Choice of Objective
IT IS sensible on one's first visit to the Himalaya to choose an. objective which is of medium altitude and easily accessible, so that the transition from European alpine climbing is made gradually and smoothly. The Gangotri region meets these requirements ideally, for it is possible to complete an expedition there in as little as six weeks, and the mountains of the area offer a wealth of long,, steep and difficult ridges and faces, suitable for climbers trained in hard technical climbing in Europe yet at relatively low altitudes.. Despite the increasing popularity of the Gangotri, it appeared that legions of possibilities for major new climbs remained. Doug Scott's lecture on Shivling which I heard in Sheffield inspired my desire to go to the area, and after consultations with several of the climbers who had been there I selected the west ridge of Bhagirathi I as a first choice objective, even though I was initially unable to obtain a close-up photograph of the route. The Bhagirathi group displays a savage array of granite ridges and buttresses on its west side above the Gangotri glacier, and at 6856 m (22,495 ft) I is the highest of its three summits. The ridge looked very long and elegantly structured with rock towers and buttresses supporting a final snow arete. The technical difficulties would lie in the lower half of the climb, and there would be good potential to make campsites or snowholes on the upper section. In short, it appeared a difficult yet feasible objective for a team of Himalayan novices.
The Team and Planning
Initially I planned a 2-man team, but the numbers eventually swelled to four. At least with four climbers there would be a greater strength in depth, but I worried whether the extra numbers might lead to personality differences and disagreements, a fear which was proved to be quite unfounded. Even as a foursome we were committed to an Alpine-style attempt. Our only concession to expedition tactics was to take 7 ropes so that any very steep sections or traverses could be equipped to enable a rapid retreat or descent. Happily we had no need to use this method, and 3 ropes sufficed on the climb.
We discovered that Bhagirathi I had only been ascended once, in 1980 via the southeast ridge by a Japanese team who used an inordinate amount of fixed rope — 2000 m in total! No attempts on the west ridge had been reported. So in view of the obvious difficulty and relatively unknown nature of the mountain we decided even before leaving Britain to descend by our route of ascent.
Our team consisted on John Mothersele (34), Charlie Heard (28) and myself (28) who had climbed Mount McKinley together in 1981, and was completed by Kevin Flint (29) whom I had met the previous Summer. We all held a wealth of long accumulated Alpine experience, which we hoped would suffice for the additional difficulties of Himalayan climbing. Kevin did not know John or Charlie before the trip was planned, but initial meetings in Britain confirmed my hope that we would all integrate successfully.
Because Kevin was a school teacher we were restricted to the period from late July to early September in the timing of the trip, knowing that there would be some risk of monsoon weather, if not on the mountain, then very possibly on the approach, for the Gangotri is situated at the edge of the monsoon influence.
At 6.30 a.m. on 29 July we left Uttarkashi the rainclouds having departed to give a bright morning. The road was continuous as far as Lanka, 10 km short of Gangotri where a 2 km walk is necessary due to the collapse of a bridge over a gorge. We did however suffer a two hour delay during the journey due to a landslip. Significant and rapid changes are occurring in the youthful topography of the Bhagirathi gorge, through which the road weaves its tenuous and sensationally exposed route. Further major landslips would probably close parts of the road more permanently in the near future.
After an overnight stop the party continued to Gangotri leaving Charlie and I behind, as we were suffering from chest and stomach ailments respectively. Nandanban, the site for our base camp, was reached on 31 July after a 26 km walk from Gangotri. One night was spent en-route at Bhujbas, the last habitation in the valley. The trek passed the snout of the Gangotri glacier from which the Bhagirathi river issues. This is considered to be the source of the Ganges by the Hindu population and is therefore a very holy place and an object of pilgrimage. Nandanban is a beautiful grass meadow situated on the west bank of the glacier at an altitude of 4000 m. With plentiful fresh water it is an idyllic base camp site.
Advance Camp and the First Attempt
To compound our problems of illness Kevin became sick with altitude headache and diarrhoea almost immediately on reaching Nandanban. Four days later he descended back to Gangotri, but was still unable to recover from persistent attacks of dysentery. To his great disappointment he decided to leave the expedition and returned to Delhi.
Meanwhile Charlie recovered from his affliction after 2 nights, but I remained sick and weak for 6 days during which time I stayed at Yog Niketan (the yoga commune) in Gangotri village. There I was treated with great kindness, and became strong enough to set off towards the mountains on 5 August.
Without John in healthy condition the expedition might have ground to a premature halt . Our ridge lies 7 km up the glacier from Nandanban, and the first task was to establish and stock an advance camp below the route. John devised an ingenious route to reach the site of the camp, which completely avoided any excursion onto the chaotic stony surface of the glacier. Then with strong support from Prithay, our Nepalese high-altitude porter, and Roy he stocked the camp with three weeks food and all of our climbing gear. All this was accomplished in four days of fine weather.
Then on 5 August John and Charlie reconnoitred the lower part of the ridge with astounding success. They climbed 900 m to the foot of a monolithic granite tower which barred access to the foot of the snow-arete, and left a cache of climbing hardware before descending. Contrary to our expectations they found this lower section to consist of solid granite slabs and aretes, mainly Alpine grade II and III but with a few harder passages up to grade V in difficulty. Their excursion took a total of 8 hours. Climbing un-roped in light training shoes under a warm sun they found it hard to believe that they were embarking on a major unclimbed Himalayan route.
I arrived at Nandanban on the following day, and immediately continued to advance camp to join John and Charlie on a serious attempt. Loaded heavily with 7 days food and 9 days fuel we left camp at midday on 7 August and climbed the lower ridge to an excellent bivouac site in a sheltered rock niche about 200 m beneath the tower. Gathering clouds produced a wetting drizzle which made the climbing greasy and difficult, quite a different proposition from the conditions two days earlier.
Despite an overnight snowfall, we tackled the rock tower as soon as the sun rounded the crest of the ridge. The tower was over 300 m high and nearly vertical. Clearly it would provide the hardest section of the route. Three ropes were used, two for the leader and one for hauling the leader's sack. We shared the leading evenly, so as to fairly distribute the strenuous and gruelling task of seconding with a 15 kg,load. We advanced by 5 pitches, sustained at grade V and VI in cracks and flakes, quite amazed at the high quality and wholly free style of the climbing; then made an open bivouac on small but adequate ledges half way up the tower.
In the morning we awoke to mist and light snowfall the latter gradually intensifying into persistent rain. A retreat to advance camp seemed a prudent strategy, for we fully expected an eventual return to the fine weather of the previous week. Furthermore we were all struggling to cope with increasing altitude, myself especially for I had barely recovered from sickness.
The descent took 5 hours, and we commenced a period of waiting and recuperating. The climate remained warm and humid and although we basked in sunshine at camp the ridge was continuously cloud-covered. Heavy overnight snowfalls further deterred us from returning to the route. Our early confidence was slowly wearing away.
We made a second attempt 3 days later but were rebuffed after only one bivouac due to prolonged overnight snowfall. Leaving food, fuel and gear at our first bivouac in the niche we came down knowing that our next attempt must be decisive but realising that the weather would very probably continue its unsettled pattern.
Roy was unfortunately unable to join us on the route because of his inexperience in rock climbing, but he was able to busy himself with tasks around base camp, and assisted in the rescue of a German climber who was seriously injured in a fall on Bhagirathi II.
The Final Climb
On 16 August we retraced our steps up the lower ridge, for John and Charlie their fourth time, and stopped at the niche hoping to-complete the rock tower the following day. In fact we reached a point only 25 m from the top, and were forced to bivouac on sloping snow covered ledges hanging over an awesome drop.
The tower had continued to provide magnificent free climbing of a sustained difficulty. I led up a poorly protected grade VI wall to' the high point. Faced by a series of loose blocks and a band of overhangs I could not proceed in the remaining half hour of daylight, so we were forced to make an uncomfortable bivouac.
During the evening we were subject to a terrifying electric storm. The rock tower was acting as a conductor to the lightning, and its prow was illuminated by cascades of burning charges only 15 m to our left. We were lucky to survive unscathed. A prolonged heavy snowfall followed the storm leaving us covered in 12 cm of new snow by the morning. The rocks above were completely sheathed in melting ice, whilst the clouds hung close about us.
We debated our predicament, and eventually came to the crucial decision to continue. If the bad weather persisted we reasoned that we could safely descend from the top of the tower, whereas to have retreated immediately would have meant our final defeat. So with grim determination I jumared back up the rope to my high point and attempted the final defences. Those final 25 m took me 4 hours to climb, and gave me the hardest fight I could remember. I employed nuts and chocks for aid, and had to clear inches of slush from the rock before every move. Twice I fell off, but fortunately was stopped after a few feet. Cold, wet and exhausted I brought the others on and we quickly found a reasonable bivouac site for the ensuing night.
Around 200 m of mixed snow and rock slopes separated us from the bottom of the snow-ridge. In the morning the weather was brighter although a thin veil of mist still enshrouded us; so we climbed on, weaving a route up the mixed ground to emerge on the snow crest at 5 p.m. an exciting moment after our struggle on the tower. A short period of sunshine celebrated our arrival, enabling us to air our damp sleeping-bags and examine the route to the summit.
The ridge looked to be 900 m in height and about 40° in angje with a few steeper sections and a rock step at three-quarter height. Though razor-sharp and with huge precipices on either side it was not badly corniced. We considered that it would be feasible provided the snow froze and consolidated.
We pitched the tent on a small plateau beneath the first step of the ridge. To our dismay it snowed continuously through the night preventing any attempt on the summit. Although it stopped snowing in the morning a cloying mist enveloped us throughout the next day pinning us to the tent. With only one day of food left we needed a miraculous improvement in the weather if we were to climb the ridge on the morrow. After that it would be imperative to descend.
Over the following night the unexpected amelioration in the 'weather quite suddenly materialised. As the clouds cleared and the temperature plunged we made frenetic preparations for a summit bid. At 8 a.m. on 21 August we left the tent, cautiously testing the stability of the snow on the first slopes. Although soft and crusted, the surface supported our weights, but we never felt totally confident that the snow was safe.
John led strongly and relentlessly up the arete for 5J hours until we reached the rock step. During the morning the early sunshine was slowly eclipsed by the returning cloudbanks. Due to a fear of frostbite because of his wet feet, and the deteriorating visibility John wished at all costs to avoid a bivouac on the ridge, for we were carrying no overnight equipment, and decided to turn back here. However he urged Charlie and I to continue, even though he knew he would face a lonely solo descent.
With mixed feelings we two continued, aware that our commitment was growing every minute. The rock step posed a brief but awkward interruption to progress; then we steadily pushed up the final 200 m to emerge on the summit just before 4.30 p.m., staggering to the highest point in deep powder snow.
Visibility had fallen to around 20 m, and it was now snowing. We had to start back down immediately before our tracks were obscured, and it was vital to reach our tent by nightfall, which was just 2 hours distant. Victory celebrations were therefore brief. The descent was much the most dangerous operation we had yet undertaken. We climbed solo for greater speed, barely able to follow the crest of the ridge in the milky light, and never stopping for a moment. A bivouac was avoided by the slimmest of margins for we got back to the tent as the final remnants of daylight were receding. John was mightily relieved to see us and brewed hot drinks while we slumped inside the tent, utterly drained of mental and physical energy.
At 9 a.m. on 22 August after finishing our last food we commenced descent in the familiar mist and snow. We had all secretly dreaded the prospect of negotiating the mixed ground above the tower which was loose and would now be plastered in additional layers of wet snow. We tackled these slopes by a combination of down-climbing and abseiling. On the 4th abseil our forebodings were terri-fyingly and tragically brought true. We secured a metal nut belay for the ropes, and John abseiled first. As Charlie followed him down the belay inexplicably pulled out and he tumbled down over the tower together with the ropes. After recovering from initial shock and terror, I carefully soloed down to rejoin a distraught John. Charlie would have fallen at least 800 m, and we knew there was no hope that he could have survived. We would have been trapped without any hope of a rescue had we not left our third rope at the top of the tower to be collected on the descent.
With this single rope we made a long series of abseils down to the relative safety of the lower ridge. Although vertical, the granite rock offered good belays. Determined to ensure our own survival we kept a tight control over our emotions, and abseiled with the greatest of care.
We spent a wet and depressing night at the niche bivouac. Fortunately we had left some food and drinks here, so were able to sustain our depleting physical reserves for a little longer. In the morning we continued the descent, and regained our advance camp at 2 p.m. After drinks and a snack we walked back to Nandanban to meet a warm welcome from Roy, who was stricken with grief by our news.
Knowing that we were finally safe, we could now relax and allow our feelings of sorrow to fully surface. My own emotions were deeply entangled, my elation at our safe return seeming terribly selfish when contrasted with Charlie's death. Yet there could be a no more beautiful place then Nandanban to sit and reflect a while on the events of the last few days.
However we had little time to rest or recover. The formalities of reporting the accident to the authorities, and then the awful task of getting a message to Charlie's wife and parents had to be done as quickly as possible, but we also had to clear the advance camp and prepare to quit base camp on 26 August, when our porters were due to arrive for the return journey.
We decided that it would be both worthless and dangerous to undertake a search for Charlie's body. He had fallen into a deep cleft on the north side of the ridge, but we were unable to see exactly where he was, due to mist. To reach the probable location would have required steep loose climbing under a high risk of stonefall. So I set off back to Gangotri on the next morning to make the necessary reports, leaving John to prepare for our departure.