IT was on the bridge of Braldo that I met Jean Bourgeois and was able to exchange a few words of sympathy with him . . . no need for any explanations between us. Jean had just lived through the same drama on Noshaq ... a tempest at 8,000 m. that Bernard Villaret had not been able to survive but which I had managed to escape in the same way as Jean Bourgeois. It is in memory of that wonderful mountaineering companion who lhad so ably led the route, that I express these emotions and feelings of those last moments.
In 1969, with Albert P'radal in four bivouacs, I succeeded in climbing the South-south-west spur of Kishmi-Khan and in 1971, in 24 hours of solo climbing had reached the crest of Noshaq (au Gumbaz), but I had never had to draw so much on my reserves of strength as in the storm on Gasherbrum II.
It had taken us 40 hours to get to 7650 m. in our little bivouac tent. Suddenly there was a cry of joy. We had succeeded in lighting the stove, now we would be able to have a hot drink. Provided of course that the flame continued to burn—we had so much trouble lighting it. All day we had been trying, one of us holding the stove, the other one the lighter, without any result . . . the thumb pressing so hard on the lighter had managed to raise only a few feeble sparks. We had almost given up— thinking that the force of the wind, the humidity and the lack of oxygen were the cause—when the unexpected had happened. The blister on the thumb did not matter—we had to go on trying, a hundred times, a thousand times—so at a quarter past one on our second night, the snow I had collected with my bare hands through the ventilation flap was slowly melting in the pan. Ah ! bad luck ! the flame went out. A moment of despair overwhelmed us. We had so hoped for a hot drink! But one more try and we would perhaps succeed again ... by good luck the flame revived. An hour later we had a litre of hot chocolate which we sipped in turns. As I had caught bronchitis, bouts of coughing made me breathless and my spittle coming in great thick gobs began to make Bernard anxious. When we had almost reached the bottom of the pan he said, "Go on, drink it up." We had relished the hot drink sip by sip, each one trying to take smaller mouthfuls so as to leave more for the other.
But in the end Bernard left the last few drops for me. One has to pass through such conditions, to live through such condi¬tions, to live through such moments to be able to realize the value of such gestures. They may appear trifling and quite natural, but I think we should always show the same considera¬tion to others, in the name of friendship.
Refreshed by our delicious drink we had to start making preparation for the descent. We knew we had to do it. While Bernard packed his rucksack I realized that it would be im-possible to make another attempt on the summit. Too much snow had fallen and the expedition would have had to turn back ... At that moment, the preceding days unrolled before my mind's eye and I again lived through the highlights : the friendly feeling between us all—the intolerable delay at Skardu —the approach march in the company of the Baltis-the explora¬tion of Payu with Marc and the buttress of Mustagh Tower with Bernard and Klab—the extraordinary stretch of Concordia. That day we had led in front, with Bernard with the first of the porters hard at our heals; then in the evening we had camped out in the open, lying side by side, close to the impressive wall of Gasherbrum IV. By some coincidence we all found ourselves together again for the final assault. Sorely tried by the strenuous role he had played during the approach march, Bernard was not able to do any climbing the first week. He had to arrange for the transport of equipment to 7000 m. and to return to Base Camp where we were all going to meet. My job was to help in these arrangements that would make the final assault easier for the whole team. I found myself at the highest point with Boubou and Jean-Jacques on 14 June. We intended to finalise arrangements for the team on the spur and push on to the summit. Alas ! Boubou and Jean-Jacques could not go a step further then 7,000 m. due to lack of acclimatisation. I climbed another 300 m. on the ropes that had been fixed and then had to descend.
We set out again with Bernard and Boubou from Camp 2, at 2 a.m. on 8 June. At about 7,800 m. Boubou had to give up and I continued with Bernard. In our rucksacks we carried spare batteries, sleeping bags, photographic material, pitons and karabiners. Boubou took charge of the camera magazine, Bernard the Super 8, the binoculars and the compass. I took the special "lean to" tent, the provisions, the cooking pot and the stove.
While climbing I had asked Bernard how he felt and had to wait for him. Three times he wanted to stop and munch some almonds. The third time at 7,500 m. we found ourselves sitting on the snow just before crossing the Plateau. I had profited by these halts to admire the scenery—a really extraordinary panorama. It was a beautiful day—some mist over China, the first rays of the sun on the Golden Throne, Chogolisa, the Hidden Peak.
Having arrived at the top of the rocky ridge we moved in the direction of the col. Three hundred meters from the "great rock" where Marc and Yannick had to spend the night, Bernard rushed past me. He was obviously in a hurry to get to the camp site which was to be a place of rest and where we would regain our breath. At that time this sudden burst of speed by Bernard led me to believe that he had regained his strength, but it had deceived me.
I did not try to catch up with him. He was twenty metres ahead. I knew that at such heights one had to maintain a steady pace in order to get to the top—the summit that I had thought of reaching the same day. At that mqment^ though I had got used to the altitude, I felt myself to be close to Gasher¬brum II. We were glad to be there at 9.30 a.m. Everything was going well that eighteenth day of June; in my thoughts it was going to be the summit the same day, but I said to myself that I would not be able to keep up with Bernard's fast pace.
I now regret that I did not follow my plan of going all out for the top from Camp 2. Yes, everything had been going so well! Suddenly Marc and Yannick emerged from the "great rock" and coming to meet us, said "It is difficult going." Yannick added "It would be better if you do what we did—bivouac and tomorrow you can set out at 3. a.m. for the summit."
We hurriedly exchanged a few words. They were trying to get down as fast as possible and they were quite right; one should spend as short a time as possible above 7600 m. We were out of breath and had to restrict ourselves to just the necessary instructions. I asked Yannick for the walkie-talkie, but he said "It is heavy and besides you would not need it because the going down is easy."
"Good luck, will be getting on! You will be running into Boubou who is following us, that is if he has not already gone down."
After this brief exchange of views we decided to remain at Marc and Yannick's camp site. I would have liked to push on further but I gave in. So, at 10 a.m. we found ourselves under the half-umbrella tent and I at once began to cook a stew of goose mixed with a fine puree which together with soup made a feast for Bernard and myself.
The mistake we had made was in stopping too early, and I said to Bernard as we ate "We have time enough to get to the top. It should take us four and a half hours—we should be able to return before nightfall . . ." But we had hesitated and it was finished for the day. I would have loved to have pushed on to "the hump" at 7,775 m. to reap the full benefit of these heights, but Bernard succeeded in convincing me by repeating. "Rest yourself and conserve your strength for tomorrow." And yet, I knew that the more one rests at such heights, the more one's system breaks down and it was for this reason that I favoured a rapid assault.
We settled ourselves in camp and got into our sleeping bags. From then on the stove refused to function.
During the night, the wind began to blow. At 3 a.m. very impatient and set on reaching the top, I awoke and went out. I handed Bernard his crampons so that he could put them on inside, and I put mine on outside. It was barely light. Quicker than I was, since he did not have to warm his hands again, Bernard began to climb towards the summit. The wind was blowing hard. Five minutes later I followed him and caught up with him 50 m. above the "great rock." He stopped and said to me "I am going down to Camp 2, it is too difficult and we will not be able to take any photographs."
How had he come to this conclusion so quickly—he who was set on getting to the top? Not allowing him to influence me when we were so close to our goal, I yelled to him above the wind. "No, you go down and don't worry about me. I am going on."
Without stopping, I went past him and continued the ascent. He began to descend. Thinking it was easier for him than for me I did not even turn round. The wind was raging, the visibility was reduced to 20 m. I kept on climbing. I had hoped for a calm that usually follows a storm in the mornings.
At the beginning of the arete I collected some stones to make little cairns to mark out a place to pitch our tent. Gusts of wind enveloped me. Clouds swirled around the bulging arete and I was forced into walking side ways. I took ten steps, then eight, then five before taking breath at regular intervals. I forced myself to count each step. At the end of three hours, lost in the tempest I became afraid, afraid of that awful solitude and above all the fear of not being able to find my way back after getting to the top. I waited ten minutes for an organizing soliloquy. : If you go on, you risk your neck. How will you find your way back ? Moreover you will not be able to take any photographs—either of K2 or of any other peaks you have in mind . . . yes, but you are so close ... go on. .."
Finally, I gave up at about 8000 m. Reasoning is not one's strong point at 8000 m. I even thought of going up again when it had cleared up, perhaps with Jean-Jacques or someone else... not a very sound idea.
On the way down I wanted to leave the bivouac tent and continue to Camp 2 where I would find Bernard. But I wanted to clear my head and stopped at the bivouac. Opening the tent I woke up Bernard. "Ah ! it is you Louis. I am glad to see you again." "You did not go down to Camp 2?" "No, come in, we will wail, for* the weather to clear up a little."
It must have been 8 a.m. I got in just for a while but then one feels so good sheltered from the wind in a tent where the ribs prevent the canvas from flattening against one's face. "Come", said Bernard, "We'll have to be patient; fortunately we have this tent—it feels so good."
We sat on our damp sleeping bags. Outside the tempest raged. Snow came in through the ventilator flap each time I opened it for some fresh air. All day long we waited for it to clear up. Bernard asked me the time so often that I handed him my watch. His had stopped. I told him that at 4 p.m. We should leave so as to be at Camp 2 before nightfall. 1 remind him of those who had been caught in a tempest at 7700 m. without acclimatisation and had never returned. We didnot dramatise anything. We just discussed what we should do and were agreed on it. But there should be no delay and we were no fatalists. After dozing off for a bit I remarked at the surprising turn of events and recounted the disastrous retreat by Bonatti and Mauri in better conditions in a camp at 7,500 m. after being well acclimatised by the comings and goings on the ridge of Gasherbrum IV. But Bernard was still waiting for it to clear up. "We'll get lost; how do you think you will find the spur in such a weather ?" "You have the compass, so we can be sure of getting there, come on!" "Let us wait till five o’clock." But at five o'clock there was not the least sign of it clearing up. And Bernard did not seem too well.
"Are you feeling all right?" "Yes, and you?" "The others will be worried, and there will be the jeep waiting for us on the 25th." "Oh, I thought we could leave on the 21st from Base camp instead of the 20th. That would give us five days for the return—good 'enough. But we will have to start tomarrow."
Bernard dozed off but again awoke and continued his persuasive tone, in between each cat-nap. On my part I kept of wriggling my toes. "What an inferno outside." "Fortunately the tent is able to stand up to such buffeting. It is incredible.’’ Some hours passed by and we did not realize how weak we were becoming. Our systems were fast deteriorating but we were not fully aware of it... the stove was going to light again, there was always the hope of it clearing up, optimism was infectious but it was going to let us down. We had to admit at the situation was desperate.
At 3 a.m. it was decided between us to set out—come what may. I asked Bernard to get out first from the tent to put on his crampons. "Come on, it's time you go first." "No, you go Louis, ’’ and I got out. I looked in the snow for Bernard’s crampons. They were embedded in a thick covering of snow. I handed them to him inside the tent thinking that he would be quicker than I was—like the evening before.
The wind howled. My voice was hoarse, I could not make myself understood. Then I looked for my own crampons. Kneeling on the rucksack I had to make unimaginable efforts to fasten the clamps on my overboots that I had taken off. I had to tie straps with my bare hands. My finger were numbed and crippled, frozen and paralysed. For several minutes I tried to warm them in my pockets till the blood could flowagain to the extremities. I have had several such cruel expe¬riences but never as bad as this one. At the end of half an hour 1 was ready. I tried to stand up. I fell. Terrified I cried out to Bernard "I am going to die ! I shall die if I remain here any longer. Let us go. I am completely frozen. Come on!" I had to use all my strength; the effort I had made in putting on my crampons had exhausted me.
Bernard heard my appeal in spite of the tornado. He came out saying "There is no need to panic." Then I looked at him and saw that he had not put on his crampons. He was still drowsy— he said "I am shivering" and he went back into the tent.
I begged him as hard as I could to set out with me. I kept standing but I had the feeling that my chest was about to burst and that my lungs were no longer functioning. It was really the first time in my life that I found myself absolutely at breaking point—between life and death. My duvet began to crackle, my eyes were sealed in a lump of ice, my gloves two blocks. If I did not go down at once I would be dead.
I again called out to Bernard. I opened the air vent, I stam¬mered "Bernard, come on out. Let us go down or we are finished." But he did not see any danger and retorted 'Come in and pull yourself together for a while and we shall go down as soon as it clears up a little. . ." Yet once again I was allowing myself to be convinced. But scarcely had I poked my head into tent when I was overtaken by a fit of giddiness. Then seized by panic I got out quickly and said to him "I am going." This cry was almost a sob, because I felt I was drawing on my last reserves of strength—this had never happened to me before. A sob because he did not realize that I would perhaps drop dead a few paces from him. A sob because he seemed to be fitter than I was (he was not coughing so violently) and because he let me go on alone . . . yes, I thought he was going to follow me. I did not realize that he was to stay there. I was under a delusion.
"Where are you going ?" he cried. "To Camp 2 follow me, I cannot stay on any longer—cannot wait for you. I'm completely frozen." "I'll wait for a bit of calmer weather and then I'll follow you."
My descent back into life—those few hundred metres was like a hallucination—a nightmare begun in three steps. I drew breath, then took ten steps. I must not fall. I was afraid of not being able to get up again as I did before. How had I reached such a state? After I had taken fifty paces, I turned round. I could barely make out the huge dark grey mass of the "great rock," like a strange apparition from another world. I must have taken ten minutes for these first few paces, and I had hardly made any progress. Perhaps I would never get there. At last at the end of an hour I came to the spiny rock ridge. I could hardly see them but they must have been there since there were no other rocks on the plateau. I had to follow them while going down to find the spur and the fixed ropes. More than once I slipped and found myself in a fllurry of snow. I knew that the slope was not too steep, but each time I was if shocked, overwhelmed by the fear of not being able to surface. Nevertheless these falls were good for me because they forced me to make a fresh effort of will and gave me time to wriggle my toes and frozen fingers. All the while, right, upto the first fixed rope, a kind of Italian music raced through my head. I wanted to drive away this shrill song which was irritating me but I could not... the effect of lack of oxygen, as I well knew.
The blizzard froze my body. It must have been —60° in this terrible wind. I flicked the icicles from my eyes-the eyelashes came out with them. How would I be able to find the first fixed rope embedded in the snow at the end of the supr ? Unfortunately it proved beyond my reach—a piton every forty meters. I would have to do without the help of the rope. I had to keep my calm. The rock was friable and covered with snow. I clung on to it. I did 15 metres and could then get hold on the rope. I was holding on to it—Ariadhe's string—and all I had to do was to follow it right into Camp 2—and salvation. I the strain had been so great that I groaned without any tears and was shaking all over.
It was not yet the end. The lines rose, descended, crossed each other. I had to take the help of the jumar which luckily I had with me. In the couloir I had to lift each line to disentangle them and allow myself to slide down.
As far as the descent was concerned I was saved. At about 7000 m. I felt myself alive again. I stayed hanging on the rope for a long time to recuperate and chase that cursed music from my head. I was able to breathe better. After the rest, I resumed my descent, and thanks to a clearing in the mist I saw the tents camp 2. It was over. If only Bernard were following me! I had separated the lines to make things easier for him.
At 100 m. from the camp I was able to make out someone creeping painfully towards me. He was coming to meet me. That comforted me though at the same time I thought that he was going to abandon the effort. Anyway I had to get to the camp somehow. We approached each other—touched each other—it was Yannick! He cried out in anguish "Louis...! and Bernard . . ? Is he alive?" "Yes, he is following me."
I had taken five hours to get down from the bivouac tent. Yannick took off one of my leather-soled overboots because I had lost one of my crampons and I was afraid of slipping. At the camp Jean-Pierre and Jean-Jacques began to rub my toes while Yannick did the same to his. At that moment Base Camp radio announced that they had seen Bernard get out of the tent, take a few and return to the tent. .. He was finished, thought the others. I still hoped that he had gone to look for something or perhaps to pack a bivouac in case he was too slow... But the others understood. Besides they had never expected to see us alive. Alain was expecting to see us really badly frostbitten. He was waiting for me at Camp 1.
Three hours later I was taken charge of at the foot of the spur by Bernard Macho and Klap. And it was at Camp 1 that I received the shock... Bernard would never return. I was completely spent, without any strength, broken as much by physical fatigue as by that knowledge. Bernard had stayed on up there and a part of my life with him.
Note : The French expedition to Gasherbrum II, 1975 managed to put five men—Yannick Seigneur and Marc Batard—on top on 17 -Tune. The above description is of Audoubert's experience with Bernard Villaret in making the second summit attempt—Ed.