Success at the second attempt

KUNIAKI YAGIHARA (Translated 6y Tamotsu Nakamura)

OUR COLLEAGUES OF the Gunma Mountaineering Association mounted an ambitious challenge to climb the south face of Annapurna I (8091 m) in the winter of 1984-85. It was a matter of regret, however, that although we reached a height of 7200 m, we were forced to retreat. The reasons for that failure were lack of funds, and, more specifically, lack of knowledge of the heavy and irregular snowfalls in the Himalayan winter season. Although the failure of the first attempt was very disappointing to us, nevertheless the experience gave us confidence that the route we had chosen might not be impossible from the point' of view of climbing techniques. Consequently we made up our mind to mount a further challenge in the near future.

Three years later, we had the honour of making the first ascent in winter of the very formidable and treacherous big wall. On 20 December 1987, having been exposed to danger for 12 hours in an extremely hard and exhausting assault, we had the misfortune to lose our absolutely brilliant friends.Two of the four who reached the summit fell and were killed while descending on the way back from the top.

Soon after 1 came back from Annapurna in February 1985 feeling miserable, I was asked to play a lead role in making a motion picture of Everest entitled 'The Story of Naomi Uemura'. I willingly accepted since I was of the opinion that the only way to succeed in mountaineering in the Himalaya would be to accumulate experience there, and therefore organised a powerful taskforce. Members of the Gunma Mountaineering Association aiming at Annapurna, together with Tsutomu Miyazaki and Noboru Yamada, participated as core personnel. Eight members of the team of eleven experts were members of Gunma Mountaineering Association (jncluding Yasuhira Ando who joined as an assistant) and also included a professional cameraman who followed us up to the top of Everest. Although the climbing party (eight Japanese and two Sherpas) and the movie team that gathered at the South Col and comprised a total of eleven people, only seven people we're able to get to the top because of troubles such as a malfunction of the oxygen apparatus, I was satisfied with this outcome, as it was in line with my expectations. Profiting from the experience gained during this climb of Everest, we organised a new expedition to tackle Annapurna. This group, including the general leader, comprised fourteen experienced climbers, out of whom eight had taken an active part on Everest.


Strategy and tactics to achieve a speedy assault in a short time

Having paid careful attention to the failure of the previous expedition, Tsutomu Miyazaki revised the plan of how to climb faster and move safely without being hindered by bad weather. Priority was given to a speedy Attack in a short period of fifteen days. If the climbing period gets longer, both the physical burden and mental pressure increases, so naturally climbers are exposed to unsafe positions for a longer time. The result is that they encounter not only energy sapping but also hazardous situations.

We concluded that we had to follow the foregoing strategy if we were In achieve our goal before the onset of the worst weather. The snowfall, condition which was of most concern to us, would come in late December. Although our chances of success seemed slim, our experience gained from previous climbs made us more confident that we would achieve our goal. Accordingly we developed a detailed plan for fully acclimatizing ourselves to high altitude, one of the tactics necessary to reach our goal.

We also reviewed the important factor of how and where to set up a base camp and advance camps as well, with a view to achieving efficient logistics. The base camp had to be established nearest to the south face and the number of advance camps had to be reduced and located in safer places to be viable under severe conditions throughout the whole period of operation. Having reduced the advance camps by two compared with the British expedition, we selected a point for our C5 above Mini Rock land where the British had thought to set up their C7. However, our final camp was C4 (7400 m).

In a normal year, weather conditions are most stable for about one mo nth from early November through to early December. Therefore we had been keeping in mind the fact that climbing in the early part of December might not be recognised as an authorised record if the definition of winter in the Himalaya was strictly adhered to. Climbing in January and February seemed too risky and difficult at that stage therefore, we understood that making the climb in December was an intermediate step toward the next challenge in mid-winter.

Though, as already explained, our tactics were to complete the climb in fifteen days, we prepared sufficient supplies of food to enable us to continue our activity until mid - February, which would take care of any unforeseen circumstances. Apart from the snowfall, no other weather hazard was foreseen which might delay our progress while climbing. On the south face of Annapurna I in particular, the effects of strong winds and cold are considerably less. We also carried double quantities of gear such as ropes etc. in case we had to re-open and prepare the climbing route again where fixed ropes had been buried under snow.

Experience of members in the Himalaya

I emphasised to the team members my belief that our experience and record in the Himalaya exceed by far that of the British expedition led by Chris Bonington in 1970. Moreover the British climbed in spring when it might not be so cold as in winter, and the number of snowfalls could not be compared with those in winter. If we keep in mind these facts, our attempt to climb in winter will not fail. Let us challenge with confidence.

The early 1970's was the era when attempts to develop variation on routes had just started in the Himalaya. In fact, the British expedition in 1970 had only three climbers with a total of 6 climbing experiences in the Himalaya. Our team had a total of sixty such climbing experiences. Eight members of the team had succeeded in reaching summits of 8000 m for a total of seventeen times.

After our unsuccessful attempt in 1984-1985, the south face of Annapurna I in winter had continued to defeat Bulgarian and Swiss expeditions.

In Kathmandu and base camp, training for acclimatization

Five members of the main party arrived at Kathmandu on 29 October, 1987, and immediately that night Nazuka and Sato departed by truck for Pokhara through the strict traffic controls in force for the coming summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

2 November onwards, caravans left Pokhara separately in five successive groups. It was not an easy job to hire porters since November is the best trekking season. It took six days to get to Machhapuchhare base camp (4300 m) at the foot of the south face via the previous base camp.

Training for acclimatization for high altitude was carried out in about ten days on Tent Peak (5663 m) as well as in the vicinity of Glacier Dome. Eleven members climbed Tent Peak twenty-seven times in total, and in the Glacier Dome area we planned to reach the 7000 m line but returned to base camp from 6000 m. Four days were spent in resting and preparation before commencing the climb of the south face.

At the end of November Yamada and Dr Fujioka joined the base camp. Katsusni Hayashi, who had been working on the construction of the electrical power generation system at Machhapcuhhare base camp, fell during construction, and after being taken care of by Dr Fujioka at that time, he was flown to Kathmandu by helicopter arranged by Yamada.

Start of climbing, establishment of advance camps, avalanche and snowfalls

On 1 December, we commenced our assault with plenty of confidence. The route had already been studied in late November. We ascended the icefall where no route preparation was needed, and set up Cl (5300 m). The next day Yamada, Saito and Kobayashi prepared the route to C2. As this followed the same path as previously, progress was faster.

On 3 December, the support party carrying the necessary gear climbed after the group which opened the route, and set up C2 (6100 m) on (he same day. Things seemed to go very smoothly in all respects. However, as the saying goes, 'clouds always follow the sunshine', and our Cl was struck by an avalanche which occurred due to the sudden collapse of a hanging glacier over the south face.Though Cl was not In the direct path of the avalanche, it still suffered a direct hit. Six tents and almost all of the already stocked gear and food stuffs, comprising 90% of the total quantity required for setting up higher camps, were swept away.

The expedition members and ten Sherpas who were stationed in Cl at the time, sought refuge beneath an ice-ledge and had a narrow escape except for injuries suffered by one Sherpa to his hand and shoulder which were struck by blocks of ice. However we were able to resume activities using spare gear and food stuffs deposited at the base camp.

On 6 December, route preparations were made up to 6850 m despite falling rocks showering down like rain on the whole of the south face as the fine weather continued. The following day one of the team engaged in route selection was bruised on the leg by falling rocks. Although his injury was not serious, he was transferred to lower camp to recuperate.

10 December was selected as the day when C3 would be established, lit the fine weather-spell had broken and it started to snow on 11 December. It snowed the whole day there were snowfalls of one metre C1. Having had a series of accidents and unfavourable weather conditions such as the avalanche, injury by falling rocks, a Sherpa's fall into a crevasse and the snowfall, we were depressed — recollecting the failure three years before. All activities were also stopped on 13 Dec- ember as there was a danger of avalanches.

Route preparation began again on 14 December. As unstable rocks were cemented firmly in place by snowfall, the frequency of falling rocks decreased. We proceeded beyond the highest point which was reached by the previous expedition and arrived at the foot of the right hand side of the 'Flat Iron', the name given to the rock face of about 100 m high which was highlighted as the critical point of the whole route. The face was partly overhanging. Nazuka negotiated this difficult rock face and after intense efforts over a period of more than four hours, succeeded.

Establishing the final camp

On 17 December, Nazuka, Saegusa and Kobayashi worked on route preparations while Yano, accompanied by one Sherpa carrying gear and food stuffs, set up C4 (7400 m) on the same day.

C4 was located on a snow-ridge. Since the soft layer of snow was so thin that digging revealed hard ice just below the surface, one third of the tent was without foundations. At night the three members of the team huddled together and did not get into their sleeping bags. Ropes were fixed along the couloir from C4 to Mini Rock Band (7700 m) over a two-day period, and it was decided to attack the summit in two parties (6-7 members).

Assault and success of the first attempt

At 3.40 a.m. on 20 December, Noboru Yamada, Yasuhira Saito, Teruo Saegusa and Toshiyuki Kobayashi left C4 for the summit. It was still dark and the temperature was about —35°C.

The weather was very fine with no wind. I prayed for the safety of the assault team, burning spikenard which was gathered from the foot hills of holy Kailas.

At 9.00 a.m. they reached Mini Rock Band, and traced the snow-face and snow-ridge as well towards the rock face below the top. At mid-night they started to ascend the rock face. All the actions of the assault team could be seen from the base camp by binoculars. They climbed the rock face in two hours and reached the Summit ridge. It was reported that, as the northern side was not hit by sun-light, it felt cold even though the wind was gentle. At 3.15 p.m. they arrived at the summit and took a movie picture with a video camera.

They transmitted several words to express their delight and gratitude to the base camp from the summit, and the base camp responded expressing sincere thanks and appreciation for the success of the team. At 3.48 p.m. the last members of the team, Yamada and Saito started their descent.

Meanwhile, judging from-the speed of Saegusa's descent leading the climb down, I was feeling quite free from anxiety at that moment.

The accidental falls of Kobayashi and Saito

One hour later, to our great regret, Kobayashi fell, just after he had descended the steep rock face below the top and had reached the comparatively gentle slope. Yamada mentioned that Kobayashi had probably fallen through stumbling over a cornice. Yamada and Saito looked down the slope where Kobayashi had fallen. However it was obvious that south face was so steep that there was no possibility of stopping on the way and the situation suggested that there would be no hope of survival at all.

At 5.30 p.m. Yamada and Saito came down to the point of fixed ropes, while the south face was turning red in the afterglow of sunset. Upon returning to C4 a little earlier than 7 p.m. Yamada said that Saito was also coming down a little behind. Someone at C4 made a call to Saito, to which they heard a response. Saegusa went out to meet him and exchanged a few words with him. However,' suddenly Saito disappeared, exclaiming 'What's the matter. . .'

As Saito's crampons touched the rocks while falling, sparks were thrown off and faded out into the depths of darkness. Our delight in our success was shortlived. The worst had befallen us; Kobayashi and Saito were killed in falls, one after the other. We were devastated and unable to find words to express our feelings. Immediately we cancelled the plans for the second assault and decided to abandon the expedition.

Yamada and Yagihara went down ahead of the others. The search by helicopter was in vain and neither the bodies nor any of the equipment were found.

Completing the activities

Without using oxygen we had climbed a variation of the route1 on the Annapurna I south face. Very careful and well-planned training in acclimatization for higher altitude made possible an assault in a short length of time. Until the accident took place, we believed that we could succeed in our climb, exactly as we had planned and aimed beforehand.

However, apart from the fact that our original plan to complete an attack in fifteen days was not fulfilled and despite the achievement of reaching the summit, the outcome was not satisfactory due to the fact that we had lost two of those who had successfully reached the summit.

Toshiyuki Kobayashi had joined the Everest expedition and reached the South Col twice without oxygen when he was 19 and a student at Gunma University. After that he showed remarkable progress in mountaineering, and he was only 22 years old when he died.

Yasuhira Saito had climbed Manaslu in winter in alpine-style, climbing with Yamada, when he brought back the 'Peace Can' left by the Japanese Alpine Club members at the time of the first ascent. This was widely reported in the mass-media. Saito had the honour of making the first ascent of the Pear Route on Dhaulagiri I in 1982.


Japan Gunma Annapurna I Expedition 1987-88.

Period: December 1987.

Result: The first ascent of the south tace of Annapurna I (8091 m) in winter.

Activities :

22 November Established base camp (4300 m) on South Annapurna glacier.
24-26 November The second training for acclimatization (c. 6000 m on Fluted Peak).
1 December Started climbing and setting up Cl (5300 m).
3 December Setting up C2 (6100 m). Cl was crushed and swept away by avalanche.
6 December Reached the location for C3.
10 December Setting up C3 (6850 m).
11-12 December Snowfall.
17 December Setting up C4 (7400 m).
18-19 December Route preparations.
20 December Four members succeed in the first winter ascent but two of fhose who reached the summit were killed in falls during the descent.
22 December All members returned and gathered at the base camp.
27 December Search by helicopter, nothing found.
Publications: Sangaku 80 for 1984-85 attempt.
Himalaya No. 98 of Himalayan Association of Japan.
Gakuji No. 489.
Yama To Keikoku No. 632 and 633.
Iwa To Yuki No. 128 (memorial)


Members: Hikaru Hoshino (general leader), Kuniaki Yagihara (leader), Tsutomu Miyazaki (deputy leader), Noboru Yamada (climbing leader), Yasuhira Saito, Hideji Nazuka, Fumie Kimura, Yoshio Akuzawa, Teruo Saegusa, Mitsuyoshi Sato, Makoto Kambe. Koichl Yano, Toshiyuki Kobayashi, Toshika Fujioka (doctor).

Annapurna South, from Mini rock-Band on the south face of Annapurna I in winter.

Annapurna South, from Mini rock-Band on the south face of Annapurna I in winter. (K. Yagihara)


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