The Hidden Treasure: Kongur Tagh, 1981

Kongur Tagh (7,719m) lies in the Kashgar Mountains, near the eastern edge of the Pamirs. It is in one of the most remote areas of China, within the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

In 1981, a team of talented British climbers took it on alpine style. But Joe Tasker, Pete Boardman, Alan Rouse, and Chris Bonington weren’t the only group on the mountain.

Little-known giants

Although not far from the ancient Silk Road, the Kashgar mountains remained largely unknown to Westerners until the late 19th century. Some colossal peaks in the area include Kokodag (7,210m), Kongur Jiubie (7,530m), Jungmanjar (7,229m), Karayalak (7,245m), and the almost 8,000m Kongur Tagh.

The South Face of Kongur Tagh. Photo: A. Lebedev

Early explorers

At the end of the 19th century, some western explorers first probed the area. In 1868, Englishman George Jonas Whitaker Hayward sketched a big peak onto the map to the south of Kashgar. Then in 1895, English explorer, geographer, and diplomat Ney Elias crossed the Karatash Pass from the Taklamakan desert. He was the first European to reach Karakol Lake, very close to Kongur Tagh.

Some of the first European explorers in this part of Asia: clockwise from left, the magnificently accoutred Jonas Whitaker Hayward, plus Ney Elias and Aurel Stein.

 

Kongur Tagh was unknown in Europe until 1900 when Hungarian geographer Aurel Stein brought home the first good photographs of the range, taken from Karakol Lake.

New mountains opened for climbing

In the late 1970s, China opened eight mountains for climbing. Among them was Kongur Tagh, the highest peak in the Pamirs, and still unclimbed.

In 1980, Michael Ward, Chris Bonington, and Alan Rouse, along with some scientists, made a reconnaissance trip to Kongur Tagh. They did not have much information about it. The most recent information available was an article written by Sir Clarmont Skrine, Consul General in Kashgar between 1922 and 1924, almost 60 years earlier. The Chinese, who had climbed nearby Kongur Jiubie, could share very little about Kongur Tagh. It was always hidden behind the other peaks.

 

Kongur Tagh means Brown Mountain in Uighur. Some consider that it lies in the western Kunlun, others in the eastern Pamir. Photo: Adobe Stock

 

The Chinese explained that they had not climbed the mountain because it was too enigmatic, with ever-changing weather. On this first trip, Ward and his team explored the area and planned a route for the following year.

Friendly competition

While the British climbers began to organize their 1981 expedition, a Japanese group also wanted to climb Kongur Tagh, from the north side.

At the end of May 1981, the British climbers, some scientists, and a cameraman arrived. The four climbers were a magical quartet: Joe Tasker, Pete Boardman, Alan Rouse, and Chris Bonington. All remarkably talented mountaineers.

Two other peaks from the same region. Karayalak (7,245m) and Jungmanjar (7,229m). Photo: Mapio

 

The Brits put up Base Camp near one of the glaciers, then established an Advanced Base Camp near Koksel Pass, situated on the Kongur-Muztag ridge to the south from Karayalak Peak.

The first summit push

On June 23, they began their first summit attempt from the south side of Karayalak Peak. Bonington planned to climb the southe ridge of Junction Peak (7,350m), traverse it, and then climb the pyramid that led to the summit of Kongur Tagh via a plateau.

However, four days later, they faced a major dilemma. The team ran out of fuel and was low on food. They weren’t far from the summit, but Bonington felt they shouldn’t risk it. The distance was tricky to estimate, and the terrain was totally unfamiliar.

There was a discussion. Alan Rouse and Joe Tasker did not want to enter the debate, although they considered Bonington to be right.

Chris Bonington, Alan Rouse, Joe Tasker, and Pete Boardman. Photo: Chris Bonington and Peter Boardman Archives

 

Boardman took the opposite view. He wanted to continue. This was partly because Boardman had more fuel left, while Bonington had used more than he should have.

A heated discussion followed, but eventually, the group decided to withdraw to Base Camp, and tempers died down.

The final section of Kongur Tagh is complicated, and the weather can change at any moment. Photo: Adobe Stock

The second push

Time was against them. The British longed for the summit of this huge hidden mountain, but the Japanese team was already in the area. The Japanese only had permission to reach the Kongur Tagh Base Camp beginning July 14, but they had already climbed Muztagh Ata to acclimatize. Now, they were on their way to the north side of Kongur Tagh.

Nearby Muztagh Ata, the Ice Mountain Father, was first climbed in 1956. This peak sits near the Chinese-Pakistani border, very close to the Karakoram Highway. Photo: Diario de la Ribera

 

Bonington’s team knew that the weather was unpredictable and the final pyramid of the peak was very difficult. “The weather dominated everything we did,” Bonington later recalled. “Kongur seemed to produce its own brand [of weather], the clouds sitting on it like a cap and enveloping the whole massif.

Karakol Lake. Photo: Vladimir Trofimov

 

On July 4, the group left Base Camp again. They would try a new route via the southwest rib and Kongur Col. By July 7, they were at the foot of the western Kongur mountain range. Then bad weather swept in, and the four climbers had to hide in crevasses on the west ridge at 7,340m. In his book Kongur: China’s Elusive Summit, Bonington called these crevasses “snow coffins.”

The final pyramid was like the Eiger. They could barely advance because of fatigue, the terrain, and strong winds. Finally, on July 12, they reached the summit. After a difficult descent, they made it safely back to Base Camp.

The summit photo on Kongur Tagh, first ascent, 1981. Photo: Chris Bonington Picture Library

Bad luck on the north ridge

The Japanese expedition was not so lucky. They separated into two groups, to attempt the north side from different Base Camps. One of the groups, a three-man team, chose to climb the north ridge alpine style.

On July 16, Yoji Teranishi, Mitsunori Shigi, and Shine Matsumi left Base Camp with food for nine days. They were last seen on July 23, at 6,500m. The weather deteriorated until August 3. When it finally improved, there was no sign of the climbers. Bonington suggests that after reaching the summit, they were probably swept away by an avalanche during the descent.

Karakol Lake and its surrounding mountains. Photo: Tripadvisor

 

Kongur Tagh’s first ascent was a major achievement and brought together some of the greatest climbing talents of the time. Sadly, Boardman and Tasker died 10 months later on the northeast ridge of Everest, and Alan Rouse passed away on K2 in 1986.

@KrisAnnapurna reports about outdoor activities, current expeditions, and stories related to the history of mountaineering in the Karakoram, Himalaya, Tien Shan, and other ranges.


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Tony Hackett
Tony Hackett
3 months ago

Hey Kris Annapurna.
I like reading your mountaineering articles and I have a request. Could you do an article about the first ascent of Baintha Brakk in 1977? It’s a famous climbing/survival story and this is one of my favourite mountain peaks. Thank you.

Catherine Moorehead
Catherine Moorehead
3 months ago
Reply to  Tony Hackett

Why not buy Doug Scott’s The Ogre? Published by Vertebrate.

Armchair Fanatic
Armchair Fanatic
3 months ago

Kris,

Your historical articles are amazing, inspiring and motivating. A lot of people have forgotten the long by-gone glory days of mountaineering. Thank you for reminding us of the glory days!

Catherine Moorehead
Catherine Moorehead
3 months ago

Your photo is of the wrong Karakul Lake. We climbed there in 1989 – three first ascents of peaks between Kongur and Mustagh Ata. There are umpteen unclimbed 6000m peaks in this area.