German-Swiss Himalayan Expedition, 1962


First encounters with Pumori have probably followed much the same course with all contenders, and I will admit that we formed no exception. This mountain, the Virgin Jewel of the Khumbu, as Marcel Kurz has called it, is seen for the first time when Everest with its eternal toga of clouds, wild Lhotse and the Nuptse wall have long been part of the daily landscape. One is out of breath from coming up over the old green tongue of the Khumbu Glacier, that heap of rubble which is as ugly as it is famous. We were dumbfounded, and our Sherpas, too. Pumori had played no part in the plans of the expeditions with which they had previously been in this region. ‘You will never get up there! ' they said.

When you see the mountain for the first time, you can stare your eyes out searching for a route of ascent, even if at home you have already puzzled out the best possibilities with the help of the splendid photographs that are available.

We set up our Base Camp at approximately 18,000 feet, in a small hollow between the uppermost yak pasture of the Pangboche people, which is called Gorakshep, and the Pumori Glacier. I had chosen this site because I had thought we would be protected there from the unremitting winds from the Dudh Kosi valley and the Khumbu Glacier. That was a mistake. The hollow proved to be a sort of wind channel. However, this did have one advantage. The cold Dudh Kosi wind prevented us from prolonging our comfortable breakfast until lunch-time. In the late mornings it regularly drove us back to our air-mattresses for a brief nap.

After a week had passed I became uneasy and reckoned that our somnolent group was the most unsuited expeditionary team that ever sojourned in the Himalayas. I was indignant, but unjustly so, as it later turned out. We were indebted for this long period of rest to the wise advice of Ernst Forrer, who was experienced in the Himalayas. It gave us an ideal time for adjustment to the rarefied atmospheric conditions of this altitude, a good preparation for our coming trials in the difficult cliffs of the south face and on the incredible north-east ridge of Pumori.

The first aspect of Pumori, however grandiose an impression it may produce, discourages the sahib as well as the Sherpa. However, the closer one approaches the mountain, the nlore simple everything appears. Undoubtedly, our unsuccessful predecessors were taken in by this, and so, to begin with, were we.

On April 4, 1962, we had established our Base Camp on Gorak- shep, and on the 12th we took an exploratory stroll. We climbed over slag-slopes to the foot of the red cliffs of Pumori's south spur and returned rather sobered.

I incline more to rock routes; Ernst Forrer, by contrast, is an ice-man. Sometimes we had wild disputes ; but as a result of this first advance all our hopes for a short steep ascent,* that would be different from the attempts of our predecessors, sank to zero. I still consider the south spur of Pumori to be possible. We wanted, however, to climb the mountain and not merely solve a minor problem.

The Nepal side of Pumori presents the south-east face and the west flank. The entire south-east face is two-and-a-half miles broad. Everything that, until our visit, had been attempted at Pumori, including the catastrophe of December, 1961, had taken place there. Far in advance, I had furnished this south-east face with a series of theoretical intermediary camps, depots and routes of ascent, but such theories are a normal part of an adventure.

On our exploratory climb under the ' shoulder spurthe ice- ridge which runs down the ice-wall below the shoulder, the end point of the north-east ridge below the summit pyramid, we found numerous traces of predecessors, but no route of ascent that could be taken seriously. Here one can get up to well above 20,000 feet, and one can take magnificent photographs of Everest opposite; then one suddenly finds oneself beneath monstrous ice-bulges and towers and cracks ripe and ready to break off, so that in all modesty one climbs down again. This was one more futile venture. We still searched with the big field glasses for a weak point, but in vain. Only far towards the east there still remained a spur, almost below the wild Lingtren-Pumori ravine. We climbed down in order to have a go at our ‘secret tip'.

In general I put little trust in ‘secret tips’, which someone gives you casually. Here the tip was the West Col.

We climbed about on the Changri Shar Glacier so as to scan the West Col and the secretive west flank, which on the map inspires ideas of an ascent. But we soon climbed down again, though we had obtained a good view of the south spur from the west, of which we now had an exact idea. However, the west flank is murderous. There you will find no nicely graded west glacier: only a vile ice-fall and fearful avalanche walls. Therefore I decided to establish our Camp I in the closest proximity to the eastern cliff spur, and from there to make a new attempt to find a way to the mountain itself.

View from ‘The pass of the disappointed’ which is the saddle beyween the Pumori north-east ridge and Lingben (6,697 m.) (Camp 3-6,220 m.) to the Ama Dablam and Kanglega group

View from ‘The pass of the disappointed’ which is the saddle beyween the Pumori north-east ridge and Lingben (6,697 m.) (Camp 3-6,220 m.) to the Ama Dablam and Kanglega group

The 1-5 k.m. north east ridge of the Pumori looking back

The 1-5 k.m. north east ridge of the Pumori looking back

With the attempt to pitch a usable camp at the right point beneath the south-east face there seemed to appear the first symptoms of moral dissolution among both sahibs and Sherpas. There was a Camp I a, another which might be called Camp I b, and a third, Camp Ic.

At Base Camp, disregarding the cold valley wind which arose about 10 a.m., we had our first days of fair weather. There was an atmosphere of spring, when one might expect to find larks and other tiny songsters that might help one to forget the harshness of the scene. But there were only the impertinent jackdaws and fussy ptarmigans.

On the day when I despatched the first loads to a hypothetical Camp I came the first really bad weather. It hailed, stormed and snowed wildly, and with minor pauses continued thus into the middle of May. The famous fair weather period before the summer monsoon failed us completely. Though this did not lead us into a retreat or a catastrophe, it nevertheless brought us into a hopeless organizational mess. The Base Camp of the Indian Everest expedition, not far away, was also dominated by an atmosphere of nervousness, although softened by Asian resignation.

The Sherpas, Nima Tensing and Nima Dorje (the Nima Dorje who had been on Dhaulagiri), and I were the first to resume our ascent. In our first serious attempt, carrying rucksacks heavy with ropes and pitons, we climbed a goodly portion of the face of the cliff spur. I had spied out a snow-field which looked from below like a broad ledge, and wanted to bring up the smallest tent as the first stage in the face. The climbing on the spur varied between the third and fourth degree of difficulty, and the snow-ledge proved illusory. But we had covered 600 feet of the Pumori face, and a good start had been made. We fixed ropes all the way down to the bottom of the face and we now had a really good beginning of a route, which encouraged us to proceed.

Unfortunately, the weather continued bad. On the following days we climbed up twice more, each time a little higher, until we reached a chimney which we examined closely. Ueli Hiirlemann, the youngest member of our party, but physically the strongest, until now had had difficulty in acclimatizing to the oxygen-poor altitude, so he remained at the Base Camp to start with and organized the transportation of supplies to Camp I, which stood at 18,000 feet at the foot of the south-east face. Hans Rutzel and Ernst Forrer, together with the two Nimas, took part in attempts to climb higher.

The chimney was a real trap. I climbed a rope-length up it, here and there hammering a piton into the ice with which it was plastered, until I could go no further. It took me hours to get down again and I still marvel that I made it; in any case, I have become much more critical of climbing on rotten vertically-stratified rocks. Snow-fall and storm followed, and we went down.

Two days later Forrer made a new attempt from the point whence we had retreated below the chimney, and on a protruding pulpitlike site he succeeded in hacking out a level place from the ice, where our small tent could be pitched. This was Camp II. It was at least a shelter for the nights, and in the later stages of the ascent it played a decisive role. Ernst Forrer and I were now no longer obliged to climb down the entire wall; instead we could make use of every slight improvement in the weather to press forward. The Nimas and the two others, as well as Ueli Hurlemann, who could not be kept idle below, climbed up daily, even in the worst weather -in fog, storm and snow showers—along the fixed ropes, and brought us new supplies. In the end there were probably a hundred ice and rock pitons in the wall, with more than 2,000 feet of rope attached. There were all kinds of pitches : walls, chimneys and corners, everything to delight the heart of a climber. We climbed everything at first without direct aid, except for one holdless wall where the cracks were buried under deep new snow; there we fastened a sling. While we did this the weather raged down at us from the north-east ridge and, when we again reached a good ledge, we wound the rappel ropes about us and swooped down again to the camp on the face. It was quite comfortable in this tent, although Forrer lay on the piled up snow-wall beyond which the mountain fell away for nearly 1,200 feet. But inside the tent we saw nothing of this.

On April 23 I had started the first part of the face. On the evening of May 3, around five o'clock, we deposited our heavy packs on the soft slopes of the Col between Pumori and Lingtren. We had already reached this point the previous day, but had had to return to the camp on the cliff.

I have named this pass the 'Pass of the Disappointed'. Later we crossed it part of the way down to the Rongphu Glacier in Tibet. Mallory had been there in 1921 and Shipton in 1938, when searching around Mount Everest for better possibilities of ascent. And, indeed, to the north, lovely ski-slopes fall away in soft waves. The east-west shadow, which here must be called an icy one, also does not make the climber's life easier.

At 20,180 feet (according to Erwin Schneider's map of 1957) the Pass of the Disappointed might count as the highest and most difficult pass that has been crossed so far, but I would advise against the trip.

The south-east face, on the same scale as the north face of the Eiger, lay below us, and our disappointment at the appearance of the north-east ridge was indescribable. Judging from the photographs, we had reckoned on a friendly firm crest, and the map suggested the same. But before our eyes began the wildest and steepest corniced ridge that we had ever seen.

A little above the Col we pitched a double nylon tent for Camp III. The altimeter indicated 20,407 feet. Forrer, the ice-climber, announced that he would avoid the ridge and use the north face instead, and at that very moment there thundered, as if in greeting, down from the ridge and over the icy north face, hardly fifty yards away from our tent, a huge and glassy chunk of cornice.

At night the temperature fell to an unusual degree. Neither of us could find any sleep, although we had become well accustomed to the cold since our nights in the wall began.

The good route we had prepared up the south-east face now brought its rewards. The Sherpas, with Rlitzel and Hurlemann, constantly brought up supplies, even in bad weather. Because of the danger of falling cornices, Forrer and I made our first attempt on the north-east ridge. It failed. Then we climbed down to the Rongphu Glacier, reconnoitred the north face, and started up it in good weather. Eventually we had to retreat to safety out of a practically vertical, furrowed, firn wall in driving snow and in constant danger of avalanches.

By this time we had had enough, so we went all the way down for a rest. We had been eleven days on the mountain without interruption, and we gave way to our two comrades. On May 9 I climbed down to Base Camp with Forrer. On May 13 we returned to Camp III on the pass. During this time Hurlemann and Rutzel had made two more attempts along the north-east ridge and had then given up. Both had come back over the wall to Camp I.

When one has sat for a day at Base Camp, read the mail from home with encouraging words from friends, the world looks quite different. We decided to remain in Camp III until either the weather improved or our provisions ran out. If the good weather arrived we wanted to push forward with our ' Pumori-method', that is, without any further build-up of camps, carrying all necessary equipment with us—a small tent and five days' provisions—and wearing as many clothes as possible. In this manner we wanted to .push on over the ridge and over the summit wall. It would entail a greater risk, but we had considered it long and carefully. In the event of a severe turn in the weather we should be able to pitch the tent wherever we were and wait from eight to ten days for an improvement. The question remained as to whether, on that exceptionally steep ridge, a camp-site could be found.

The hoped-for weather came with a fresh cold wind out of the brown infinity of Tibet. On May 15, after 6 a.m., the three of us (Rutzel had not yet come up again) left Camp III. By noon the two wildest pitches on the ridge, on which all attempts had failed until then, had been overcome. The second decisive point on this important day was a level cornice in the middle of the north-east ridge. There we set up the small light tent. This was our Camp IV. Beside it stood an ice-tower, which was not to be climbed and which involved a vital decision. We had to climb around it to the right in the icy north face. About noon on the 16th we climbed, one after the other, hand over hand, back on to the ridge above the tower. Towards evening, in a light fog, we arrived, fairly exhausted, at the e shoulder', where we pitched our small narrow tent on the level spot we had been yearning for. At 21,820 feet, it was our last and most important camp. Ueli Hurlemann named it the 'Pumori Hospiz'.

The way to the summit offered no difficulties. The strong dry Tibetan wind had carried away all the loose snow from the bad weather period, and the sun transformed the steep, 1,500-foot wall into good firn. One can climb it like the top part of the Brenva face or the Peuterey ridge, only much more freely. At one's back stands the highest mountain in the world. The incomparable lines of Pumori, this mountain without a blemish, seem to lift themselves up above the earth.

On May 17, 1962, shortly after 11 a.m., we stood at the edge of the summit triangle and stepped on to the highest point. The gale swept across it and tried to hurl us down. We knelt and turned our gaze over the sea of mountains. The few happy seconds of fulfilment, though fleeting, were the reward of our efforts.

The summit hour was over and we went briskly down over the steep track. Two-and-a-half hours later we were back at the Hospiz, The sun sank behind the summit and it became cold, but we had a quiet night. The weather held and everything went well until we were back at Camp III. Then the first brown cloud showed up out of the south, the same clouds that robbed the Indians on Everest of success.

MAY 17, 1962 ON TOP OF THE PUMORI (7,145 M.)

MAY 17, 1962 ON TOP OF THE PUMORI (7,145 M.)



On the second day after the summit we reached the camps below the mountain. The dangers had been overcome. On May 24, on our way back over the highest summer meadow (Lobuche), I found the first primulas and the tender grasses. We laid our faces on the warm spring moss and enjoyed our good fortune.

Translated and published by kind permission of the Editor of Mountain World.

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