The Austrian Himalayan Foundation sent out its fourth Himalayan expedition in the pre-monsoon season of 1959. In its short existence, the Foundation had organized expeditions to Saipal in 1954, to Gasherbrum II in 1956 and Haramosh in 1958, success being achieved on both the last-named peaks. Now the objective was the last of the eight-thousanders accessible to Western climbers, 26,795 ft. Dhaulagiri.

There were six experienced climbers, a doctor and a photographer in the team. The Nepalese Government attached Lieut. Krishna Bikram Rana as liaison officer. The members of the expedition were:—

Ing. Fritz Moravec (leader), 37, Viennese schoolmaster.
Dr. Wilfried Wehrle, 27, from Salzburg, doctor.
Othmar Kucera, 27, from Leoben.
Stefan Pauer (photographer), 36, electrician from Ortmann.
Karl Prein, 31, steel-fitter from Leoben.
Hans Ratay, 29, photographer from Vienna.
Heinrich Roiss, 32, civil servant from Vienna.
Erich Vanis, 31, master-furrier from Vienna.

We had engaged that most experienced Sherpa Sirdar, Pasang Dawa Lama. On this expedition he again proved his outstanding qualities, no matter what the conditions, on rock and ice, and has certainly earned the 'Tiger Medal' he owns. He brought with him the following high-altitude porters of his own choosing:—

Ang Nyima, Gyalzen, Ang Pasang, Pasang, Jungboo, Nyima Phutar, Pemba Phutar, Pasang Temba, Na Temba, Yila Pasang, Pemba Gyalzen, Norbu, Phurba Gyalzen.

Even if there were discrepancies both in age and experience, we could not have wished for a better team of Sherpas. Every one of them was a willing and active contributor to the success of the undertaking. Before they left Darjeeling they were examined by the Honorary Doctor to the Himalayan Club, and all were fit men, with the exception of Phurba Gyalzen who contracted an abdominal ulcer before the actual operations on the mountain began and had to be sent down to Pokhara where he unfortunately died in hospital.

Pokhara was our rendezvous-point with the Sherpas and it was from there that we set off for our mountain, after adding to our supplies and engaging 177 local porters for the transport of our equipment to Base Camp.

We followed the approach route opened up by the Swiss in 1953, which leads to the northern flank of Dhaulagiri, up the valley of the Mayangdi Khola by way of Beni and Muri and a big westerly detour. On April 3, we established our Base Camp at a height of 14,750 ft. on the Mayangdi Khola Glacier. The journey from Pokhara had taken 16 days. The normal set-backs caused by strikes on the part of the porters and breaks in the weather had caused slight delays, but did not interfere with our progress.

Six expeditions had attempted Dhaulagiri before us. The first was Maurice Hertzog's French party in 1950. They had tried to approach the mountain by its eastern face, and carried out an unsuccessful reconnaissance work before turning their attentions to Annapurna I.

In 1953, the Swiss made their first attempt. Not only did they find a better approach route through the Mayangdi Valley but they discovered the only apparent weak spot on the relentless North face of the mountain, many miles wide—the route over the 'Pear'. This was the route followed in all subsequent attempts—the two Argentine expeditions in 1954 and 1956; the German-Swiss in 1955; and the Swiss again in 1958.

Max Eiselin and Detlef Hecker, who took part in the 1958 Swiss attempt, advised us emphatically to take a close look at the possibilities of the North-east spur. In the face of the depressing report Lionel Terray, Bernhard Lauterburg and Dr. Pfisterer had issued about the North face route, they held the view that the spur must be given serious consideration.

Six days after the establishment of Base Camp, Erich Vanis, Pasang Dawa Lama and I started off on a preliminary reconnaissance of the North-east spur, and during the afternoon placed a temporary rest-camp in the middle of an icefall at about 17,050 ft.; this later became our Camp I. Here we were able for the first time to overlook the ground up to the North-east col and we gazed longingly up at the spur, whose northern precipices were of dark rock. The crest of the spur showed up from here as a narrow white ribbon of snow and ice on the underlying rock. There was no way of judging from this point whether the ridge could be climbed or not.

On April 10, we climbed on across the deep snow-covered glacier, in the direction of the col. Bad weather put an end to our progress and it was at this point, some 1,300 ft. above our rest-camp, that we had to decide by which route we were going to attempt the mountain. The factors in our final choice were these. The dangers of the 'Pear' route are seriously enhanced by every fall of fresh snow; against this, we would be less menaced by snow or rock avalanches on the spur. Here, too, the ascent lay mostly over ice, so that we would be able to continue the work of preparing a safe route for the porters even if the weather was not good. What is more, we got the impression that the technical difficulties on the ridge ended at about 23,600 ft., whilst the route up the North face became more difficult technically as it approached the summit ridge. This assessment led us to come down firmly in favour of the North-east spur. Pasang Dawa, who had been high on the North face, voiced the opinion that the summit should be attainable over the spur in three weeks' less time than by the face. His comparative evaluation was probably correct; but, unfortunately, the unfolding of events was to teach us the sad lesson that his forecast had been all too optimistic.

Our reconnaissance completed, we began immediately to mount our assault. We enlarged Camp I and established Camp II at 18,700 ft., close under the North-east col. By April 21, we had even managed to site Camp III, at about 20,175 ft., at a point where the ridge is not very accentuated. Three days later we were able to report down to Base over the intercom radio that the first tent had been pitched at the foot of the steep step in the ridge at 21,325 ft. We had been lucky enough to push four camps up the mountain in a fortnight, and our rapid progress had raised morale to a very high pitch.

On April 29, while we were at work preparing the route, disaster struck. Heinrich Roiss fell into a crevasse not far from Camp II. It was a deep crack in the glacier, which narrowed towards its bottom; and, in spite of heroic rescue efforts by the whole party, he was dead when we recovered him. We carried our friend's body down to the Mayangdi Khola Glacier and there, on firm ground beside the glacier's edge, performed the last service we could do him. A small birchwood cross stands on the mound where he lies, full in sight of Dhaulagiri towering above.

We had come to the mountain full of high hopes and enthusiasm; now we could hardly believe the pitiless sacrifice it had exacted.

Roiss's death had not only taken from us a friend but probably the best climber in the party. We were all the more determined to push on up our chosen route, for we regarded the pursuit of our venture as a kind of legacy he had left us. So the assault on the 4 White Mountain' continued.

On May 3, Erich Vanis, Pasang Dawa and seven Sherpas pushed up again to Camp II and, during the days that followed, Sahibs and porters alike were continually on the move. There were, however, frequent set-backs. We found the tents at Camp III completely buried under a mass of snow and the walls of the tents had been torn to pieces. So we had to get down to digging caves in the snow. We established Camp IV at a very exposed point in the ridge; when Pasang Dawa and the Sherpa Pasang spent their first night in it, the gale carried their tent away and they were subjected to the full fury of the elements without any protection whatsoever. It was not till after dawn that they were able to start digging a cave there too. Anyone who has been above 21,300 ft. will know what an effort that involved.

Above Camp IV the way was barred by a steep ice-slope, covered by sheets of absolutely smooth ice. This had to be safeguarded before it could be ascended by the porters. Our Sirdar secured the first fixed rope on May 7. It took a full fortnight before this slope of nearly two thousand feet could be made properly safe with the necessary rope hand-rails. Dhaulagiri's notorious weather continually held up the work. It either snowed heavily all day long or the sky was blue in the morning only for the gale to howl without a break till midday, when the weather would break again.

A serious accident, fortunately without serious consequences, happened during the night of May 19-20. Ratay and three Sherpas were sleeping in the cave at Camp IV, when he woke up and found he could hardly breathe. It soon became clear that an avalanche had blocked the mouth of the cave. Ratay immediately woke the Sherpas and after hours of hard work they forced a way out into the open. It seems certain that the only reason they escaped suffocation was that a small crevasse ran through the cave, allowing just a little air to get in.

Two days later, an exception in the shape of a fine day tempted Ratay, who still had a fierce headache after the narrow escape from nocturnal extinction in the cave, to press on and establish Camp V at the point selected. Before describing his effort, I should like to give a brief summary of our position.

Things were, in fact, pretty grim. Our date for the assault on the summit was already a thing of the past and we had to reckon on the breaking of the monsoon. Worse still, our fuel was running low. We therefore decided that all Sahibs and Sherpas suffering from exhaustion or any form of unfitness must go down at once to Base. Those who still felt fit and energetic would stay and make the attempt on the summit. Ratay was past his best, but anxious to make one more contribution to the success of the operation. In spite of several earlier and unsuccessful attempts, he forced a way up to the little platform which was to lodge our Camp V. In doing so he exorcised a positive gremlin, which had been sitting heavily on our spirits.

The very next day Pasang Dawa moved up, pitched two tents and protected the steep rock-face immediately above Camp V with pitons, thus opening up the route to Camp VI at 24,300 ft. On the 24th he and Karl Prein occupied this, our highest camp.

The following description of the decisive phase which ensued is in Karl's own words:—

'The very first night we occupied the tent at Camp VI, it was seriously damaged by the wind and there was no chance of sleeping after that. Somewhere about 4 a.m. when I had just dozed off for a little, Pasang woke me and said it was time to get ready for the climb. He proceeded to stir some tsampa in hot water and that was all the breakfast we had before starting off.

'The ridge was bathed in early sunlight, the sky overhead was blue, the route was no longer particularly difficult at this point and everything would have been lovely if it hadn't been for the overpowering force of the wind. We plodded upwards with set teeth, fighting against the hurricane all the way. After four hours we were frozen to the bone; the loss of sensation in our hands and faces grew worse and worse. But we didn't want to turn back, because the way to the top was plainly visible and we gauged that five to six hours were required to reach it. We stopped for yet another rest and breathing space. Even when standing still we had to brace ourselves against the wind. Otherwise it was a perfect day. The views across to Annapurna and out over Tibet were surpassingly beautiful, but the battle against the howling gale demanded all our attention and our last remnants of strength. Pasang rubbed his cold hands on his thighs and remarked: "Perhaps there won't be a wind tomorrow." There was no need to interpret his words; they were the inevitable signal for a retreat.

'Back we went to our tent. The gale had played havoc with our already damaged shelter while we were away. One wall had been split from top to bottom and was fluttering in the wind. We tried emergency repairs with string, but it was just as cold inside as it was outside, and we spent an endless night of sheer discomfort. The wind blew in a fine powder of snow on us until, by dawn, we were covered in a two-inch blanket of the stuff. Then Pasang was urging me on to another start.

'The next day, the 26th, there was no blue in the sky. It was covered over by racing battalions of grey cloud; and if anything the gale was stronger than the day before. We climbed up the now familiar ridge. Quite often I couldn't even see my companion, who had disappeared into a wall of mist ahead of me. Visibility was down to a yard or two. We stopped once again to recover our breath, a long way short of yesterday's point of return. We just looked at each other and nodded, and turned back again. Once again it was Dhaulagiri's hideous gale which had forced us to retreat. Soon we were lying down in our tent once more. Then suddenly Sherpa Pasang and Gyalzen poked their heads through the rent in the tent-wall and said: "Sahib, we'll have to sleep here, too. During yesterday a stone-fall buried our tent at Camp V and we bivouacked in the open last night; but may we please come in with you now?" So the pair of them crawled into our draughty shelter, which was so small that we literally had to lie on top of one another. It was at least warmer. I was particularly sorry for Sherpa Pasang. The avalanche had torn his sleeping bag to ribbons, so he had to spend the night without one. We could only give him such warm clothing as we could spare.

'A third night followed. Pasang said it was the worst he had ever lived through. The grey morning light came as a kind of deliverance. The weather was worse than ever and the wind smothered us with driven snow and ice. All the same, we tried a third time. We hadn't got far before it began to snow very heavily. There was no sense in going on. Indeed, common sense dictated only one decision, and that was to get down to much lower regions with the least possible delay. This final decision to retreat, which meant of course the complete abandonment of our objective, was not only a hard one for me to take, but it was especially hard for Pasang Dawa Lama. In utter depression he reached out both hands to me and said: "We have no key to this mountain. Three times have I come high on it, but the Gods don't want us to invade their habitation." '

Prein's report ends with those words, and I have little to add. We got down off the mountain and back to Pokhara without a mishap of any kind. If we have done anything to make the way easier for the climbers who will eventually stand on Dhaulagiri's summit, our expedition will not have been in vain and we shall have fulfilled our mission as mountaineers. But the mountain claimed from us a dreadful sacrifice. In his wonderful book, 'The Romance of Mountaineering,' written many years ago, long before anyone had set foot on the summit of an eight-thousander, R. L. G. Irving wrote:' If the credit of the first ascent is the great reward to be won on Nanga Parbat, the successful party can hope for little more than to collect a prize ori which the names of Merkl and his friends are already written.'

And whoever does climb Dhaulagiri will find inscribed on the victor's crown the names of Ibanez and Roiss.





⇑ Top