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Beckoning Darkness

Beckoning Darkness

Alex Jeffers
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Rising to 7,285 metres in the Pakistan Karakoram, the Ogre – or Baintha Brakk – is notorious in mountaineering circles as one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb. On the afternoon of 13th July 1977, having become the first climbers to reach the summit, British mountaineers Doug Scott and Chris Bonington began their long descent. In the hours and days that followed, any feeling of success would be overwhelmed by a desperate fight for survival.



That evening Mo and Clive occupied the back of the cave while Chris melted snow and I rehydrated four freeze­dried meals of beef stroganoff followed by rehydrated apple flakes and numerous cups of tea. I snuggled into the down of my sleeping bag, well fed and content with the day’s climbing. There was time to register, in those moments of calm, after so much effort and frustration, excitement at being in this position, so well placed to be setting off up that final tower for the summit of the Ogre. I felt no anxiety, as I often did while packing my sack the night before a serious climb in the Alps; now there was only curiosity to see how it was up there and how I would manage.

Despite being up at 23,000 feet we all seemed to sleep well. In fact, I hadn’t even heard Chris’s notorious snoring or him pottering about preparing the porridge until he woke me. Mo and Clive lay in their sleeping bags intending to film from the cave and then catch us up later. Chris set off and I followed in his steps across deep, soft snow. He asked me to lead the steep, mixed ground to the left of the tower. For two rope lengths I found the climbing quite difficult (Scottish IV/V) and it only eased off as I approached the top of a minor pinnacle. We then roped down and across to the main rock tower now only 400 feet below the summit.

To me it was obvious that Chris had not fully recovered his strength from his previous attempt on the Ogre and this was completely understandable – in fact it was remarkable he was up there at all. I could not bring myself to tell Chris that if he did not hurry up we would never make it. I simply said I ought to lead the next pitch. There was only one day’s food left in the cave to see us all the way down to Advanced Base Camp. I knew we could survive several days without food on the descent but we were unlikely to have the willpower, or energy, to have another go at climbing up without food. Chris did not object. Later, I was surprised to read of his resentment of my ‘grabbing the lead’, although, at the time, there was no argument and he seemed to reluctantly accept it was for the best. As it was, the ropes got into a tangle and became jammed in a crack which took up another hour of our day.

We climbed a corner of wonderful rough, warm granite for 150 feet, protected from the wind, with a midday sun beaming down – it was a very enjoyable pitch at about VS/5.7 which normally Chris would have romped up in the lead. I traversed across to belay beneath the final blank wall. Chris proffered me the lead with no objection at all. I was now festooned with a whole rack of big wall climbing gear, a range of pegs, wires, hexes and a couple of tube chocks. I followed a crack climbing both free and on aid, mainly from wire chocks. Eventually the crack I was following petered out into a blank wall. I put in a wire as high as possible and asked Chris to lower me down so that I could start a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, in the hope of reaching another crack system over on the right.



"As Chris was coming up to join me on the summit, I had time to enjoy being up there in the middle of the Karakoram. In those precious moments alone, there was nothing but mountains and glaciers in every direction"



With all the rope out he managed to give me fifty feet, enough to enable me to gallop backwards and forwards until the arc of my swing was sufficient to gain access to the crack. As I was trying to arrange protection I slipped out and went clattering back across the granite. I pulled myself together and, after a rest, repeated the process several times without success. I put in one last determined effort, knowing my strength was fading fast and managed to get my hands well jammed in and climb up the crack to where I could place a peg. This crack I got into was less steep but now flared rather like those on the headwall on the Salathé on El Capitan. It would still take wire chocks and finger jams and the toes of my Makalu double boots.

I climbed it at grade VI, mainly free with some direct aid that eventually enabled me to reach the top of the wall and a belay on a snow ledge. Chris came up raving about the quality of the climb and the exposure.

It was certainly the hardest climbing I had ever done at that altitude. It had taken place on superb, brown, weathered granite without a breath of wind and with the sun beating down. I found it possible to climb the whole pitch without the encumbrance of gloves. I am sure, had it been otherwise, I would never have made it, not up there at nearly 24,000 feet. There was a final snow gully leading to the summit but to get to it meant negotiating an overhang. Chris made an attempt but couldn’t make it.

I had a go, stepping on his back since I was still without crampons. I managed with an almighty effort to reach over the little roof and wedge my shoulder into a recess, and find a finger crack to enable me to enter fully into the gully to kick steps in the snow to the summit. Just as I arrived on the summit, the sun disappeared below the horizon.

During the time Chris was coming up to join me, I could enjoy being up there in the middle of the Karakoram. In those precious moments alone I had never felt more ‘in the mountains’. There was nothing but mountains and glaciers in every direction.

Now, for the first time, the land to the north revealed its secrets – that is, to me, for it was down below that Eric Shipton, Eadric Fountaine and Sherpas from Nepal had spent three weeks during 1939 mapping the glaciers I was now looking down upon – the Sim Gang, Nobande Sobande and the Choktoi. Between the glaciers were shapely spires, some of them quite sharp, and in the distance fewer than fifty miles away was the magnificent pyramid of K2. A bit closer and just to the right of it, seemingly just as big and impressive, was Mustagh Tower.



"On the summit, it was now seven o’clock on 13 July. We were both conscious of the beckoning darkness..."



Clive and Mo, who had been filming us from a snow pinnacle, had given up on climbing the Ogre for the day having realised how technical it was and that they were now too late to avoid being benighted if they continued. They returned to the cave to try for the summit on the morrow. In two abseils they made it down from the pinnacle back on to the track across the snow.

They left their two climbing ropes fixed to the slope to help me and Chris back to the cave in the dark. Chris was soon up to join me on the summit to enjoy the same panorama of peaks now fading into the evening gloom. It was now seven o’clock on 13 July and we were both conscious of the beckoning darkness and that our sleeping bags and head torches were in the cave.





 The Ogre, by legendary mountaineer Doug Scott, is a two-part biography of this enigmatic peak: in the first part, Scott has painstakingly researched the geography and history of the mountain; part two is the long overdue and very personal account of his and Bonington’s first ascent and their dramatic week-long descent on which Scott suffered two broken legs and Bonington smashed ribs. Using newly discovered diaries, letters and audio tapes, it tells of the heroic and selfless roles played by Clive Rowland and Mo Anthoine. When the desperate climbers finally made it back to base camp, they were to find it abandoned – and themselves still a long way from safety.


The Ogre by Doug Scott will be published on November 23rd





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