IAN 'Pin' Howell and I had first seen the great pyramid of Himalchuli in 1974 from the Ganesh and, far more so than its higher neighbour Manaslu, it seemed to be a most desirable mountaineering objective. When, two years later, we decided that the time was ripe for another spot of high-altitude masochism — since our participation in the '71 International Everest epic we had limited ourselves to the more enjoyable alpine Himalayan summits — Himalchuli seemed the obvious location. The antecedents were right too : long resident in Nairobi, Pin is probably the most capable mountaineer active in Africa today and is the natural successor to the great Arthur Firmin who led his Kenyan team on the first serious attempt on the mountain in 1955.
From the very beginning we determined that our expedition would be as 'alpine' as was commensurate with safety and a reasonable chance of success. It would consist of a minimum number of climbers and it would spend only as much money as was strictly necessary. We would not use Sherpas above Base Camp, preferring to reach the summit, if we could, solely by our own unaided efforts. We would beg for nothing to facilitate our Himalayan holiday and everything offered to us and accepted, would be paid for in kind with professionally taken photographs. We would keep a low profile and avoid the tasteless publicity and razzmatazz that surrounds so many mountaineering ventures these days.
Eventually we chose the oft-attempted but still virgin East Ridge and Northeast Face as our line of attack. Despite its length it appeared to offer more climbing interest than the now twice- ascended Western Flank. Little did we realize just how long the route was to be, or how sparse its technical interest.
Photo Plates 26-28
Eight climbers made up the party : just sufficient to cope with the logistics of such a long route and yet remain a viable team in the likely event of the sickness of one or two members. Janusz Onyszkiewicz, like Pin and I already over 40, was a probable summit climber with the first ascent of Gasherbrum III, and a high climb on K2 with the '76 Polish Expedition to his credit. Both still in their early 30s, Nigel Gifford had been a member of the Army's Nuptse and Everest adventures, while Bill O'Connor was a top-class alpinist with experience also in East Africa and America. Rather younger, Iain Allan and Alastair Stevenson both hailed from Kenya : the former had been Pin's rope-mate on many hard African ascents while the latter was our doctor and a powerful support climber. Last, but by no means least, came Johnny Fowler, at 34 an experienced alpinist with organizational talents which made him a most useful companion on such a venture. Four of -us were connected professionally with mountaineering, one way or another, but this proved a mixed blessing. We were offered some excellent clothing and gear which we gratefully accepted, but we had far too little time for organization and preparation. The self-employed are always busy ! To complete the expedition I invited my old friend Pemba Thar key to join us as Base Camp Sardar and Nima Tsering to be Base Camp cook.
We chose the post-monsoon for our expedition because, despite often indifferent snow conditions, it is our experience that the weather is then more stable than during the pre-monsoon. We marched out of Trisuli Bazar, our road-head, on 30 September — a date many folk*5 had criticized as being too late in the season but a date, nevertheless, carefully chosen. Equipped as we were, we felt that the cold weather and strong winds of late October and November were a fair price to pay for a comfortable approach march and the minimizing of avalanche danger at altitude. Several men had actually died in avalanches long before we had even left Kathmandu : climbing mountains should be an enjoyable experience and the approach march should be a rest- cure, while courting danger unnecessarily is bad mountaineering. As it turned out, our timing was well-nigh perfect.
Apart from two days of torrential rain, which demonstrated how unpleasant — if not impossible — our journey up the great gorges of the Buri Gandaki would have been any earlier in the season, the long approach march proved uneventful. We sent ahead a small reconnaissance party from Jagat on 8 October to locate a suitably high site for Base Camp and they rejoined us at our trail-head village of Namrung on 11 October. Here we were confronted by belligerent Tibetan villagers who demanded that we pay off our 74 loyal Tamang porters and employ them instead. We guessed that in the past they had been badly handled by over-rich expeditions. At first we refused to bow to blackmail but our liaison officer was entirely ineffectual and we were forced eventually to capitulate. The lazy Tibetans, after a short day and a half during which they rifled several of our bags, refused to carry beyond the site of the old Japanese and Italian Base Camps at 13,800 ft (4200m)—a site far too low for our purposes and moreover too easily accessible to pilfering villagers. There was another confrontation. Seventy Tibetans drew their knives while eight climbers and two Sherpas gripped their ice- axes. Tempers ran high. But there was no alternative to a reluctant surrender, a settling of the inflated pay demands of the Namrungians and three wasted days while the twelve of us, sahibs, Sherpas, the kitchen-boy and his brother, ferried 86 loads to our proper Base Camp on the snow-line at 15,300 ft (4660 m). By now we were fairly fit and we started climbing at once.
A steep moraine, a rocky gulch and a snow-filled gully led to Col Lidanda at 16,880 ft (5145 m). It was a journey that eventually became a mere slog of little over an hour but at this stage it took several times that. The first party to the col were excited to follow for much of the way the old footprints of what appeared to be a large biped leading over the narrow ice-saddle and down the wide couloir beyond. Whatever creature it was had been very adept at snow-craft : was it a yeti taking a short cut from one high and remote valley to the next ?
Bulging seracs overhung Col Lidanda but we broke them on fixed ropes and ploughed up tiresome slopes of deep snow into a band of seracs which provided some entertaining climbing, Above them we occupied Camp 1, at 17,820 ft (5430m) on 17 October. Its two tents were tiny dots on the wide ice-hung northern flanks of the East Ridge itself and on the 18th Pin and Iain reached its crest via some potentially dangerous; concave slopes and probed westwards until they came to a wide saddle at 19,300 ft (5880 m) — an excellent site for Camp 2. Meanwhile the trail below was becoming steadily consolidated as loads flowed upwards. Our schedule called for each Camp to be established for several days and well stocked before it was ever occupied. Climbers would carry high, while sleeping low on a rotation system which gave them as much altitude variation as possible and an occasional night at Base Camp with Nima's excellent dinners. Thirteen loads had already arrived at Camp 2 when Janusz and Bill first slept there on 20 October and then next day they followed the ridge upwards until it broadened into wide and featureless snow slopes. It was dull work, the snow was terrible and the only sign of forward progress was the slowly lengthening furrow behind them. Exhausted, they dumped their loads and returned. Next day Pin and I, accompanied by Nigel and the Doctor, reached their high point and pressed on — to emerge on to a vast ice plateau. At its far side the beautiful spire of Rani Peak (6770 m — 22,211 ft ?) stabbed into the blue sky. There was still no sign of Himalchuli! A previous expedition had compared the plateau with, the deck of a gigantic aircraft-carrier, with Rani as its bridge superstructure. It fitted — but it seemed a mundane analogy for we felt more like Antarctic explorers than sailors or even mountaineers. But at last we had something against which to measure our progress and we forced our painful way across the desert of ice to establish Camp 3, below the graceful curving shoulder of Rani which now walled all forward progress. Our height was 20,960 ft (6390 m) and we were, we estimated, nearly four miles beyond Camp 2.
Pin and I moved into Camp 3 on 23 October, but before dusk we made a reconnaissance to the edge of the great plateau to the point where Rani's shoulder plunges over the edge of the world. We knew all previous attempts had climbed over the shoulder to descend into the wide cwm below Himalchuli's Northeast Face where we would have to establish ourselves before making our final push. Was this upward climb of over 700 ft followed by a descent of 1000 ft really necessary ? From the plateau's rim we saw Himalchuli for the first time in 21 days. Its East face rose sheer from the sea of billowing cloud which filled the tantalizing glen of the Chuling Khola far below us. How far away its summit still appeared ! The shoulder fell away in great cliffs but there was certainly a line traversing around them towards the cwm. It was unpleasant-looking mixed ground, climbable in the Alps on a summit bid but hardly realistic as a daily route for heavily laden men at 21,000 feet !
Glen of Chuling Khola
The steep slopes to the crest of the shoulder were knee-deep in soft snow but once on the crest the surface improved. We traversed the western flank until we found an obvious line — a steep but almost unbroken ice-wall — leading down into the cwm. It was a long way down. The shoulder was obviously a major psychological obstacle. In bad conditions retreat from beyond it might well be very difficult. But at last we could study the face opposite and identify the features described by our predecessors. The difficulties ahead appeared only to be those of snow conditions and high altitude and we were confident that once we had established Camp 4 in the cwm and were actually climbing on the flanks of Himalchuli itself, it would only be bad luck or bad weather that would stop us.
By now we were experiencing increasing cold and strengthening winds but it was nothing untowards and I recall no one complaining even of cold toes. Each, morning the hard-won pistes between camps were obliterated and the hard old footsteps could only be re-located by careful navigation between marker flags and patient probing with our ski-poles. In fact ski themselves would have been extremely useful especially on the long and unpopular trudge between Camps 2 and 3.
By now too the team had shaken itself into two distinct groups. Four men, Pin, Janusz, Iain and myself, were going like the proverbial steam engines and it was interesting to reflect that, of the three of us over 40, two had hardly trained for the expedition and one — myself — not at all. What did that prove ? Perhaps only that climbing big mountains is done in the mind ? The four others were acclimatizing rather more slowly and Bill, otherwise fit, was suffering badly from a recent major knee operation. Now that we had seen the way ahead it was evident that we were short of tents. We were all fit enough now to bypass Camp 1 en route from Base Camp to Camp 2, so we pulled it down and transferred the tents upwards for more important business.
Our strategy now called for the establishment and stocking of Camp 4 and then we would all pull back to Base for a few days' 'Rest and Recuperation'. Then, refreshed and reorganized, we planned to storm swiftly back up the mountain in a Blitzkrieg for the top. There would be a light Camp 3 from which two mutually supporting ropes would make for the summit alpine- style and using snow-hole bivouacs as necessary. It would be essential to plan this assault meticulously during the 'R + R' period, especially as none of our radios had ever worked during the entire trip ! In fact the 'R + R' was a crucial element in our Sherpa-less strategy.
But fixing the ropes down a thousand feet of ice-wall proved very time-consuming and Camp 4 was not reached on 25 October as we had hoped. Bill and Nigel had worked with Pin and Janusz fixing the ropes and Nigel seemed unhappy about the safety of the route and the ice-wall. On the night of the 26th, Camp 3 was buffeted by very strong winds and next morning Nigel and Bill felt unable to join the other two in a carry to the shoulder. A short sharp storm with new snow struck during the night and it was with some effort that Pin and I carried large loads to the shoulder the following morning. We had barely time to locate the dump above the fixed ropes before the weather finally clamped right in. Nigel was unable to join us and Bill's knee had at last given out. We sensed that the expedition was very tired and was fast grinding to a halt. 'R + R' was obviously imperative.
The storm blew itself out on the morning of the 29th—a morning crisp and bright but hazed with blowing spindrift. Not only had it left some two feet of new snow in its wake but two vital tents at Camp 2 had been so damaged as to be unusable. It was an opportune moment to enjoy our 'R + R' while the snow consolidated and we repaired the tents and perhaps even the radios. Camp 4 could be established very quickly on our return upwards as everything needed for the assault was now stockpiled at Camp 3 or on the shoulder. There seemed nothing to lose by a premature descent.
At Camp 2 Pin and I waited for the arrival of Bill and Nigel down from Camp 3 before following the others' tracks. I have never known more obvious avalanche conditions. Every little slope seemed pregnant with the windslab and I was worried about the traverse below the ridge crest above the old site of Camp 1. We warned the lads to exercise extreme caution and to wait for us if there was any doubt about safety. I thought that we might be able to avoid the slope by a steep descent down the fall-line.
But the moment we dropped off the ridge and came round the corner I realized that we were* too late. The slope had already avalanched. Johnny was standing in the debris and shouting. Three hundred feet below him Alastair was struggling amid a tangle of snow blocks. 'Thank God he's alive!' I thought before shouting to Johnny to get out of the danger area to the safe ground beyond. Then I hurried down to help Alastair while the others crossed the avalanche zone one by one. Luckily, the Doctor, resilient and as cheerful as ever, was unhurt and seemed none the worse for his experience. All together now we proceeded carefully down hill cutting new and safer lines between crucial landmarks. We left—most of us—our climbing gear on Col Lidanda and hurried down to a warm welcome from Pemba Tharkey and Ang Nima and a great meal of our favourite cheese and onion chapattis. While it was great relief to be down safely it was evident that several of our younger companions were still very shaken by the morning's events.
Morale however seemed high again next day—30 October—and we relaxed in the sunshine washing clothes, repairing gear and eating and drinking. News had already reached us of the success of the ladies on Annapurna : Alison Chadwick, Janusz's wife, was one of their lead climbers and she had planned to join us at Base Camp when her expedition was over. She was a close friend, in particular, of Pin, Johnny and myself and we looked forward eagerly to her arrival and some feminine company. When, towards mid-day, a tiny figure was sighted toiling up the valley far below, we hoped that it might already be Alison.
Nt so—it was Deeta, the cook-boy's brother, with fresh vegetables and some mail and, over big mugs of tea, we settled down to catch up on news from home. Suddenly Janusz said softly, 'Alison died on Annapurna'.
Early in the morning Janusz set off alone for Kathmandu. The American girls were to fly home in six days and he must meet them. Everyone was very subdued. I could sense that morale had cracked but there seemed little I could do except put a brave face to it.
Nigel Gifford decided he wanted to go home. Bill O'Connor, already semi-crippled, worked for one of our major benefactors and had, promised to be home for a major trade-fair : we sent him and Nigel out together. With three strong climbers and two in support and the load-carrying virtually completed, the summit still seemed possible with good luck. But Iain Allan had received disturbing business news from his wife and Johnny Fowler felt unhappy supporting what he saw now as a 'forlorn hope'—a two-man climb—with his comparative inexperience. Pin and the Doctor—himself on his first big mountain—and I were left holding the baby!
It was impossible to hide our bitterness at this turn of events. We had not been defeated but it seemed we had been deserted. Pin and I felt that although we might reach the summit, as a pair, the chances of returning safely were now so long as to be unacceptable. But there would, we determined, be no retreat : instead we would evacuate every bit of our equipment from the mountain and make an orderly withdrawal—with 'drums beating and flags flying' as it were. It was a project daunting enough to be worth doing.
We managed to persuade Iain and Johnny to join us to Camp 2 before they left for Kathmandu, for we knew that there was more than 700 lb of gear and equipment high up. It was good to be high again but Pin and I felt that it was under false pretences, there was now no motivation for the summit, the pressure was off and the climbing seemed almost pointless. We compensated for this by living in luxury, eating only the luxury items from the food-packs and indulging in an orgy of photography for our equipment suppliers. On 1 November Iain and Johnny carried down 90-lb loads from Camp 2 while the three of us left returned to dig out Camp 3, remove 900 ft of fixed rope from the ice-wall above the planned site of Camp 4 and bring down the large dump on the shoulder. This took two days' hard work in perfect weather and we were left at Camp 3 with the prospect of several tiresome and strenuous carries across the plateau and down to 2 ahead of us. Someone hit on the idea of making a sledge.
We stiffened a tent floor with sleeping mats, stuffed it tight with equipment and lashed the front into a skid. With some 500 lb aboard we could barely move the awkward construction at all on the fiat ground of the plateau and there was over a mile and a half to go before the ground steepened. It was a frightful effort but it worked! It took a day but in one fell swoop we dragged everything off the mountain down to Camp 2. But there was no way we could sledge further over narrow aretes and rock steps and through serac jungles and crevasses. It took two massive carries for the three of us to clear everything down to Base Camp—and all we left there were the fluttering marker flags to show where once we had passed.
Perhaps a fitting finale was the final descent, on the evening of 6 November to Col Lidanda. We had carried up, that morning to Camp 2, the bare minimum of gear knowing that our loads would be over 100 lb. Now—in pitch darkness—we must descend the final ice-cliff on a complicated fixed rope hand over hand. With my huge! load there was no way to keep upright and I ended on the col upside-down in a deep drift . . . but safe. The consequent flailing around and disentangling was worth a good laugh. Certainly it was less frustrating than the passage through Namrung village that still awaited us!
To sum up then : the climb is certainly possible using the methods we tried although it is not an ideal route for this strategy. It is too long and it lacks the technical difficulty to hold the interest of highly motivated young climbers to whom the actual climbing is more important than the mountain. Future parties attempting this route would do well to consider the use of ski with skins. And next time I will disregard the machinations of well-meaning friends and we will not employ a mail-runner ... it destroys one's concentration on the job in hand somehow! But anyway, with a total expenditure of little more than £8000 in all, it was an enjoyable holiday—and isn't that what mountaineering is about after all?