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Shiwakte peaks in Aghalistan

Geoffrey Cohen, 1989


Scottish Mountaineering Club Centenary Expedition to the Chinese Pamirs, July-September 1989. Expedition report.


1. Narrative


1. Journey to base camp


The map of the region

On lhe third ol July the expedition left Scotland lor China via Pakistan. We flew to Islamabad and then travelled by bus lo China with as little incident as any (ravel in that part of the world involves. Having already paid large sums of money to Ihe Chinese and agreed a protocol, we naively thought our passage to the mountains would bo relalively straightforward. How wrong we were.

The first in a mammoth series of negotiations started when the Chinese provided more vehicular transport than we had asked for: but this paled into insignificance. When it came to hiring animals, there being no porters in the area. A never-ending and inconsistent stream of excuses were given as lo why we could not travel to the Shiwakte mountains. The apparent failure ol our money, some Ј6000. to arrive (rom Beijing hampered negotiations but eventually, after seven days of haggling, by which time we all agreed that diplomats earned their money, transport arrived in the form of two camels and two horses. This was despite having been told that the Karaiash Pass, which we had to cross, was not possible for camels.

We completed the final pack, severely pruning our gear because of the limited transport and at last set off on I7th July. The last week had been spent at the Karakul Lakes where the horizon is dominated by the giants of Mustagh Ala and Kongur while the foreground is barren hills. It was through these hills that we now walked. Transport restrictions prevented our Liaison Officer and Interpreter from accompanying us. Despite the language problem we could now deal directly with our camel drivers and for Ihe first time since leaving Britain we had at least some control Over our own movements.

Our route started roughly south-east following glacial river beds with occasional pockets of greenery amongst a grey landscape. Despite Ihe apparent lack of fertility grazing animals abounded and their owners offered hospitality, inviting us into their yurts for yoghurt and bread. Some of these people had probably rarely seen westerners before and we were the objects of considerable curiosity, but the Kirghiz were generally very friendly.

Difficulties with the camels on steep terrain meant that we had lo ferry loads from time to time. This lengthened the days considerably and made our progress a great deal harder than if we had had horses. 

On the first day wa crossed the Konsiver River about 5 miles SE of Karakul and camped about 4 miles further on where the valley begins to narrow. On the second day we branched off slightly left from the main river and ascended rocky slabs leli ol a narrow gorge where the first ferrying of camel loads took place. We continued up a scree filled valley which opened out at about 4000m into a beautiful, Hat, green upper valley.

This valley bends round SE after about 3 miles and the Karatash Pass was off to the left, but we weren't clear which ol many possibilities it was. Neither were our camel drivers, as they proceeded straight up the valley and realising they had gone loo far sought help from a lone shepherd who happened lo be up there. This character guided us up the scree-covered slopes to the Pass; although the going was quite easy again the camels had to be releivad ol most of their loads. The descent on the other side followed moraines for about a mile, which the camels naturally found difficult, then on to easy grassy slopes.

By the next day one of our camels was severely lame and managing barely a mile an hour on easy ground, so we slopped at Ak Sai, a cluster of yurts at about 4000rn. Our 'guides' from Karakul refused to go lurther although the LO had promised they would lake us lo base camp; but they offured to find someone else lo lake over their commitment. Late that night they returned from their searches with a local man called Hari Beg, and a lengthy parley took place. Our difficult position was not helped by a lack of sufficient cash (having been assured that the CMA would pay Ihe camel drivers out of our advance payment). Finally a combination of lOUs and the world-conquering US $ elicited an agreement to provide six horses to take us on to base camp.

Imagine our disappointment when four horses and a camel turned up next morning! But protests were 10 no avail, we had to take what we were offered or abandon the expedition. Happily the Ate Sai camel was made of sterner stuff than its Katakui brethren and performed excellently almost all the way to base camp. We suspected this was partly because Hari Beg was more careful and solicitous (or his beasts).

The narrow valley down from Ak Sai necessitated about 20 river crossings at which we gradually became more adept. Finally we reached the main Karatash river, which also had to be forded to reach Chat. This was a rather desolate village of fiat-roofed mud houses, with few people around at that time of year.

About five miles further down the Karatash a substantial bridge on concrete pillars allowed us lo cross back to the west side and enter the Chimghan valley. Here Hari Beg made a big mistake. The majority of the habitation and cultivation was on the north side ol the Chimghan river, which he determined to cross, although at that time in the afternoon it was a forbidding prospect. Our suggestion that we move up the valley on the south side and cross higher up was ignored. A local camel herder was engaged to guide us across the brown maelstrom. On the first ferry across Hari Beg was so impressed by the danger that he refused to come back and get the rest of us, who thus seemed marooned without baggage or guide. Eventually the camel herder mounted us on some of his beasts and leading a line of four camels and another line of two horses charged into the torrent. Somewhere in the middle the animals seemed to get out of control and a horse was swept away! We all thought our time had come as the camels swayed against the current. But the poor horse managed to struggle out lower down and the camels somehow kept their feet and got across, to everyone's huge retief including Harl Beg.

On day seven we got our first sight of the SE face of Kongur, filling the valley ahead. Being unsure of the identity of the peaks we followed Hari Beg up a well-made track on the SW side of the Chemi glacier all the way to the summer settlement of Sekya (4000m), where all the locals gathered around us in amazement. It was a truly magnificent setting, with the ferocious-looking Shiwaktes, the vast snowy face of Kongur and the rounded 'Satellite' peaks lining the western horizon. To the south was a narrow valley curving westwards and bordered by a long ridge of elegant 'Alpine' peaks. Almost the whole population of the Chimghan valley seemed to have moved for the summer to these green pastures, hemmed in by rocky moraines.

In many ways it would have been an ideal base camp, but Oes and Barry, who had gone ahead in the morning to scout out the area, arrived late at night to tell us that the Ak Tash glacier where we had planned to put our base was way over to the north-east, on the other side of Shiwakte II. As the side we could see looked fairly difficult we decided to stick to our original plan (we also hoped to find a place where we would be less bothered by the locals, friendly though they were). Hari Beg was persuaded to stay with us another day, and, after taking bearings on all significant peaks, we descended all the way to Chimghan (3100m) and ascended back to 4000m at an alp called Aghalistan on the east side of the Ak Tash glacier. The track here had a section impossible for camels, so we were forced to engage donkeys (our third species of animal transport) for this last section. Allowing enough time for our return journey we now had only 18 days left to climb. We had originally planned between four and five weeks but the delays at Karakul and en route had reduced this considerably. 

1.2. Shiwakte IIIa and Aghalistan II

The scheme of the region.

The next day was spent sorting ourselves out and looking at the Shiwakte peaks from further up the glacier. Shiwakte III. with a steep east ridge apparently leading to an easier snowy ridge, was chosen as a suitable objective for our unacclimatised state. Stan was suffering from a bout of diarrhoea and sickness and so, with Grahame, he opted for a day's rest and then to attempt a snowy peak (c. 5300m) to the east of Aghalistan.

From a camp at the head of the Ak Tash glacier an easy couloir led us to a col some way to the east of Shiwakte Ilia, whence we traversed to the col below our ridge. From here we could clearly see the steep ridge ahead, now looking much harder than the 'warm-up route' we had set out for. The Gemini tents were soon pitched on some level snow and a foray onto the lower part of the ridge showed us our route for the next day The weather continued to be perfect and after an early start we climbed some twenty pitches of interesting and varied climbing to reach poor ledges just as night fell. A long day!

The next day we cleared the rock steps and started up the snow ridge towards the shoulder of Shiwakte Ilia, which we hoped would offer a good platform for the night. Unfortunately the snow was really foul and lay on top of hard ice. so our progress was painfully slow. When Des eventually cut through the cornice at the shoulder, he found steep slopes on the far side and a continuation of the heavily corniced ridge above.

Knowing these sagging snow crests would have to be descended if climbed, and seeing an ominous halo around the sun we decided to turn back, and descended to a small platform which we enlarged for the two tents. From our high point we had seen that the ridge between Shiwakte Ilia and III was extraordinarily jagged and difficult - not at all the easy ridge with a few gendarmes that we had expected. Shiwakte Ilia was itself only a subsidiary top of the real prize, Shiwakte III, which would clearly have taken days of dangerous climbing to reach along that ridge. Beyond we had glimpses of the North-east ridge of Kongur and Shiwakte IV, both looking extremely difficult. The whole northern side of this range fell away very sharply indeed.

The next day we descended to the glacier with several difficult abseils. While walking back to base camp we came upon Grahame and Stan heading up towards Shiwakte I and we spent an hour recounting the events of the past few days. 

Shiwakte III and IIIa from North (by_D.Waugh)

They had ascended their snowy peak in two days finding easy going on good hard nave, with no technical difficulties. The summit, their first virgin peak, was an excellent viewpoint and they spent much time examining Shiwakte II. Ill and I for possible routes of ascent. The day after returning to base camp they had walked up the Ak Tash glacier to try and sight the other four of us. Through binoculars they had seen us descending. Shiwakte I looked, an attractive objective so they had returned to base the following day had set off back up the glacier with big sacks. It was here that the party reunited. While Geoff. Oes. Hamish and Barry continued their descent Grahame and Stan now camped at the foot of the couloir leading up to the col between Shiwakte I and III previously ascended by the others. Unfortunately, when starting up the iron hard ice of the couloir the next morning Stan found his left crampon kept coming off. as his new clip-on bindings were not compatible with his boots. The pair decided that, rather than continue with doubtful crampons . it would be sensible to return to base camp for the spare set and come back up. This was a fortunate decision as by the time they had reached base a violent storm had rolled in. heralding the start of five days of bad weather.

All six members were now together again and an almost continuous bridge game kept us occupied until the weather cleared on the 5th August, leaving us with only 8 days before we were due to leave. After a short discussion it was resolved that Grahame and Stan would return to Shiwakte I, having left much of their gear at the base of that mountain. Des and Barry would attempt the east ridge of Shiwakte II. the only feasible route from this side. And Geoff and Hamish would walk round to the west (Kongur) side of Shiwakte II and attempt the peak by a line seen briefly from our first 'false' base camp at Sekya.

1.3. The Ascent at Shiwakte II

On a glorious afternoon we shouldered cur heavy sacks, went quickly down to Chimghan and sweated our way back up to Sekya by late evening. Next morning we got reasonable view of the SW face of Shiwakte II and decided to try a line which led diagonally up to the high glacier between S.II and S.IIa. An alternative would have been to follow the main glacier north past the fearsome west buttress of Shiwakte II and seek a route up the west facing corrie beyond. As we later saw from the top this would indeed have been a good approach, but at the time we decided not to risk a long walk round which might only end with further difficulties.

Shiwakte-III and II from SW (by_A.Lebedev)

The crossing of the Chemi glacier was quick - just two hours, as there were shepherds' tracks much of the way. From here we laboured up very steep grass slopes strewn with beautiful flowers, pausing now and then to admire the grand panorama of Kongur and the 'Satellite' peaks. Traversing left we gained a bouldery valley leading up to our face and camped at about 5000m near the start of the snow. There was a line of rotten-looking seracs a few hundred metres above but we found good protection for our tent under a rock overhang. The night was cloudy and too warm, so we put off our early start. Going back to sleep Geoff dreamed it had cleared - and when he-woke again at 7am, it had! After a ramp of loose snow over boulders we got onto quite good neve and quickly cramponed past the first line of seracs. then contoured into a glacier bowl. The seracs above looked very unstable and there was a lot of debris on the glacier. But the ground looked easy so we decided to take a chance as we would not be exposed to risk for long. Going as fast as we could we threaded a way past the barrier with only one steep icy section, where moving together caused Geoff some moments' unease.

The sun reached us as we gained an upper snowbowl with deep snow. Making for a point just left of a notch we had to pitch it for the first time as the slope got steeper and icier near the top. By early afternoon we were camped on the ridge between S.II and S.IIa at about 5750m. The ridge was crossed by the most horrendous crevasses but we managed to find a little flat spot and settled down to enjoy the wonderful vista to the south-west. Sadly on the other side the Ak Tash glacier was filled with cloud. On the ridge the sharp fang of S.lla revealed itself out of the mist every now and then. An earlier suggestion to climb S.II by traversing over S.IIa from the col on the far side was now seen to be impractical! On the 8th we moved diagonally right to cut a corner then ascended to the summit ridge, which formed a graceful Alpine arete for the last few hundred metres. We were on top by about midday, taking bearings as best we could in a bitter wind and poor visibility. Shiwakte III to the north seemed slightly higher than us and pretty difficult from this side. The best approach seemed up its WSW wall to a point on the W ridge not far below the summit.

The descent was not difficult, though the weather got worse on the 9th. We found a path down the north side of the Chemi glacier and were back in base camp the following day.

1.4.Attempts on Shiwakte II from east and Shiwakte I

On August 5th Grahame and Stan returned to Shiwakte I. The snowfall of the last few days, and bad weather early on the 6th, persuaded them to wait another day before climbing tthe straightforward but avalanche-prone slope to the col between Shiwakte I and Shiwakte Ilia. They camped there, enjoying good views and optimistic that the summit would be reached next day. However the. weather changed for the worse again, and a big snowfall forced a wallowing retreat on the 9th down to base camp.

Barry and Oes experienced similar problems on the East ridge of Shiwakte II. On the 6th they climbed up a steep couloir and snowslope, in very deep and dangerous condition, to establish a camp on 'the calotte'. This was a broad flat area at about 5200m below the long and highly corniced section of the ridge. Having already experienced a minor avalanche on the way up to the calotte they were not disposed to go further unless the weather was good and the snow improved. Unfortunately the next two days brought only more snow, low cloud and poor visibility, confining.them to their camp. With the weather still poor on the 9th. they descended the dangerous snow to the Ak Tash glacier and back to base.

1.5.Last days at base camp

On 11th August Hamish and Grahame climbed up to the Kepek Pass which links the Chimghan valley to the valley of Kaying Bashi. This had been crossed by Skrine in the opposite direction over 60 years before, during his exploration of the Shiwakte range. He had called Kaying the happy valley and had been enchanted by its stands of fir trees (hundreds of miles from any other such trees), and by its hospitable Kirghiz inhabitants. It is very doubtful if any outsiders have visited the valley since Skrine. The pass was not difficult, but was icy on its north side. Hamish descended all the way down past a bend in the valley and was able to verify that Skrine's firs still remain!

Meanwhile the other four of us carried a camp to about 4600m under the peaks north-east of the bend in the Ak Tash glacier. The next morning, ironically the clearest of the whole trip, Oes and Barry ploughed up a long scree slope to climb the flat-topped Aghalistan III (5300m) while Stan and Geoff enjoyed beautiful neve for the ascent of Aghalistan IV (5200m). Both peaks were perfectly straightforward but gave fabulous views in all directions, until the heat of the desert began to push cloud in from the north.

Had we had just another day Aghalistan I or Tersoze peak would have been obvious objectives for this short period, but Hari Beg was expected - and duly arrived on his steed, with a wild whoop, as we sat around base that evening.

1.6. Return to Kashgar

Coming back down the Chimghan valley we crossed the river by a bridge at Chimghan village very near the outflow of the glacier and followed the south side without difficulty. There was another bridge over the Tersoze river (though Hari Beg insisted on driving the pack animals through the water). Hari Beg was determined not to risk his animals on the Karatash Pass and we had at an earlier stage reluctantly agreed that we would go with him over the Ghijak Oawan to Kizil Tagh. Language difficulties and haggling over payment continually beset us. For a long time we were unsure where Kizil Tagh was, as it was not shown on any of our maps, but we were told we could get a 'machine' from there to Kashgar and it was clear that this was a much quicker and easier route than retracing our steps.

Obviously we were quite interested in seeing new country and we were unsure how seriously to take what we had been told about its being a forbidden area. At one point Hari Beg had produced an official looking document which made us wonder if perhaps the LO had gone around to Kizil Tagh and was awaiting us there. On reflection this didn't seem very likely, so at Chat we decided to split up. Things were further complicated by the fact that only Stan and Barry had their passports with them, the rest of us having left ours at Karakul. We decided that Des and Geoff should return lightweight over the Karatash. to keep the arranged rendezvous with the LO and collect all the passports, while the other four would go with Hari Beg and all the gear to Kizil Tagh, hoping that the passportless pair would be able to talk their way past any police checkposts.

The 'heavy' team reached Kizil Tagh in two long easy days from Chat on a very good path. After promising to report to the police in Kashgar they were allowed to board a coal lorry and arrived there, black and unofficial, on 17th August. They put up in the Chinl Bagh. formerly the British Consulate, presently a cheap doss-house for indigent foreign travellers and soon to be demolished by the Chinese as a symbol of the imperial past. The police in Kashgar took a dim view of this dishevelled crew emerging from forbidden territory and immediately impounded the two available passports. Meanwhile Oes and Geoff had crossed the Karatash (under heavy snow in trainers) and reached Karakul after three long but enjoyable days. Each day was fortified by a yurt stop for bread and curds from the Kirghiz, for whose refreshingly simple hospitality they were deeply grateful. The LO and Interpreter were pleased to see them, for even their apparently inexhaustible capacity to endure tedium had been tested by their 31 day wait - in which time they had not even gone for a walk! Transport to Kashgar followed swiftly, the Kizil Tagh 'renegades' were rounded up by the CMA and the whole team installed in the New Kashgar Hotel, complete with most modern facilities, including a bar and excellent Chinese cuisine.

Sadly we were not able to see much of Kashgar for the police, having apparently 'lost face', seemed determined to harrass us over our transgression. Our LO had little influence with them and we spent many hours sitting in the station answering questions which revealed their ignorance of local geography and listening to passages from the Chinese constitution. Our impression of a colonial situation in this part of Xinjiang was reinforced. Finally we were given a relatively small fine and asked to write an apology.

For our journey back to the border we were given what must have been the XMA's oldest bus, all other transport being in use. It was noisy and slow, but heroically managed the job. A quick ride through Hunza in a jeep and we were back in Gilgit. We returned from there by public transport, finding Pakistan quiet despite the recent assassination of General Zia and the imminent Moharram celebrations.

2. History of exploration of Shiwakte

An excellent brief history of the exploration of the Mustagh Ata - Kongur massif is given by Michael Ward and Peter Boardman as an appendix to the account of the 1980-81 Kongur expeditions. They also give a select bibliography which will guide those interested to more detailed sources.

The first person to allude to The Shiwakte peaks seems to have been Sir Aurel Stein who managed, in 1913. to descend the gorge of the'Karatash river down to the plains. Stein was not able to explore the Chimghan valley, but- he named a peak Shiwakte In this area and produced a map showing two peaks of Kongur (Kongur and Kongur Tiube). Stein's original account Is not easily accessible but his work in the Shiwakte area is carefully descriped by Skrine, whose article The Alps of Qungur (The Geographic”! Journal, 1925. 365-409) formed the basis of our approach. Skrine was British Consul in Kashgar from 1922 to 1924 and took a particular interest in the Shiwakte peaks.

Most of Skrine's detailed work on Shiwakte was accomplished from the Kaying valley, reached from the north-east by a somewhat complicated route. He climbed a number of viewpoints of around 4200 - 4600 m and carefully photographed, mapped and named the Shiwakte peaks. On one occasion he crossed the Kepek Pass to the Ak Tash glacier but was unable to descend as far as Chimghan. His map of the Chemi glacier and the great bowl beneath the SE lace of Kongur was thus rather speculative He also found an interesting route from Kaying via At Bel to the Tigarmansu glacier, which is on the north side of the range.

The only other climbing approach to the Shiwaktes appears to have been Bonington and Ward's brief foray up the Kurghan glacier in 1980. They were looking for an approach to Kongur and so did not have time to explore the Shiwaktes themselves, though'they climbed a small peak on the west of the Kurghan glacier, north of Shiwakte IV.

The Karatash Pass is referred to by many of the early explorers but does not seem to have been a particularly popular or important route. It was crossed by Ney Elias in the 1880s. and again by Tilman in the the 1940s. Skrine refers to its use by Afghan drug smugglers but does not seem to have crossed it himself. From our observations it is still not heavily used, but we did meet one shepherd driving a flock over it in an easterly direction. Presumably, from pastures near the Pass on either side, this route, followed by the Ghijak Dawan, is an easier and cheaper way to get animals to the plains than via the road through the Gez gorge.


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