The Oxford Chitral Expedition 1958 - by Ted Norrish

Ted Norrish is a remarkable 80-year old. Brought up near Stoke-on-Trent, where his father was a surgeon at the (then) Royal Infirmary, he has been a life-long Potters fan and although he now lives in Coventry he still follows them with keen interest. He remains an enthusiast and admirer of Stoke-on-Trent.

Ted has led a very full life: as a talented runner he competed against Don Shelley in local cross-country races; he took up mountaineering at Oxford; founded an orienteering club; coached athletics and taught classics at a leading school; and even in retirement still takes an active interest in the nationally-renowned cross-country relay races at King Henry VIII School in Coventry - a race he founded 45 years ago and which is still going strong, with 80 teams competing this year.

This expedition from 1958 is part of a forthcoming book, and one of 25 expeditions abroad he did. The story we've used here was first published in the Alpine Journal (2016) and covers his first big mountaineering expedition, back in 1958: a celebration of brave and adventurous climbing in the  amazing Hindu Kush Range, with thrilling memories from the past of the country and its people.

Oxford Chitral Expedition 1958

When I was aged 10 my grandfather gave me as a Christmas present the Times Atlas of the world. I spent many hours studying every map on every page, especially the maps of the main mountain ranges. From as early as the age of five, I remember that I loved beautiful country and hills, and I decided that one day I would be a mountaineer.

In my atlas I noticed the small independent states of Chitral and Swat (now part of Pakistan), and in Chitral I counted the Hindu Kush peaks of Tirich Mir, Noshaq, Istoro Nal and Sad Istragh. For some reason I decided that, if it was still unclimbed, I would one day organise an expedition to Sad Istragh.

Saraghrar ( 24,110ft ) from base Camp (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

Saraghrar ( 24,110ft ) from base Camp (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

It was, in fact, my first ambition to climb Mt Everest. However, on June the second, 1953, I was standing in the Mall with my father watching the Coronation, and on a newspaper hoarding I saw the news that the mountain had been climbed. I was delighted that after all those years it was a British success, but secretly disappointed for myself – foolish, because I was not a good enough mountaineer to have had a chance (even  when older) of selection for an Everest team, and I comforted myself that one day I would organise, and part-lead, my own expedition to a major peak. I was delighted also that two members of the successful team, Tom Bordillon and Mike Westmacott, were OUMC climbers who had graduated a few years previously, and I had met them both at lectures and dinners. Bordillon, who reached the south summit, was in fact, a member of the first pair before Hilary and Tensing, and almost made it before them.

At Oxford I began to plan my expedition from 1956. I became a member of the Royal Geographical Society, and I enjoyed visiting their map room and library. I discovered that the correct name of our mountain was, in fact, Saraghrar, not Sad Istragh, that the height was 24,110ft, and, most important, that no attempt had yet been made on the mountain, although Tirich Mir, Noshaq and Istoro Nal had all been climbed. I read all I could find about Chitral, its history, local conditions and mountaineering there up to that time. I intended from the start that our expedition should be small-scale, following the sound advice of Eric Shipton – but have the experience, the equipment and supplies to be able to make a serious attempt. We did not have the experience to climb “alpine style”.

My first requirement was to form a team. I invited Peter Nelson, a graduate of Saint John’s College and a fine climber with much good alpine and other experience, to be our climbing leader. He readily agreed – a great compliment, because he had been invited to join an expedition in Nepal to a higher and better known peak, Ama Dablam, but he preferred to come with us. I asked three other Oxford friends and good climbers – Eric Plumpton, studying medicine at Christ Church College and college goal keeper, Bill Roberts, of Exeter College,  studying English and a college rugby player, and Nigel Rogers, achieving a first class degree in Chemistry at my own college BNC. Eric agreed to be our doctor, and Bill took charge of equipment and food supplies.

I asked David Cox, a Don and a fine mountaineer, and senior member of our university mountaineering club, for advice on funding; with his help I applied to the Mount Everest Foundation and the Royal Geographical Society. After the Everest success of 1953 and the income from books, newspapers, and films, funds were available for approved expeditions. At interviews I outlined our plans and won their approval. It is good that they trusted us, although, with the exception of Peter, we were young and inexperienced. This was the Oxford tradition, and long may it continue! We were awarded a grant of a thousand pounds from the Mount Everest Foundation, and a good grant from the RGS; we each paid just £100, which proved to be enough.

Bill saved us hundreds of pounds by writing to numerous companies and firms for equipment and food supplies at reduced or even no cost, and I helped him. For our packing we obtained huge brown fibre boxes, which had won the approval of other expeditions, strong enough to survive the probability of been dropped into the raging rivers we knew we would have to cross.
Despite studying for my Diploma in Education, I spent much of my time in expedition organisation, visiting the Foreign Office and the Pakistani Embassy. In 1865, in the Afghani wars, the British fort in Chitral was besieged by wild Afghanis and relieved finally after three months of great hunger, thirst and deprivation for the British and loyal Chitralis. Since those times the area has been dangerous for the British, and permission for us to enter was only granted after much correspondence and many interviews. I was informed, as expected, that we would be provided for our safety with a Pakistani liaison officer, and I had to give assurance that we would not cross the mountain border into Afghanistan.

As the time for our expedition baggage packing at Tilbury Docks, and also my Dip. Ed. Exam, approached (alarmingly, at the same time!) I received a phone call from the shipping company that our packing had to be brought forward by one week, and I had to be at Tilbury on the very day of my exam. I went in the morning to the Exam Hall, and put my details and signed my name on the first sheet; after five minutes I gave it in to the chief invigilator, and left to everyone’s surprise. I became a qualified teacher because of the excellent reports I received from my teaching practice and from my BNC tutors. I went directly to Paddington and then Tilbury, and ensured that all our boxes were duly checked and put on board. We were as we planned a light-weight expedition, but I was a little alarmed at the weight and number of our heavy boxes.  I saw them loaded on board with a feeling of confidence and hope, and the first part of our plan completed – but sadly no Diploma in Education! However, I have always thought that teaching is a matter of good common sense, and that little of it can be taught.

Nigel packing polo balls for the young Mehtar's present (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

Nigel packing polo balls for the young Mehtar's present (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

Our plan was that I should travel by ship from Liverpool to Karachi and by air with our baggage to Peshawar. At Karachi I would find our baggage, and check it from the docks to the plane. My four friends would have an unusual journey – by the ship  ”Baltica”, from Harwich through the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, and then by rail to Moscow. There I arranged for them to stay with academic friends of my Uncle Ronald, entertained most generously. The next day they travelled by air to Kabul and spent one night at the British Embassy. We met appropriately on the summit of the Khyber Pass in true Colonial style.

My father drove me to Liverpool, and I boarded the magnificent Anchor Line ship, RMS ‘Cilicia’. I enjoyed the journey to Karachi immensely, through conditions both calm and rough, and it became wonderfully hot towards the end. Every day I ran about ten miles in a circuit of the top deck – it was a little tedious, but very necessary, and I was able to work up a good thirst and appetite. The dinners were memorable – and on the final night I was privileged to be at the Captain’s table.

After a week of luxury we reached Karachi, and there I found all our baggage safely at the dock. It was quite a difficult task to arrange for the necessary porters to carry the baggage to the airport, but it was completed in good time. I enjoyed the flight to Peshawar – below us the ground was mostly quite flat; but after Islamabad and nearing Peshawar I caught my first sight of the Hindu Kush – this really stirred my blood!

In Peshawar I went to St. Edwarde’s Catholic College. I had written in advance to the Principal, and he had most kindly agreed to take us. The College is situated in the green and pleasant military ‘cantonment area’. The streets were crowded and packed with rickshaws and small bicycle-carts. Our baggage was safely unloaded, and I was able to see some of the fine city that has become so infamous in today’s troubled times.  After two days I travelled to the Khyber Pass, celebrated in history, and right on time I met my friends beside the old fort.  Back at the College we spent four days checking all our equipment, and repacking everything into loads suitable for porters, mules and donkeys. We enjoyed the friendship of the Principal, meeting most interesting students, and a little sight-seeing, especially the fine Cathedral and a huge fascinating bazaar.

With the help and advice of the Principal we arranged for ourselves and all our baggage to be carried on a huge wooden painted lorry, which started from the Peshawar caravansarai. Our route lay first over the Malakand Pass, where Winston Churchill had served as young officer. Then, passing the ordinary villages of Dir and Drosh, we reached the summit of the Lowari Pass (10,500ft), the gateway to the State of Chitral. We sat on top of the lorry with at least 20 other passengers, and two guards with rifles to protect us from bandits. The view of the North-west Frontier Mountains from our lorry top was superb.

The lorry finished its journey at the summit of the pass, because the descent to Chitral and the valley of the river Mastuj was too steep and rough, and only possible at that time for jeeps. At the pass we were met by a detachment of the Chitrali Scouts, and their captain presented me with a ceremonial dagger, and in Chitrali tradition they all fired their rifles in the air to greet us. It was clear now how pleased they felt to greet and welcome us, and a few who spoke English told us how much they respected all the old British traditions and remembered them with pleasure. After a welcoming meal of delicious lamb we all transferred to jeeps, and descended by endless zig-zags the rough road down to the Mastuj valley. On the way down we passed camels, mules and porters hauling huge baulks of timber. This area was well forested, but further into Chitral there were few trees.

We arrived at length at the head-quarters of the Chitrali Scouts, about twelve miles short of the small town of Chitral. Here our Colonel Ibrahim Khan from Peshawar welcomed us warmly. In the evening we enjoyed a fine dinner served in regimental style by Chitrali Scouts in uniforms. In the head-quarters there were many photos and mementos of the past, and books and maps in a special room. We found a map, drawn by the British, which showed the way almost to our intended base camp in the Rosh Gol; but no maps could give us any help on our un-surveyed mountain. In the morning we enjoyed breakfast on their beautiful terrace 200ft above the Mastuj river, and then we chose to walk (although offered jeeps) to Chitral, a small town distinguished by its situation, and the astounding palace. Chitral, at the time of our visit, was ruled by hereditary princes known as ‘Mehtars’.  

We went directly to the fairy-tale palace, where the Mehtar, a self-reliant 14 year-old boy, who had inherited his title aged four in 1954, and his uncle welcomed us, with two well-armed bodyguards in attendance. They invited us to a specially arranged polo match the next afternoon, and we discussed our plans. The game, in fact, originates from Persia, but was played as true Chitrali sport from early time, perfect for their tough little horses. As a gift for the young Mehtar we brought with us a box of eight polo balls, which we had purchased from a shop in Bond Street. The Mehtar was genuinely delighted.

We sat for the match, as guests of honour, in the front of a small wooden pavilion beside the Mehtar, with his two bodyguards behind. He wore a smart cowboy-suit presented to him recently by the visiting American ambassador to Pakistan! The match was furious and certainly looked dangerous, with riders falling from their horses at speed, and thick clouds of dust kicked up by the horses’ hooves; the playing area did not seem to have any bounds. Riders came to compete from villages as far as a hundred miles from Chitral – a journey on their horses of several days. After the polo match we were served with tea, cake and fruit, there was a wind band with dancing and singing, and an atmosphere of great celebration.

The 150 years history of the Chitrali Mehtars was a blood-thirsty period, and no single Mehtar except for the one we came to know died peacefully of old age in his bed! It is a long story of treachery and torture. The young Mehtar (his father died in an accidental air crash on the Lowari Pass), who entertained us, lost his kingdom when Chitral was formally incorporated into Pakistan in 1976. He went to Islamabad, and achieved a first class degree in Psychology, and became a diplomat.

The next day we met Mulai Jan, highly regarded by his clan and their religious leader; he was indispensible for many of our needs, and had influence in Chitral. However, he was the only Chitrali we met through the length of our expedition who was not by nature kind – he was arrogant and dishonest. Nevertheless, it was only through him that we could obtain the mules, donkeys and porters. He lined up about four hundred hopeful men, and it was our task to select about 80 of the strongest and fittest. I paid our porters in cash and much valued cigarettes. They did not become rich from our expedition, but they longed for the adventure. None of them had been anywhere near our mountain, nor had Mulai Jan. It is to be admitted that he was handsome with an aristocratic bearing, and he accompanied us riding a fine white horse.

While making our preparations we met a skilled, kind and intelligent man, who asked if he could be our cook and became our friend. His name was Ali Murad Khan, and he owned a small tailor’s shop in Chitral. We immediately agreed - he was  first class, and on our long walk to base camp he purchased and cooked chickens and vegetables for us, made naan and all manner of delicacies, and in particular his speciality, apricot omelettes. On our walk he chose our campsites for us, always in a grassy patch beside the river Mustaj on a side stream and shaded usually by apricot trees. He was so attentive and willing that we became a little lazy, but he was more than happy to do everything for us.

After the polo match the Mehtar’s uncle showed us his wonderful orchard, full of apricot, mulberry, peach, pear and apple trees. He invited us to help ourselves, and on the next day, when we started on our walk to base camp, we had a good supply of fresh fruit with us. We finally left Chitral camp with our porters, 20 mules and some donkeys. As we departed we passed the beautiful, well-constructed Chui Bridge; climbing to the top we had a superb view of Tirich Mir, at a distance of about 30 miles. The Bridge was at our time in good condition. However, winter storms and the foaming river sweep away the hand rails and some of the planks, and often bridges are rebuilt.                             

As we walked along the Mastuj there were several bridges crossing the river in very poor condition; but the Chitralis were used to them, and young mothers carried babies across planks without a care in the world. This year we did not have to cross a difficult bridge, but I remember that 21 years later in Afghanistan it took me and my friend considerable nerve.

Our mule train started first, we followed and the porters came behind us. In the early evening, when the mules arrived at our camp, they were unloaded, and their drivers made them walk in a circle for a whole hour. We were sorry for the tired animals, but we were told that this exercise avoided stiffness on the next day.

The stages of our walk, following the Mastuj river for about 80 miles, were quite short, (of about 12 miles); the weather was hot - it suited me, and we had time to take photographs or talk to villagers. The several villages we passed had small mosques, and the houses, usually of one room with a hole in the roof for smoke to escape, were well constructed of blocks of stone, and surrounded by beautiful gardens with lovely roses and many other flowers. The people, although poor, seemed to us happy and well content with life. All with us were as interested to see this new world as we were. Often our track lay hundreds of feet sheer above the raging Mastuj river – it was a spectacular walk which we greatly enjoyed, and soon I came to feel very fit.

The Hindu Kush is a rough, boulder – strewn range, with vast amounts of bare rock and scree. It is not forested, like the lower slopes of the Himalayas, and perhaps a little less beautiful – but I was thrilled and well satisfied. In Chitral, wherever small streams flow down to join the Mastuj, or other rivers, small green alluvial deltas of fertile land formed, and in these areas the villagers, with great skill, had built narrow irrigation channels, often cutting them into the steep cliffs above. Here they build their houses and cultivate the land, usually covered with wild flowers.

At length, after ten good days, we crossed the river Mastuj by a reasonable bridge, and began the ascent of the 14,000ft Sath An Pass. I remember the most beautiful blue irises on the lowest slopes. Feeling strong by this time I raced to the summit, and I arrived there eager to see our mountain. There it was, at the head of the twenty mile-long Rosh Gol – steep and formidable, as we expected. I think I was the first in our world to have the close sight of the hidden mountain – Saraghrar. Peter, who was to be the first on our climb, was more mature and often last on our walk! It was not only ourselves, but our Colonel, Murad, Mulai Jan on his white horse and all the porters, who were intrigued and thrilled to view country new to them.

We descended steeply to the small village of Zundrangam, at a height of about 10,000ft, the last village below our planned base camp, at the confluence of the Rosh Gol and a larger river. Here Murad arranged for our mail-runners and our welcome supply of apricots. From Zundrangam, following the Rosh Gol uphill, the going was completely pathless and very rough at times, with wide areas of boulders to cross. Our mules and donkeys could go no further than Zundrangam, and our porters now carried heavy loads of about 60 pounds without complaint. A few of them developed huge painful blisters on their backs, which Eric did his best to treat. After a few miles we passed a high waterfall on our right. Another day brought us to a small green oasis called Duru, and here we enjoyed our last sight of trees and wild flowers.

After three days of hard going we reached the snout of a great glacier, below the precipitous 10,000ft west wall of our mountain. At the foot of the glacier, on a small area of green grass, known as Totoruz Noku, we pitched our tents for our base at a height of about 13,800 ft. All around us were huge mountains, none of them as yet climbed. At night there was the roar of avalanches. Murad our cook organised everything; he even cut our hair on request, and arranged for our cards and letters to reach Peshawar and home. He made us feel at home in this vast and wild place.

Our next task was to select four porters to help us to carry our loads to the higher camps, although these Chitralis, courageous and cheerful, had no previous experience of high mountaineering. It was a difficult selection, but finally we chose Khalid, Abdul Karim, Neap and Sher, to the disappointment of the others who returned home; before they left we took a large group photograph. We gave our mountain porters extra warm clothing, strong boots and sleeping bags, with which they were delighted. The Colonel, a charming man, but quite unsuited to mountaineering, wished us all the best, and returned to the comforts of Peshawar, Mulai Jan stayed with us for a time.

To this point all had gone well, and I had enjoyed being organiser, and so far the leader, although young. From now on, however, Peter was in charge, and it was in his hands to plan the reconnaissance, and eventually to make an assault plan and to choose the team.

There then followed four weeks of reconnaissance. I remember especially two wonderful expeditions shared with our cheerful porters. On the first we climbed and walked about twelve miles, and ascended a small side glacier and an icy ridge to a narrow pass looking into Afghanistan, from where we had a wonderful view of range upon range of mostly unknown mountains, in Afghanistan and in the further Pamirs. On the second we enjoyed a climb up another steep, crevassed glacier and along a narrow rocky ridge, from where we looked down vertically about 2,000 ft to the most amazing glacier I have ever seen –brilliantly blue and green, and riddled with a thousand crevasses; we immediately knew that this was no route for us to the summit. In our reconnaissance we had the pleasure of training our porters in rope management and the use of crampons. We finally decided that we would attempt our ascent by what we called the ‘Northern Cwm’, climbing a huge glacier at least ten miles in length, and then try to find a route up the steep west face.

We began the slow process of establishing three camps; now we all carried heavy loads. It was quite exhausting in ever changing conditions, but enjoyable as we started to make progress. I suffered only a little altitude sickness, for which I was thankful. There were many wide crevasses to be crossed – to stride or to jump, always roped. We had brought with us a 12 ft aluminium ladder, which proved invaluable on several occasions. Finally, our camp three was established, and eventually fully stocked, at about 18,500ft.

Camp 3 below the couloir at about 18,500ft (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

Camp 3 below the couloir at about 18,500ft (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

The weather on Saraghrar was perfect throughout our time, and very cold at night, although  our excellent sleeping bags and thick duvet clothing served us well, and we were not too uncomfortable. Murad was not with us here, but Bill made a fine job as chief cook. At night there was always the roar of avalanches, and one occasion heaps of rocks and ice and snow reached within 400 meters of our tents. While building up our camps we returned for further loads and refreshment to base camp. Eric helped villagers who trekked many miles for possible cures, and he really did help some. We all played cricket on the grass, and Peter enjoyed reading a paper-back novel sitting on a high rock. We greatly enjoyed being in such an inspiring place.

Cricket at base camp with colleagues & porters. Ted is the batsman (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

Cricket at base camp with colleagues & porters. Ted is the batsman (photo from Ted Norrish collection)

Above our tents at camp 3 there rose an ice and snow couloir very steeply of about 1,000ft, leading directly to what we thought was the summit plateau. Peter made the final decision that this would be our chosen route, and he asked Eric to join him on our first attempt. We were a happy small group and I think there was no jealousy between us, although Nigel must have been disappointed - he never showed it. The plan was that he, Bill and I would follow later as a three-men team; my dream was now at last within reach. 

Shortly before our assault began Bill and I returned to base camp, and we were amazed to see Mulai Jan making off with one of our good tents and a sleeping bag. We caught him in the nick of time. He left on his white horse without a word or an apology. I wonder what his tribe might have thought of this if they had known.

Finally the day arrived for our attempt, August the 27th – as Virgil wrote “Expectata dies aderat!” We shook hands and wished Peter and Eric good luck. They spent a day carefully cutting steps and climbing up the steep route, and established camp 4 on a narrow ledge at about the half way point, and rested there for the remaining day.

Early next morning we saw them leave, climb slowly and safely up the rest of the couloir, of about 50 degrees in steepness, and disappear from our sight to the right. We waited nervously and in hope for about six hours. Eric told me later that they nearly reached the summit on the high plateau, but the climbing continued steep and difficult. Finally, they made the decision to return to camp 4, hopeful that they would succeed the following day.

We were glad to see them again at last re-entering the couloir and climbing slowly down. Then, after about half an hour, we saw a figure fall the full thousand foot length of the couloir. Eric explained to us later that Peter had decided to climb unroped here because secure belays were impossible. As he was passing his ice axe from his right hand to his left, he slipped. Eric now faced the severe task of climbing down on his own, which he achieved without mishap. He stopped briefly at camp 4, which sadly we had to abandon. Our four porters were as dismayed at the accident as we were. They carried Peter down to base camp, and then to Zundrangam, and we cleared our base camp. They built a grave and made a small cross out of apricot wood, and we buried our friend beneath an apricot tree outside the village. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and then said ‘’God rest his soul in peace”. It was a sad occasion, but we did not regret our expedition. Peter had accepted the risks, and we were proud to have him as our climbing leader.

There followed the long walk back in the same fine weather. On the second day I fell and sprained my knee, and found out I could not walk safely. Murad obtained a black horse from a village, and for a day I rode. I had little previous experience of horse-riding and the horse insisted on trotting on the very edge of the narrow track, hundreds of feet sheer above the river - I was glad that the next day I was able to walk again.

Back in Peshawar we stayed again with the kind Principal at St. Edwarde’s College. He was most sympathetic, and through him I was able to phone our Oxford friend and home agent Miles Rucklidge; he had the sad task of contacting Peter’s parents and brother in the Isle of Man, and our Alpine Club. The Principal also contacted the Peshawar News, and at their office I gave a short interview, and a small article was published in the paper.

We decided that Bill and Eric would return home by plane, and that Nigel and I would travel a long distance by train from Peshawar to Karachi, and south to Bombay, where we had managed to book two passages to Marseille. Our trains were crowded, and had no restaurant cars; but I always enjoy long journeys seeing new country from the train window. To while the time away we tried to remember and write down all the 92 teams which then made up our Football League. Tantalisingly, reaching at long last Bombay, after a journey of more than 2,000 miles, we had achieved 91. On arriving home I bought a newspaper and found the 92nd team was COVENTRY CITY! At that time I had never visited the city, and little did I know what a major part it would play in my future life; we hitch-hiked home through France.  

In 1959 an Italian team, led by Fosco Maraini, succeeded in climbing the mountain by a different route from the north-east. Fosco wrote a superb book on their successful expedition, ‘Where four worlds meet’. In the inside cover of his book he wrote ‘To the memory of Peter Nelson from his Italian colleagues’. In his book he gives an account first of our expedition, and wrote appreciatively ‘we used much helpful information from Ted Norrish, and we wish to thank him here’. Fosco considered himself too old for the ascent, but on August the 24th two pairs reached the summit - first Franco Alletto and Paulo Consiglio, and half an hour later, Giancarlo Castelli and Carlo Pinelli. I feel in a way that I partly share their exaltation, and from my atlas at the age of ten I had led the way.  

In 1975 and 1977 a Spanish team from Barcelona organised by Jordi Colomer and Ramon Bramona attempted to climb the 10,000ft south-west buttress of the mountain, one of the hardest and most severe climbs in the world. They failed, but in 1982 another Spanish team finally succeeded. It was remarkable after more than a half century (in 2014 and 2016) to meet in Rome and Barcelona some of the Saraghrar climbing fellows.


February 2017: Ted, at 'his' cross-country race, with guest of honour Liz Yelling, Olympic marathoner (photo Peter Hooper)

February 2017: Ted, at 'his' cross-country race, with guest of honour Liz Yelling, Olympic marathoner (photo Peter Hooper)