ISTOR-O-NAL AND SOME CHITRALI SUPERSTITIONS
LIEUT. D. M. BURN.
IN the course of triangulation in 1928, I had occasion to visit the Atrek glacier which is fed from the northern slopes of Tirich Mir and from the southern slopes of the high peaks a few miles to the north. Second only to Tirich Mir, the biggest mountain mass in that neighbourhood consists of a horseshoe of peaks of over 24,000 feet, three of which were fixed by triangulation, and the highest of which is 24,271 feet. It has no local name, and we have therefore named it in the local dialect, Istor-o-nal, ” The Horse’s Shoe.”
While climbing from the glacier up the lower shale slopes of this massif, it appeared from a casual inspection that these peaks might be accessible to a properly equipped party. There was no time then for a full reconnaissance, but I was determined that, if I should be sent to Chitral the following year, I would explore the possibilities of an attempt on one of them.
I was again sent to Chitral to finish the survey in 1929, and was fortunate in having enlisted the aid of Captain Culver well, r.a., a member of the Himalayan Club, who had had much experience of Alpine climbing. He arrived in Sanoghar, my camp headquarters, on the 1st July, bringing with him Major Dutton, r.a. The latter, although not an experienced climber, had spent many months at high altitudes and had marched at altitudes of 20,000 feet without discomfort. The fourth member of our party was Captain Coldstream, i.m.s., who was attached, as doctor, to the Chitral Survey both in 1928 and 1929.
The whole party left Sanoghar on 4th July, all arrangements having been made and stores and equipment for the high camps sorted and packed. On reaching Ataq village at the foot* of the Atrek glacier, the first set-back occurred. The coolies who the previous year had willingly taken my equipment on to the glacier and who came from the village of Kosht, flatly refused to move a step in the direction of the glacier. It was impossible to compel them, and moreover with unwilling labour we would have had little chance of success. There was nothing for it but to send to the nearest villages in the sparsely populated Tirich nala. By the time that the Tirich coolies had collected rations and reached Ataq much time had elapsed; it was the 9th before Culverwell could proceed on to the glacier for his reconnaissance. As more coolies arrived the rest of the party were able to proceed in driblets. We had with us a trace of the season’s survey, on the scale of three inches to four miles, but the first route selected from this was reconnoitred by Culverwell and found to be impracticable. The head of the glacier by which we had hoped to reach the main ridge was hemmed in by a steep rocky wall. There was no time to waste on seeing whether this wall was climbable or not.
sketch map of Tirich Mir and Istror-o-nal
On the 17th July surveyor Sher Gul arrived on the glacier to have his work inspected and he was able to suggest another route from his previous knowledge of the area. Accordingly the Base Camp was moved up a third stage from Ataq and on the 18th Culverwell and I reached Camp 1 at 17,900 feet. On the 19th Culverwell with three Chitralis reconnoitred the route for Camp 2. This route lay up a snow gully and struck the main ridge leading to Istor-o-nal (24,271 feet) at an altitude of about 20,200 feet. Above this was some difficult rock-climbing before the snow ridge could be reached. At least, one can consider this rock as difficult at that altitude, though Culverwell has since told me that it would be classed as ” easy ” in Switzerland. Owing to mist hanging over the ridge, Culverwell was unable to reach the top of the gully, but he had seen enough to convince him that it was practicable. Alternative routes on to the main ridge were examined through field glasses but they seemed to offer no easier approach.
Accordingly on the 21st we set out for Camp 2 with fourteen loads of from 15 to 20 lbs. each, which made up the total for Camps 2 and 3; these loads included a Wild theodolite and stand. The coolies started in fine style and we ourselves reached the summit of the gully confident that the first step had been successful. Unfortunately, the coolies, although reasonably fit, had subsided in the snow about half-way up the gully and nothing would persuade them to make a further effort. At the summit of the gully a wonderful view was obtained; the north side of the ridge was found to be precipitous, with a slope of not less than seventy degrees in many places. Below lay a scarred and twisted glacier whose presence the surveyor had sadly overlooked.
Culverwell spent some two hours on the rocks above with one Chitrali and had passed the most difficult pitches by the time it was necessary to return. We spent the next few days in reorganizing the coolies and succeeded in getting ten loads up to Camp 2, as well as four loads of wood. Beyond there we would, of course, depend entirely on spirit. The weather had however broken and, owing to the conditions at Camp 1, we had perforce to descend to the Base Camp after nine nights spent at nearly 18,000 feet. We hoped against hope that the weather would clear in time to allow us to make a second attempt, but after several days’ continuous rain and snow, Culverwell and Dutton were unable to stay longer and the project had to be abandoned. The coolies, too, refused to stay on the glacier any longer.
The spirit of the Chitraiis, which had without exception been at its lowest ebb, at once soared up on the order for returning being given. The party reached Sanoghar on the 31st July after an extremely interesting if unsuccessful effort.
We were undoubtedly defeated first by the quiet non-co-operation of the Chitraiis and finally by the time factor aided by a bad break in the weather. This is not to say that we could have climbed the peak under better conditions. But at least on our first reaching Camp 2, the outlook was rosy and we considered the chances were good. The last two thousand feet of the climb may present insuperable obstacles, or may be only honest plodding, but in my opinion, no one will climb the peak in the near future if he relies solely on Chitrali help.
Like all hill people who only touch the fringe of civilization the Chitrali is steeped in superstition. He peoples the mountains with malevolent fairies and the glaciers with strange monsters. Ruined houses and graveyards are the abode of jins and spirits.
The home of the fairies is Tirich Mir and on first seeing this great mountain it is easy to understand the strange fears and imaginings of this child-like people. High up on the slopes of Tirich Mir exists a marble-lined tank in which the fairies bathe, and it would be certain death for anyone foolhardy enough to approach it. Strangely enough one may visit with impunity a pool quite low on the approaches of Tirich Mir above Ojor, where the fairies come to wash their clothes for the one attribute of the fairies, on which all are agreed, is their scrupulous insistence on cleanliness. After some months in the country, we were approached by the escort jemadar, who said that while he had not liked to say so before, we were extremely foolish to keep so many dirty coolies at high camps if we wanted fine weather for our observations. The filthy clothes of those coolies apparently incensed the fairies and we were very lucky that they did not show their resentment in any more marked way than by sending clouds and snow to induce us to descend. Doubtless their clemency was due to the presence of a white man, for being white-skinned themselves, they were known to have a preference for sahibs. He himself was always careful to wear clean clothes before a high climb.
Tirich Mir, 25,237 feet, from the North. (Photo. E.R. Culverwell.)
I personally took the jemadar’s advice and after four days of snow the weather changed to bright sunshine the day after the coolies were sent down, and the work was soon completed. I was pleased; the jemadar was pleased; and the coolies no doubt were the moat pleased of all.
There is a quaint superstition about the Thui pass which is a fairly difficult route from Yarkhun to the Yasin valley in Gilgit. If anyone is killed while attempting to cross this pass, there will be clouds on the pass for three days, which is the time taken for his spirit to reach heaven. This was well borne out last year when a member of our party was camped in the neighbourhood. A Gilgiti lost his life on the pass ; he fell into a crevasse and was killed instantly. Sure enough on the fourth day the clouds lifted and perfect weather ensued.
The fairies are popularly credited with rolling rocks on to anyone who approaches their fastnesses and they have even gone so far as deliberately to dislodge a man’s hands from a rock and thus precipitate him to a fearful death below. This can only have been the fate of the one or two hardier Chitralis who have been lost to the ken of man since venturing on the peaks surrounding Tirich Mir.
Small wonder is it that our Chitralis gave us less than half-hearted support in our attempt on a peak in the heart of the fairy kingdom. Even the jemadar, who had proved himself a tower of strength on lesser peaks and who was a born climber, himself discouraged the coolies from helping the sahibs in their mad attempt. One cannot blame him. In his implicit belief that we would all go to our deaths through a supernatural agency, he was merely doing his duty in thwarting our efforts by fair means or foul.
On a previous occasion a coolie was lost in the jumble of moraine on a big glacier. When I ordered a search party to be formed, the jemadar pointed out that a search would in all probability be useless, as the man had almost certainly been devoured by a glacier dragon. While no word exists in Chitrali for dragon, his description was quite clear. He himself with some twenty coolies had seen one a day or two previously. It had reared its head and neck from a crevasse and given them a nasty look. Whereupon they had incontinently fled. It was useless to use his rifle, for the brute was encased in hard scales which as every one knew no bullet could pierce. Its head was something like that of a horse and he estimated the length of the whole monster to be about twenty feet. He did not notice whether it had wings, nor apparently did it breathe fire. Doubtless this breed is peculiar to Chitral. Failing the odd coolies it is difficult to imagine what these brutes exist on, but perhaps, as the jemadar suggested, they eat stones. As a matter of fact, the coolie eventually turned up with his load, which fortunately for him consisted of blankets and a 20-flb. tent.
The glacier frog, which I believe exists, is reported to have been seen by many shikaris and others who have had occasion to visit the higher moraines. A modest estimate of its size from the evidence of these witnesses is about twelve inches long.
Finally there are the jins, who though much more in evidence in the olden days before the British Eaj, may be said to die a hard death. They choose old deserted dwellings to live in, the larger the dwelling, the larger the jin that may be expected to emerge. They have a disconcerting habit of assuming the guise of a dog or a cow until they are within a few feet of the unsuspecting traveller. They then disclose their frightful reality and the unfortunate who gets away with a withered arm or a mouth twisted almost to the back of his head is indeed lucky. Many become hopeless idiots for the rest of their lives.
In the course of two years’ work in Chitral the above are the only authentic superstitions with which I have come in contact. Doubtless there are many more and the whole subject would well repay a detailed study.