THE NAME ANNAPURNA can be translated as ‘the goddess rich in sustenance’. An appropriate objective for the first major American Women’s Himalayan Expedition, we thought. But its other translation, ‘the harvest goddess,’ had more sombre overtones, for the mountain had a formidable history. Of 13 parties that had tried to reach the summit before our attempt in 1978, only four had been successful, each putting a two-man team on the top. While eight climbers had summited, nine others had lost their lives on Annapurna’s slopes. Nevertheless, in August, 1978, we, — a group of nine American and one British women climbers, — set out to attempt to reach its summit.
The idea for our expedition arose 6 years earlier in August, 1972 on a mountain called Nioshaq in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Wanda Rutkiewicz (who reached the summit of Everest while we were climbing Annapurna), Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and I were all attempting Noshaq. At that time, hundreds of men had climbed to 8000 m, but this) altitude had not yet been reached by any woman from any country. The three of us resolved to organize an all-woman’s expedition to an 8000 m peak. We hoped to attempt Annapurna I in 1975, but we were unable to obtain a permit.
Meanwhile, in 1974, three members of a Japanese women’s expedition climbed Manaslu, the long-awaited first ascent to 8000 m by women. And in 1975, a Polish expedition of women and men led by Wanda Rutkiewicz and including Alison Chadwick- Onyszkiewicz climbed Gasherbrum III, at that time the highest unclimbed peak in the world. On the same expedition, Anna Okopinska and Halina Krueger- Syrakomska ascended Gasherbrum II, the first time women had reached the top of an 8000 m peak unaccompanied by men. In the same year, the Japanese climber Junko Tabei and the Tibetan woman Phanthog reached the summit of Everest.
In 1976, I took part in the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition where we were able to minimize the dangers of avalanches in the Khumbu icefall by climbing in the morning before the afternoon sun loosened the ice-cliffs. Hie idea of being able to employ similar tactics to reduce the legendary avalanche danger on Annapurna encouraged us to again try to get a permit for this peak. After the Everest climb, I applied to the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism and was delighted to receive a permit to attempt Annapurna I in the post-monsoon season of 1978.
The next two years were employed in the classic expedition activities of selecting a team, raising money, acquiring equipment and food, and making all the other myriad arrangements that accompany a large expedition. Our team of climbers: Vera Watson, Irene Miller, JoanFirey, Piro Kramar, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, Vera Komarkova, Liz Klobusicky, Margi Rusmore, and Annie Whitehouse all had extensive expeditionary and alpine climbing experience. Two years of preparation, — climbing and working together, — had helped weld us into a team. Christie Tews, our base camp manager, and Dyanna Taylor and Marie Ashton, our film-makers, were other important members of this team. We were assisted by an excellent Sirdar, Lopsang Tsering, and five high-altitude porters: Chewang Renzing, Mingma Tsering, Lakpa Norbu, Ang Pemba, and Wangyal.
The major source of financial support for our expedition was somewhat unusual. We sold T-shirts with the slogan ‘A Woman’s Place is on Top — Annapurna’. Another different aspect of our preparations was having several meetings with a psychologist to discuss getting along and other issues of group dynamics.
On 16 August, our caravan of nearly 230 people — climbers, porters, Sherpas, and various friends, left Pokhara following the old major trade route to Mustang and Tibet. At the Kali Gandaki river the party turned north and went up this valley to Choya. Beyond Choya, we would follow the route into the Annapurna north base camp pioneered by Maurice Herzog’s first ascent party in 1950. We first went up 4000 ft through seemingly vertical dense forests on a slippery mud trail. Above that the forest diminished and steep grassy slopes led to the French Pass at 14,500 ft. A lengthy exposed traverse above the immense canyon of the Mristi Khola, a descent several thousand feet to the river, and then a re-ascent of several thousand feet brought us to the site of our base camp on 27 August.
Our camp was pitched on a flat moraine next to the Annapurna north glacier at 14,500 ft. To the left of the glacier, a series of rock slabs were ascended to reach the level area at the top of the glacier where we located our first camp. This camp was established at 16,500 ft on 28 August by Liz Klobusicky and Alison Chadwick. Tent sites were levelled out of the ice and rock and the Sherpas insured the camp site’s safety by praying to the mountain gods and sprinkling the perimeter of the camp with rice the lamas had blessed.
On 3 September Vera Watson, Annie Whitehouse, and Piro Kramar almost reached the site of Camp 2 at 18,500 ft used by the Dutch the previous year. On their way up, they had placed a few hundred feet of fixed line using all the line they had brought including their climbing ropes. Fifty feet before the site of Camp 2, they were stopped by an enormous crevasse which they did not feel safe crossing without being roped. The next day Irene Miller, Vera Komarkova, and I fixed the last stretch and established Camp 2. The site was a level area about thirty feet in diameter with a steep ice-wall above it which looked as if it might offer some protection against avalanches. We were extremely conscious of the avalanche danger at Camp 2 because it was in this vicinity that a number of previous climbers on Annapurna had died from avalanches. At the camp we found remnants of the Dutch expedition: metal ladders for bridging crevasses, tent stakes, plastic bags, and, best of all, a bag of Dutch chocolate. Lopsang, our Sirdar, again sprinkled holy rice around the entire camp site, but cautioned us that the holy rice was not enough to ensure the safety of the camp. We would have to wait until prayer-flags were raised at base camp before we could inhabit Camp 2. Because this was an inauspicious month in the Tibetan calendar for the making of prayer-flags, we would have to wait until mid-September for the prayer-flags to be made and brought to base camp.
The timing of the ceremony fitted in well with the timetable I had planned for the climb. The monsoon usually ends in mid-September. This would be just about when Lopsang said we could occupy the camp safely, so we had two weeks to establish Camp 2 and carry gear up before the flags arrived and we could officially move in. After that we would begin to climb the most difficult part of the mountain, the steep avalanche-prone section between 18,500 and 21,000 ft.
We considered three routes on the mountain: (1) The route the French climbed in 1950 involved the least technical climbing but was in direct line from avalanches from the sickle glacier and down the face; (2) The Dutch route, which had been climbed for the first time the previous year, would involve first crossing below the avalanche- prone French route, then climbing the very steep side of a narrow ice and rock rib, and finally walking along its crest. (3) Further to the left was the route the Spanish had taken a few years ago to reach the east summit of Annapurna, where we would climb the first part of the Spanish route and then traverse across to the main summit. This new variation looked longer and more dangerous than the Dutch Rib. We decided to repeat the Dutch route as it appeared the safest.
On the night before the flag-raising ceremony, we had a party for several team members whose birthdays were that week. Margi was 21 and Joan 50, the youngest and eldest members of the team. Best of all was the sprout salad. Joan had solved the problem of fresh salad on expeditions by bringing seeds and sprouting them in plastic water-bottles, keeping them warm inside her sleeping bag on cold nights.
On the morning of flag-raising day, the Sherpas got up at dawn and built a four-foot-high rectangular stone altar between our camp and the stream. Birch branches were burned, and many coloured flags were raised. We made offerings to the mountain gods and speeches about climbing the peak. Just at that moment the sun came out revealing the summit of Annapurna far above us. A good omen, we hoped.
On I7 September, we began to climb the side of the Dutch Rib at last. Vera Komarkova, Piro Kramar and Chewang Renzing each led a pitch, reaching a point nearly halfway to the crest of the Rib. But then the weather changed abruptly, and a large storm came down. Nearly a foot of snow per hour was falling at Camp 2, and avalanches were booming down on either side of the camp. The tents had to be dug out every few minutes or the weight of the new snow would break their poles. There was no choice but to collapse the tents and abandon the camp. This was quite a setback as our camp sites and the trail we had broken, would be completely buried. Also, this new snow would lead to greater avalanche danger when we went back to resume our attempt on the Dutch Rib.
After the storm ended and a few days had been allowed for reconsolidation of the new snow, Annie, Vera K., Mingma, and Ang Pemba climbed the rest of the face of the Dutch Bib, reaching the crest on 21 September. The next day Vera Komarkova, ever energetic, and Vera Watson went back to establish a provisional Camp 3A on the crest of the Rib. From this camp the route along the crest to Camp 3 would be climbed.
During the next day a difficult route along the very narrow rib crest was led by Liz Klobusicky, Alison Chad wick-Onyszkiewicz, Margi Rusmore, Ang Pemba and Mingma. Meanwhile we had many close escapes from avalanches as we crossed below the French face. And the film crew, to whom we had promised that they would not be in any dangerous places, had the closest escape of all. On 26 September, the largest avalanche I have ever seen swept down from a 23,000 ft peak on to the glacier above Camp 1. The cloud was about two miles across and growing larger by the moment as we watched with horror from Camp 2. We saw the film crew, Joan, Christie and two porters on the glacier below, six tiny spots directly in the path of a gigantic falling mass of snow. Within seconds the avalanche swept across the glacier, burying the spots and blanketing Camp 1. For several terrible moments we saw nothing but the boiling white cloud. When the snow finally settled, we saw the little spots begin to pick themselves up and move about erratically, like ants whose home has been stomped. We counted six spots and allowed ourselves to breathe again.
The wind from the avalanche levelled Camp 1 and continued down on to base camp. We had placed our camps in locations that had previously been regarded as safe from avalanches. But this year was different. No place was safe. The day after the flag-raising the first avalanche in the recorded history of Annapurna over to threaten the area of base camp swept down the gully where we got our water. There had been a huge ice-avalanche that obliterated a cache we had left by the Dutch Rib and avalanches crossed the route to Camp 3 at all hours.
The avalanche danger was so grave that we seriously had to consider giving up and going home. But the momentum of the ascent overwhelmed our doubts and the climbing continued. Some of us wished we had picked another peak, but since we were there, we decided to stay and make the best of it.
Meanwhile, Liz Klobusicky, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewiczs Mingma and Ang Pemba made it to the top of the Rib and established Camp 3 at 21,000 ft. The most technically difficult part of Annapurna had been climbed. Then Annie Whitehouse, Vera Komarkova. Chewang and Mingma put in two long, hard days of climbing to establish Camp 4 at 23,000 ft. The camp site was a small platform in the shadow of an enormous serac. It was a cold, damp place but had a spectacular view.
With Camp 4 established, the question of the day was ‘Who’s going to be on the summit team?’ I had assumed all along that by the time we were ready for the summit push, natural selection would have made the choice of the summit team obvious. On many expeditions, after months of hard work at high altitudes, some climbers are too tired physiologically or psychologically to try for the top. But there had been little attrition so far on this climb. Indeed, most of the climbers also were growing stronger and more determined by the day,
Liz Klobusicky had had to go home early to keep her teaching job in Germany; Joan Firey’s strength had been sapped by an earlier illness; and I had lost my personal desire to reach the summit under the burden of the responsibility for directing the logistics and movements of the team in the face of the overwhelming danger from the avalanches. The rest pi the team, seven of the ten members, were still eager to try for the top. The original plan was for Piro Kramar, Irene Miller and Vera Komarkova to make up the first team, and Alison Chad wick-Onyszkiewicz, Vera Watson, Annie Whitehouse and Margi Husmore the second. Margi would go up to establish Camp 5 with two of the Sherpas, The three of them would rest during the first summit attempt and then take part in the second attempt.
Starting about 12 October, almost every day our spirits were raised by the sight of geese migrating from Tibet to India. We would see them flying at 27,000 ft above the summit of Annapurna. These geese, the first animals we had seen in weeks, fillecf us with wonder. We couldn’t understand why they chose to fly across the top of the world’s highest mountains. Why didn’t they take the easy way across the low passes and through the valleys where they could find food and water? Hearing their wondrous honking day after day as they flew over the summit ridge of Annapurna at more than 25,000 ft moved us intensely.
In a sense, we were like the geese. In this high, confined world with no sound but the wind and our own voices; with no sights but the blue sky, white peaks and bright colours of our tents and parkas; with no sensation but the cold of the snow and ice and the warmth of the sun, our sleeping-bags and stoves. We had a chance now to slow our world down, to examine ourselves and our purpose. An important question was why were we there. Answers came readily: to visit Asia, to climb a mountain, to test our limits, to know ourselves. All these were true, yet they were not enough. Why would any woman risk her life to stand on the top of a mountain ? The geese circled the summit once more before resuming their flight south. Were they whirling among the high peaks for the view ? For the glory ? I smiled and thought, 4I bet they’re going it for the fun of it’.
On 13 October, the first summit team supported by Lakpa moved up to Camp 4. At the same time Chewang, Mingma and Margi were attempting to establish Camp 5. Margi’s foot froze in the process, and she had to descend to Camp 3, while Mingma and Chewang finished the job. Hie next day the summit climbers, with three Sherpas in support, carried on to the highest camp, Camp 5, at about 24,000 ft.
Chewang and Mingma asked to join the first summit team and it was decided that they would increase the safety and likelihood of success for the team. The five summit climbers rose early on 15 October and started getting ready slowly. Just as they were about to leave, Piro noticed that there was a small hole in her liner glove and that the tip of her finger was frozen solid. She took off the glove, and the whole finger was white and wouldn’t move. Since Piro is an eye surgeon and the use of her right forefinger is vital, she immediately jumped back into the tent, all thoughts of the summit forgotten.
The other four climbers started to climb shortly before 7 a.m. The weather was good for a summit day: cloudless skies and no wind. The terrain was steep and icy for a few hundred feet. Then the angle lessened and the ice disappeared. In some places the snow allowed easy cramponing; in others the climbers broke through a crust of harder snow to powder beneath. At 25,300 ft, after about three and a half hours of climbing, Vera remarked, ‘I can feel my brains going’, and she and Irene began using oxygen. Just below the summit pyramid the snow was again very deep and their pace slowed, but soon there was less snow and the walking became easier. The bands of rock below the summit turned out to be no problem. They walked right over them, their crampons grating on the sandstone; they gained a crest of windy summit ridge. Chewang got summit fever and started racing along the ridge trying to determine the highest point. They traversed three or four bumps and finally were there.
The summit of Annapurna I at last. At 3.30 p.m. on 15 October, 1978, the four climbers were at 26,545 ft on top of the world’s tenth highest mountain, on top of the world ! They brought many summit flags: the Nepalese and American flags and one bearing the legend ‘A Woman’s Place is on Top all held together with a Save the Whales pin.
The view was extraordinary. White-capped mountains rising from a sea of brown, red and blue hills merged on the horizon with the deep blue of the sky. The steep south face of Annapurna could be seen below when the swirling clouds cleared. As Irene, Chewang and Mingma posed for Vera K.’s camera, the watchers below began shouting into their radios all at once, and a great whoop resounded from camp to camp and down the mountain.
Soon the climbers headed back down and just as they reached the tents at Camp 5, two red flares shot up into the sky above Camp 2. They were meant to signal the success to Margi and Annie at Camp 3, but the summit climbers saw them too and were warmed by the knowledge that their team mates all down the mountain were celebrating with them.
On the 16th, the Sherpas went directly back to Camp 2 while Piro, Irene and Vera stayed at Camp 4 in support of the second summit team: Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson. We had hoped that one or more of the Sherpas would have remained high on the mountain in support of the second summit attempt, but at this point three of the Sherpas were down at base camp with altitude symptoms’ and the other three back at Camp 2 were very tired from their exertions high on the mountain.
The night of the 16th, Alison, Vera Watson, Vera Komarkova, Irene and Piro spent a crowded night at Camp 4 talking and exchanging information about the summit. In spite of a lack of Sherpa support and the fact that most of the rest of the team had either been to the summit or made the decision not to attempt it, Vera and Alison were determined to make their own attempt. On many Himalayan expeditions, after one team successfully reaches the summit, the momentum is all downward. But Alison and Vera wanted at least to go up to Camp 5 and take a look at the conditions for themselves. Indeed they were considering making an attempt on the unclimbed central peak of Annapurna.
The next morning, we watched through binoculars as Vera and Alison moved slowly and steadily over the steep ice toward Camp 5. They made more rapid progress than had the first summit team who had been burdened with much heavier loads. Tents, sleeping-bags and some food were already in place for Vera and Alison at Camp 5. The film crew watched them make their way until just before dark when the face became heavily shadowed. On the last radio call of the day, the film crew estimated that Vera and Alison were 20 minutes below Camp 5 and moving well.
However, they did not call in that night on the radio, and the next day, in spite of calling repeatedly on the radio and searching the slope with binoculars, we saw no sign of them. We assumed their radio was broken but began to worry. Scanning the slopes with binoculars, calling over and over again on the radio yielded nothing. We discussed with the Sherpas at Camp 2 going back up the mountain in the morning to see if Vera and Alison needed help. The Sherpas were too tired to go and assured us that Vera and Alison were fine. The next day when there was still no sign of motion and still no word on the radio, the Sherpas valiantly agreed that they would go back up to Camp 5 and see if Vera and Alison needed help. A few hours after the Sherpas left, the radio came on, agitated Sherpa voices. Just from the tone, even before the translation, we knew the news was the worst. The Sherpas had found Alison’s body. She was still tied to the rope and the rope led into a crevasse where Vera was.
We were overcome with grief. Knowing where to look now, I took the binoculars and scanned the slopes to the left of Camp 4. I could just make out a vague red blur, Alison’s jacket. Apparently Vera and Alison had never reached Camp 5 on 17 October. They must have fallen on the steep ice below the camp or been knocked off the slope by ice or rock fall. They fell nearly a thousand feet until they were stopped to the left of Camp 4. The Sherpas reported that Vera and Alison must have died during the fall, as they did not appear to have made a move toward each other.
I asked Piro and Vera K. to go up the next day to examine the bodies. They began early in the morning, but Piro’s finger again began to freeze, and they were forced to turn back.
With extreme sadness, we packed our loads and went down the mountain back to base camp. There we engraved Vera and Alison’s names on the stone on whidh were already engraved the names of seven other climbers who have died on the site of Annapurna. In the rock the names would remain, facing the summit they had so hoped to reach. We had a memorial service in their honour. I couldn’t help replaying events over again and again. One foot placed a few inches differently in a more secure place; no slip, no fall. It would be a different world if Alison and Vera were still with us. All of us would have been full of joy after a successful climb. We locked arms and sang the old Quaker song. ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, Tis a Gift to be Free … Then the Sherpas began to chant, ‘om mani padme hum, om man! padme hum.’ Members and Sherpas chanted together with arms linked.