KANGCHENJUNGA SOLO

ROGER MARSHALL

18 OCTOBER, 1984. 12.10 a.m.: my stove erupts in a hissing mass of freezing liquid searing pain through my thin gloves into already frostbitten fingers. Choking from the fumes spewing from the stove, I shout in pain as my sluggish, oxygen starved brain translates the emergency.

I turn awkwardly, rip open the door zipper and recoil from the savage blast of snow and -30 degree night that rushes into the tent. Instinct forces me to fling the stove into the darkness and I drag down the zipper shutting out hell. I tear off the gloves and plunge my fingers into the sleeping bag to mitigate the agony. Gradually it dawns on me that this could be a disaster. I am alone, without oxygen, at 25,420 ft, cramped in a tiny Goretex tent half buried by avalanche debris on the lip of a 200 m ice-precipice. This is my last chance to go for the third highest summit on earth - an almost impossible 2742 ft above me. Moments ago I was preparing to cook food and melt snow for water. Now I have no food and, worst of all, no water. The tips of four fingers are black with frostbite and six toes are dead after my first attempt at the summit ended a week ago at about 26,600 ft. In my water bottle I discover a pint of liquid and I know I need four quarts a day to have a reasonable chance of survival above 26,000 ft.

Listening to the wind scream around my precarious home I lie in my high altitude suit and sleeping bag and try to think rationally about the situation. But my mind, operating on only 30 per cent of the oxygen found at sea level, has trouble coping.

At best I have a 50/50 chance above 26,000 ft solo and without oxygen. Without water, dehydration will dramatically increase the odds against me.

Should I take the chance and go up, or give up and go down to safety?

This is my third stay in Camp 3 and I know I have spent too much time at high altitude. I know already that this is the toughest challenge of my life. Thickening blood from altitude and lack of oxygen are already a threat to my frozen toes and fingers. Now dehydration will add to the risk.

The words of a Judy Collins song drift into my head; 'You must barter your life to make sure you are living'. It was 33 days since I had arrived at base camp far below and the long struggle to put in three camps, plus the nights at altitude, had sapped my will and taken 20 pounds from my body.

My photographer friend Cindy was below at base camp and I knew she would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Our two year friendship was in trouble because of the loneliness and extreme tension of my solo climbs.

'I felt* as if I was at the end of the world,' said Cindy afterwards. 'I was the only woman in a culture that doesn't easily accept western women. I did my own solo at base camp'. Cindy spent several five day periods with sometimes only one Sherpa for company, not knowing whether I was alive or dead, out of sight on the mountain above. She did not know if she would have to walk back alone if I didn't return.

She had also decided that she could no longer watch me vanish into the clouds and count the days wondering if I would ever reappear. The 25 day ordeal of our trek to base camp through the worst leech country I had experienced and the daily torrential monsoon rains in this remote region of eastern Nepal had already strained our relationship. But despite our problems, I was glad there was another human being down there thinking about me. It was all I had.

I remembered the day in the jungle when I counted 50 leeches on me during a two hour rainstorm and the horror of the giant leeches that sizzled like pork roasts when we flung them in the fire. Then there were the porter problems, Cindy sick from altitude and the strain of our relationship. The steepness of the climb up snow covered rocks to base camp and the kerosene stoves that didn't work.

And, for Cindy, the frightening remoteness of that camp at 18,000 ft, four days from the nearest village and hemmed in by enormous converging glaciers, the most hostile environment she could imagine.

It was 15 days into the autumn season before I set out to find a route up the climb I knew would test me to the limit. It was a test for us both. Me alone with the mountain. Cindy alone with only her thoughts to keep her company.

Six French climbers on the neighbouring peak of Yalungkang shared my route to Camp 2 at 23,288 ft on Kangchenjunga's Great Shelf, an ice-plateau guarded by ice-wall and crevasses below the rock walls of the summit pyramid.

For 23 days I struggled with 20 kilo loads to stock my three camps with food and equipment while I acclimatized to the altitude. I envied the French sharing the work, carrying light loads and resting at base camp while their team mates set up their camps. For me, it was a lonely fight. Every step I kicked alone, every kilo I carried on my own back. I tried to feel good about it, but I didn't. Somehow, it was worse than being completely alone. I was ready for the upper mountain where I could be out of sight of the other team and forget the companionship they enjoyed.

12 October: I was kicking my crampon points into ice at 26,600 ft in the steep couloir above Camp 3 when bad weather began to close in around me. I could feel my feet freezing through the double boots and my finger tips had lost sensation despite three pairs of gloves. The winds had changed with the full moon and heavy clouds were boiling around Jannu, a peak a few miles to the west. I was coughing blood and phlegm and I did not want to be trapped at Camp 3 in a storm. It was time for a rest. I was also worried about Cindy.

My lips were swollen and blistered from the relentless ultra violet rays, even my tongue was burned. One night I dreamed I was dying and woke unable to breathe because blisters had sealed my lips together. The pain when I opened my mouth made me cry out. But there was nobody to hear.

Cindy, who had been looking forward to climbing to Camp 1 at the top of the first icefall, said afterwards: 'It was terrifying’. Her comment pointed put the difference in the way we saw the mountain. Camp 1, perched on an ice-ridge and bounded by a huge crevasse and an ice-cliff, was, to me, beautiful and breathtaking. The climb was in four sections; a first icefall leading from base camp to Camp 1 at 20,400 ft. A second icefall, steep and exposed, the continuously violent winds to Camp 2 on the Great Shelf. The tortuous route through the ice-towers of the great shelf up to Camp 3 and the huge couloir and summit pyramid to 28,162 ft.

18 October: I was back at Camp 3 for the last time. The wind was a ferocious enemy outside the thin tent fabric and at first I could not face crawling out at ground level into that holocaust in the dark.

Finally at 2 a.m. I slid from my sleeping-bag and began to prepare for the summit climb. Powder snow was blowing through the closed zippers at I struggled with numbed fingers to tie crampon straps over double boots and neoprene overboots. Sharp points lacerated the floor, but I no longer cared. Two energy bars I had warmed against my stomach for two hours were all I could eat, the pain of my blistered lips taking away my appetite.

I refused to listen to the rational part of my mind that was aware I might have to bivouac high on the mountain and without water, might not survive. I still felt physically strong and knew that, if I went down to base camp, I would not return here. I knew Cindy would leave for sure and I would be completely alone. I no longer savoured the loneliness and wanted to be finished.

No matter what the risk, I had to give it one more try. Hauling my pack behind me I crawled out into the wind and darkness and stood up. Immediately I felt better with my head above the needles of ice whipping around the tent. I noticed small ice-blocks from a tower above the camp had fallen within a few feet of the tent. It was 4.30 a.m. An orange dawn was lighting snow giants 100 miles away to the northwest and softening the morbid blackness of the valleys. The only cloud was on the distant plains of India and in a sudden wave of excitement I knew I had a good day.

Last night the loneliness and thin air had played tricks with my imagination and I had been talking to the equipment in the tent. The first night in Camp 3 I shared my sleeping-bag with inner boots, gas stove and water bottle. Now I had rebelled against congestion and threw out the boots and stove, demoting them to a rucksack. Last night I experienced a feeling of hostility from the stove and boots. Sometimes you just have to be tough.

Fresh snow in the couloir came almost to my knees as I fought the lethargy of altitude and climbed slowly on the front of my crampons. For the first time since I left Camp 2, Cindy was able to see me from base camp as I climbed past 26,200 ft.

Five steps and rest, five steps and rest.

My blood, thickened by the altitude, was not reaching the ends of my fingers and toes. I could feel my toes getting colder. Since 20,000 ft where the body cells cease to reproduce my body had been slowly going downhill. My mind was dulled by lack of oxygen and I allowed it to drift and forget the effort of upward movement.

Above, I could see the traverse right from the couloir and the steep bed of granite I must climb to reach the summit icefields far above. I had no rope, only an ice-axe and crampons. Whatever I climbed up, I would also have to climb down. No rope meant no easy return and no escape if I made a route-finding mistake. Seven hours later I was on the traverse, tiptoeing on ice covered rock slabs and into a steep granite groove covered by a thin, dangerous layer of snow.

A thin poly rope left by a Japanese expedition in the spring hung in the groove and I used it as a handhold as, crampons scraping, I climbed slowly up the steep section. I was close to 8400 m and my mind wandered. I thought of Wordsworth 'wandering lonely as a cloud', . . . were clouds lonely? My body was on automatic pilot and I was relying on 30 years of climbing experience not to make a mistake. I tried to think of anything but the effort of lifting one foot after another. Unaccountably I found myself sitting on a snow-rib below a vertical rock, one foot swinging over the void.

'How did I get here?'

I was at the top of the difficult section and I could see the summit above me to the right. The light was fading and I began to hallucinate.

I was in a broad band of yellow light running round Kangchen-junga like a ring around Saturn. I was in deep conversation with a group of people but I could not understand the words we were using. I felt I was talking to a Japanese religious group. I could see no faces, but feet in black shoes and the bottoms of black pants protruded from the yellow band.

I had no idea how long I was there, but the light was going and I turned and placed my rucksack on a rock at the top of the groove because I knew my life depended on finding it again - the only route through the rock walls of the summit pyramid.

The top of Kangchenjunga was orange and my crampons bit into hard crust. I was unaware of effort, but my mouth hung open and I was unable to close it no matter how hard I tried. There was only one way to go and I was committed. I had to go on until there was no more up.

The valley disappeared in darkness and the dots that were French climbers watching me in my isolation merged with the shadows of the ice-towers. I was the most alone person on earth, just a machine moving upwards. What is real?

I clambered on hands and knees through deep snow and then up more crust in a snow-gully heading left towards the top. It didn't feel like work but the gully just flowed past, an eerily phosphorescent island of light in black walls.

Suddenly there was nothing, my first reaction in hours. The mountain fell away from me into nothing, toppling into blackness. God, I nearly fell. Concentrate Roger. Before me I could see black night. Everest and Makalu hanging from the stars, disembodied, detached from earth by the night. The sky was solid stars. To my left I could see a snow-hump. I turned and plodded to it. I could see nothing higher. Oddly I could not feel the blast of the wind through my suit. Surprised, I thought I would have had to crawl here. Staring blankly at Everest in the distance, I realised I was looking at the east face. . . . China. . . . Sikkim just over the valley to my right. Twisting slightly I saw Yalungkang, now below me.

Gazing at heaven, within spitting distance of God, I felt nothing, not even relief. I willed myself not to sit down. I knew I could never get up again and my instinct was to live. Suddenly the wind began to penetrate my clothes and I turned and stumbled to the gully. The steps I had kicked stood out oddly in the snow and for a long time I was puzzled why they led towards me. In the gully I crouched and took off a mitt. It was 7.30 p.m. The mitt slid slowly away and I did not think fast enough to grab it. I watched helplessly as it vanished in the dark. Oh my fingers!

Staggering down the snow I tried to use the steps I made, I felt loose and strange, not tired, I told myself not to trip. 'Keep it together Roger, or it's the midnight special down to Camp 3.' There was no sensation of time, but eventually I saw the sack, its soft outlines standing out against the angular granite. Thank God.

Between C2 and C3 on Annapurna. Fluted Peak, Annapurna South and Hiunchuli behind. Note 5 (F . Tschirky)

Between C2 and C3 on Annapurna. Fluted Peak, Annapurna South and Hiunchuli behind. Note 5 (F . Tschirky)



Putting on the sack I stepped into the gully. Immediately it was dark.

Suddenly I was falling. I felt no fear, just flying. Then, wham, I stopped. I couldn't understand it. Must I walk again? I realised I was hanging by an elbow from the Japanese rope. Somehow I had hooked an arm through it when I stepped into the gully and stopped where it was tied to a piton 30 ft down. There was no pain.

In the gully it was dark, but I could see the snow of the big couloir. I climbed, uninhibited by caution, crampons scraping across the rock and into the couloir stretching endlessly down. My feet broke through crust a thousand times as I climbed down. 'I want to live and nothing will stop me,' I thought. Breaking through a big slab, I fell, twisting my leg. Still no pain. Peering through the dark I could see a crescent shape. Tent or crevasse? I stood tot what seemed to be an hour trying to focus my mind. It had to be a tent, or I was lost on this huge face.

One foot plunged into a hidden crevasse as I dropped to the tent, but I hardly noticed. I crawled into the tent still wearing crampons. My sleeping-bag was ripped but I was too wrecked to care. Next scene was a coma.

Daylight. No food, no water. The tent was ripped in a dozen places Maybe a Yeti was here in the night? Or maybe just a Marshall who didn't take off his crampons. I heard voices, but I knew it was just another hallucination. Crawling out, already dressed, I started down leaving the tent and everything in it. I walked ten steps and fell in the snow. Another ten and fell again. Lying in the snow I could not understand what was happening. I got up after a long time and set off again. Fell down. Far below I could see the French getting ready to head for their Camp 3. I would cross their route, maybe they had some water.

I was lying in the snow and then got slowly to my knees. Bernard Muller and Jean were sitting in the snow with their hands stretched out towards me. I walked towards them, but before I could reach them I fell again.

'Congratulations,' said Jean. It was a long time before I could reply.

'We saw you just below the top,' said Jean. 'We knew you must have made it.'

Somehow I forgot to ask for water and staggered on, falling, sitting and stumbling towards Camp 2. Jean passed me going down as I sat in the snow in sight of the camp. I reached the tent and fell inside. It was six hours since I left Camp 3 - a down-climb that had taken me 45 minutes a week earlier.

Excruciating pain knifed through my leg. For the first time I realised I had a leg injury. Somehow my mind had shut out the pain until I reached the comparative safety of Camp 2.

Jean made noodles and water and I forced both down and tried to sleep: We agreed I must go to a lower altitude and that I would go down with Jean to Camp 1 the same day. I had been high for too long.

I gobbled French pain killers like candy and climbed, fell and cursed my way to Camp 1 shouting in pain in the most agonising hours I can remember. It was dark when I reached Camp 1 at the end of my strength. I knew I had reached my limit.

Next day Jean took off ahead of me for base camp leaving me to come down the fixed ropes alone with pain killers. I ate four and slid down the ropes in a drugged cloud that only partly shut out the pain in my leg.

Halfway down I met Gary Scott, the Australian climber who had led a party of trekkers to base camp. Gary handed me a pair of ski sticks to use as crutches and headed up to Camp 1 to salvage the equipment I had left there.

Front pointing backwards down the last 30 ft of steep ice I met Cindy who was crying. I knew what she was thinking: 'Thank God it's over.'

I almost cried myself.

Postscript
Marshall walked out from base camp for ten days to the nearest road aided by ski sticks and his friend Cindy Cannell. He lost toenails from frostbite and was operated on to have a piece of torn cartilage removed from his knee.