[Following the successful expedition to Tirich Mir in 1969 (H.J., Vol. XXIX, 1969, pp. 139-60), the Army Mountaineering Association, in 1970, selected Annapurna I (26,545 ft.) as its objective. They intended to repeat the French 1950 route (H.J., Vol. XVI, 1950, pp. 9-24)].

Build up and acclimatization

The march-in from Pokhara, via the Kali Gandaki River and the Thulobugin Pass over the Nilgiris, caused the party to become considerably stretched in resources. Insufficient porters caused serious delay in reaching Base Camp (14,300 ft.) which was situated on the right lateral moraine of the North Annapurna glacier. Because of the lack of numbers and owing to the previous severe winter the five Sherpas had to remain behind at this stage to supervise the move over the high passes of the Nilgiris into the Miristi Khola.

However the climbing party, consisting of six British and two Nepalese Army members, was able to maintain the momentum by finding the route ahead and by carrying loads of 50 pounds themselves. This state of affairs existed until Advance Base Camp (19,600 ft.) was established on 22 April. There the Sherpas finally caught up with the expedition and were able to release the climbers from load carrying. It was noticeable hereafter how quickly events moved.

These circumstances did in fact forge a well-acclimatized and extremely fit group. All members were then capable of moving on up to higher altitudes. One setback was the loss of the cine photographer, Taylor. On the Thulobugin Pass (14,000 ft.) Taylor succumbed to pneumonia and was evacuated by helicopter.

' Sickle bowl' avalanches preclude attempt by French 1950 route

Prior to 24 April three huge avalanches had catapulted down from the ' Sickle bowl' feature (24,000 ft.) towards the site of Advance Base Camp (19,600 ft.). On 23 April 1970 Owens and Summerton were reconnoitring the route up through the ‘Avalanche' couloir to Camp III (22,000 ft.). Their preliminary exploration was successful and they returned to Advance Base Camp. The next morning at 0600 hours whilst 'brewing up' breakfast the camp of two tents was hit by an avalanche blast of terrific intensity. The occupied tent was knocked flat and torn apart. Owens and Summerton were pummelled by fragmented ice lumps but escaped serious injury because the tent was dug in and they were lying flat. After the tumult they looked outside and observed that the other tent containing climbing equipment and personal gear had disappeared forever.

It was agreed to abandon the French route and the expedition now turned its attention to the North-east buttress which seemed to provide access to the upper snow-fields leading to the summit.

A new route attempted

Day and Keelan now took up the front running. They successfully scaled 300 feet of the steep ice buttress cutting steps all the way and placing fixed ropes on the first day. The next day they continued for another 300 feet. Anderson and Owens took over to keep up the momentum. The snow and ice climbing on this buttress was technically the most difficult encountered on the mountain. For 10 days the climbers slowly inched a precarious way upwards. Periodic ice-falls swept the face. On two occasions the fixed ropes were severed—fortunately during a time of inactivity. Then suddenly hopes were dashed by huge towering seracs intersected by deep crevasses. Reluctantly a decision was made to abandon the buttress.

Renewed attempt on the French route but with a variation

The interval of time spent away from the main face of the mountain revealed that there were fewer and fewer avalanches. Once more the expedition decided to turn its attention to the French route but with a variation. Looking at it in detail, the route selected would keep out, in the middle section, on the steep snow slopes to the right of the two couliors where the avalanches were channelled. The mountain, however, in the lower section of the climb forced an interval of two extremely dangerous hours. The only accessible way lay directly in the path of snow-, ice- and rock-falls which sporadically swept from the ' Sickle bowl’.

Bad weather and an unfortunate accident

The weather deteriorated at this juncture and snow fell heavily. Climbing was suspended for six days. It was felt necessary to recover some climbing equipment from the North-east buttress. Snow conditions were treacherous but the fixed ropes offered safety. The ascent had hardly commenced when Summerton fell 50 feet and broke some ribs. He was carrying the cine camera and, pausing to shoot some film, he let go of the rope. At that moment a snow slab under his feet broke away and carried him over a small ice cliff but fortunately the fall was cushioned by soft snow. Day and Keelan took Summerton down to Base Camp whilst Anderson and Owens ferried stores up between Camp I (17,400 ft.) and Camp II (19,600 ft.).

A pause for breath

It was time to take stock of the situation. Only four climbers were left to carry out the assault and as yet the party had not come to grips with the mountain. The Sirdar considered that only he and one other Sherpa were capable of climbing above Camp III (22,000 ft.). The two Nepalese Army members who had rendered such useful work until now were suffering from various complaints and could not be considered further. With a total of nearly 7,000 feet at this altitude (Camp II, 19,600 ft.) it was asking much of already stretched resources in physical stamina. Climbing equipment and food were in short supply and the weight of oxygen presented a thorny problem in logistics. Day sat down in the comparative oxygen rich air of Base Camp and thought out a blue-print plan for success. With minor adjustments this plan was adhered to and proved effective. The strength of the summit party and those to support it, the acclimatization of individual members, time and weight problems with equipment, food and oxygen were the main factors to be considered. Oxygen because of its weight (30 pounds per set) could not be carried in any great quantity because of the numbers available to carry. Eventually it was decided to carry two oxygen sets for the summit pair with two spare cylinders for sleeping on the night prior to the assault. Depending on the form of the assault party a further two cylinders would be carried up to Camp V (24,300 ft.) to allow a second attempt by two other people. Rations were honed down and minimum climbing and camping equipment was selected.

Variation to the French 1950 route and the establishment of Camp IV (23,300 ft.)

On 12 May, Day, Anderson, Keelan, Owens and the Sirdar set off for Camp III (22,000 ft.). The move to and establishing of Camp III was incredibly hard work. The heavy loads and conditions under foot—knee-deep snow—were very enervating. In the last 500 feet the snow was waist-deep. The snow had to be tramped down before the full weight of the body could be transferred up to the next step.

The next day, Keelan and Owens sought a way up the steep snow-fields into the 6 Sickle bowl'. This was where it was intended to differ from the French route. An ice gully between two rock bands was tried but did not yield. An ice cliff further to the right was attempted. Rock boulders assailed Keelan and Owens at this juncture and they quickly agreed to abandon the attempt because of the objective clangers.

However, on the portable radio that evening Owens was able to tell the rest that a route had been found, and that it lay in the ice gully between the two rock bands. The reason for failing was not clue to technical difficulty but to poor form, brought on by the previous day's exertions and a nerve-racking gale-force wind which whipped at the tent during the night. Cheered by this news, Day and Anderson returned to the fray. Two teams set off to prepare the route and put in fixed ropes. Day and Keelan succeeded in overcoming the gully and at last the team of four reached the ‘Sickle bowl’. The last technical difficulty was to climb out of the bowl onto the upper slopes set at a comparative easy angle of 45 degrees.

It was now 15 May. The days were numbered and all realized that efforts had to be increased. A degree of urgency was needed. 1 June, so the pundits proclaimed, heralded the onset of the monsoon season. Accordingly, besides pioneering a route out of the ' Sickle bowl’ loads would be carried concurrently to establish Camp IV (23,300 ft.) on 16 May.

Keelan had to retire temporarily at this stage because of iibrositis, but the Sirdar and Per Temba, the youngest Sherpa, accompanied Day, Owens and Anderson. Day and Owens each negotiated 125 feet pitches to get out of the Sickle bowlFixed ropes were placed and the party moved on with their loads to Camp IV (23,300 ft.).

Returning to Camp III the same day, they took stock of the situation. Eleven man loads still had to be ferried up to Camp IV and beyond. The Sirdar delighted everyone by announcing that two other Sherpas could assist. This meant that eight loads could be moved in one day which left a surplus of three. The next clay, Owens accompanied the Sirdar and Per Temba to Camp IV, so disposing of the extra loads.

On 18 May, Day, Anderson, Keelan, Owens and four Sherpas carried loads to Camp IV (23,300 ft.) and two tents were pitched. The same procedure, but this time without the two extra Sherpas, was adopted to Camp V (24,300 ft.). The plan was for four people to carry camp loads and Day and Owens to carry personal gear. Day and Owens would stay at Camp V and make an attempt on the summit the next day, provided the weather held. Keelan and Anderson would return to Camp IV to spend the night, then on ' Summit' day they would return to Camp V and be ready to render assistance if required. At the top camp there was sufficient gear for two people only. Meanwhile, the two Sherpas were to return to Camp III and bring up oxygen cylinders for the second attempt by Anderson and Keelan.

The second ascent of Annapurna I (26,545 ft.)

Altitude made its full effect felt on the party between the highest and penultimate camps. Anderson was weakened in body but not in mind and Per Temba suffered considerable heart strain. He was the youngest Sherpa (21 years) and this was the highest (24,300 ft.) he had ever reached. The Sirdar escorted Per Temba to Camp II and the chance of a second summit bid disappeared with them, but it was better than losing a life. The remaining persons realized that there would be only one attempt on the summit of Annapurna I.

Day and Owens occupied the one tent at Camp V (24,300 ft.) on the night of 19-20 May. There was a high wind and the temperature was - 30 °C. Dawn on 20 May revealed a gloriously sunny and windless day. At 8 a.m. the sun cast its warming rays on the tent and the summit pair set off. Oxygen was used for the first time. For two hours the snow and ice slope (45°) stretched away into the distance. The climbers' minds receded into their inner selves and they moved as in a trance. Then, suddenly, a steep couloir (55°) appeared round a rock buttress. The couloir, filled with snow, offered a quick access to the summit which was accepted with alacrity. Owens and Day arrived on the top of Annapurna I (26,545 ft.) at 11 a.m. The final 2,245 feet had taken 3 hours compared to the French time of 8 hours—Herzog and Lachen&l did not have the use of oxygen.

Retracing their steps Day and Owens moved down carefully to Camp V. That night the weather deteriorated and the temperature rose rapidly. Conditions for the evacuation to Base Camp were treacherous. The snow was rotten and underneath there were many hidden deep crevasses. With much difficulty Anderson, Keelan, Owens and Day extradited themselves to Advance Base Camp on 21 May. That evening Owens, treading a well-trodden path in the vicinity of the camp, plunged 30 feet through soft snow into a crevasse. He suffered shock, slight concussion and painful bruises which necessitated assistance in negotiating the route down to Base Camp. The party were fortunate in experiencing only this one incident. Much equipment was abandoned for it was considered too dangerous for the Sherpas to retrieve even up to Advance Base Camp. Niven, Jones, the Sirdar and a recovering Per Temba formed the welcoming committee at Base Camp.

Conclusions and future prospects

At the time the party approached the French route it was apparent that the spring thaw had just begun and resulted in more numerous avalanches than is normally the case. Bearing in mind the time factor it is difficult to foresee another route on the North side of Annapurna I. The 4 North-east' buttress is a possibility if siege tactics were used. Owens and Day reached a height of 21,000 feet on the buttress when they agreed that the difficulties were too much for the resources of the expedition.

A traverse of the summit from North to South is still waiting to be attempted. There was a remote chance of Bonington's and the Army's expeditions crossing over and using each other's camps on the descent. A time gap of 7 days between the arrival of the summit teams on top precluded this proposition.

Summary. Himalayas, Annapurna I. British Nepalese Army Annapurna Expedition 1970. J. Anderson, M. W. H. Day (Climbing Leader), D. P. M. Jones, G. D. B. Keelan, B. M. Niven (Expedition Commander), G. F. Owens, Yudda Bikram Shah, Bagirath Narsimha Rana, T. E. F. Taylor, R. A. Summerton.

Ascent: 20 May Annapurna I (26,545 ft.), second ascent, M. W. H. Day and G. F. Owens.

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