his climbing companion Sandy Irvine.

Of his survey, Wheeler concluded, “On the whole we felt that we were able to pass on to the 1922 expedition as complete information as it was possible to get in the time available, and to give them maps, photographs and general information sufficient to enable them to make a detailed plan of campaign for the final assault.”

Morshead was not quite so reserved in assessing Wheeler’s achievements however, writing in the official account of the 1921 Mount Everest Reconnaissance: “Wheeler had probably the hardest time of any member of the Expedition, and his success in achieving single-handed the mapping of 600 square miles of some of the most mountainous country in the world is sufficient proof of his determination and grit.”

The tragic events that unfolded three years later ensured that the early mountaineering history of Mount Everest would be dominated by the mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance on the north ridge in 1924. Meanwhile Oliver Wheeler went on to have a glittering career, rising through the ranks to become Surveyor-General of India from 1941–1947, helping to produce thousands of maps in the Allied war effort in the Far East during the Second World War. Wheeler retired to his native Canada where became President of the Alpine Club of Canada from 1950 to 1954.


Davis, Wade (2012) Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, Vintage

Howard-Bury, Charles Kenneth et al. (1922) Mount Everest, the reconnaissance, 1921, (Appendix I: The Survey by H.T. Morshead and Appendix II: The Photographic Survey by E.O. Wheeler)

E.O. Wheeler (1923) The Mount Everest Expedition, 1921 in the Canadian Alpine Journal, vol. 13. The Alpine Club of Canada. Banff, Alberta. 1923. p. 1-25.

Keay, John (2000) The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was mapped and Everest was named, Harper Collins   

This article was written as part of the Mapping the Mountains project, organised under the auspices of the Dutch Mountain Film Festival. An exhibition of the same name will take place from 3 to 30 November at Tuchwerk, Aachen (D). For more information on the exhibition:


Monday, 28 December 2020

The Great Saint Bernard and the Roman route map

Border stone on the Great St Bernard Pass, early October 2020







 Monaco has been the scene of many notable victories but none quite so comprehensive as that commemorated in the village of La Turbie on the slopes overlooking the principality. The Tropaeum Alpium (or ‘Trophy of the Alps’) was built in 5 BC to honour the Emperor Augustus whose Roman armies, in a campaign lasting from 25 to 14 BC, cleared the Alps of all opposition, vanquishing 45 Alpine tribes in their wake. At the time of its construction, this now semi-ruined monument was 50 metres high and consisted of a tower surrounded by 24 columns and crowned by a statue of the victor. The triumphal arch lay at the western terminus of the Via Julia Augustus which originated in Placentia (modern Piacenza) and was later extended as far as Arelate (Arles), a route which before the conquest represented the only safe and secure way that the Romans could transfer their goods and troops to their northern provinces.

Half a century before the monument’s inauguration, Julius Caesar had conquered vast swathes of Gaul, a region encompassing roughly the equivalent of present-day France and Belgium. A major logistical obstacle for the Romans however, were the intervening Alps which remained in the hands of local tribes. For the Romans, gaining control of the mountain passes was a strategic necessity to supplying and thus expanding their Gallic possessions.

One of the key passes affording a more direct route north was the one we know today as the Great Saint Bernard. At 2473 metres above sea level, the pass is considerably higher than other major passes in the Western Alps, such as Montgènevre (1854m), Mont Cenis (2084m), the Simplon (2009m) and Saint Gotthard (2106m). The advantage of the Great Saint Bernard however, lay in its more accessible approaches and its directness from south to north through the Aosta and Rhone valleys.

To gain faster access to Gaul, in 57 BC Julius Caesar had attempted – and failed - to subdue the Alpine tribes along the Grand Saint Bernard corridor. It was left to Augustus, his adopted successor, to finally seize control of the entire Alpine region and conclusively ensure free access to the Roman sphere of control north of the mountain chain: heavy tolls exacted from passing troops and travellers by bellicose tribes could no longer be tolerated. The Salassi tribe who controlled access routes to the pass were eventually brought to their knees in 25 BC and the Aosta valley which they had occupied was depopulated, 44,000 people enslaved and a new Roman colony established at August Praetoria Salassorum (present-day Aosta): the Great Saint Bernard had been secured once and for all.

It was not until the reign of Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 AD) that a road was completed across the pass, on whose summit a mansio (an official lodging) and a temple, dedicated to Jupiter Poeninus, were constructed. (In pre-Roman times, the pass and the surrounding mountains went by the name of Poeninus or Poenini, supposedly the name of a mountain god who presided over the crossing). However ahead of their time Roman engineers were when it came to building roads, bridges, aqueducts and the like, roads at this height must have presented a completely different challenge, subject as they were to steeper gradients and mountain conditions, such as landslides and flooding, never mind the fact that the Great Saint Bernard would have been closed for 6 or 7 months of the year. The Romans were after all notorious for building direct routes, rather than those that followed the natural contours of the terrain and, of course, tracks capable of taking wheeled vehicles were limited in their gradient. It is unclear whether a track able to carry such vehicles went all the way to the top and it was likely that some goods would have had to be transferred to mule to negotiate the steeper slopes. However, sections of a Roman road on the relatively flat summit of the pass have survived.

If the maps the Romans left behind are to be believed – and there are precious few – the mountain passes, such as the Grand Saint Bernard and others further east, such as the Septimer and Reschen, were their key transport routes across the mountains. Nevertheless, for all their military might, expansionist drive, engineering prowess and attention to detail, the Romans left next to no cartographic legacy at all. If it hadn’t been for a redrawn copy of a map that surfaced in the Middle Ages, we might not possess anything at all. What is known however, is that the Romans compiled and kept route maps, called itineraries which linked routes between towns and cities and other prominent landmarks (such as villas, temples, spas, but also mountain passes) and, importantly, showed distance information. These itineraries were akin to modern-day urban transit maps, such as those we see above carriage doors on underground trains: the maps show only vital information, removing all unnecessary topographic detail. They are devoid of any scale or compass direction, so tell us almost nothing about the geography, retaining only the relationship between points along the route.

A detail from the Peutinger Table showing the Western Alps







The Tabula Peutingeriana, or Peutinger Table, was one such itinerary. This gigantic map, drawn on a parchment scroll 34 cm in height and almost 7 metres in length, depicts the extent of the Roman road network at the height of the Empire, containing detailed information about points along the way. To modern viewers, this map of Eurasia, stretching from the British Isles in the west to the Indian sub-continent in the east, is almost unrecognisable: the profiles with which we are familiar on the maps of today have been flattened, stretched and kneaded in such a way that they fit onto a format that was both manageable (for carrying around in rolled up form) and legible for troop movements. Key topographical elements, such as mountains (crenulated markings), rivers (wavy lines) and forests (lines of trees), feature sporadically to help us make sense of this distortion.

The Peutinger Table is a medieval facsimile which was most likely copied from a Carolingian version, which in turn is assumed to be a copy of a 3rd or 4th century Roman original. It is said to be loosely based on an earlier map first commissioned by the Roman general Agrippa in the 1st century and later engraved into marble near the Forum in Rome. The derived medieval copy came into the hands of an Augsburg-based scholar, Konrad Peutinger (1465 – 1547) – hence its name - who recognised that it was an important road map of the Roman Empire. It is now kept in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

By no stretch of the imagination can the Peutinger Table be considered a mountain map, let alone a topographical map, given its warped perspective and scant reference to natural features. Instead, the map, which shows the vast extent of the Roman road network and settlements, is an implicit expression of the Romans’ world view, attempting - as the construction of the Tropaeum Alpium did several centuries previously - to demonstrate their power and control.

So can the map tell us anything about the mountains or, more specifically, the Alps? Well, yes. The mountain passes, clearly identifiable on the map, were the bridgeheads by which access to their colonies on the other side was facilitated. By establishing and holding onto these lines of communication through a system of fortifications, encampments and tollhouses, they were able to oil the wheels for the large-scale movement of troops and goods in either direction, thus by-passing longer and more complicated routes.

The map marks nothing more than a rudimentary starting point: it would be many more centuries before anyone would be able to make any sense of the mountains, at least in cartographic form.

Further reading:

Carreras C., De Soto P., Muñoz A. : Land transport in mountainous regions in the Roman Empire, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Vol. 25, June 2019, pp 280-293

Snodgrass A.M.: The Early History of the Alps, The Alpine Journal 1993. Vol. 98, pp 213-222

Seidel, Wolfgang (2016): Sternstunden der Kartografie: Die abenteurliche Geschichte der Entdeckung und Vermessung der Welt, Malik / National Geographic

Noble-Wilford, John (2001) The Mapmakers, Vintage


This article was written as part of the Mapping the Mountains project 


Monday, 20 April 2020

In praise of urban walking

If the fit and active amongst us hadn’t already realised, we are all rediscovering the joys of walking. Whether your lockdown is partial or complete, the appeal of our open spaces has never been so great. Luckily, if you live in a place where the world outside your front doorsteps hasn’t been designated out-of-bounds, you can still enjoy the freedom of the outdoors, however confined your social space. Never before have there been so many walkers and so few cars. But paradoxically, whilst we are seeking popular recreational spots - often all at the same time - we are invading each other’s personal spaces, precisely what we should be avoiding. It’s fine if you live in the country, but if not, the higher the population density, the greater the pressure on the parks, beaches and woodlands near our urban dwellings. No wonder the powers that be are stepping in and closing off routes and car parks that provide access to these local beauty spots. Like it or not, if we want to preserve our environment and at the same time stay safe, we are going to have to be more resourceful about how we recreate and instead make do with the commonplaceness of our own neighbourhoods.

Our world might be getting smaller, but even if the bounds of our geographical realm are limited to a radius of one-kilometre (as in France), that’s 3.14 square kilometres to discover, rising to a whopping 78.5 square kilometres for a zone with a five-kilometre radius (Belgium). A more sensible yardstick might be what’s within walking distance of our homes, which is probably somewhere in between the two measures I’ve specified above. That’s still a lot of ground to cover!

But space is only one factor in the distancing equation. Now that our lives are no longer dictated totally by our working hours, we don’t all have to go at the same time. You can enjoy a walk any time of the day: early morning, late evening or even in the middle of the night! As the days in the northern hemisphere get longer, so does the scope for daylight walking. We no longer have to be creatures of habit!

But there is another overriding reason why we should be out walking:
It is undeniably good. It is good for our muscles and posture; it helps to protect and repair organs, and can slow or turn back the ageing of our brains. With our minds in motion we think more creatively, our mood improves and stress levels fall.
These are not my words (though I wish they were), but those of Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist working at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland who has written about the physical, but above all, the mental benefits of walking. He practices what he preaches and is a passionate walker, but even more so, a passionate urban walker:
Walking is the way to get to know a new city: rambling out, about, on foot, taking in the sights and sounds and smells and sense of the new city. Enjoying getting footsore while noticing the little things making a city different, interesting, and great. Cities possess a vitality, attractions, upsides, and downsides.

In other words, for us townies, there is a world out there waiting to be discovered on our own doorsteps – in terms of fauna and flora, culture, history, architecture and – crucially – sensorially. View your surroundings in a different way, observe the subtle changes in nature over the seasons and the different angles and intensities of light throughout the day. Record it photographically if you wish. Sometimes it can feel like stepping out onto a different planet if we compare a walk we make in summer to the same one we made last winter. In spring, even over the course of week, much can change.

Wherever you live, there is plenty to hold our interest within walking distance of our homes. If you’re interested in wildlife, but never had the time, look for the tell-tale signs of spring in birdlife around you: April and May are the months when migrating birds arrive back in our midst to breed. Listen out for the warbled flute of the blackbird as it sings from its elevated perch, and the sounds of swifts as they screech around the rooftops late in the evening. Try to identify wild flowers (aka weeds) growing between the paving stones. Since your local council has probably decided unsightly wayside plants are no longer a priority, they are now growing in profusion. Less traffic also means less air pollution, so at night lift your eyes and binoculars up to the stars and discover the planets and constellations.

The built environment is often no less inspiring than the natural one. Find an old map (there are plenty online), check out how much your neighbourhood has changed over the years, walk the streets and discover the secrets of their past. It doesn’t have to have been grand architectural schemes or remarkable feats of civil engineering that have transformed your neighbourhood, just subtle, almost imperceptible developments. If we only realised, history is slowly evolving before our very eyes. It’s more than likely that someone famous lived in your area, there may be a special architectural attraction, a commemorative plaque, a deserted railway line, an industrial shell or a canal towpath. There may even be some graffiti that’s worth admiring!

What about kids? Why not create a treasure hunt for them to do in your neighbourhood, using architectural features and street furniture as your guide. That way your kids can uncover the idiosyncracies of your neighbourhood on foot too.

My own personal realm spans the entire urban field from bustling town centre to serene woodland on the urban fringe. It’s a treasure-trove waiting to reveal itself, with a history that dates back to Roman times, but which also has a landscape more latterly scarred by coalmining. The industrial age brought to the region much expertise, innovation and prosperity and this is reflected in its diverse and modern architecture. The area was also traumatised by war, as the seventy or so Stolpersteine dotted around town bear witness: these are small brass plates embedded in the pavement and inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi persecution. More recently, my adopted home town has seen a burgeoning of street art, with gable ends and building facades all over town being adorned with massive murals.

A Stolperstein in Turin

If you choose to go outdoors, do so sensibly and in compliance with the guidelines that apply in your own country. Choose a route that minimises your social contact. Be more flexible with the times you go out, it doesn’t have to be in the afternoon or at weekends. But most of all, discover and enjoy the delights of walking!

Friday, 28 February 2020

Blank on the map

Spender's map of the 1937 Karakoram expedition

After 4 months of tramping in the wilderness, they arrived back in civilisation dirty, ragged and unwashed. Their unkempt hair and matted beards managed to arouse much consternation amongst the local populace, themselves not unaccustomed to a sparse existence on the edges of the habitable world. As dishevelled as they may have come across, the two figures who arrived in Shimsal - a back-of-beyond cluster of settlements in Baltistan - had actually spent the summer of 1937 scouring a huge tract of uncharted territory, assiduously filling in blanks on an empty map. This was no ordinary terrain however, containing some of the most awe-inspiring peaks and glaciers on the face of the earth.

On his way back from an Everest expedition in 1936, Eric Shipton hatched a plan to reconnoitre an uncharted part of the Karakoram in the Himalayas. Already an accomplished mountaineer at the age of 29, Shipton had several successful Himalayan expeditions under his belt, as well as a number of intrepid treks in the Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzori ranges of East Africa. Exploration was written into his DNA and he was drawn to the Karakoram simply because there was a void that hadn’t yet been mapped.

The Karakoram range is a tangled knot of mountains that forms part of the watershed between Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Hitherto, there had been little inclination to map the Karakoram: it is a desolate region, devoid of human habitation, bristling with mountain tops of truly awesome dimensions which rise up from yawning valleys gouged out by the most extensive glaciers outside the polar regions. It could quite justifiably lay claim to the title ‘roof of the world’, since four of its summits, K2, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak, surpass a height of 8,000 metres. K2, just 238 metres shy of Everest and the second highest peak in the world, never had a local name because, quite simply, there were no locals to give it one.

Yet its remoteness did not mean this mountain fortress had been untrodden or unmapped, at least in part. Ancient caravans had used crossing points along this formidable barrier between Turkestan and Kashmir to trade goods between north and south, before shifting glaciers had eventually made it impassable. 

Godwin-Austen's 1864 map of the southern Karakoram. The empty top right-hand corner is Shipton's 'blank on the map'

As part of the Trigonometrical Survey of India, Lieutenant-Colonel Godwin-Austen had explored the mountains in the Himalayas in the early 1860s and surveyed the glaciers to the south of K2, one of which was later named after him.
The first European known to have traversed this mountain range from north to south was Francis Younghusband in 1887. In a venture that was the anachronism for the age of exploration and empire, Younghusband – a British army officer - undertook a journey of epic proportions from Peking, across the Gobi desert and eventually traversing the Karakoram via the Mustagh Pass (5422 m), the descent of which – without proper mountaineering equipment – had been a heart-stopping, do-or-die enterprise. Younghusband would later become the president of the Royal Geographical Society and the first chairman of the Mount Everest Committee which oversaw the first attempts on the peak in the 1920s.
Other notable visitors to the Karakorum included the formidable Fanny Bullock Workman. Born into a wealthy American family in 1859, Fanny Bullock married William Workman, a medical doctor 10 years her senior, when she was just 22. They spent the best part of the next 30 years travelling the world in search of adventure and were eventually introduced to high-altitude climbing in the Himalayas. In 1906 they made the first ascent of Pinnacle Peak (6930 m) in 1906, a women's altitude record at the time and later in 1911 and 1912, along with a team of surveyors, they embarked on an expedition to map the 76-kilometre-long Siachen glacier in the Eastern Karakoram.
For those of us with no first-hand experience of the Karakoram, we can only imagine the sheer grandeur of the landscape. Few can have surely come as close to capturing its magnificence than Vittorio Sella, possibly the finest and most accomplished mountain photographer of all time, who accompanied an Italian expedition making a (subsequently unsuccessful) attempt on K2 in 1909. The expedition was led by Prince Luigi Amadeo, better known as the Duke of the Abruzzi, whose enviable portfolio of explorations, amongst others, included first ascents in Alaska and British East Africa.

Vittorio Sella's photograph of the Trango Towers in 1909

By 1937, whilst some parts of the Karakoram had evidently been surveyed, Eric Shipton set himself the task of filling in some of the gaping gaps north of the main crest. Exploration, more so than peak-bagging had become his raison d’être and his plan came at an opportune time: exploration, for exploration’s sake was still de rigueur, and the Government of India, under British colonial control, was keen to establish the true extent of its territory for reasons of national security. To achieve this goal, Shipton would need a support team of climbers, surveyors and porters, and crucially funding. For the latter, he received money from the Royal Geographical Society, the Survey of India and the Royal Society. He budgeted for a total cost of £855 and, in fact, underspent by a just few pounds.

The lead team consisted of Shipton himself; Bill Tilman, another climber with a complete back catalogue of mountaineering feats, frequently in the company of Shipton and in every way his alter ego; Michael Spender, a surveyor who had given invaluable service on an Everest reconnaissance mission led by Shipton in 1935 (and brother of the poet, Stephen Spender). To all intents and purposes, Spender would be responsible for coordinating the surveying work of the expedition; and John Auden, a gifted geologist, who began his career with the Geological Survey of India in 1926: he too had a more famous poet brother in W.H. Auden. The team was completed by seven Sherpas who had given sterling service as mountain guides on previous Everest campaigns.

The logistics of a four-month trek in inhospitable and uncharted mountain terrain were daunting, not least with heavy and valuable surveying equipment. Shipton hated the massive scale of sponsored expeditions: he was very much a free-spirit, lacking the single-mindedness of an expedition climber focused solely on reaching the top. However, for such an odyssey, the Karakoram project required the services of a hundred local porters to carry food, tents and other provisions.

Roughly speaking, Shipton’s plan was as follows:
... to reach the Baltoro glacier by the end of May; to cross the watershed with sufficient food to last the party for one hundred days after reaching its base below the snout of the Sarpo Laggo glacier; to cross the Shaksgam [river] and spend as much time in the Aghil range as possible without being cut off by the summer floods; to return to the Sarpo Laggo about the middle of July and to spend the remaining two months working on our other two objectives, the Crevasse glacier region and the area to the north of K2. 

Once they had left the inhabited world behind in Askole, Baltistan on 26 May, their first major task - the most critical of the whole expedition - was to find a passable crossing over the watershed to the north of the Baltoro glacier, a broad and sweeping glacier hemmed in on all sides by the Himalayan giants. An Italian survey team working in the Baltoro valley in 1929 came to the conclusion that a more permissible, more westerly route across the range to the Sarpo Laggo glacier on the other side should exist than the vertiginous Mustagh Pass taken by Younghusband in 1887. After reconnoitring the Trago glacier that occupied a valley branching off to the north of the Baltoro, Shipton and his party eventually found the saddle that gave them access to the Sarpo Laggo glacier on 2 June. However, this was not without much trial and error, which included mutiny from the porters and fever on the part of Tilman and Auden. Over the course of several days they ferried their supplies to their expedition base at the foot of the glacier.

It was here that Spender laid a surveying base in order to get K2 and a number of local points plotted on to his plane-table sheet. K2 would be the fixed point from which measurements would be made during the trip. After several days exploring the terrain in the vicinity of the base camp, the party set off in a northerly direction, retracing the route taken by Younghusband to the Aghil Pass, named after the mountain range to the north of the central massif of the Karakoram. They eventually arrived at the pass on 20 June, its summit identifiable from the description made by Younghusband 50 years previously. From here, they made several sorties into smaller side valleys and also followed the main valley down to its confluence with the Yarkand, a 1,000 km long river that flows into the Tarim river which eventually dries out in the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang province of China.

Hardly having time to rest at their base at Suget Jangal back in the Sarpo Laggo valley on their return from the Aghil, Shipton, Tilman and Auden spent a week in the web of valleys to the north of K2. The main purpose of this exercise was to link up their mapping work with Italian surveys of K2 and the Baltoro glacier on the southern flanks of the mountain. They eventually reached the base of its north wall. Shipton was overawed: 
The cliffs and the ridges of K2 rose out of the glacier in one stupendous sweep to the summit of the mountain 12,000 feet above. The sight was beyond my comprehension ... Sitting alone gazing at it at the cirque forming the head of the K2 glacier was an experience I shall never forget; no mountain scene has impressed me more.

Duke of Abruzzi's map of K2, 1909

The group then spent the next three weeks exploring the Crevasse Glacier. No one quite knew what lay beyond the unprobed limits of this glacier, but it was conjectured that it would lead to the fabled ‘Snow Lake’, an extensive basin of snow and ice that had been described by the Workmans and which supposedly formed part of a much vaster ice cap feeding glaciers which radiated outwards from here. The Workmans had also claimed they had observed a glacier, which they dubbed the Crevice glacier, that had no outlet, a contentious assertion on their part to say the least, given the laws of physics. Tilman and a number of Sherpas were sent over the passes at the top of the Crevasse glacier to settle the issue before making their trek out of the Karakoram and back to civilisation.

When after crossing various passes, Tilman eventually reached the Snow Lake he was underwhelmed. Of this he said, ‘ ... this nearly flat basin I should put at about six miles by three; at the most 20 square miles instead of 300. It is a disappointingly small area for such a grandiose name.’ He was more hopeful the Crevice glacier would defy all the scientific experts however, but inevitably, he was similarly let down. He wrote of his experience: ‘In a drab world it would be refreshing to report the discovery of a glacier flowing uphill, or even of one that did not flow at all. It gives me no pleasure, therefore, to have to affirm that this glacier behaved as others do. ... I ought to have rejoiced, because I can honestly say that to tramp down the Cornice glacier, hoping at every moment to find an impasse and find none, was as sorry a business as any that has fallen my lot.’

By the time Tilman had returned to Askole by way of the Snow Lake and the Crevice glacier, Shipton and Spender were returning by a different route, making their way northwards along the Braldu glacier and valley to map that uncharted section of country and its river systems, recrossing the continental divide by way of the Shimsal Pass (4,735 m). When they got there Spender found it ‘hard to believe that we were crossing the main continental watershed, so great was the contrast with the other sections of it which we had visited. It was a wide-open grassy valley near which enormous herds of yaks and sheep were grazing.’ Eventually, after 3 and a half months of filling in chunks of emptiness on the map, they arrived back in civilisation, a sight for sore eyes.

In all, they had surveyed no less than 4,661 square kilometres of terrain. In an autobiography Shipton later wrote:
No experience of mine has been fuller, no undertaking more richly rewarded than those few months among the unknown mountains beyond the crest of the Karakoram. The vast scale of the country, its complete isolation from any source of help or supply demanded all our ingenuity and a wide range of our mountaineering technique. Striving to traverse and understand such a world, and thus to absorb something of its peace and strength was at once our task and our reward.

Further reading: 

Shipton, Eric: Blank on the Map: Pioneering exploration in the Shaksgam valley and Karakoram mountains, Vertebrate Publishing (2019). First published in London by Hodder & Stoughton in 1938 
Shipton, Eric: The Shaksgam Expedition 1937, The Alpine Journal Vol L, May 1938
Spender, Michael: The Shaksgam Expedition 1937, The Himalayan Journal Vol. 10, 1938
Baker, Deborah: The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire, Vintage Books, 2019

This article was written as part of the Mapping the Mountains exhibition, organised under the auspices of the Dutch Mountain Film Festival #9, which takes place in Heerlen (NL) from 31 October 2019 to 29 February 2020.

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