Cowper logo


By Richard Cowper

THE LAST time Doug Scott saw the spectacular North Ridge of Latok 1 in the Pakistani Himalayas was 13 years ago - just after he had spent a week in a storm crawling off a nearby mountain with two broken legs. 

The incident has gone down as one of the epic descents of Himalayan mountaineering and few doubt that a less tenacious and physically strong man would have perished in the attempt. 

But why is Scott going back after all this time to a place that holds such painful memories? 

'I first saw it (the North Ridge of Latok) in 1977, this amazing skyline pillar which soars into the sky. It just pulled your eye,' says the long-haired, bearded - almost 'hippyesque' - doyen of British mountaineering with a twinkle in his eye behind the John Lennon glasses. 

It is not simply the ridge's stark beauty that has drawn the Nottingham climber back to Latok in the Karakoram range. In the last decade and a half, a host of the world's top climbers from America, Norway, Britain, Italy and France had tried to make it to the top. All have failed, and not a few of them miserably. 

Latok is not well known to the general public, but along with the North East ridge of Everest, the West face of K2 and the West face of Makalu, it is the new route elite mountaineers covet the most. 'If we do it, Latok will be one of the hardest things ever done in the Himalayas,' Scott says bluntly. 

At 23,440ft, it is not particularly high, but the climbing is technically harder for longer than on any of these routes. A near-vertical 8,000ft ridge of rock and ice, there is nowhere to put up a proper tent and the climbers will have to spend at least two weeks hanging from the face at night or in tiny wedge tents tied precariously on to the rock. 

'The calibre of people who have gone at it and never managed it has led to the ridge acquiring an extraordinary mystique. It looks so hard, it's almost ludicrous to think of climbing it,' says Rick Allen, the wiry pale-faced climber from Aberdeen who makes up one of the five-man alpine style group led by Scott which hopes to climb the peak some time this month. 

Perhaps the most famous climbers to attempt the route were Michael Kennedy and Jeff Lowe, two of America's top mountaineers. In 1977 they reached about 23,000ft after 20 days on the mountain, but were forced to abandon the attempt when a six-day storm trapped them in a snow cave and Lowe became very ill. 

Says Kennedy: 'If Jeff had not got sick, so that we feared for his life, we might have made it. We were just a couple of hundred feet from the summit ridge. But we were carrying too much gear. We were trapped in the no man's land between the truly quick alpine quick ascent and the siege methods of the old style assaults on big mountains. We ended up with the worst of both worlds. 

'It was such an exciting climb. It's hard to believe that no-one had done it after all these years. It remains one of the world's great unsolved mountaineering routes,' he says. 

Whether the 49-year-old Scott and his team will succeed where others have failed is far from certain. Doug Scott is Britain's most accomplished mountaineer with four 8,000m peaks under his belt. Also in the team is Robert Schauer, a film-maker and mountaineer from Austria with five 8,000m peaks to his credit. But it is not necessarily experience on these big mountains that is going to count on this relentless highly technical route. 

But Scott is a wise old fox. His team may not have the outward show and razzmatazz of the youthful wall-climbing competition brigade, but it packs a depth of commitment to climbing long difficult routes that is not easy to beat. 

In addition, the 27 year old Simon Yates, already a legend in mountaineering circles for having been forced to send his friend to almost certain death after a superhuman effort to save him, was invited to join the team at the last minute. He brings a youth and verve to the team that may just prove inspirational. 

And if Rick Allen and Sandy Allan get the bit between their teeth, as they recently did on Pumori in Nepal, they are a partnership hard to better. They climbed a new route on the steep ice South Face in six days with five continuous bivouacs and almost no food. 

Lastly, friends say Scott's appetite for a big challenge remains undiminished, that he is climbing as well as he ever did, as his fourth attempt to climb Makalu last year shows. 

The British Latok expedition is sponsored by Inspectorate - OIS, a member of the Brompton Group of Companies. 

July 7 1990