THE LONELY CLIMB
NANGA PARBAT, the Naked Mountain is a peak of over 8000 m situated in Karakoram. The eighth highest mountain in the world. Over forty expeditions failed to scale this mountain and an equal number of climbers lost their lives on it. Only seven expeditions succeeded in reaching the summit, A Dutch' mini-team wanted to be the eighth during the summer of 1981, Four young climbers, a climber-cameraman and a doctor challenged the Naked Mountain, It became a really tough climb during which ultimately only one man reached the summit and another climber lost most of his fingers through frostbite.
Our doctor Gee van Enst waves us on our way. At last we can begin our final attack of the Naked Mountain. We have spent three weeks on the face carrying out reconnaissance and establishing and supplying the three high altitude camps. A period of five days' rest should have been sufficient for us to recover from our previous exertions and be fit enough for the main event. We are returning once more to the desolate loneliness of Nanga Parbat.
We are five in total. A climber-cameraman and four climbers. Frank Moll, our 25 year old cameraman will only climb with us to an altitude of 7000 m. Here his professional work will be taken over by one of us climbers. While we devote ourselves to the 'finale', he will go back to base camp in order to prepare for our return with Doc Gee. We four, Ger Friele and Gerard van Sprang as one rope-team and Bas Gresnigt and myself forming the second, will have to manage the job alone from there on. We know that, should anything go wrong, nobody can help us from below. We've agreed to tackle the final assault on the summit as one team of four, a departure from our normal practice of ropes of two. Ger and Gerard have made many extreme climbs in the Alps this way during the last three years.
I am the only one in our team with Himalayan experience. In 1976 I scaled the summit of Istor-O-Nal 7373 m peak in the Chitrali Hindu Kush, in those days a Dutch high altitude record. While standing on top of this mountain and looking in the far distance I thought I could make out Nanga Parbat. At that moment the idea of climbing this giant one day in the future was born and from then on this dream never left me. Now, almost five years later, it seems to be becoming reality after two busy years of preparation and organisation.
The first three weeks of reconnaissance and supply, the prologue, went very well. We discovered a route along the Rupal face and set up our three fixed camps. Co-operation in the team was excellent, nobody wanted to achieve less than the others, an ideal form of competitive teamwork. In this atmosphere our first team had made, before the three weeks were up, a depot at 7450 m. We really surpassed ourselves with this performance.
Our plans had been received rather sceptically in Holland. The departure came as a great relief for all of us. The long months of preparation were over and above all, it was now finally up to us, the climbers.
From Rawalpindi w& went by hired bus via the Karakoram Highway to Gilgit, capital of the northern territories. This Highway follows the banks and gorge of Indus for some hundreds of miles and cuts right through high mountain ranges and deserts. In Gilgit we did the last shopping and hired 7 jeeps to cover the way through the valley of Astor to Rampur. a village at the foot of Nanga Parbat massif. It was the most terrifying ride one can imagine, 70 miles of incredibly narrow jeep roads in the Astor river gorge. The rewards were great. We ended up in a beautiful valley surrounded by most impressive mountains as a background. Through this landscape we walked, accompanied by eighty-five porters, a day and a half before we reached base camp at Tap Alpe (3600 m) on 27 June a week after leaving Holland.
A day later we started the ascent. Camp 1 was established by Bas at an altitude of 5100 m. We spent the next seven days acclimatising and building up supplies at this camp. It was a week before we managed to reach an altitude of 6050 m on 4 July. The weather had been bad, snow was falling up to 4000 m and avalanches came close to base camp. We climbed the last stretch to the ridge at 6000 m like five snowmen, desperately in search of a way through. We did not find it. Fifty yards below the spot where we later set up Camp 2 we had to leave our loads behind in a provisional depot. The next day all five of us returned to base camp. At least we knew what Nanga Parbat's reputation was based on.
A couple of days later we started up again. It was still snowing but the force of the avalanches had lessened and sometimes patches of blue sky were visible. Finally on 11 July Bas and I succeeded in making Camp 2. During the last part of the steep climb below the ridge, just at our depot, the wind dropped. The clouds dropped away too and all of a sudden high above us, the summit of Nanga Parbat came into sight, the last shreds of mist dissolving along the ridges. We decided to stay in our brand new camp, and take a look higher up the next morning. Between Camps I and 2 we had to deal with a steep mixed face, in the lower part a number of snow-gullies, on top a frighteningly steep rock face and finally the sharp ridge on which Camp 2 stood. Here this ridge widened into a snow-slope that ended at the foot of the rocks of Nanga Parbat's summit crest. There somewhere high above us our third camp would have to be situated. After so many days of bad weather the ridge was plastered with a thick layer of snow. Cutting a track was inhumanly heavy work, At each step you went through the snow up to your knees, sometimes even to the hips. In the thin air your heart raced with the slightest exertion. You stood leaning forward on your ice-axe out of breath, thinking about going back, but no one did. Although we did not manage to establish a third camp we did reach a new goal. At 6800 m we unexpectedly came across; a tent, almost entirely buried in the snow which must have been left behind by a previous expedition. This came as no surprise to us because lower down we had already seen large number of pitons, fixed ropes and other material. However this find surpassed all our expectations: two tents, oxygen bottles, gas cartridges, burners, ropes, food and bivouac equipment. We left our gear there too and descended again to Camp 1.
While we recovered for a day from the climb, Ger and Gerard went back to our highest point of the previous day, gratefully using our beaten trail. After getting there they had enough energy left to load our gear and build up Camp 3 approximately 250 m higher up. Now it was our turn again. This time taking Frank with us we rushed up to our airy Camp 3 in two days. Here we slept and the next day we began to climb in deep snow and alongside steep rocks to the summit crest of the Naked Mountain, at 7450 m. It was real torture, our hearts thumped in our heads. The will to press on was a gruesome automation. You did not think, you only did. Exhausted we dumped our loads that day just below the upper edge of the immense Rupal face. Despite the fact that the summit was only 600 m above our heads, we turned back down again.
We were unsure about the weather, the difficulties higher up, but above all, unsure of ourselves. It was 17 July, certainly the most important day during the 'prologue' of the expedition.
In base camp we were welcomed with flowers. All necessary preparations had been achieved in record time. The summit assault only seemed a question of time. Nobody had any doubts about the coming success. Nevertheless, if anyone had cared to think about it, there were reasons enough for doubts. We wanted to reach the summit in one team of four, but up to now we had not been all fit for one single day. Stomach troubles, high altitude sickness or simply exhaustion had kept one of us out of action at any given time. Apart from that we would need at least five days of clear and windfree weather. Five days, three of which being above 7000 m, in the zone of death.
No one could suggest, when I was thinking it over during our final rest period, a solution to this problem. For the first time since our arrival I was assailed by doubt. Now we are marching forward along the steep snowslope below Camp 1. It is snowing. The start of the final assault on the summit is far from good, 1 notice in my way of moving that I am insecure. I want to measure each step. I carefully regulate my speed and breathing. No time for any spontaneity now. My thoughts and the way I react to my partners is cold.
I don't get annoyed when things go wrong but am not overjoyed when things go right. Only one single thing dominates my thoughts, we have to reach the summit. Nothing more and nothing less. First problem in Camp 1, it is snowing. We are forced to wait for a whole day doing nothing. We reach Camp 2 only on the third day through a heavy snowstorm. It clears up but now a howling gale sweeps over the mountain. We wait. Finally on 27 July as the storm is easing off a little, we succeed in making our way up to Camp 3. Now we are like rats in a trap. During the night of 28 to 29 July the weather deteriorates completely. A storm, with gusts of over 60 miles an hour beats at us continually. Packed close together in our mini tents, not much bigger than a dog's kennel, we have to wait till it's all over. It's impossible. After a day and two nights our situation is getting hopeless. The tents begin to rip, snow and ice sticks to the ground-sheets, my last dry clothes are getting soaked. Our entire store of food falls down the mountain, finally destroying any remaining hope. No other choice than 'back to square one'. Seven days at high altitude appear to have been wasted.
Camp 1 is a paradise compared to the hell we've just escaped from higher on the mountain. I don't notice it anyhow. I return rather dizzy to advance base camp. My next setback is an agonizing sore throat. I am running a temperature, bringing up bloody mucus, I have got cramps and last but not least diarrhoea. For two days I lie in my tent feeling very sorry for myself. Our daily chats5
over the walkie-talkie with Gee back in base camp have changed from enthusiastic progress reports to a list of complaints and disappointments. Frank is in such a bad condition that he is forced to return. For him its now all over. For those staying behind there is little hope for success left.
Time passes rapidly. Besides food we also have a daily supply of medicine. Our high altitude porter Dien becomes an indispensable link in our organisation. Doc Gee, assisted by Frank is in charge of the overall management. He is making us aware of the fast passing days. He is also the one to push us on. On 1 August we start again, sick or healthy, tired or recovered, for a second attempt. We realize more than ever before: it's now or never.
Ger and Gerard, being the fittest and consequently the most enthusiastic team, get the thankless task to lead the whole way up to Camp 3. Bas having more and more trouble with thet high altitude, follows at a distance. I myself am at the tail end. Every hour I have to stop to gargle my sore throat with antiseptic. Green-yellow phlegm, flecked with blood is hindering my breathing. While climbing I get dizzy. I realize that this climb is almost over for me. In the evening, during our regular radio contact, Gee takes a final but difficult decision: take the penicillin. You've got enough for five days, in five days you'll have to be on the summit. After that the blow will come even harder. The next day I gradually begin to feel a little better. I don't know whether it's caused by the thin air, the unexpected fine weather, the knowledge that it must be now or never, or Gee's last trumpcard, the penicillin but I feel stronger than ever before. So on 3 August we leave the three little tents, forming our Camp 3. About a hundred metres higher up I take over the lead from Gerard. The depression which bothered me the last days has disappeared but instead a new phenomenon is already taking its place. We are entering the zone of death, the air is getting so thin that no normal human being can stay alive at this altitude for longer than a few days. To make a trail on the steep snow-slope costs great effort. Now we change the lead continually. In the early evening we arrive at the summit crest where Bas, Frank and myself made the first depot, some two weeks; before. The Rupal face lies definitely behind us. The sharp peak of rock, snow and ice towers high above us. Literally speaking, we are now on the roof of the world. We can make out the Indus river, winding like a glittering snake in between a landscape of ice-crowned mountains. The glassy horizon is filled with a sawteeth pattern of rock and ice peaks, before they disappear in the hazy distance. We have really climbed above the whole world.
We pass that night in a flush of success. The light of day should set us free again but it does not work out that way. An icy wind keeps us in our sleeping bags. The sun is high in the sky before the storm disappears as unexpectedly as it began. The day begins at eleven that morning. First we have to cross the broad snow-slopes on the other side of the summit crest. The ice-slope runs down below us, three thousand metres long, before it gradually disappears in the green coloured Diamir valley. We have passed the point of no return. If the weather deteriorates now, there's no chance of returning to Camp 3. Avalanches and knee deep snow will cut us off from the way back.
Gerard and I have taken over the lead and are cutting a trail. Ger and Bas are following at a distance. They realize subconsciously that they have reached their limits, but nobody dares to draw conclusions. Each of us is fighting alone. Every step costs energy, every breath is painful. Ultimately we arrive at a steep rock belt over which we have to climb to the crest. To find a way through is not simple. The first attempt fails costing us many hours. Then Gerard finds the right route, over a steep rock bridge higher up. While he climbs on ahead I wait for the others, it's going too slowly. Keeping going at this speed will certainly mean unacceptable risks later on. Bas realizes this and in spite of his disappointment, he takes the decision to return before it's too late. He will be the one to help us on the way down a couple of days later, when we will be completely exhausted. But nobody knows this at this moment.
It is already getting dark when we arrive on top of the rock belt. We will have to prepare a second bivouac. On this windy ridge there is little chance to make a proper resting place. The other two cut a sort of platform and crawl into their bivvy sacks. I manage to find, somewhere five metres further on, a narrow ledge.
In the middle of the night a vicious wind blows up again. Drifting snow bedevils us in the bivouac all through the night. I have to get out of my bag every hour to clear the ledge and empty my sleeping bag. My fingers are slowly going numb. For me the very first ray of light is the signal to start. Now it is the time. No waiting for the others, one quick push up to the summit. Let's see who is still able to follow. It appears that only Gerard can manage it. Ger stays in the bivouac. We are the last two, lonely on the top of Nanga Parbat.
An hour later the sun rises. We can see the glittering snow blowing up like fountains above the summit ridge. It's so cold that our hands soon feel stiff and numb. Condensation forms an icy crust on our beards. It's too cold to stop. After only an hour we find a sheltered spot. We want to melt some snow on our burner and wait for Ger. Between the howling of the wind we sometimes think we hear Ger's voice but he never appears. The burner does not work. Discouraged by these setbacks we continue our way along the ridge. On one side we can look down the Rupal face. The view downwards into the green valley where our base camp lies as well as the ocean of peaks in the far distance is really impressive. After stopping for a moment to take a short rest, Gerard says that he wants to go back. I do my utmost to persuade him to go on, but his decision is final. The exhaustion the doubt about Ger's condition, the possibility of trying it again tomorrow with Ger. In my opinion, today will be the last chance. I leave my heavy rucksack behind and carry on all alone. After half an hour I arrive at the rocks of the summit pyramid. The terrain becomes more difficult. I have to find a way through a number of interconnected snowfields and along the rocky cone which at some places, is nearly vertical. Here, out of the wind I manage to recover a little from the disappointments and the frostbite. The leaden sensation in my legs seems to disappear and the feeling in my hands returns. With new energy and will I climb up the steep mixed slope until I reach a broad band of snow at about 8000 m. When I turn around I see Gerard trudging back on the ridge far below, I am definitely left to my own devices at this moment. After having followed the snow band I arrive at the bottom of a short snow-ridge that rises into the mist. The wind is howling again with full fury. Sometimes it blows me off my feet, sometimes I collapse from exhaustion and get tangled in my
own legs. I hardly have the strength to stay upright, often I crawl on hands and knees through the deep snow. The only thing keeping me going is the idea that the entire expedition will be over after I've reached the summit. Around one o'clock in the after-noon I stagger to the highest point. The goal" has been achieved, a vague dream has become reality. When I get back to the summit ridge some hours later, the storm is gone. By following my tracks I first find my rucksack and finally the bivouac too. To my great surprise Ger and Gerard are still here. Despite the complete exhaustion and severe frostbite they want to try it again tomorrow. I spend an hour and a half trying; to change their minds. Disappointed I start the descent. Precious time has been lost on this fruitless rendezvous. I climb carefully down the steep rock belt below the bivouac. Then again the snow-slope which we climbed yesterday when all four of us were still together. It's a different world now.
The sky has cleared again. The storm haze around the ridge is gone. The setting sun shines directly in my face. I hear voices, at first far away, but then close at hand. It is Ger and Gerard shouting at me from the bivvy site, or is it Bas who has been waiting for my return ? Suddenly I see Bas and Frank only two hundred metres ahead of me, two figures, crystal clear against the evening sky. I shout to them and they answer. They are busy filming and want me to walk next to the trail. I do what they ask. Laboriously I stumble forward in the deep snow. But they are not alone, Gee and two Pakistanis have come up also to wait for me. I see them sitting under a large rock. I weep with happiness. With my last ounce of energy I crawl over to them. I talk to them and ask questions, but they don't answer me. When I put my hand on Gee's knee it seems to be made of stone. Slowly I come to the realization there is no one there: no Gee, Bas or Frank. They were just a hallucination. Sobbing with misery I lie in the snow for quite a while. When I can get to my feet again, the sun has disappeared below the horizon. There is no other choice but a third bivouac. The night is cold and lonely lying in my rock-hard frozen sleeping bag, I lie there until I almost pass out from the cold. At this moment I realize that if I want to survive I have to leave now. In the darkness of the night I begin the steep descent down the Rupal face. Every now and then the moonlight helps me shining through the clouds. I have to feel my way down the rocks. Somewhere on the moonlit ridge I can see a point of light. I know it's no illusion this time. Down in Camp 2 Bas is waiting for me. Today I shall be returning to the world of normal human beings. It's 6 August 1981 and exactly five years ago since I scored my first Himalayan success and saw the Naked Mountain for the first time. Now I have climbed it.
Camp 3 (7050 m) on Nanga Parbat. (Photo: R. Naar)
1981 Dutch route on Nanga Parbat. (Photos: R. Naar)