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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