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The Avalanche

"When an accident occurs, something may emerge of lasting value, for the human spirit may rise to its greatest heights. This happened on Haramosh."

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The Last Blue Mountain is the heartrending true story of the 1957 expedition to Mount Haramosh in the Karakoram range in Pakistan. With the summit beyond reach, four young climbers are about to return to camp. Their brief pause to enjoy the view and take photographs is interrupted by an avalanche which sweeps Bernard Jillott and John Emery hundreds of feet down the mountain into a snow basin. Miraculously, they both survive the fall. Rae Culbert and Tony Streather risk their own lives to rescue their friends, only to become stranded alongside them.

The group’s efforts to return to safety are increasingly desperate, hampered by injury, exhaustion and the loss of vital climbing gear. Against the odds, Jillott and Emery manage to climb out of the snow basin and head for camp, hoping to reach food, water and assistance in time to save themselves and their companions from an icy grave. But another cruel twist of fate awaits them.

An acclaimed mountaineering classic in the same genre as Touching the Void, Ralph Barker’s The Last Blue Mountain is an epic tale of friendship and fortitude in the face of tragedy.

Enjoy this excerpt, “The Avalanche,” below.

The Avalanche

Excerpted from The Last Blue Mountain

Jillott led at first, crossing the crevasse and moving up the slope towards the ice cliffs, where Culbert took over. The ground became really steep now. Finally Streather and Emery came through and took over the lead on the last stretch from the top of the ice cliffs up towards the ridge. They could see that just short of the ridge was a huge crevasse, and beyond this the last steep slope up to the crest of the ridge. The crest itself curled over towards them in an impressive cornice which was quite small at the point they were making for, but which only a few yards higher up the ridge became very large indeed, culminating in the great Cardinal’s hat formation which dominated the whole area. Even at the point they had chosen they would have to work hard to get through it.

But for the moment the crevasse itself looked the bigger problem. It didn’t open up directly beneath them, but sloped down diagonally away from them into the mountain, so that the whole of the far lip was one complete overhang. They couldn’t be sure how far on to the upper lip they would have to get before they reached safe ground. Eventually they decided on a plan. Streather and Emery stood together on the lower lip, belayed from behind by Jillott and Culbert. Streather stuck his ice axe into the upper lip directly opposite and almost at the same level. Emery leaned forward and swung his axe as high up on the far lip as he could. He then stepped on to Streather’s axe and hauled up on his own as quickly as he could, sped by a shove from behind by Streather. Streather then followed the same route, with no one to shove from behind but with the great advantage of having Emery above him to haul on the rope. Now they took a firm belay on the upper lip and hauled first Culbert and then Jillott across. By the time it came to Jillott’s turn, with three of them hauling on the rope, he literally shot across.

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Twenty feet above them was the cornice. They were sure that they had reached the north-east ridge at last and were on the last part of it leading up to Haramosh II. Even so, it was possible that they might be mistaken. This might be a false crest. Beyond it they might find further difficulties, insuperable difficulties, separating them from the view they had come to see.

Streather led the way up the last twenty feet, belayed from below, and began cutting his way through the cornice. The loose powdery snow covered him up to the hips and broke off down the slope to cover the boots of the others. He kept his eyes on his axe as he thrust it this way and that, opening up a gap of about five feet. Bit by bit the cornice came away. He climbed through the gap and lifted his head.

He was not a demonstrative man, but what he saw made him give an involuntary shout, a gasp, a bellow of shock and delight and amazement. All that they had struggled and yearned to see lay there before them but in a form and on a scale which was flabbergasting, which ridiculed their puny imaginations and made the realisation of the dream almost intolerably satisfying. He shouted down to the others.

‘Come on up! You can’t imagine what you’ll see when you get here.’

They joined him on the far side of the cornice. Straight ahead, about three miles distant, rose the final peak of Haramosh, superb in its isolation, dominating the rest of the mountain like a citadel. Immediately in front of them the flank of the north-east ridge fell away down a convex slope so severe that only the first forty feet or so was visible from the ridge. Between them and the main summit lay the long trough, the first part invisible because of the convex slope. This trough now revealed itself as being not a smoothly curved bed of snow stretched out between the two peaks but a vast glacier fed by the final shoulder and cone of Haramosh itself, horribly crevassed and broken and littered with rock abutments and icefalls, a mass of ice cliffs and minor snow summits. Now their eyes followed the curve of the north-east ridge as it carried away to the left in a wide semicircle, rising to the complex of Haramosh II about a third of the way round and then sagging in the middle before climbing the last mile or so to the main summit.

But perhaps most impressive of all was the view to the north down into the Kutwal Valley, nearly 10,000 feet below. They had the most wonderful view of the valley and the Mani glacier, and could pick out every feature of the valley – the lake, the thin line of pine trees on the ridge of the lateral moraine, the straggling village, the forest of silver birch, the green pastures of the lower mountain slopes. Yet how small it all looked! It was as though down there they had been children, feeling a child’s illusion of spaciousness in a suburban back garden.

Now they could see how the mountain hugged this great trough of snow and ice to its bosom, acquisitively, but unable to hold it all, spilling it regularly over the north face in the form of avalanches, leaking it down the mountainside in great hanging glaciers, dribbling it down to the valley in a myriad snow gullies. Here before them lay the secrets of Haramosh, the womb which gave birth to teeming life on the hot dusty plains many thousands of feet below and hundreds of miles distant. The four men gazed spellbound, and none of them spoke for a long time.

Eventually they moved down ten feet or so from the cornice and chose a safe place to sit down, before the slope steepened too severely. Streather turned to Jillott. ‘Well, Bernard, what do you think?’

‘I can’t see much chance along there.’

Inevitably they felt a deep satisfaction at the complexity of the route ahead. It would have been too galling to have reached this point with such difficulty, only to find an easy route ahead which another week of fine weather would have enabled them to cover. Their reaction to the trough, with its inaccessible snow basin directly below them and the jagged glacier beyond, and the semicircle of the ridge, with its broken and switchback formation, was one of relief. It was wonderful to have reached this point, to have discovered the mountain’s secrets and seen what no man had seen before them, but thank God there wasn’t a route.

A stronger party, of course, given good weather and plenty of time, might make something of it. But for them there was no chance at all. They sat on their rucksacks for fully half an hour, taking in every feature that lay before them, still trying to imagine a possible route by means of the north-east ridge, appraising and evaluating, studying the final cone, which would be shrouded in cloud for a time and then appear again triumphantly, tantalisingly clear. Even supposing they had been able to traverse round the ridge, that final pyramid might have defeated them. It rose 3,000 feet above the ridge, the first two-thirds of which was a tremendous snow shoulder formidably steep, heavily crevassed and skirted by ice cliffs. It looked the sort of climb which would provide a difficult problem in the Alps; and while there was probably no reason why they shouldn’t climb it at this altitude, they would need good supplies and plenty of time. And even then there remained the final cone. What had looked little more than a pimple from below now seemed almost a mountain in itself, a precipitous rock tower covered with ice.

The cloud was building up in the basin below them and around the main summit. None of them cared to think about the time. This was their last day, and they would prolong this moment as long as possible. It had a sweetness and a satisfaction that stemmed partly from the realisation of achievement and partly from the disappointments and frustrations that

had gone before. They had completed their reconnaissance, and only just in time.

Many times during the past few weeks each member of the party had asked himself whether the expedition had been worthwhile. Now they had their answer. It was worth coming all this way and enduring all the discomforts and privations for this view alone. And there were many, many other compensations. They sat there chewing chocolate, relaxed and happy, all their difficulties forgotten, laughing at former strains, a team as never before. For some weeks now, these men had been shedding something of their individualism, pooling their resources, drawing strength from each other, becoming a team. Each man had contributed to it in his own way; for some it had been easier than for others. Throughout August they had each kept a personal diary. But in the first few days of September, one by one they had stopped writing, all within two or three days of each other. It was as though they could no longer keep secrets, no longer express themselves except together.

They began to talk about going back. But first, Jillott wanted to climb a little way along the ridge to the top of the Cardinal’s hat that had stood out so clearly on the way up. It was an obvious vantage point and from it he thought he might get an even more dramatic view of the trough and the valley.

‘Will you come up with me, John?’ he called to Emery. ‘Then Tony can take a picture of us. It’s as near the top of the mountain as we’ll get.’

Emery roped up with Jillott, and the two men prepared to move off. It was in keeping with their mood of elation that they should want to reach just one more dominant point before going down.

‘Keep well back from the cornice,’ shouted Streather. ‘It’s one of the biggest cornices I’ve seen.’

‘We’ll keep well down,’ said Jillott.

‘I’ll sing out if it looks as though you’re getting too close.’ ‘Right.’

The pinnacle was only about a hundred feet distant, and being right on the crest of the ridge, the slope up to it was easy. Jillott and Emery moved quickly across a small crevasse and up towards the pinnacle. Some forty feet from the top, and well down the slope, Emery stopped to take a belay and Jillott began to cover the last few yards to the pinnacle. Both men had kept so well clear of the cornice that Streather, watching anxiously, had not needed to shout a warning. He had taken several photographs and was preparing to take a last shot as soon as Jillott reached the pinnacle and turned to look down. Emery was taking a particularly firm belay with the cornice in mind, and Jillott had covered the last few yards to the pinnacle and had almost reached the point at which he was going to stop, when there was a muffled explosion which seemed to come from under their feet, followed by a crunching, tearing sound, and almost simultaneously the snow on which Jillott and Emery were standing began to move.

For a fraction of a second it seemed to Streather and Culbert that the other two climbers were simply playing about. Their first reaction was to laugh at the comical way in which they were throwing their arms and legs about, jerkily, like puppets, their weight not properly planted on the ground. But in the same instant they understood the awful significance of the muffled explosion, the tearing sound, and the telltale crack in the snow a few feet above Jillott. They stood like statues, dumbfounded, fearful to move lest the avalanche spread, horrified by the ghastly sight of their two comrades being swept helplessly past them with sudden and terrifying acceleration, down the convex slope and away out of sight.

The snow basin immediately below them was hidden by the curve of the slope, so that they could not see where Jillott and Emery fell. And the avalanche had thrown up clouds of snow which reduced the visibility in its path to nil. But they could still see down into the trough, half a mile distant and a thousand feet below. Here in a few moments the billowing clouds of snow crept forward, more slowly now because of the distance, like steam exhaled from a train. Streather and Culbert stood transfixed as the avalanche surged on with the weight and power of a great surf- breaker, smashing on to the rocky ice cliffs at the edge of the trough in a storm of snow spray, and plunging at last with mighty release over the north face.

These were the great avalanches that they had seen from the valley, crashing down the north face on to the glacier. They had never dreamt that one such avalanche might carry two of their comrades with it.

It had all happened with such stupefying suddenness, their situation had changed so abruptly from contentment to disaster, that it was impossible for them to take it in. Eventually Streather moved across to the point of the avalanche, where the surface was now firm and denuded of all excess snow, belayed by Culbert. From here he was able to look down the slope into the snow basin below. Flurries of powder snow were still settling, but as he looked he thought he detected movement. Then, to his astonishment and joy, he saw a figure moving about in the snow. There was no mistaking that green windproof suit. It was Jillott.

He watched incredulously as Jillott seemed to bend over and dig his hands in the snow. Soon, like a chicken hatching from an egg, another figure broke out of the snow. It was Emery, apparently buried by the avalanche. Both men stood up and seemed to shake themselves. Streather expressed his incredulous relief by shouting again and again across to Culbert. By some miracle both climbers had survived the fall.

Pick up a copy of The Last Blue Mountain to read more!

Excerpted with permission from The Last Blue Mountain: The Great Karakoram Climbing Tragedy by Ralph Barker (Vertebrate Publishing, March 2020).

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Ralph Barker was born in Middlesex in 1917. He joined the editorial
staff of Sporting Life in 1934 and later went into banking. He had some
early success as a writer, and several of his sketches were performed
at the Windmill Theatre. In 1940 he joined the RAF as a wireless
operator and air gunner. After completing his training, he served with
torpedo bomber squadrons, taking part in dangerous missions to attack
ships bringing supplies to German forces. He left the RAF in 1946 to
return to banking, but rejoined two years later. He went on to
broadcast with the British Forces Network and work for the Air
Ministry. Barker began to establish himself as a serious author on RAF
subjects and his first book,
Down in the Drink, was published in 1955.
This was followed in 1957 by
The Ship Busters, inspired by his wartime
experiences. He was subsequently invited to write
The Last Blue
Mountain, which was first published in 1959. He retired as a flight
lieutenant in 1961 and became a full-time writer. Cricket was Barker’s
lifelong passion, and he played for the RAF and various Surrey clubs.
His first cricket book,
Ten Great Innings, was published in 1964,
followed in 1967 by
Ten Great Bowlers. Barker continued to write
non-fiction titles on mainly aviation, survival and cricketing themes,
including a compendium of England–Australia Test matches and
authoritative histories of the Royal Flying Corps during the First
World War. His final book,
Men of the Bombers, was published in 2005.
He died in 2011.

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