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By Richard Cowper

MOUNTAINEERS are said to be a stoical breed, a virtue Doug Scott, the well-known British climber, and his companions needed in plenty on their two-month-long expedition to climb the spectacular north ridge of Latok I in the Pakistani Karakoram. 

I could delay describing the painful facts by explaining how the expedition got off to a fine start reaching a base camp at 15,000ft on the desolate Choktoi glacier in just 10 days. Much might also be made of the success of early training climbs and adventures: an ascent in harsh conditions of the Biacherahi snow dome at the head of the glacier; a three-day 2,500ft rock climb (by Scott and Sandy Allan) with two unexpected bivouacs without food or tents up a snowless knife-like north ridge on Latok III; and an exploration (by Rick Allen and Simon Yates) of the Nobande Sobande glacier - perhaps only the second since the famous Everest mountaineer Eric Shipton passed that way with H W Tilman before the war. 

But as for the very raison d'etre of the expedition, the sad truth is one has to record a singular failure . . . for not a foot was placed on the mountain in question. Day after day of snowfall made the 8,000ft route up the northern skyline pillar of Latok I retain its winter cloak and remained unclimbable. At first, this was accepted with equanimity as everyone set off on forays to get fit and acclimatised. But after almost a fortnight at base camp, the small alpine-style climbing group started to run into problems that had little to do with the weather. 

As the arrival of the memsahib is said to have helped undermine relations between British colonials and locals in 19th century India, so the presence of three non-climbing women (a wife, a sister and a missionary friend) caused a ripple of division and discontent at base camp. 

'Ideally expeditions are better without wives and girlfriends. Then everyone has the same objective, there are no distractions and no-one finds themselves with divided loyalties. I am sure the reverse would be true of an all-women expedition,' says one member of the group. 

Living together week after week in cramped conditions in tents on ice and rock in the middle of a glacier and six days from human habitation imposes considerable strains on relationships. 

Throw in the mind-numbing exhaustion of climbing at high altitudes, and the frequent risk of avalanche or crevasse, and it is not hard to see how easily broken is that fragile unity of purpose so essential for the successful scaling of big peaks. 

The problem was 'removed' when the women departed on a 16-day trek to K2, the world's second highest mountain. But the circumstances of their exit created irritation and guilt that at the end of the trip was to erupt into unseemly recrimination over precisely how much more the so-called trekkers should pay towards expedition costs. 

While they were away trekking the weather improved somewhat, but never enough to make Latok I feasible. There was too much unconsolidated snow. An attempt to climb the dramatic 19,955ft peak of Hanipispur south had ended in failure for this reason less than 1,000ft below the summit, and now a drive by Allen and Yates to scale the 21,170ft Bobisghir which rises out of the Nobande Sobande glacier was also repulsed by dangerous snow conditions. 

At this point enter, almost a month after the start of the expedition, the remaining member of the team: the remarkable Robert Schauer, the Austrian climber and film-maker. Schauer, who has five 8,000m peaks to his name, had travelled overland by army vehicle through Iran. Movie camera under one arm, sound recordist on the other, he and the rest of the group made the three-hour trek to the foot of Latok I, where almost everyone pronounced the near-vertical north ridge too dangerous to climb for at least several weeks. 

'There was avalanche debris littered everywhere. Through the binoculars we saw a series of overhanging cornices and snow mushrooms dotted along the ridge. It would have been suicidal to climb it in those conditions. Better disappointed than dead,' says the normally-impulsive Sandy Allan, who saw a climbing companion fall to his death just two pitches short of the top while climbing the north face of the Matterhorn in 1984. Rick Allen, the wiry climber from Aberdeen who survived a spectacular 1,500ft fall in an avalanche on Makalu in 1988, was 'entranced' by the possibility of doing an ice climb along a couloir going straight up the centre of the mountain - until a huge cornice fell off the middle of his line. 

Scott then proposed everyone shift allegiance to nearby Latok IV, itself a considerable challenge; Schauer wanted to continue filming near the head of the glacier; Allan preferred having another go at Bobisghir; while Allen secretly thought an attempt should have been made to get on to the first part of the Latok I north ridge. An idea to climb the nearby Ogre was swiftly scotched by Scott, who broke both legs climbing it in 1977. Nobody could agree on a common goal. 

At this point, more than three weeks before most of the team was due to fly back, the British Latok expedition 1990 voluntarily disbanded, never to spend another day together. Three returned home early, three went on to Hushe on a reconnoitring trip and three decided to stay. The latest news by runner from the Choktoi is that Yates and Schauer are planning to come out soon. 

The author was a member of the British Latok expedition, which was sponsored by Inspectorate-OIS, part of the Brompton group of companies. 

July 28 1990