"As I came to the end of the glacier, the searing lassitude enveloping me in sweat and reducing my pace to a drunken swagger, I hit the steep uphill section that followed a morainal ridge and stopped dead. Out of the heat haze I saw a lone figure walking down slowly. I was instantly relieved thinking it was the start of the four climbers returning to BC. I got very close to the man and suddenly he started shouting at me.
“Gus is gone. Gone!”. Dave kept repeating the same words over and over, lost in his own weary world of sadness and incomprehension. Sgt Dave Orange looked bad, stick thin, burnt face, and eyes already beginning to swell as a result of altitude-induced oedema. He collapsed as I got to him and cried.
I took his rucksack off him and he got out his water bottle. He was completely spent and had a chest injury; I learnt later he had 2 broken ribs as a result of a 30m. fall endured whilst prussicking up a jammed abseil rope which he had been trying to free in the middle of the storm.
The intense heat reflecting off the Tos Glacier was beginning to affect me as well and I realised I needed to get us both off this melting ice sheet, and fast. We stumbled down arm in arm as I tried to support Dave physically and emotionally.
“Exercise Kulu 84” was the main Army Mountaineering Association expedition for that year. But this 8 man Himalayan expedition was not solely comprised of Pongoes (military slang for Army soldiers). The Royal Marines were well represented by Al Hinkes OBE (then serving at RMR Tyne), Neil McMillan (a Royal Marine based up at Arbroath in Scotland), and myself a young RM officer just out of training.
The exped was centred around the East Kulu Himal of Northern India and our two main objectives were Papsura (6,451m.) and Dharmsura (6,445m.) 3rd and 4th highest peaks in the Kulu/Lahul/Spiti divide of the Punjab Himalaya – an area that has been the subject of continuous British exploration since Col J. Roberts made the first ascent of Dharmsura in 1940.
We were a team of averagely experienced British alpinists intent on some classic Himalayan mountaineering. Before you switch off, thinking this sort of climbing is beyond the scope of everyday Scottish Winter mountaineers, let me just say that the majority of us who took part in Exercise Kulu were not hardcore alpinists in any way. We simply had the motivation and interest to attempt minor Himalayan Mountains in pure alpine-style, without support camps, and to learn and develop our passion for the mountains. This is exactly what happened as from this humble beginning, one of our ranks went on to climb all 14 of the World’s highest mountains, and the other became one of the UK’s most successful expedition leaders. Climbing- as I have always said- is about having a go. But be safe, be organised, and always be prepared for the worst.
The expedition for me started with a hop across to Hong Kong courtesy of the RAF in early August 1984. I was part of an advanced party of two which included our exped leader Capt. Andy Edington, a supreme networker (not easy in those pre-internet days) and a frenzied collector of acquaintances in foreign parts.
Our carefully timetabled week of planned meetings and appointments rapidly dissolved into an endless round of epic Chinese Banquets, after dinner toasts and extremely heavy mornings, as Andy continually bumped into old friends, every one of whom demanded a horrendous reunion! I just smiled and kept on drinking! “Good high altitude training” as British legend Alex MacIntyre would have said.
Events drew to a sudden conclusion as the remainder of the team flew in. I was promptly informed that our proposed “Expedition scablifter” (military slang for Doctor) couldn’t make it and I had been instantaneously promoted to “Medical Officer” on the basis that I had recently completed a RM First Aid Course!
As a result, there followed a very frenzied yet successful assault on the drug store at Hong Kong’s Military Hospital, followed by an even more frenzied but sadly unsuccessful assault on the Nurses therein! I had my medical supplies and that was the important part- but equally as important was the fact that I came prepared, courtesy of my Royal Marines training, with a high degree of initiative. That proved essential in the weeks to come when I had to deal with everything literally from Death to third degree burns. As I alluded to earlier, prior preparation is essential but having the necessary experience and “can do” attitude are also super important. When accidents happen, nothing is normal and you have to be able to deal with whatever is thrown at you.
The first and one of the best examples of the above came on day 2 of our walk in to Base Camp. At early morning bed tea I was presented with one of our clearly distressed older (probably late thirties) porters. Our Sirdar explained to me that the man was complaining of a very painful back. Reluctantly I carefully peeled away the sacking cloth the man was clothed in to reveal his entire back which was covered in a mass of suppurating sores. Had the cloth inflamed his skin? Had it created an allergic reaction? Or was the actual weight of his load just too much for him. Looking at his stick thin, emaciated body I thought that might actually be the problem.
It turned out that he had been carrying jerry cans of fuel for our BC cookers and they had leaked during the day and created horrendous burns. What to do? It was a huge area of flesh and I had only a few medical resources that had to last another 5 weeks. I discussed it amongst our team and Dave Orange soon came up with the solution. “Treat it like a normal severe burn, disinfect the area as carefully as poss, and then apply clear plastic (our BC cook shelter bash) and seal the entire area”! Brilliant! Sadly our porter could no longer continue the trek with us so we paid him generously and sent him back to his village. But amazingly the “bandage” worked because I met the man again in Manali on our return, and he greeted me with outstretched hands of welcome!
As for the trip, I won’t dwell on it. It started well with a first ascent of a hitherto virgin 5,000’der. And then Mike Idridge and I climbed a lovely new route up the central gully of the SW Ridge of Dharmsura, whilst Al Hinkes and Tim Roberts climbed a variation of this by keeping to the western extremities of the Crete. But sadly it didn’t end well.
Andy, Neil, Dave, and Gus Goodburn (a sergeant in The Royal Engineers) had a very bad time on Papsura. The weather was awful, and the route was in a dangerous condition. The obvious decision to retreat ended in tragedy when Gus fell to his death unable to arrest on the very hard ice that covered the mountain’s southern ramparts.
A subsequent “Fatal Accident Inquiry” held in Hong Kong concluded that the effects of 2 bivouacs at altitude in excess of 6,000m had produced a fatigue level which was not apparent to the team members at the time. Al Hinkes and I searched for Gus’s body for 6 long days but in worsening snow conditions we felt it was the right time to say goodbye to Gus and beat a sad retreat.
Learn from experience for sure, and take every opportunity to gain it- but always be as prepared as you possibly can. Realise that good preparation is as much physical as it is mental, and the process starts months before you leave Heathrow. Good mountaineers are risk minimisers. We do everything we possibly can to reduce the danger and then once things happen we know we are as best prepared as we possibly can be. None of the team on Exercise Kulu had done any real physical training prior to this expedition with the possible exception of Al and Tim. Was that the reason for Gus’ death? We will never know but the mountains never take prisoners so you can’t afford to take the risk. Be prepared….always!"
Jerry Gore is a Lifesystems Athlete and internationally acclaimed climber, authoring a series of adventure blogs for Lifesystems.co.uk