TUKUCHE PEAK (6,920 meters)

The Swiss-Nepal Expedition of 1969

(Translated by Hugh Merrick)

High peaks may be climbed for many reasons: for national prestige, or because success will enhance one's career, or purely for the love of adventure to the unknown and of a shared experience under foreign skies. But it is always a satisfaction if at the end of a successful campaign one can say as Henry Hoek did The journey was our real objective’.

During a mission sent out by the International Red Cross in 1961, I spent several weeks in the Thak Khola Valley, mostly at Jomosom. Almost every day two mountains held a climber's eye: The Nilgiris and Tukuche Peak, the eastern and western corner-stones respectivey of the gateway to the Thak Khola. Nilgiri (north peak) was climbed in 1963 by a Dutch party led by Lionel Terray; thanks to the ban on mountaineering ventures from 1965 to 1968, Tukuche's summit remained an unclimbed objective for us.

I had taken a number of pictures of Tukuche Peak. From Muktinath the 3,000-metre north-east face was impressive; I had seen the south-eastern precipice from the valley and from the air; while the decisive picture was that of the more accessible northwest face, taken from Muskang Re, about 6,000 metres high, near the Tiche La. The side facing Dhaulagiri remained a secret to us till, just before our departure, a photograph taken during the Swiss Expedition of 1953 came into our hands.

True, Tukuche Peak is overshadowed by its huge neighbour, Dhaulagiri I. With the exception of the South Peak of Nilgiri, it remained the highest unclimbed ‘six-thousander' in the Thak Khola area. What was to the French, under Maurice Herzog in 1950, a possible 'consolation peak', when they were seeking in vain for the approach route to Dhaulagiri, became our main objective.

Our light expedition took shape during the summer of 1968. Based on a newspaper article entitled: 'Is the ban on climbing in Nepal Ending ?' we decided to make a definite plan. A list issued by the Nepalese Government as available for permit- applications included Tukuche Peak.

Alfred Hitz was immediately willing to close down his medical practice for a few weeks in favour of a visit to the Himalayas, the photographs of which had long since awakened his enthusiasm. I was in close touch with Alois Strickler, a precision engineer, because of correspondence regarding two planned expeditions which had come to nothing; it did not take him long to decide to join our project, for the Nepal Himalaya was still missing from his fist of things done. For Ruedi Homberger, the photographer and part-time guide, our plans came at exactly the right moment, following a number of difficult climbs in the Alps. The acquisition of Andres Hirsbrunner, a Swiss expatriate working as a forestry engineer in Kathmandu, was more a matter of chance.

The organization of a light expedition for only a few months in the Himalayas is only possible if transport by sea is excluded. That again entails furious calculations, on account of the high air-freight charges. We intended, on the approach route, to live as far as possible 4 off the land % while for the regions above the villages and the actual period of activities on the climb, we had prepared meticulous lists of provisions. Our personal mountaineering equipment was to fall within the free baggage allowance, while we knew we could count on a store of ropes Alois had preserved in Delhi from an earlier expedition. For tents and the equipment for the liaison officer and the Sherpas we drew mainly from Andres Hirsbrunner's plentiful stock in Kathmandu.

Our preparations were hampered by the uncertainty hanging over us regarding the permit for ‘our mountain', which had not come to hand by 4 April, when we left Zurich by air. So we had to busy ourselves with the uncomfortable thought of an alternative area.

As we were proceeding by a charter flight, we were compelled to visit Delhi, Rangoon, Bangkok and Calcutta before starting operations; this gave us useful practice in the handling of mountaineering equipment on tropical airfields. There was a general strike in progress at Calcutta, so we did not regret the brevity of our stop there before boarding the 6 Fokker-Friendship' for Kathmandu. After the broad plains of India, the entry into the vale of Kathmandu is always an exciting experience: impassable gorges in the foothills of the Mahabharat Lekh suddenly open out into a broad, lofty basin, across which the city sprawls widespread, encircled by countless rice-terraces.

By comparison with 1961, Kathmandu, the city of innumerable temples, has been beset by a certain restlessness: partly owing to the many cars and the dust they whirl up, partly on account of the many new buildings going up and the hordes of tourists and 4 Hippies\ a new feature along the streets, as well as the denser native population.

Our list of duties was too demanding to allow us any sightseeing. After various visits to the Singha Durbar, the Government Office Palace, we had to wait five more days before our Tukuche Peak permit was safely in our hands. Then we had to settle our freight-dues, negotiate with the Himalayan Society, purchase provisions and clothing for the Sherpas, sort, and finally pack our equipment. We counted ourselves lucky to have the invaluable support of the amiable Swiss at the Ekanta Kuna, the residence and office of the Administration of Development Aid, who also provided us with excellent quarters.

On 16 April everything was ready. We were now a party of nine (three Sherpas and the liaison officer having joined us), of whom three flew on ahead to Pokhara as an advance guard. It was, however, not till three days later that we were all reunited as a complete team with our ton or so of baggage, for unusually heavy rains had played havoc with the aircraft time-table.

Pokhara is singularly beautiful, with the matchless background of Machhapuchhare and the Annapurnas overshadowing it. It has, however, lost some of its dream-like quality since the arrival of motor traffic over the road, built by the Indians up from the Terai. Like many an expedition before us, we busied ourselves here with our final preparations, made our last purchases, as well as enrolled the 29 Tibetan porters provided by the Government.

Our party of 40 or so (29 porters, 3 Sherpas, the liaison officer and 5 members) started out on 19 April along the (by now traditional) route via Tatopani and Jomosom, which I had traversed twice in 1961. Then it had been during the monsoon, so that everything was lush green and we waded in water for hours on end; now everything was sickeningly arid. Our first staging-post was Suikhet, then Birethanti, on the banks of the Modi Khola, where during the night a totally unexpected thunderstorm drove us out of our bivouac in the open, in search of shelter from the downpour. The next day involved the steep ascent to Ulleri (2,000 m.), after which we crossed the 2,900 metres Ghorapani Pass to Sikha. That stage, through forests of rhododendrons in full bloom, was one of our loveliest experiences. Here, too, at a moderate distance, we had our first sight of Dhaulagiri and, even more interesting to us, of Tukuche Peak, its near neighbour to the north. But, first, the road to our mountain led downhill again to Tatopani, where the lofty suspension-bridge over the Kali Gandaki, with its back-cloth of the Nilgiri, provided us with new scenic and photographic material. The rebuilding of this bridge has now facilitated the use of pack animals from the Thak Khola to Pokhara.

We moved on to Dana and the subsequent exhausting ascent through the deep Kalapani gorge,3 whose pine forests are reminiscent of a Swiss landscape. High above the darkening valley Annapurna's western faces glowed as if bathed in gold. Next morning, near the last house in the village, we came quite unexpectedly on the doctor of the American Dhaulagiri Expedition who was looking after his first casualty, an experienced climber who had contracted an oedema of the lung at the relatively low altitude of 4,500 metres. Thanks to oxygen, diuretics and a prompt evacuation to valley level, our colleague had saved his teammate from his dangerous condition. It was only the prelude to a much more serious disaster of which nobody had, at the time, an inkling.

Tukuche itself, once an important changing-post for caravans from Tibet, was our last stage in the valley. At this point the Dhampus Khola4 falling from the pass of the same name, which was the objective of our column of porters, debouches into the main valley. As the slopes are extremely steep we decided on a detour by way of Marpha, so as to reach the yak-alp above Tukuche, close below the snow-line at 4,000 metres, in two more days' marches. The scenery hereabouts was magnificent: straight ahead of us rose the 3,000-metre high north-east face of Tukuche Peak, while across the valley opposite soared the Nilgiris, with just a glimpse of the so-called Grande Barriere behind them. Our Tibetans were not in the least impressed, however, and after a cold night they wanted to break our agreement and go back. It was only after hours of negotiation that we could persuade them to carry on for another 400 metres. There they left us, alone with our ton of equipment, still 700 metres below the Dhampus Pass!

This was the start of a new chapter in our approach to our mountain. We were now our own high-altitude porters. With the aid of the Sherpas, who had remained with us, we took two days to hump all our stuff onto a terrace 300 metres higher up, where we pitched a provisional Base Camp. Our next surprise, during the final carries, came in the shape of lightning, thunder and snow—a combination entirely unexpected in this region. The snowfall turned into a blizzard, which wiped out all our tracks in less than a quarter of an hour. The storm continued unabated and we began to despair of making any further progress; soon there was more than a metre of fresh snow, which threatened to crush our tents. It was 94 hours before the ordeal ended: a clear, windless night heralded fine weather. We could press on! After breaking a highly laborious trail we reached the Dhampus Pass (5,100 m.), and were very relieved to see that from here Tukuche looked climbable by our proposed route.

During the days that followed we transported most of our stuff to the Base Camp proper, on a moraine an hour to the west of the Pass. Only a little way westwards of the Pass in the ‘Hidden Valley' the aircraft of the 1959 Swiss Dhaulagiri expedition lay buried up to the wing tip under the mass of snow. The availability of air transport would have cut the 14 days of our approach- march to about an hour!

We were glad to note that the snow to the west of the Dhampus near our Base Camp was much less deep than farther east, though the winds were stronger. To the west, away towards the Mukut Himal ranged a number of ice pyramids, probably as yet unclimbed. Our own objective, however, lay right at our threshold. We could not afford to waste any more time, as we were already a week behind our time-table and we had to allow for the unexpected. Thanks to our ' Sherpa activities' we were all well acclimatized. Looking back, we had followed the most recent prescriptions: no continuous climbing, but repeated ascents under loads, and then a descent to a camp lower down for the night's rest. One or other of us was at times subjected to periods of short breath at night, especially in the smaller tents, but it was quite harmless and, up till now, normal.

By 6 May we had, in less than three days, equipped our Camp I at 6,100 metres so adequately that we could branch out at will into a second high camp. We all shared in the work except Gondar, our liaison officer, who took Ongju, the Sherpa porter, with him and went down to the valley to inform the radio station at Jomosom that we had established our Base Camp, a piece of news he considered important.

Our first attempt was stopped by ‘Dhaulagiri Weather’ which forced us to turn back at 5,600 metres. This local weather is unique, as is known to previous expeditions: sunny mornings, then increasing cloud, starting in the Lete basin as early as 10.00 hrs. and finally snowfalls between 18.00 and 19.00 hrs., after which the sky becomes clear again. This meant that even on the so- called fine days all the vital work on the mountain had to be done in the morning.

The extension to the route during the following days over a lengthy glacier was not difficult, but the newly fallen snow made it tiresome. From Camp I we were able to see what had previously been a hidden sector of the route ahead: the 600-metre high cliff, broken up into steps, leading to the so-called 'false' summit between Tukuche's main and west peaks. This Alois christened The Brenva Face’.

On the night of 8 and 9 May Alois and Ruedi, with Sonam Girmi, our strongest team, occupied Camp I, with a view to reconnoitring, next day, the onward route to the summit and if possible climbing it by a kind of lightning raid ; being a small party, we were forced to reach our goal by the greatest possible advances, involving as few camps as possible. The rest of us carried further supplies up to Camp I, that airy perch. That day we had a pleasant surprise in the shape of completely new weather conditions: a huge sea of cloud was lying in the Thak Khola valley at about 4,500 metres and was moving forward through the Myangdi Khola to below the ‘French Col Perfect weather for the summit’, we thought! We were disturbed to see Ruedi, our youngest teammate, coming back alone down the ' Brenva Face" quite early in the afternoon. Luckily he had no accident to report; it was simply that he himself was feeling sick and exhausted. Before crawling into the shelter of the tent he told us about the wonderful sweep up to the summit which can be seen from the ‘false' summit. The sun was low in the sky when Alois and Girmi came back. In spite of all hopes, they had not got to the top, but they assured us that everything was ripe for the following day. This was good news indeed: there was no insurmountable obstacle on the way, and they had prepared the route to a place where it descended fully 100 metres and then a third of the way up the summit slope beyond.

The morning of 10 May dawned; for the first time in days there had been neither wind nor snow during the night. We felt that a great day lay before us, and we made a start at about 5.30 a.m. in biting cold, leaving the vast sea of cloud far below us. Alois led us up the now familiar 4 Brenva Face' in three hours flat, to reach—if somewhat out of breath—the plateau on the ridge to the east of the ‘false’ summit, at about 6,700 metres. From it we were able to share the enthusiasm of our teammates in the magnificent views of the main summit. Though there was practically no direct light on its south-west flank facing us, everything stood out in sharp relief. Our neighbour, Dhaulagiri, was impressive more for its bulk than its stature. The route followed by those who made its first ascent over the steadily rising northeast face appeared to us from over here to be the only practicable one; the ' French Ridge' was, on the other hand, utterly inaccessible, its delicate flutings looking like the work of some handicraft expert. We felt we ought almost to be able to see the Americans, if they were not still hard at it lower down. It was not till we rejoined Gondar that we learned how the East Dhaulagiri glacier had become the grave of half the expedition.5

At this unrivalled resting-place on our ridge we reformed ranks, Ruedi was feeling much better, but still not fit enough for the summit; Fredi, therefore, suggested an attempt on the west summit instead, So we took Girmi, for whom the main summit was an ‘occupational distinction’ on to our rope.

From the climbing point of view the finest part in our whole expedition lay ahead of us. The route was obvious ; steep ridges gave way to a kind of shelf along which we moved to the right for a time. All we had to do was to avoid the proximity of the ridge with its huge overhanging cornices. There was smooth ice on the first steep pitch and the work of step-cutting grew more burdensome. Alois put in several ice-screws, which meant longer halts for Girmi and me, for which we were duly grateful. Alois was hardly affected by this heavy ice-work ; his altitude tolerance was incredible and he moved at much the same pace as on any ice- slope in the Alps. We had only one thought in our minds: 4 the summit today or not at all!' The gods could not have been kinder to us in respect of wind and weather. A short midday rest worked wonders. Our legs got heavier and heavier, true enough, but our breathing improved a little. After another pitch we were under the triangle of the summit, a snow-slope of about 80 metres rising at a uniform angle of about 50°. Our luck was in ; it was almost all firm snow, so belaying with our axes was quite sufficient. We had come up about 1,000 metres during the day, a considerable height differential at such an altitude. Being so close to the summit gave us fresh strength. Alois, traversing ahead out onto the east flank from the vaguely defined rdige, let us come up to him so that we could share the wounderful sight of the snow-ridge losing itself, only 20 metres ahead, into the void, or rather into the north-east face. This is the summit, Sonam' —a pleasant piece of information, that!—and then in accordance with local custom: ‘You go first'. Then we two sahibs together followed the Sherpa on to Tukuche's highest point. We exchanged congratulations and hugs, full of joy. Then we yodeled across to our friends, who were at that very moment, as if by arrangement, stepping onto the white dome of Tukuche's west summit—a double victory!

We enjoyed nearly an hour's rest on the summit, an unusual pleasure in the Himalayas. Girmi was delighted when we unfurled the Nepalese flag alongside the Swiss. After taking photographs in all directions we drank in the fabulous panorama. It was not difficult to recognize the three ‘eight-thousanders '—Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu. Then there were the high seven- thousanders of the Dhaula Himal and innumerable peaks to the west, north and east. There was a sizeable snow-pyramid just visible to the north, obviously far into Tibet. China, India and Nepal lay beneath a common horizon. The problems of valley life, as of domestic life, seemed small and petty from here.6

Summit-hours have to end, for even the descent would demand hard work, since the excitement had been dissipated and we were conscious of our weariness. It was 5 p.m. before we put the ascent to the ‘false' summit behind us ; it had demanded our last reserves of will-power. Our friends were waiting for us in the cold up there, for the sun had gone pale behind rising clouds. The only thing we all wanted was to get down to Camp I.

Next morning we separated temporarily. Ruedi and Andres went for the summit, while we went down to Base, where Gondar and the remaining Sherpas gave us an enthusiastic welcome. For our liaison officer this meant the final escape from the inhospitable realms of snow.

Tukuche put up a great fight against a second ascent, for the short period of fine weather was at an end. Our two comrades had been forced to spend two nights in the light nylon tent below the 6 false' summit, one of them without so much as a hot drink. As a result Ruedi had suffered slightly frost-bitten toes. We only realized then how a single day can mean the difference between success and failure, and it decides whether the last 300 metres can be climbed or not at the end of a journey thousands of kilometres in length. We looked respectfully at 4 our mountain', which had been kind to us.

Our baggage was soon down in Tukuche, borne by powerful Thakali porters; a mule team carried it swiftly to Pokhara. We cannot judge whether the foreign correspondents in Kathmandu really understood what we had achieved. ‘You are the first successful expedition in four years", said one of them; (we had succeeded because our objective had not been one of the giant peaks). ‘Will you climb other peaks in the Himalayas ? ' they asked finally. Did they think we had nothing else to do ? ‘That may well be’ seemed a satisfactory reply.

We remember with gratitude our Swiss hosts at Kathmandu, Fraulein Spahr and Fraulein Seltmann, to name only two of them. Nor will we forget the Sherpas, the porters, the liaison officer and the officials of the Nepalese Government.

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