Members: Yres Pollet-Villard (leader), Maurice Giequel (deputy) leader), Georges Payot, Yvon Masino, Pierre Blanc, Jean Coudray and Raymond Renaud.
IT was at Kathmandu, in November 1970, that the idea A was conceived of attempting the south face of Pumori.
With three companions, I had just climbed the south face of the Annapurna South Peak, when our friend Robert Rieffel, General Manager of Royal Nepal Airlines, showed me a beautiful photograph taken during a trekking trip in the Khumbu Himal. I was struck first of all by the beauty of this mountain which seen from Kala Pathar, resembles a perfect pyramid; I then realised why experts had baptised it the Jewel of the Khumbu Himal.
This purely aesthetic admiration before this architectural beauty did not immediately give rise to a desire to climb it, so impossible did it seem; but I was, so to speak spellbound and this desire was to be inexorable.
I returned to France at the end of November 1970 and one of the first things I did was to contact my friend Erwin Schneider to ask his advice. He is someone who really knows the Khumbu region, having stayed there very long.
His brief reply, as usual, should have made me abandon all impulsive ideas for he advised me very simply to forget Pumori and its south face. Knowing well, however, that I would grasp at the least thing, he ended his letter by telling me that if, in any case, it were possible to scale the face, it could only be tested with one's feet and hands. He brought to mind that old axiom that no mountaineer should ever forget—which is to know that one should always go on a mountain before declaring it impossible.
Photo Plate 5.
I wrote then to Ueli Hurliman who made the first ascent with G. Lenser and E. Forrer in 1962 by certainly a difficult route, but quite distant from the south face, which joins the N.E. ridge round 6,700 m.
His response was not more optimistic than that of Schneider and he advised me that if I absolutely wished to try a new route on Pumori, I should rather attempt the south ridge.
It was, consequently, against all logic that I decided all the same to launch an assault on the south face.
For quite some time, there had been an idea of grouping a team of Instructor Guides of the 'Ecole Nationale de Ski et d'Alpinisme' (France) into an expedition. Were there not some of the best French mountaineers in this School? Some of them had already participated in one or several expeditions and it was a good idea to unite a team of men knowing each other well and combining technical ability with experience. Is it not homogeneity which is at times lacking in certain teams? We were assured of having this !
It was in this way that the team was rapidly chosen. Georges Payot and Yvon Masino, two of my companions of the Anna- purna South were designated. But first of all a leader was necessary and nobody fulfilled the conditions better than Yves Pollet- Villard. He would assure us of moral authority and faultless technical ability. He had accomplished the ascent of Jannu in 1962 with Lionel Terray and his nomination was decided unanimously.
The team only lacked a few young lions' and these were found quite soon. They were Pierre Blanc, Jean Coudray and Raymond Renaud; they had never been on expeditions but had the experience of big climbs in the Alps.
The team chosen was an imposing one and was competent enough to assay any of the highest mountains of the world.
If Pumori was made a definite choice, it was because it set the challenge of a truly technical problem in the Himalaya, on one of the most beautiful mountains of the globe, and also because we did not have the financial means to attempt a similar challenge on a climb of more than 8,000 m.
We could only receive the benefit of partial aid from French official authorities whose policy on total aid only applied to what is called a national expedition, which is one organised under the aegis of the 'Federation Francaise de la Montagne'.
We were, therefore, obliged to finance three quarters of our budget. Despite the restrictions, this budget reached 20,000 dollars; Europe is after all far from Nepal and transport is expensive.
This financing was made possible thanks to the understanding cooperation of some large firms like British Petroleum and the Cabinet Julien de Serre Chevalier in particular. The official aid was received from the 'Federation Francaise de la Montagne', the 'Secretariat d'Etat a la Jeunesse, aux Sports et aux Loisirs' and the 'Conseil General de la Haute Savoie'.
The expedition was called the "Expedition Savoyarde to the Himalaya" since Savoy was our province by birth or adoption and we were under the tutelage of the 'Groupe de Haute Montague'.
Georges Payot and I were the first to arrive at Kathmandu on 4 September; our experience of administrative problems had made us the choice for the thankless role of arranging customs' clearance and of recruiting.
Everything was ready on 9 September and the following day, the team of seven climbers, with the addition of Dr. G. Berthoud, arrived from France.
We had thought that within two days all our equipment (4 t.) and ourselves, would be at Lukla, starting point for the trek towards Kumbhu. Alas, we had not taken the monsoon into account which although mild in 1972 did not seem to end. The field at Lukla, where the twin Otter of the R.N.A.C. lands, was constantly enveloped with heavy rain clouds and the plane which left Kathmandu was to return there without having discharged its precious cargo. However, our friends Rene de Miiie- ville and Nicholas Gorodiche, on the management of RNAC, made every effort to help us.
It took seven days to transport all the equipment as well as the climbers who had just been joined by eight Sherpas, two kitchen boys and a liaison officer.
The approach march posed no problem. We knew that in six days we would be in Gorakshep on the right bank of the Khumbu glacier and that we would climb to our Base Camp at 5,200 m. on the banks of the lake, which was an ideal spot, although very windy.
Our trek led us each day through the villages of Phadking, Namche Bazar, Thyanboche, Pheriche, Lobuje (two simple stone huts). We got to know our Sherpa friends better. We already knew some of them, Sirdar Ang Temba, as well as Sherpas Pema, Aula, Ang Tchombe and Dawa Tliondup, having been to the West Pillar of Makalu with G. Payot. Masino and I knew Pema and Da Wanchoo particularly since they had accompanied us in 1970 to Annapurna South.
When we had been making preparations for this expedition, we had written to the Himalayan Society to reserve the services of Sirdar Pemba Rinzing. We did not know that our dear com- panion of the Annapurna South Peak expedition had just died on Manaslu with the Korean expedition. We were very grieved as we loved Pemba. We owed him our success on Annapurna South Peak and apart from his phenomenal qualities as a porter, he possessed exceptional loyalty.
All experts know that Khumbu Himal is the most splendid region of the Himalaya since it encloses five mountains of more than 8,000 m. of which the most wonderous of all is Everest.
But Khumbu has also the honour of being the site of some of the most beautiful mountains of the globe. There is of course Pumori, but there is also Ama Dablan, Kangtega, Tamserku, and Nuptse.
Only two expeditions had chosen Khumbu this year-ours and the British which was attempting the South-west face of Everest.
Our Base Camp at Gorakshep was a two hour walk from the British camp of Chris Bonington.
The English had arrived a fortnight ago. Despite the monsoon, they had left Kathmandu on foot at the end of August in order to be at the Base Camp by mid-September.
Autumn is not a favourite time for the ascent of Everest and the British team knew this well. This was, however, their only chance until 1976 of attempting this mountain for it had already been reserved by other nations.
We installed our camp on 25 September and we were not pressed for times. So it was with equanimity that one faced the first spell of bad weather which continued until the 27 September with 40 cm. of snowfall.
During each period of bad weather, we exchanged warm contacts with the British team. For each invitation from the British, there was one from the French where Beaujolais responded to cake!
It was on the 29 September that we installed Camp I at 5,450 m. under the Kala Pathar moraine. Serious work was beginning.
The line of assault for the south face begins at 5,600 m. The route chosen is the lowest descending spur which reaches directly under the summit. It is composed of four rocky projections separated by slopes of snow or ice and ridges with sheer cornices.
This spur is separated from the summit slope by a rocky barrier of a height of about 50 m. The key to the climb consists of the second and fourth projections, one situated at one third the height at 6,300 m. and the other at two thirds the height at about 6,650 m.
The first projection is situated above the Rimaye and is crossed on the left by an ice covered couloir which is very steep and very difficult (75°). We abandoned it later to break a route on the right, which was easier although slightly more exposed. The Sherpas were not able to haul in this icy couloir owing to its steepness and narrowness.
Snow slopes at an average of 70° lead to Camp II situated on the very edge of the spur and 100 m. under the second projection. It was to be installed at 6,250 m., about 150 m. from the second projection. The slope which leads to the second projection is at an inclination of 70°. The line of assault for this projection lies slightly to the left and consists of a combined climb, very difficult for about 80 m. Then one emerges into an amphitheatre from where a snow slope of 150 m. enables one to avoid one part of this projection. The exit from this amphitheatre is overhanging and the way out is on the right by a slab of 30 m. which is overcome by artificial techniques but which debouches onto a sheet of ice covering the top portion of the slab. It was thus necessary to crampon up on front points for 20 m. on a slope of 80°.
A rocky traverse of 15 m. then took us across this projection and we emerged on slopes of fluted snow, at an inclination of 65°, which led to the third projection. It took one week to reach the end of this projection.
Camp III was installed on the 19 October under the third projection at an altitude of 6,550 m. This projection containing passages of IV-f- grade joins a broken and corniced ridge which one has to cross by scaling absolutely vertical walls of compressed snow. The ridge, about 200 m. long, took three days of effort. It ended under the third projection, which was the unknown part of the face, and which we were to think for a long time that it was impassable. Fortunately by an ascent, sometimes extremely difficult, sometimes artificial, we emerged after several days on a ridge situated under the rocky barrier which separated us from the summit. We called this ridge "the beautiful ridge” sculptured as it was against the sky. Its view from the Base Camp was extraordinary, its angle of indication about 65°.
It was at the summit of this ridge, under the rocky barrier, that we were stopped on 26 October by a tempest which lasted four days and during which more than a metre of snow fell. Previously we had gone through two spells of bad weather, each having lasted two days-one took place on our arrival at the Base Camp and the other, during which 40 cm. of snow fell, oc curred when we were at Camp II. It was therefore, the third spell of bad weather which we encountered since our arrival at the Base Camp. In all we had been delayed by about fifteen days.
On 26, 27 and 29 October, we thought that our chances of reaching the summit were faint indeed. We had until then placed 3,000 m. of fixed ropes and we thought that it would not be possible to find them in that very abundant snow. It was, nevertheless, the very steepness of the slopes which saved us; the snow did not hold but flowed down as it fell. Moreover, the violent wind blew away the snow from the rock crevices.
On 3 November ultimately, the first team composed of Yves Pollet-Villard and Yvon Masino, Georges Payot and Jean Coudray attempted the summit, after having made the ascent again to Camp III in two days. All the fixed ropes and tracks made by the incessant passage of the climbers were found, to the surprise of all. We were no longer in doubt of eventual success as the rocky barrier and the summit slope did not seem to pose any considerable problems. We had only a certain fear of the gales.
The first team left Camp III on the 3 November at 6.30 in the morning. 10 a.m. found the team at the top of the last fixed ropes. They took ninety minutes to scale the 50 m. of the barrier with some passages of the order of IV+. At 12 noon they all reached the summit of Pumori in marvellous weather, but with a rather violent wind.
When they returned to Camp III, the second team composed of Pierre Blanc, Maurice Gicquel, Raymond Renaud and Sirdar Ang Temba were already there to attempt a summit assault on the 4 November. The first team then continued their descent to the Base since each camp only contained accommodation for four. Actually, owing to the extreme steepness of the slopes, the platforms required so much work that two days were required each time too install two two-men tents.
On the November, the second team reached the summit at about 12 noon in radiant good weather—there was not even a breath of wind.
Both the teams stayed one hour on the summit.
As in Makalu in 1955, the entire team as well as the Sirdar reached the summit.
Now that the expedition is over and I write these lines, I can say that although the ordeal was severe and there were periods of despondency, I cannot but think with nostalgia of the extraordinary hours that we lived through, my seven companions and I.
To have had the chance to succeed whereas our British friends, who struggled with as much tenacity as us, failed, makes me think that the Himalaya can be cruel at times.