29 September, 1969: At last on the day to Kathmandu! It was actually since 1965 that the 6 Gruppo Orientale del Club Alpino Accademico Italiano (CAAI)' had an expedition to the Himalaya on its programme. At that time we had obtained the permit for Gaurisankar, but then the suspension of climbing permits by the Nepalese Government put off the expedition to an indefinite date. On the reopening of the borders, the Alpine climbers made a new request, but alas Gaurisankar remained a 6 forbidden mountain' and so on the advice of Colonel J. Roberts, who was very generous with information and help, we asked for Churen Himal (7,371 m.) in the extreme western group of Dhaulagiri, a mountain never attempted before, except for the Japanese exploration from the north in 1962.
The Club Alpino Accademico Italiano—to which you become a member after severe trial and after at least five years' climbing activities of extreme difficulty—chose the best non-professional Italian alpinists, particularly technically qualified to attempt a Himalayan giant. But as the technical capacity in this case is not sufficient, it was decided that at least some of the chosen alpinists should have former experience of the Himalaya and expeditions outside the Alps. Thus was selected the following team : leader Paolo Consiglio, already twice in the Himalaya, up to 7,350 m., besides having participated in expeditions to the Caucasus, the High Atlas and three times in the mountains of the Sahara; Franco AUetto, with the same experience ; Ignazio Piussi, with experience from an expedition in the Antarctic; Carlo Claus, expedition by air in Niger ; Sergio Bellini, Claudio Dal Bosco and Per Giorgio Franzina, without previous experience outside Europe, but with extensive alpine activities. To these seven, all members of the CAAI, were joined the guide Aldo Gross as representative of professional climbing, the medical doctor Vincenzo Monti (his second Himalayan expedition) and Giorgio Giacomelli, First Counsellor of the Italian Embassy in India, good climber, for his local knowledge.
The expedition arrived in Kathmandu on 1 October, and thanks to the excellent preparatory work of Giacomelli, it was possible to get by air to Pokhara with all luggage (about 3 tons) on the 2nd and 3rd. This late arrival at Kathmandu was foreseen in the programme as it was planned to get by air not to Pokhara but to Dhorpatan instead by a Twin Otter of the Royal Flight, saving thus about eight days of approach march. However, the aeroplane already hired had had an accident some days before in Lukla. A normal approach allows one to arrive at the foot of the mountain perfectly acclimatized at 4,000 metres and is very useful, but considering that the expedition was in autumn this was not necessary, since the climbers had been able to acclimatize at this altitude during the numerous ascents in the Alps during summer. Getting on our way later and at a higher altitude than 2,500 m. we could on the contrary escape the enervating heat of the lower valleys and the last ravaging monsoon rains ; the interesting journey of Pokhara would have been done on foot on the return trip.
However, we were forced to change the programme resulting in considerable delay and reducing the number of days needed to attempt the ascent. The approach was done under mainly clear sky, except for one afternoon's rain and snowfall just when traversing the pass of Budzunge Bara (4,480 m.). The arrival at the foot of Churen Himal took place in the late morning of 15 October, after twelve days of marching, with the men in perfect physical condition. However, we were at least one week behind schedule.
Putting; up the Base Camp at 4,050 m. not far away from a Japanese expedition who were attempting Gurja Himal, we were forced to limit the time for short explorations to find the route We-also realized that Churen Himal did not offer any easy possibilities and evidently any satisfactory exploration would have involved real and proper forays of several days with the putting up of camps and fixed ropes.
This was the situation of the glaciers and minor peaks in front of Churen Himal: The southwestern slope above the Base Camp at the top of the Ghustung Khola is a triangular wall about 3,000 metres high, extremely steep, delimited by the southern and west-northwestern ridge. The southeastern slope is a long wall interrupted by rocky horizontal pillars, surmounted by walls of seracs from which avalanches continuously precipitate ; this wall only ends at its right extremity, under Pt. 7,108 m. and Dhaula VI, in a complete and dangerous serac area which gives access to the easy but long eastern ridge. The first possibility of an ascent is then the eastern ridge, but not being able to reach it directly on account of the avalanches, it would be necessary to make an extremely long detour on the northern and western walls of the Ghustung, Gurja Himal, Dhaula VI and Pt. 7,108 m. This route would have been the same (up to Camp III, not yet pitched at that time, and also Camp II) as that of the Japanese .expedition on Gurja Himal, and which also offered a dangerous zone of avalanches under the Dhaula VI. For this reason, as well as its length, and not to disturb the Japanese, we decided to abstain. This was the route followed by the Japanese expedition which climbed Churen Himal in autumn of 1970 [see full article in this issue. Although no sketch map is appended to this article, the Italian route follows almost exactly the Japanese expedition of 1971, also described in this issue and its route is described on a common sketch map—Ed.]. The second alternative was the southern ridge, very sectional and fissured below, which can be approached at the top third part along a superficial icy spur of the southwestern wall, very steep and surely extremely difficult with difficulties to pitch camp ; this route we kept in reserve.
The last possibility was the west-northwestern ridge towards Putha Hiunchuli. We did not have illusions about the difficulties in reaching; the ridge at 6,000 m., but anyhow this route at least was free from avalanches. The ridge showing above the middle slope, visible from the Base Camp, was rocky and fissured. The northern slope on the recent map, scale one inch, signalled snowy slopes, maybe also steep, which should have permitted the rounding of the towers and rocky precipices of the ridge. We anyhow chose this last route and put ourselves to work.
Camp I we pitched on the 17th at 4,750 m. on the left of the glacier coming from Putha Hiunchuli, in a safe place, surrounded by unstable darkish seracs which continually shifted. A grumbling concert day and night. Also the southwestern wall, immediately above, was defended by rocky pillars of a serac wall, interrupted in only one place. It was actually at this place that we attacked the vertical and friable wall, with passages up to 4th superior degree, which followed a more inclined zone of mixed rock and ice. The second camp we pitched on the 20th at 5,150 m. at the beginning of a glacier ; from the base of the rocky pillars up to some few metres only from Camp II we had to fix another 400 metres of rope to facilitate the passage for the porters and ourselves.
Successively we pitched Camp III at 5,550 m. on 23rd and Camp IV on the ridge at 6,000 m. on 30th. Between Camp II and Camp III there were no difficulties apart from the attention to crevasses and rocky parts where another 100 metres of fixed ropes were put. But the snowy slope which led to the ridge, 400 metres higher, demanded really hard work of the roped parties and also the necessity of fixed ropes. In the evening of 30th, when it was already dark, the last alpinist had reached the terminal cornice.
From 21st on it snowed every day, but being adequately equipped we decided to go on without a pause. Finally we were on the ridge, but the joy to go towards the mountains of nearby Tibet was diminished by the vision of the ridge of Churen Himal. The snowy slope which on the map had been indicated on the northern slope was instead a rocky, icy wall. The only possible way was along the crest of the ridge, snowy, afflicted with ponderous cornices at the beginning, then by towers and rocky precipices.
The pace of work sustained by the members up to this moment suggested at this point for a bit of rest, and the preparation of a new plan of attack. After a first assault on the ridge, up to the first big gendarme on 2 November, in fine weather, the alpinists went back to the Base Camp, except Alletto, Monti and three Sherpas who were ordered to consolidate Camp IV which was of vital importance and stock all food and material which were sent up from the Base Camp. During these days we celebrated with the members of the Japanese expedition, led by the kind and sympathetic Yoshimi Yakushi, who had conquered Gurja Himal on 1 November. [See full article in H.J., Vol. XXX, 1970].
Giacomelli having left for work in India and Alletti and Monti having descended for their turn of rest, the other members of the expedition, divided in three groups each one having to prepare a part of the ridge for the succeeding party, left Base Camp on the 6th, 7th and 8th. On 12 November, Camp V at 6,350 m. was pitched after having skirted the first gendarme with rope and ice pitons. Here Piussi and Gross stayed overnight, while Franzina, Dal Bosco, Claus, Bellini and the author plus four Sherpas shuttled back and forth between Camps IV and III, carrying provisions and being prepared to intervene in case of danger or need of help. The other two Sherpas plus a mail carrier, Ang Min Mar, shuttled between the Base Camp and Camp III, while Alletto and Monti got ready to return for the final attack. All the expedition members were distributed in key positions to safeguard the line of communication which is of fundamental importance at the moment of decisive effort.
On the 9th the weather changed and during the night and all the 10th it snowed almost without interruption, thus stopping us for the first time. Then at dawn on 11 November, an icy north wind came up with blasts up to a hundred kilometres which blew apart the clouds, but made it extremely difficult for us to stay at these altitudes. All the same we were equally determined to force the ridge. In the evening of 12 November, Piussi and Gross radio-communicated with me from Camp V that up there reigned an inferno. The following day they had anyhow tried to go ahead. On the 13th they succeeded in gaining another 200 metres of altitude touching 6,500 m., but the winds had almost pulled them off their feet and threatened to sweep them down the mountain.
Back in the camp, we considered the situation ; it would be impossible to continue unless the wind calmed down, and even then the considerable difficulties on the top part of the ridge which they had been able to scrutinize were to be overcome. In Camp III, 800 metres below, it was difficult to hold oneself on one's feet when getting out of the tent because of wind. I had really no difficulty in imagining the situation on the ridge. Already for three nights nobody had had a wink of sleep because of the infernal rattling of the tent-cloth battered by the stormy winds, and we were preoccupied by the thought that we might get carried away by the gusts. We decided to retreat from the ridge.
Not to leave anything untried and in the hope that the wind might calm down, while Camps V and IV were being dismantled, Dal Bosco and Franzina were authorized on 14 November to undertake an exploration of the second spur more sheltered by the wind which joins the southern ridge of Churen Himal at about 6,700 m. The two alpinists reached 5,900 m., reporting that this route, which we had held in reserve, would offer extreme difficulties but not impossible ones. We decided to effect a more thorough attempt on the 16th with five alpinists and four Sherpas. Not that we had nourished any illusions, but ascending in good physical condition it was worth while to try at least to get a bit higher up. On the 15th as a matter of fact the wind was a bit calmer, but during the night its violence surpassed all levels. My tent was first uprooted by a gust, another empty one was swept away to Camp I, while pegs and poles of the other ones all started to bend. Nothing else was left but to give the signal to retreat, the risks were becoming too high. During these same days, as we later got to know by radio, five alpinists and one Sherpa of an Austrian expedition had disappeared on nearby Dhaula IV [see full article in this issue—Ed.].
The retreat from Churen Himal was achieved in good order, recovering all material except the fixed ropes which served on the descent. While at Base Camp awaiting the porters from the valley, we climbed the peaks opposite Churen Himal, up to 5,250 m. for photographs and to study the mountain, specially its southeastern slope. On 21st we started the return trip and on 24th we arrived at Dhorpatan, traversing Gurjakhani and Sindur Pass (3,700 m.), an exceptionally beautiful journey through magnificent forests. From the Sindur Pass we got the last glimpse of the entire chain of Dhaulagiri and Churen Himal, an unforgettable sight with their peaks silhouetted against the blue of the sky and veils of snow lifted up by the winds on the ridges. It would be worth while to go to the Himalaya for this sight alone.
To conclude, both routes attempted by us, offered considerable difficulties, but probably not insurpassable ones, and moreover they are more or less sheltered from avalanches. They demand however technically advanced alpinists, the use of pitons for ice and rock, the installation of at least 2,000 metres of fixed ropes. The col between Churen Himal and Putha Hiunchuli is also accessible from the north, by ascending the Kaya Khola. Regarding the northern ridge of Churen Himal we observed that it was long as well as complicated and difficult. We can say nothing about the northeastern slope of the mountain, as it always remained hidden. The two peaks of the same height of Churen Himal seemed at eye's view to be nearer to each other than indicated on the recent 'one inch' map. The maps are correct in the big contours but quite incorrect in the graphic details as we were to realize, to our discomfort.
The expedition was accompanied by ten Sherpas, among which were six for high altitudes: Kunga Norbu, his first experience as Sirdar, revealing his intelligence, organizational capacity and goodwill; Passang Tenzing from Khunde as Sirdar, very strong; Pemba Norbu from Lomje, extremely variable, capable; Kami Norbu from Khumjung, discreet; Jangbu from Namche and Gyaljen Norbu, strong but a bit indisciplined, necessitating a Pemba an older Sirdar of great authority. Two mail-runners, Ang Min Mar and Dawa Norbu, the first one meriting being promoted to a porter of high altitudes—towards the end we allowed him at his own request to transport up to Camp III, revealing himself as very strong and better than others. There was also the fine Jhanangh Tenzing from Namche as cook and the sympathetic and intelligent Dawa, nephew of Kunga Norbu, as kitchen boy. Thanks are particularly due to the liaison officer, Captain Brajesh Bahadur Basnyat, a real gentleman, who was of great help during the expedition as well as on our return to Kathmandu.