BHAGIRATHI HI, WEST FACE
IN EARLY MORNING of the 17 August 1990 we landed at New Delhi : doctor Mojca Zajc and the climbers of the Alpine section of Domzale Mountaineering Association, Janez Jeglic and Silvo Karo. Our goal was Garhwal Himalaya, more precisely 6454 m high Bhagirathi III. In its 1300 m high impressive, mostly overhanging west face, Janez and myself wish to make the fine ascent. Following our climb in India we should continue to Nepal to join the Alpe Adria climbing expedition on Everest thus giving us two months for Bhagirathi. Can we succeed ?
A year of careful and intensive preparations is behind us, along with over ten years of experience in climbing. We have been on several tops of 8000 m, both are capable of climbing IX (UIAA) grade with ease, have behind us some of the most difficult climbs in Patagonia, including, as our most-prized achievement the Cerro Torre's south face. The last reminded us most of the west face of Bhagirathi III, except that this one lies few thousand metres higher.
Asian heat and time constraint make us leave New Delhi together with our liaison officer Hemant Bhor on the second day upon our arrival. We leave Indian plains and travel over a number of high passes with serpentine roads to Gangotri village at 3300 m. Here the road ends. Two days later we set the base camp at Nandanvan plateau at the right edge of Gangotri glacier.
We combine the acclimatization and viewing of the face with the transportation of the equipment. After a short rest in the base camp we enter the face on the 27th, by the afternoon we have already climbed about 450 m of the face and get ready to set the bivouac. But as the Slovene saying goes, 'the bad luck is never at rest' : it catches us as we climb into the hammock. The ice-screw to which the hammock was tied broke and left us hanging on the pitons about a metre lower to helplessly watch how our food and climbing gear is rolling down the face. Any continuation of the climb is out of question, but due to the falling rock in lower section we cannot descend until the morning. On 1 September we are back under the face again. Most of the day we spend examining the impressive wall above us. On its left ridge goes the Spanish route, over the right one the Scottish, with the central part left untouched. We repack and select the food and gear we have to bring down the weight to the minimum. We calculate on seven days of climbing. By the evening we have the haul bag ready and a single rucksack, as usual before a serious climb we spend much of the night awake constantly checking the watch. The tension is great.
Early on 2nd we enter the face. The dangers of its bottom part are familiar by now. We have to climb it before the sun reaches us : after that the cannonade of rocks, water and ice begins. The first icy part we manage to climb quite fast, but the difficult combined wall makes the job more difficult particularly due to the fact that we have to drag with us the haul bag. After eight pitches we organize the bivouac at the height to which the last ice reaches. As we are getting settled into hammock (port-ledge), the top of Bhagirathi is lighted by the setting sun. The water, only a short while ago cascading down the wall, is frozen into silence by the approaching evening cold.
From here on the face changes into an overhang. From the next day our weight had increased due to the load of snow and ice : the face above is dry and the only liquid we can get is from ice. We begin to climb. In the first pitch the rock is mostly covered with ice : the major difficulty are the cracks filled with jce which need to be cleared to provide for protection. The next pitch we climb in rock climbing shoes still frozen from previous day. As we complete the third pitch, the weather worsens. We only succeeded in setting the bivouac by the time the snowing begins and in spite of the overhang the snowflakes seem to have no problem reaching us. An already short day now becomes even shorter, the neighbouring peaks and the world around us falls into silent snowy evening. Bivouac in the port-ledge is relatively comfortable, only while cooking one needs to be extra careful, since we need to hold the cooker by hand. It snows through the night and the thunder of avalanches wakes us up in the morning. We search for a bright spot in leaden sky in vain it still snows so heavy that the day is only slightly brighter than the night was. It feels like the world had forgotten us. Above us is the section with the biggest overhang. Our first morning moves are stiff, but the pitch ending at very exposed point warms us up nicely; by the time we get the haul bag to where we are, we are actually hot.
In the next pitch the haul bag again swings far away from the vertical direction. After the third pitch we set the bivouac at somewhat exposed position. As we hang under smooth overhanging plates, we feel like on a swing. To make life more interesting, the cooker breaks. A significant amount of skill is required to fix it partly with the improvised tools we have at our disposal. 'Outside' it kept snowing. We wake up often through the night : most times to put the ointment on completely dry and hurting fingers. Hoping to see the stars, we check the sky. but with no luck. We have plenty of time to think : we try to guess how long will we need to the other black part and to the edge of the face. We fear that the continuous snowing might increase the danger of avalanches on the snowfield right under the very top of the mountain.
The ropes we left last night hanging freely, have got tangled up in a thick braid. We had plenty of trouble trying to untangle them, since they were wet from the first day on. After about 10 m of climbing the rock, is covered with ice. and snow reaches us again. A rather long pitch leads us to a small rocky balcony. By now we are in the black wall and the rock here is very different, some kind of a mixture resembling crumbling coal. I put in ten pitons, and they hardly do the job of one ! From the climbing point we slowly cross the snowy shelf to the right. It isn't difficult, but very dangerous, since everything one grabs, stays in the hand. Behind the edge we find the, first rather comfortable shelf and can sit down for the first time in four days. There is even enough room for the cooker, so we don't need to hold it in our hands: what a luxury! Two ravens appear from somewhere, searching for food. How could they find us, when the visibility is not even 10 m. Patiently they circle us, but sorry, there is hardly enough food left for us. We decide on an early night, since the next day will be a lot of hard climbing.
On the morning of the fifth day the weather remained poor. The shelf is covered with snow, only the overhangs remain snow-free. We leave the hammock on the shelf, which means we have to leave the face today. Few metres higher we climb into an overhang of rotten rock, it reminds me of an overhanging newly plowed field. What we went through in the next few hours can hardly be described in words : one just has to live it. Falls of 10 metres, poor protection in poor rock, technical grade of A, the feeling that we might not survive if we don't reach the edge of the face by night - expert understand what we went through. But there was no other way. Our approach to the top is further complicated by the avalanches, starting on the top field and dispersing at the edge of the face. The night-catches us in a steep ice-chimney. In pitch dark we roll over on the small snowy shelf.
Thoroughly wet. bruised and covered with snow we squeeze into a sleeping bag. It continues to snow and since we have no proper roof above us. the bag is quickly wet also. The fifth bivouac is a test of endurance and patience. It took us a while trying to prepare something to drink, but didn't succeed in getting beyond some mildly warm water. When we are well covered with snow, we try to sleep. A strong and growing wind wakes us up. In pitch dark, wet and cold we dig ourselves out of snow. By dawn we are ready to move on, but are stopped by hurricane winds. From time to time the sight down the face opens up definitely one of the most horrible sights I experienced in the mountains. The wind continues to sweep around the mountain when we decide we better move on. After a couple of pitches we reach the large snowfield at the edge of the face. We make good progress on gentle slope towards the top, with strong winds bringing snow and ice-particles which are the major obstacle. We also have a lot less to carry : we left' rftost of the equipment on the face. In the last particularly difficult pitch we even left a rope.
On 7 September, on the sixth day of climbing, we finally reach the top little after 9 o'clock in the morning. We succeeded to achieve what we most believed ourselves in : climb in Alpine style the west face of Bhagirathi III. To the list of extreme climbs in Patagonia (the east face of Fitz Roy, east face of Cerro Torre, southeast face of Torre Egger and south face of Cerro Torre) we have added a pearl from Garhwal Himalaya.
We spend only little time on the top : a long and unknown descent is still ahead of us. For a short moment the fog lifted so we are able to at least approximately decide on the direction we should take. At the beginning our descent is in Snow, but soon we reach rocky parts. It snows heavily and the visibility is nil. The snowfield of undefinable steepness is very dangerous, often we sidetrack into steep parts, avalanches threaten us. After a third rappel the rope gets stuck. While I look for appropriate way to descent further, Janez struggles with the rope which seem to get entangled. When he doesn't succeed the normal way, he decides on a more dangerous trick he climbs up a bit and then jumps into depth. This time he succeeds. I see him fly with released rope and lands 15 m lower in deep snow. We continue our descent. We have less and less equipment left, have to rely on poorly set pitons, we used up most of the Friends. A number of rappels we do on a single piton or a Friend. When rock is poor we use a couple of pitons or Friends, with one remaining free to serve just in case. Only at home Janez confesses that during one of the rappels the Friend which should carry the weight fell out and luckily the safety one held: I didn't even notice this.
As we descend over the last pitches, we ran out of equipment, even the rope is left on the face. The slope is flattening out, snow is getting wetter and mixed with rain. My fall in the crack tells us we are on the Vasuki glacier. From here we have another 15 km over the Chaturangi glacier to the base camp. At eight o'clock we reach the empty base camp : due to the time constraint Mojca and the porters have already left the valley. Soaking wet we sit at the place which used to be the kitchen and enjoy the goodies they had prepared before they left. Afterwards we go to the base of an Indian trekking camp, where we are warmly welcomed. We are exhausted, our bleeding and swollen hands are so painful that we have to ask for help in removing our boots. We can't even hold a cup of tea. We are too tired to sleep : all night long we can only drink. In the early morning we continue on our way to Gangoiri, where we arrive in the»afternoon. In the lodge there we have dal and rice which is about three times too spicy. Then we board the bus and leave towards Uttarkashi. On the evening of 9 September we reach New Delhi, where we meet Mojca. She welcomes us with tears, she was seriously worried about our fate. Three hours later we split: she is leaving for home, we continue on the next day to Kathmandu. After three days rest in Kathmandu, where we tried to restore the ten kg of weight we lost during our climb, we fly on 14 September to Lukla and are on the 17th already in the base camp of Everest. Since we left home together, nobody expected that we will be able to climb Bhagirathi and join them with only eight days of delay in the base camp.
Our goal was the American route on Everest, with a direct pass to the West ridge. On 22 September Janez and I spend the night in C2, next day we set C3 on the west ridge about 1100 m higher at 7500 m. We spend the night there and in poor weather return to the valley. During this time the decision is passed to change the route : the climbing should go via classic route over the South Saddle. When we left for the C2 for the second time, I came down with flu and so had to return to the base camp. In the afternoon everybody else had to return as well since the wind on the mountain is much too strong. Three days later Janez, Andrej, Marija and Sherpa Lakhpa Rita leave the base and reach the top of Everest on 7 October. I'm very happy for Janez for I know how badly he wanted to succeed.
We did have our own plans too, but in a large expedition it isn't always easy to implement them. After the four reached the top, the weather turned so bad that no other attempts could be tried. The expedition had to be satisfied with this result.
Between 2 and 7 September the members of the Alpine section of the Mountaineering Association of Domzale, Janez Jeglic and Silvo Karo had made the ascent of the west face of Bhagirathi III in the Garhwal Himalaya (6454 m).
VIII, A4, 85 degrees in ice. The height of the face: 1300 m.
Time of the climb
: for ascent and descent 6 days, with 5 bivouacs.
Everest (8848 m) was also climbed later by normal route on 7 October 1990 by switching areas and teams by Janez.
Garhval Himalaya Bhagirathi west face