Himalayan Journal vol.30
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
    (Dr. HANS KRAUS)
  3. TUKUCHE PEAK (6,920 metres)
    (J. A. NOORDYK and J. F. SALTET)
  5. ANNAPURNA I, 1970
    (Maj. GERRY OWENS)
  8. MAKALU, 1970
    (makoto hara and masao asami)



Expeditions start in different ways; at one extreme is the national expedition, where leader and members will probably be selected by some kind of committee and at the other is the small group of friends that decide to go and climb a mountain. Our expedition started in the latter way, and then developed until it had the stature of a national expedition.

It all started with three of us, Martin Boysen, Nick Estcourt and myself, deciding we should like to go to Alaska in the summer of 1970 to get some climbing. Boysen and Estcourt were experienced Alpinists, had attended the 1967 International Re- assemblement at Chamonix when, amongst other routes, they had completed the South Face of the Fou. We decided to ask a fourth and Dougal Haston was an obvious choice.

Then came the news that Nepal had once again opened its frontiers to climbers and we immediately started thinking of the Himalayas. I had already been to the Himalayas on two previous occasions, to Annapurna II in 1960 and Nuptse in 1961. The latter had been a technically difficult face climb with none of the weary slogging through deep powder snow, so often associated with the Himalayas. I therefore wanted to try another big Himalayan face. This also seemed a logical development in mountaineering, now that most of the major peaks on the Himalayas, or at any rate in the part of the Himalayas that we are allowed to enter, have been climbed.

It was at this stage that I remembered seeing a photograph of the South Face of Annapurna. It had reminded me of a giant North Face of the Grandes Jorrasses with its three huge buttresses. I managed to get some more photographs and a great deal of information from Gunter Hauser, leader of the German Expedition to Gangapurna of 1965, and Walter Greissl, leader of the expedition that attempted to climb Annapurna I from the South in 1969.

It was obvious that the climb was going to be very difficult and that we were going to need a strong party, but the line seemed feasible. The most worrying sections were the heavily fluted ice ridge leading into the middle of the Face and the Rock Band that barred the way at about two-thirds height. This was obviously going to give high standard rock-climbing at an altitude of between 23,000 and 25,000 feet.

The Summit of Annapurna from camp I at 17,400 ft

The Summit of Annapurna from camp I at 17,400 ft

The ‘French’ route and variations

The ‘French’ route and variations

The North East buttress steep ice slope

The North East buttress steep ice slope

A pause for breath on the slopes variant to the French route. In the background is the grand barrier

A pause for breath on the slopes variant to the French route. In the background is the grand barrier

I therefore increased the strength of the party to 11, inviting four more very strong climbers, Don Whillans, Ian Clough, Mick Burke, who took part in the Drus rescue, and Tom Frost from the United States ; he had taken a leading part in the development of new rock techniques in Yosemite and had made the first ascents of the South Face of the Fou and the hidden Pillar of Freney with John Harlin. I also invited Mike Thompson, Dave Lambert as doctor and Kelvin Kent, an officer in the Army serving with the Gurkhas, as Base Camp manager. We planned to use only six Sherpas, since we were not certain how well they would be able to cope with steep fixed ropes.

We decided to take oxygen with us, since it seemed probable we should need it on the difficult climbing up the Rock Band. We chose the French equipment and bottle that has now been very well tried on most major expeditions of the last 15 years.

Our expedition was ready to leave Pokhara on 21 March 1970. We had already beqn faced with one major crisis, when the boat carrying most of the expedition gear broke down at Cape Town. It was a month overdue, and we were only able to set out on schedule, through the fact that some of our gear including all the medical kit, radios and a lot of clothing and climbing kit were coming out by air, flown by the Royal Air Force with the gear of the British Army Expedition which was attempting Annapurna from the North, by the route originally put up by Maurice Herzog.

We reached the entrance to the Sanctuary, the magnificent glacier basin guarding the south side of Annapurna on 28 March. Don Whillans, my deputy leader, had gone a few days ahead to find a site for our Base Camp. The winter snows were particularly heavy and we had hit the snow line at a height of just over 10,000 feet. This gave us problems for we had hoped to establish Base Camp at 14,000 feet immediately below the Face. It was obviously going to be difficult to persuade our porters to go to far above the snow line and we therefore decided to establish a temporary Base Camp at the mouth of the Sanctuary, and to shift it below to the foot of the Face when our second batch of gear, which had come by sea, arrived. By this time we hoped some of the snow would have cleared.

It was an exciting moment when we all looked up at the Face for the first time. It looked even bigger than we had imagined, but what we saw was encouraging. The Rock Band seemed quite broken, and even more important the Face itself seemed fairly free from objective danger. Huge powder snow avalanches frequently creamed down to either side of the buttress we had chosen, but there was nothing coming down its front.

The first problem was to reach the Face, for' its base was guarded by a complex ice-fall; Don Whillans, Dougal Haston, Mick Burke and I went out ahead to work out a route to the foot of the ridge leading up into the upper part of the Face, while the rest of the team began to ferry loads up to the site of our eventual Base Camp. Camp I was established on the top of the Rognon on 2 April and Camp II, protected from avalanches by a rock overhang, at the side of the ridge at a height of 17,500 feet on 6 April. The route up to Camp II, weaved its way through a complicated crevasse system and up a gangway cutting across a serac wall. This was a spot we knew to be dangerous, for the serac was obviously unstable, but it was a risk that we felt we could legitimately accept, for climbers were only in the danger area for about three minutes and it seemed no greater than a normal Alpine risk. We had no choice anyway for this was the only feasible route we could find through the glacier-any other would have been even more dangerous.

Don Whillans and Dougal Haston moved up to Camp II and on 7 April, only ten days after our arrival in the Sanctuary, they went round the side of the ice ridge and struck up a gully leading to a prominent col on the crest of the ridge. The gully was straightforward but the weather broke early that day and they fought their way up in the teeth of continuous powder snow avalanches to a point just below the col at a height of 20,100 feet. So far we had made faster progress than we could possibly have anticipated. That same day our rear party with all the gear that had come by boat caught up with us. Ian Clough had done a magnificent job escorting the gear across India, travelling most of the way on top of a lorry. We kept back 20 of the best porters, so that in the next fortnight we could ferry all the gear up to the site of Base Camp.

Meanwhile Martin Boysen and Nick Estcourt established Camp III, ferrying rope and tentage onto the crest of the ridge. Tom Frost and I then moved through them and on 13 April were ready to lay siege to the ridge. There seemed two alternatives- to turn the ridge to the left by a long shelf and then cut straight up a gully to its end or try to tackle the ridge direct. Put off by the array of cornices barring the top of the gully, and the fact that any avalanche coming off the upper part of the face would assuredly sweep the gully, we opted for the ridge and spent two tiring and frustrating days trying to climb it direct.

The snow and ice was the consistency of spun sugar. It did not seem to matter how much one shovelled away, one never reached a firm base. After two days it became obvious that a direct assault would take too long; meanwhile Don Whillans and Dougal Haston had returned after a rest and had seen a better route round to the side, bypassing the lower part of the ridge but avoiding the dangerous gully. In the next few days we worked our way up this arete onto the crest of the ridge. From here on, the climbing was consistently difficult; Camp IV was established on 23 April and Martin Boysen and Nick Estcourt moved into the front to make an onslaught on to a series of ice towers that now barred the way.

My over-all plan was to have a pair out in front at any one time, forcing the route, with the rest of the team, distributed between the camps below, ferrying up the mountain. Once the front pair tired, I pulled them back for a rest at Base Camp before going back onto the mountain; they would do some ferrying and then go once more to the front. We were already short of manpower in the lower camps, but we were able to recruit six of the best local porters for the carry from Base Camp to Camp I, which though across a glacier was comparatively easy. These local Nepalese porters made a tremendous contribution to our eventual success.

Although frequent rests at Base Camp helped to keep members of the team climbing at a reasonable level of performance over the course of the expedition, it imposed a heavy strain on our available manpower. A pair resting at Base Camp would take three days to get back up to Camp III, four to Camp IV and so on. These were unproductive carries, for the climbers would probably have a fair amount of their personal gear with them, and therefore would be unable to carry much food or gear while shifting from one camp to another. The most efficient system is to keep changes of camp down to the minimum, but this pays little heed to the psychological factor of the monotony of carrying day after day over the same stretch on a mountain or the fact that climbers out in front quickly burnt themselves out, so great was the physical and mental strain of tackling high standard climbing at altitude. Above Camp IV this was to apply to ferrying up the fixed ropes as well. The only practical method on this type of big wall climbing therefore seems to be one of fairly fast turnover and a large team to make this possible. We could, undoubtedly, have benefited from a larger Sherpa force to undertake the monotonous yet physically exacting carrying on the lower part of the mountain. Our Sherpas did magnificent work, carrying loads to Camp IV, on ground considerably steeper than they had ever before been.

Boysen and Estcourt had the hardest climbing we had so far encountered immediately above Camp IV. It was impossible to turn the ice towers and they therefore tackled them almost direct, contending with a series of traverses across sheer ice- walls, and up gullys of dangerously unsubstantial snow. It took three days to force about 300 feet, and at the end of this period they were totally exhausted. Ian Clough and I then took over, climbing up and round snow-plastered rocks just below the crest of the ridge. After two days Clough went down for a rest and Haston took his place ; I was determined to reach the end of the ice ridge personally. Another two days of slow, exhausting climbing and we reached the end of the ridge. It was 3 May," nearly a month after we had reached the col on the ridge and we were now only 1,500 feet higher. The climbing had been the most difficult any of us had encountered at this altitude. The line of fixed ropes, up which we were going to have to ferry food, oxygen and gear was like an aerial ropeway with free Jumar pitches, and awkward traverses across sheer snow slopes.

Above the end of the ice ridge the Face opened out into a uniform snow slope of about 40° leading up to a line of ice cliffs stretching across the entire face. Our next problem was to find a way through these. Whillans and Haston were established in a camp just below these cliffs by Burke and Frost at a height of approximately 22,500 feet. On 7 May, in a savage snowstorm they found their way through the cliffs up a steep ice ramp and reached the foot of the Rock Band-the most important feature of the entire climb.

Mick Burke and Tom Frost now took over, and spent the next five days forcing their way across the Rock Band. The most prominent feature on the Band was a groove which cut the nose of the Buttress, a magnificent line if it had been in the Alps, but at this stage we were trying to find the easiest possible way up. Mick Burke and Tom Frost therefore picked their way across the Band working their way towards a subsidiary buttress very reminiscent of the Flat Iron on the North Wall of the Eiger. The climbing was very similar-steep ice-fields alternating with rock sections of around grade V in standard. Mick Burke led this entire part of the climb. The method he used to fix rope in place was to climb on the 500 foot reel of 9 mm. perlon, running out long pitches of up to 200 feet, then pulling the rope through till it was tight back to his second man, Tom Frost, fastening it off and letting Tom Frost jumar up the rope behind him. In this way he was running out the fixed rope and climbing at the same time.

At the end of five days they were near exhaustion-they had both been on the Face for nearly a month and had covered the most difficult section of the entire climb. They had no choice but to go down. During this period Martin Boysen and Nick Estcourt had been supplying them from Camp IV but this had been a punishing carry and they also were very near their own limits. I had brought Don and Dougal down for a rest to ensure they would be fit for the final push to the summit; they had been going very strongly and on a big Himalayan Face it is essential to nurse at least one pair for the final assault.

The rest of the team, however, were now very tired. I had gone down with an attack of pleurisy after my push to the end of the ice ridge. Ian Clough had also been forced back to Base Camp, though he was now on his way back up the mountain. Mike Thompson had nearly collapsed on the killing carry up to Camp V and had been forced back down.

We were so attenuated that though we now had a stockpile of oxygen at Camp IV, we were barely able to ferry it up to Camp V. It had been all that Boysen and Estcourt could manage to keep Burke and Frost supplied with food and enough rope to fix in position each day.

On 16 May Whillans and Haston moved up to Camp V with Martin Boysen and on the 17th carried loads up to the site of Camp VI. Boysen, exhausted by his series of carries up to Camp V, was now forced to retreat to Base Camp. He had driven himself beyond the point of exhaustion for the good of the rest of the team. By this time I had reached Camp IV and therefore decided to move up to Camp V to help Nick Estcourt support Haston and Whillans who moved up to Camp VI on the 17th. We only had Ian Clough and Dave Lambert at Camp IV and would not have any further reinforcements until Frost and Burke managed to get back up the mountain after their rest.

That same day (17th) I moved up to Camp VI to join Nick Estcourt. Camp VI was situated in the bergschrund just below the Rock Band. It was protected from powder snow avalanches from above by the lip of the crevasse, but even so it filled up with spindrift after every heavy snow-fall. One of our tents had already collapsed by the weight of snow and only a Whillans Box with its greater rigidity was really secure. This was a revolutionary tent design, first developed in South Patagonia, to withstand the high winds encountered in this region. It was rectangular in shape, with an alloy frame round all the corners, and a heavy proofed nylon skin drawn over it. On a steep face it had the great advantage that it could be dug into a slope and would not collapse under the weight of powder snow. A byproduct was the flat roof, in which snow melted during the day to provide a ready supply of water.

Life at Camp V was grim-the Whillans Box was like a perpetual deep freeze for it was in the shade throughout the day. I did altogether four carries from Camp V to try to keep our front pair supplied. This was the climax of eight weeks of exhausting effort.

The Rock Band was a particularly nerve-wracking experience, for it was full of sharp edges and there was a certain amount of stone-fall from above.

The route to Camp VI seemed endless-progress was so slow and laborious. Swing across an ice-field like an 80-year-old Tarzan, pull up across steep rocks. The corner you are heading for is only 50 feet away but that 50 feet takes an hour to cover at this altitude. It is like the most fiendish obstacle course ever designed, something that would tax the most rugged commandos to the full.

And I was by myself, dangling on an improbable thread of rope three-quarters up the South Face of Annapurna. The solitude was both stimulating and frightening. The mountains around us were now dropping away. Hiunchuli (21,133 ft.), that towered over Base Camp, seemed far below ; I could even look down at the summit of shapely Machhapuchhare (22,942 ft.), one of the most beautiful peaks in the entire Himalayas. The wedgelike summit of Annapurna II (26,041 ft.), which I had climbed in 1960, seemed little higher than my own position.

The last length of rope up onto the Flat Iron was the most strenuous of the whole climb. It dangled, completely free of the rock, over an overhang 200 feet above. Because of the stretch in the rope I bounded at the bottom like a helpless yo-yo, shoving each Jumar up alternately, panting between each shove. It took me two hours of lung-bursting effort to reach the top.

From there the crest of the Flat Iron curved in a sickle of snow for about 400 feet. At ground level, it would have been an easy plod, but at this altitude it was an agonizing struggle. I could just see the tent at the top of the ridge, a tiny patch of blue perched on a minute ledge.

I was so tired that I was taking a five-minute rest after every single upwards step. I was tempted to abandon my load and retreat, but Don and Dougal did not have a radio and I somehow had to get this up to them. At last, still 300 feet below the Camp, I dumped the rope and carried on just carrying the walkie-talkie-even with a negligible load I could only move at a snail's pace-I'd force myself to take five steps and would then collapse in the snow, almost crying with fatigue, before forcing myself on once again.

I only reached the top camp at 5.30 that evening and it was eight o'clock, in the gathering dark, that I got back to Camp V and a worried Nick Estcourt. I collapsed into my sleeping-bag and he reheated some supper. I had made the big mistake of forgetting to take any food with me for the day-we had chocolate, rum fudge and Kendal mint cake for this purpose. That night I gulped down a stew, a concoction of powdered soup, tinned meat and sweet corn, followed by Christmas pudding. Mike Thompson had collected our food just after Christmas and Christmas puddings were going cheap; we had them cold, fried and even stewed.

The following day (21 May) I was so exhausted I decided to take a rest day. Nick was also very tired so instead of doing a carry up to Camp VI he went back down below the ice cliff to pick up a load that had been dumped there. It was a savage day, with a bitter gusting wind and frequent showers of snow. At Camp VI it was even worse, but in spite of this Don and Dougal set out to force the route to the top of the Rock Band. They traversed into the gully they had reached the previous day and Dougal went into the lead.

‘It was quite straightforward,' he said. ‘Steep snow at about 60°, but the weather was really grim. There were non-stop spindrift avalanches all day and they were coming from every side, a lot of them driving straight up the gully. The snow seemed to get into everything.'

It was so cold that Don had trouble with his feet and at one point had to take his boots off, to massage his toes to get some life back into them. That day they managed to make 400 feet of progress, on very nearly empty stomachs. The previous day Dougal had only been able to carry up a bag full of instant porridge and some Kendal mint cake. They had mint cake porridge for supper that night and breakfast the following morning.

It was now 22 May. Nick and I hoped to make a carry up to Camp VI, with the tent and camp kit required for the Final Camp which Dougal and Don hoped to pitch above the Rock Band. We had decided to use oxygen sets to make the journey a little easier. The bottles weigh 11 lb. and, of course, this means carrying a heavier load, but the flow of oxygen makes this worth while.

Nick set off first, but I caught up with him at the top of the first fixed rope ; he was hanging on it like a landed fish on a line.

‘I'm sorry Chris,' he said. ‘I just won't make it. The oxygen, even at full flow doesn't seem to make any difference, I'll just have to go down.'

Both he and Martin had burnt themselves out in support of the front pairs, first on the carry from Camps IV to V and then from V to VI. In doing this, they had sacrificed all hopes of their going to the summit.

We had lost yet another load carrier. Everything we were trying to carry up to Camp VI that day was of vital importance, yet I was carrying as much as I could manage. I took from Nick a food bag and added it to the length of rope I was already carrying. With the oxygen set, all this weighed 40 pounds. But the oxygen certainly made a difference. I climbed on a flow rate of three litres per minute. The bottle held 800 litres so this gave me about 3 ½ hours. When I reached the last desperate Jumar pitch up on to the top of the Flat Iron, I switched up to maximum flow. I could feel the extra energy and strength coursing through my body and managed to climb this stretch in about half an hour, compared to the two hours I had taken without. But at the top I had very nearly run out of oxygen. Rather than carry an empty bottle I threw it away-£50 worth ; I was so exhausted I did not even contemplate picking it up on the way back to carry it down.

Without oxygen it was just like my previous trip. I seemed to have no strength left and it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other.

But once I reached the tent, Don and Dougal had a drink waiting for me. Even more important they told me they had reached the top of the Rock Band that day. They had run out nearly a thousand feet of rope and had reached a point about 200 feet below the top of the gully. It was on steep soft snow, but they were so keen to get that precious view of the top that they pressed on unroped.

‘It's got us out right on top of the Mini Rock Band,' Don told me.

'It looks a piece of duff to the top. Have you got the tent? We'll be able to establish Camp VII tomorrow.'

I had to confess that I had brought up a rope instead ; Nick had taken the tent down with him. Dougal then suggested that I move up to Camp VI myself the next day, when I brought up the tent. I could then go with them to Camp VII and make the bid to the summit. I was touched by the warmth of their invitation and accepted immediately. Ian was due to come up to Camp V that evening and would be able to help carry a good load up to Camp VI the following day.

That night I returned to Camp V full of optimism, but on my arrival found it empty. There had been a floor of cloud that day, filling the entire Sanctuary and covering the top of the ice ridge. It had been fine on the upper part of the mountain but had not stopped snowing all day on the lower. Ian had been unable to force his way up to Camp V because of the weight of new snow.

Camp V was a grim place by oneself. The following morning I loaded my rucksack with the tent for Camp VII; food, the cine camera and my own spare clothing. It seemed to weigh several tons and must have been at least 60 pounds. I set off at about 10 a.m. and managed to get about a hundred feet above the camp, before I realized that I could never carry this load all the way to Camp VI. I returned to the camp in complete despair. In my solitude it was too easy to let oneself go. I felt tired and finished ; I tried to lighten the sack, but it was still much too heavy.

There seemed no chance of my going to the summit with Don and Dougal; I even wondered if I had the strength to make yet another carry to Camp VI. I felt so helpless I sat down and cried, then ashamed at my weakness, shouted at the ice-walls around me ‘Get a grip of yourself you bloody idiot,' and I pulled my personal gear out of the rucksack. I thought I could just manage the tent and rucksack.

I left Camp V at midday and reached the top camp at six o'clock. Don and Dougal had been forced to take a rest day for there was nothing they could do till I brought up the tent and some food. That night I got back to Camp V just before dark, to find Ian Clough waiting for me. He had forced his way up in thigh-deep snow. I don't think I have been so glad to see anyone. I had been dreading another night by myself.

Once again we adjusted our plans. It was now agreed that the following day Don and Dougal should establish Camp VII, above the Rock Band, stay there that night and make a bid for the summit the following day, while Ian and myself moved up to Camp VI and Mick Burke and Tom Frost moved from Camp IV to Camp V. In this way we should be able to make three summit bids on successive days.

It seemed in the bag. Don and Dougal had forced the last difficult section and the way to the summit seemed easy-but now the weather took a hand. That morning it was blowing even harder than usual. Don Whillans wondered whether to play it safe and stay at Camp VI for the day, but he, like all of us, was impatient to finish the climb and decided to set out for the top of the Rock Band.

We also had our doubts at Camp V, but set out all the same. That morning I had bad diarrhoea, an unpleasant complaint at altitude and felt very weak. Ian and I only got away from the camp at eleven o'clock. Clouds of spindrift were blasting across the Face, blinding us with their violence, making movement almost impossible. Half-way up I had an irrepressible urge to relieve myself-I was in the middle of a gully swept by powder snow avalanches. This was both a tricky and exceedingly unpleasant operation. I was dangling on the fixed rope and somehow had to remove my harness, tie a makeshift one to my chest and bare my backside to the icy blast. At that point a powder snow avalanche came pouring down, filling my trousers, infiltrating up my back.

Ian and I reached Camp VI about 5 p.m. The tent was semi-collapsed by the build-up of powdered snow on top of it and as a result was barely big enough for the two of us. About five minutes after we had arrived, we heard a shout from above; Don and Dougal had been forced back. Their Clothes were encased in ice and Don was sporting a pair of magnificent drooping moustachios formed of pure ice.

They had set out early that morning up the fixed ropes leading towards the top of the Rock Band. Dougal had led out a further rope for the top, 200 feet in really appalling conditions.

‘I couldn't even see the lower part of my body, there was so much snow blowing around. It was very steep yet I could never tell whether my feet were on secure holds or not. I could not help wondering what would happen if I did fall, for even if Don had managed to hold me, if I had received any kind of injury, we should never have been able to get back.'

At the top of the Rock Band conditions were even worse. They had hoped to pitch their tent on what had seemed to be an easy angled slope just beyond the top of the fixed rope, but it was much steeper than it had looked and when they tried to dig a platform out, they quickly came to hard ice.

‘We realized we couldn't get a tent up there,' said Don, ‘so we decided to try to get back to the top of the fixed rope, but when we turned round to go back, we couldn't see a thing, the snow was blowing so hard. If we had failed to find that fixed rope we should have had it. You wouldn't have lasted long up there.'

They fumbled their way through the driving snow. It penetrated their goggles, bit like a thousand needles into the exposed parts of their faces and steadily hammered at their will to fight. They found the top of the fixed rope just in time, had another try at digging in the tent, but it was no good, the ice was too hard. They had no choice but to retreat.

And so there were now four of us in a two-man tent. It was too late for anyone to go to a lower camp and anyway Tom and Mick were in the solitary Whillans Box at Camp V. We therefore decided to stick it out at Camp VI for the night. I have had over a hundred bivouacs in the mountains, but that night was the most uncomfortable of all. We were all crammed together like a very badly packed can of sardines. You could not get into a comfortable position or even move to relieve cramped limbs. Ian was worst off and spent the night crouched in one corner of the tent; he never complained.

The following morning, the weather was even worse than the previous day. There seemed no choice but for Ian and myself to drop back down to Camp IV, since Camp V was now occupied and then try to keep Don and Dougal supplied with food until we got a break in the weather. They were undoubtedly much fitter than Ian or myself, so there was never any question as to who should stay out in front.

It snowed non-stop for the next two days. Down at Camp IV we could not help wondering if the monsoon had arrived and if, so close to success, we were now going to be cheated. We were completely cut off from the lower part of the mountain, which was impassable because of the weight of snow that had fallen.

We spent the 27th in heavy gloom, down at Camp IV. Don and Dougal had told us that morning that they were going to try to establish Camp VII that day and that they would then return to Camp VI, but it seemed unlikely they would have got far, it was snowing and blowing so hard.

I opened up the radio a couple of minutes before five o'clock. Dougal came up on the air.

‘Hello any station Annapurna come in please, over.'

‘Hello Dougal this is Chris at IV, you're loud and clear. Did you manage to get out of the tent today, over.'

‘Aye, we've got some good news for you. We reached the top.' Don told me the story the following day when they came down from the top camp.

'We set out at about 7 a.m. It was fairly clear at that stage but very cold and windy. Up to then Dougal had always tended to go out in front and I had just followed on, but that day I seemed to be going the strongest and was in front all the time.

‘We reached the top of the fixed ropes at about ten o'clock, picked up the tent and started looking for a camp site, but we just could not find anything suitable. At first it was quite easy climbing, just plodding up through soft snow on the ridge-but the wind was as strong as anything I've ever experienced. I suppose Dougal was about a hundred feet behind me ; he was completely hidden most of the time in great clouds of wind-blown snow.

'It was twelve o'clock before we found a suitable site for Camp VII, but we were now just below the final head wall of the ridge and the summit seemed very close. There was no point in having a top camp so high, so we just kept plodding. We didn't discuss this ; we both just took it for granted.

' Once I pulled over the top of the ridge, the wind immediately dropped; strangely enough on the North side of the mountain it was quite warm and pleasant with the sun breaking through the clouds. While I waited for Dougal to catch up, I looked around for an anchor point for the rope we should have to use to get back down again.

' The summit was still a few yards away, up a crest of snow. It was a real knife-edge on top. I went up first while Dougal filmed me and then he came up. We could just see traces of the footsteps of the Army team who had reached the top the previous week from the North side.

‘There was not much to see from the top. The Northern slope dropped away into the cloud; it was like a great boulder field, a part concealed by snow. The only tops that were visible were the other two summits of Annapurna. Everything else and the entire South Face were blanketed in cloud.

‘We stayed there for about ten minutes. At this stage we didn't feel much in the way of elation-it was difficult to believe it was all over, and anyway we still had to get back down.'

They got down at 5 p.m. It had been a really magnificent effort-2,500 feet of climbing in a day without the aid of oxygen in the worst storm that either had ever experienced in the mountains. Two days later Tom Frost and Mick Burke tried to repeat their feat but were defeated by the high wind and bitter cold.

The expedition had been gloriously successful and we had very nearly completed the clearance of the mountain when Ian Clough was killed by a falling tower of ice on 30 May, in the last hour of possible danger. It was one of those outside chance accidents that can happen to the most careful climber anywhere in the world. We were stunned and horrified in the moment of our elation-now some months later it is easier to come to terms with it-to separate our grief at the loss of a close friend from the satisfaction of having successfully completed a great climb.

There had been so many imponderable questions before we started-indeed our chances of success had seemed pretty slim. Could we climb steep and difficult rock at a height o£ more than 24,000 feet? Would the equipment and food work out? Would my logistic plan prove feasible?

Expert opinion was not optimistic. One expert on high- altitude medicine had declared we were attempting the physiologically impossible.

Our success was only possible because of the team-work of the entire expedition, particularly of the climbers and Sherpas who had driven themselves to the last extremes of exhaustion to support the men out in front.

We had discovered that you could climb at very nearly sea- level standards at an altitude of more than 24,000 feet without the use of oxygen. This was just as well: we did not have the necessary manpower to shift large numbers of oxygen bottles to the upper reaches of the mountain. This knowledge could be beneficial to subsequent expeditions, for oxygen is one of the most expensive items needed on a mountain and carrying it presents the greatest logistic problem.

Most important of all we discovered that the great Himalayan Walls can be climbed, Our ascent of the South Face of Annapurna I does not mark the end of Himalayan climbing but rather the start of an exciting new era, when expeditions will tackle increasingly hard mountain problems, while at the same time probably trying to reduce the size of the parties as equipment and techniques improve.

Clough warms his hands over gas stove at camp VI after getting mild frost bite

Clough warms his hands over gas stove at camp VI after getting mild frost bite

Climbing fixed ropes on ice ridge

Climbing fixed ropes on ice ridge

Burke Absiels down rock band using Karabinar Brake

Burke Absiels down rock band using Karabinar Brake

Burke climbing rock band he has had to take his Crampons off !

Burke climbing rock band he has had to take his Crampons off !

Bonington climbs fixed rope on flanks of ice ridge

Bonington climbs fixed rope on flanks of ice ridge

Burke leading up ice field on rock band this was as steep as the 3rd ice field on the north wall of the eiger

Burke leading up ice field on rock band this was as steep as the 3rd ice field on the north wall of the eiger

Bonington at camp IV

Bonington at camp IV

Climbing the ice cliff below camp V.

Climbing the ice cliff below camp V.

Haston on fixed rope on ice ridge note method of safeguarding oneself with sling

Haston on fixed rope on ice ridge note method of safeguarding oneself with sling

Boysen on fixed ropes above camp IV

Boysen on fixed ropes above camp IV

Clough on ice ridge

Clough on ice ridge

The Whillans box at camp V

The Whillans box at camp V

Bonington on fixed rope using one jumar, sling and sit harness

Bonington on fixed rope using one jumar, sling and sit harness

The South face of Annapurna from base camp which was at 14,000 ft. The face is about three miles away.

The South face of Annapurna from base camp which was at 14,000 ft. The face is about three miles away.