AUSTRALIAN ARMY NILGIRINORTH (7061m) EXPEDITION, 1983
CAPT ZAC ZAHARIAS
NILGIRI NORTH was first climbed by a Dutch Expedition in 1962 led by Prof C. G. Egeler.1
The route lay over the steep north face to a point two thirds of the way up. From there the Dutch expedition traversed right, onto the west ridge and then the summit. Since 1962 there were a further eight expeditions on Nilgiri North with only'two successful, both Japanese. The second ascent was in 1981 when the Japanese climbed Tilicho from the north and then traversed the 4 km summit ridge to Nilgiri North. The third successful expedition was in 1982, when a Japanese/Korean team climbed the SE face, the first ascent from the southern side, again by an indirect route. Nilgiri North is unlikely to be climbed by a direct route as there is too much objective danger. The southern approaches, particularly by the buttress on the SE side appear to be the safest route bringing climbers on to the summit ridge and then a traverse onto the main summit. The Australian Army Alpine Association Expedition to Nilgiri North consisted of the following 'members : Capt Zac Zaharias (leader), Capt Peter Lambert, Capt Terry McCullagh, Sq Ldr Bruce Fox J (doctor), Sapper Phil Pitham, Capt David Evans, Peter Allen, Sherpa Maila Pemba and Mark Whetu, an alpine guide from Mt Cook in New Zealand. We arrived in Kathmandu on 24 September 1983, being probably the last of about 43 expeditions to arrive that season. Consequently there was difficulty finding a liaison officer, but eventually one was found for the right price. After leaving Pokhara on 27 September with 48 porters we arrived at Lete on 3 October where new porters were recruited to carry our stores over the treacherous path towards Herzog's Annapurna I base camp. Base camp was established at 4050 m on 8 October at the western end of the Great Barrier. Camp 1 was quickly established one day later at 4500 m and the next few days were spent ferrying loads. Bad weather kept the group tent-bound for 4 days. During the bad weather Dr Bruce Fox caught pneumonia and was evacuated to Kathmandu by helicopter. Camp 2 was established at the head of a prominent couloir at 5400 m on the SE aspect of Nilgiri North on 16 October the camp was in an exposed but safe position with the route ahead being the most difficult part of the climb. It was now 26 days since leaving Australia.
1. See HJ. Vol. XXIV, p. 49. Lionel Terray was leader of the climbing party. For later expeditions see H.J. Vol. 38, Illustrated Note 5 and H.J. Vol. 39, p. JL69. -Ed.
The alarm went off at 4 a.m. I was dreading going through the motions of getting out of bed and going up the couloir to Camp 2 for the fourth time. There is something about the early morning, that makes it unwelcome. The stillness, the darkness, the cold and the apprehension all combine to form a psychological barrier. The only consolation was that it would be the last time as Maila Pemba and I would be staying at Camp 2 to acclimatize and to support the push for the summit.
We silently started up the couloir at 5.20 a.m. The extra rope and food bag which I had given Maila to slow him down didn't Work. His acclimatized body moved with ease whilst I struggled up panting for breath and slumping over my ice-axe every so often. The couloir was becoming active as the morning sunsoftened the snow and dislodged small rocks. I felt like a ten-pin. On one occasion, when, as I looked up and saw one small rock above me descending at ever increasing speed, I stood and, remembering the laws of physics, waited for the last bounce before dodging the projectile. No fear, just relief that it didn't connect.
We arrived at the top of the couloir in time to see the next disappear up the fixed ropes to continue further progress on thenroute. It was a slow process, the climb only yielding one or two rope lengths each day. Today's sortie of Mark, Phil and David was to attempt a route through the rock band. If this could be fixed, then the summit was within reach.
Peter Allen, Maila and I
busied ourselves in the warm sunlight by clearing a tent platform. The hacking at the ice was laborious but eventually it yielded and this second platform would allow another two to sleep comfortably. The entire camp was in a precarous position, a knife-edge ridge dropping off steeply in both directions. We defied the laws of gravity and lived atop a narrow platform an eagle's nest sitting boldly high up a rock face. All around us lay a magnificent panorama.
After some lively discussion on the night of the 22nd, it was resolved that an attempt would be made on the summit by Mark David and Phil. Seven continuous days of fixing rope still had resulted in a suitable site for Camp 3. No fixed ropes remained and the last of the climbing rope had been placed on the steepest section of the climb, just below a large ice-cliff which seemed to be our last obstacle. The plan was for these three to make an attempt to locate Camp 3 by climbing freely beyond the fixed rope. Only sufficient food for two nights was carried. This was a somewhat bold move but something had to be done to break the stalemate. The winter was fast approaching, we were running out of time. The wind was increasing in speed every day, the air temperature gradually dropping. What had been a sunny, warm campsite on arrival had now become a desolate place.
We watched the progress of the summit push all day through the binoculars. Three tiny black dots which were slowly crawling up the enormous ice-face. Little was said that day at the campsite - there was no need for the spoken word as we all knew each other's thoughts. By late afternoon the cloud thickened and the wind picked up increasing the danger of the situation. The three black dots disappeared from view for a while but to our relief, the weather abated by late afternoon. Just before dark the last black dot climbed around the face. Presumably a camp had been located on easier ground and the summit could be attempted the next day. At 7 p.m., the pre-arranged radio schedule was conducted. Yes, they had found an excellent campsite in a wind swoop and they would be trying for the summit the following day.
It was a wild night. The wind knocked our tent around. Our luck may just have run out with the weather. In the middle of the night Peter Allen and I removed some of tent doorway poles to make the tent less likely to lift. By the morning the wind seemed to have dropped a little. It was a clear day although the wind made it very cold. We didn't do very much all day. Another day of waiting and hoping the other three would be alright. It clouded in for a while and even snowed lightly although the sun's rays still peeked through. We didn't talk very much during our vigil, we were just letting time pass until the next appointed radio schedule late that afternoon.
At 5 p.m. I turned on the radio to hear David coming in loud and clear from Camp 3. Everybody in our tent quickly came to attention. Our questions became numerous but David seemed to be playing a skilful game with us, avoiding the real point of the conversation. Our patience ran out and David announced that they did make the summit. We were all ecstatic. Our efforts had finally been rewarded and now we could consider even putting more people on the summit. We searched for more details about the ascent. Dave explained that it was straight forward, an easy plod in comparison to the technical climbing required below Gamp 3. The temperature was - 25 °C when they left in the morning, warming to - 24 °C on the summit with 40 knot winds. 'They were still trying to warm themselves, huddled together in a two man tunnel tent. We agreed to talk again in an hour's time as we wanted to come up with a plan for the next day.
It was another brilliant morning although cold, leaving us with hopes that the weather would hold for our summit bid. The plati was for Maila Pemba, Peter Allen, Terry McCullagh, Peter Lambert and myself to occupy Camp 3, we would take an extra tent, Dave, Phil and Mark would leave food, the stove and the radio behind at Camp 3 before making their way back to Camp 1.
I started climbing up the fixed lines making slow progress with the heavy load. The route to the section below the rock band was an impressive line and in the brilliant sunshine I thoroughly enjoyed the tremendous views it offered of the Great Barrier, the Nilfiris and Annapurna I. We likened our route to the SW ridge Of Mt Aspiring and the east ridge of Mt Cook in New Zealand, both Classic ice-climbs. As expected, the rock band proved to be tht bottle neck. The loose rock, not unlike New Zealand rock had alltady hit three members of our team whilst ascending four days prtvlously. For that reason only one person at a time moved up dOWn the two 50m length of ropes.
After a Considerable wait, the three summiters filed past and tbli to continue our methodical climb upwards. The altitude was taking it's effect on me having not spent as much Maila and Peter Allen. They seemed to move upwards effortlessly. Once on the main face Maila fixed some rope which recovered out of the rock band, relics of a previous expedition. The rope would come in very handy for our descent. By mid afternoon Maila and Peter had disappeared from view, moving around the ice-cliff. I was on the face alone as the other two were still a few rope lengths below. It was cold and lonely and by this tht altitude was taking effect. Progress for me had slowed to the point where I begun to have reservations about making it to Camp 3. I had got to the point of no return, I had no coice
but to continue on in the failing light towards Camp 3. Eventually I arrived, being greeted warmly by the other two, I hypothermic, slurring my speech and having difficulty co- ordinating movements. Peter Allen thrust a brew into my hands fey and revitalize my frozen body. I crawled into my sleeping to try and stop my condition from deteriorating any further. Others soon arrived in the dark in an exhausted state. They too were suffering from the bitter cold and it was some time before the tent was pitched.
Peter Lambert, Terry and myself were the only ones remaining at Camp 3. As I waited for the other two to pack I reflected on our climb to the summit the previous day. It was somewhat of an anti-climax as it presented no climbing difficulty at all. It was a mere formality that had to be completed. The views of Tibet were particularly stunning, a barren looking wasteland. The headwaters of the Kali Gandaki disappeared into the distance. Snow cloud mountains appeared on the horizon. We only stayed on the summit for fifteen minutes, it was far too cold and the wind exceptionally bitter for us to contemplate staying longer. It was a matter of taking photographs quickly and looking at the slides back home.
I was awoken out of my dreamtime by Peter and Terry announcing their intention to leave. I was to be the last down the ropes as I intended to recover them and as much equipment as possible. The others quickly disappeared and I casually worked my way down each pitch, removing anchors, downclimbing in places and abseiling in others. I found it quite enjoyable being on my own. There was no more pressure to make the summit, the weather was still holding so it all became an interesting days work. By early afternoon I had removed the fourth climbing rope in place above the rock band. I was looking like a Christmas tree with ropes, ice-screws and snow-stakes hanging freely from my pack. It had been enough days work so I slid quietly down the rest of the fixed rope to join the other two at our eyrie called Camp 2.
The porters had come and gone, collecting the last evidence of base camp. Phil and I were the last two remaining people in this massive amphitheatre. We both looked up for the last time at Nilgiri North, the mountain that had been our home for almost an entire month. It was all quiet now except for the characteristic Whistle of the wind through the air. It was time to walk back to the real world. Silently we turned around, immersed in our thoughts as we walked towards Lete.
Nilgiri North. X=heighest point reached. (Photo : Zac Zaharias)