CHAOS

A.V. SAUNDERS


AND THEN AGAIN, it might have started in the pub. Most expeditions do. May be a chance mention of the mountain led to a beery response. Perhaps this led in turn to increasing enthusiasm, or a position difficult to back down from. One never remembers the details. Suddenly there is an expedition. Expeditions are like the full frontal storms of recent years, no one really knows how or where they start. A South Pacific butterfly flaps its wings in a particular way. And a month later the entire south coast of England is devastated. If the insect had slept two minutes longer, we would have had perfectly clear cold winters and the best ice climbing this century.

There is a theory going the rounds of the popular science magazines that describes this sort of thing. It is all about instability, apparently. The theory calls itself 'Chaos Theory' and its proponents are known as 'chaologists'. I find this highly descriptive of our expedition. . . Instability. . . Chaos. So, back to the pub, for Probability Theory suggests that it was a pub. The expedition was Mike Woolridge's idea. The team would not be a team, but four or five pairs of climbers. Base camp was to be a shared facility, cheap and cheerful. We would book enough routes on Makalu to keep every one occupied without getting in each other's way. The team arrived in Nepal armed with permission to attempt no less than five different lines on Makalu I and II.

The team consisted of (in no discernible order, of course); Gill Irvine (doctor), Hamish Irvine, Ulrick Jessop, Andy Fanshawe, Rob Collister, Lindsay Griffin, Mike Woolridge (leader), Calvin Torrans, Stephen Sustad, and myself.

We were also fortunate to gain the support and sponsorship of Blackspur Pic,- a Mancunian printing concern. Naturally, part of the sponsorship package involved taking the media with us. There was a video team and a film crew. In Kathmandu we picked up our base camp staff, a truly wonderful concoction of cooks and assistant cooks, a Sirdar and our liaison officer.

So now there were the 10 climbers, the 7 media persons, and the 6 Nepalese staff. Already we were feeling the gale from the butterfly wings. We needed food and supplies for 2 months at base and then there was the fortnight walk-in each way, three months total food. That made about 120 porter-loads, but the porters themselves needed food, and the porters carrying the porters food needed food too, and so on ad infinitum. Actually not ad infinitum, otherwise Zeno would have been right. But our final porter load tally was almost as large. 180. Round one to chaology.

We had booked five routes on the Makalu massif, the prime objective was the traverse of Makalu. we never even got near that. The early onset of the 'Jet Stream' and windslab high on the mountain saw to that.

Our secret weapon, Sustad had already once climbed to within metres of the summit by the nightmarish southeast ridge (See H,J 41 . 'Makalu - Nearly'). With Doug Scott and Jean Asanaffief, Steve attempted a version of the southeast ridge that involved dropping into the world's highest hanging valley, and on retreat, trying to climb out of it again.

Doug's 1984 expedition had acclimatized via a number of smaller peaks, including Baruntse and Chamlang. This plan had evidently been highly successful, so we decided to emulate Doug; we too would acclimatize via a number of lower peaks on the outlying spurs of Makalu, climb Kangchungtse, then move onto Makalu.

By late September, when we had been at acclimatizing for a month, Steve and I decided that we were ready for part two of the sports plan. . . the west face of Kangchungtse. Kangchungtse (7678 m) sometimes called Makalu II lies north of the Makalu la, and was first climbed in the autumn of 1954 by Jean Franco, Lionel Terray, Gyaltsen Norbu and Pa Norbu. The first ascensionists followed what was to become the normal route to Makalu I as far as the Makalu la, they then climbed the short south face of Kangchungtse directly to the summit ridge. Steve's researches revealed only one other route to the summit, the line northridge, (S. Nara and Lhapka Norbu, 1976). as well as a number of attempts at the west face, which seem to have been repulsed by stonefall.

The west face of Kangchungtse was a natural secondary objective for the expedition. It looked like typical TD country, about 1000 m high, with a central snowfield, a rim of summit cliffs, and granite slabs seamed with ice-gullies in the lower half. The left side of the face had big black .ind red cliffs, from which we supposed the stonefall emanated. The fight flank was guarded by a large serac. There was a possible line through the mixed ground, a faint depression slanting from the bottom plght corner up to a narrow gully in the centre of the face. We had watched the face, and noted that the sun reached the central section soon after 9 a.m. We reasoned that if only we could pass the centre of the face before 9.30 a.m. we should avoid the worst of any stonefall. That was about as much as Steve and I could agree on. Where to bivouac, how much gear to take, who would take the tent, whether to add bivi bags to the sleeping bags, what food and gas. . . all these things became so controversial that we gave up the idea of a so-called Alpine style ascent altogether. We would not take any of it. Just a water bottle each. Sort of 'Scottish style' 1 suppose. Five Russian ice-screws, half a dozen pegs, a 9 mm and a 7 mm rope, a few slings. We would have a pretty good chance of returning to our tent the same day. Or so we thought. But we had reckoned without that damned butterfly.

My alarm watch Wittered dutifully at midnight, 1 turned it off and went back to sleep. An hour later, pricked with guilt, I wriggled out of the sleeping bag, cursed the snowstorm of condensation, and unzipped the entrance. This was the moment of chaological instability. Had it not been for the discomfort of the tent, Steve and I would have slept peacefully till dawn, then walked down to base in time for lunch and an afternoon kip. Instead, by 1 a.m. on 27 September 1989, we were plodding up towards the bergschrund, following the track we had made the evening before. It was dark. There was no moon. Like an evil shadow, the west face blotted out the stars. The only noise was the shuffle of our snowshoes, and my asthmatic wheezing as I struggled to keep up with Steve.

A fragile bridge crossed the bergschrund, above which we untied the ropes, trailing them behind. Immediately above.the bergschrund the climbing was easy, low angle ice-ribbons weaving between granite outcrpps. Our main problem was to pick the continuous line. This was done by switching off the torches and peering at the dark until the faintly luminescent ice appeared to glow around the buttresses. By 5 a.m. we reached the end of the ice-ribborts, there were rock walls to negotiate, usually by steep ice-bulges, or hidden ramps and grooves. Soon the climbing became quite technical, we needed to see to find the route, so we were pretty self-satisfied when, just when we needed it the sky lightened. So far things were going to the plan. Two pitches later we witnessed dawn flooding the Kangshung face of Everest and Lhotse Shar. A sea of cloud filled the Barun valley below us, lapping against the islands of Chamlang, Baruntse, and Tutse.

In every climb there is a moment when it all seems worth while, and dawn on Kangchungtse was our moment. It lasted about ten minutes. Then the constant front pointing began to hurt. The ice was wintry, hard and glassy. Axes and points teetered on half sunk placements, and it became important to gain that central gully before the stones came rattling down the face.

Before us was the entry to the steep central gully. It sported vertical steps, brittle stalactites, capped with powdery cornices, so we climbed a buttress to the left, at least there we could get fine spike runners. By 1.30 p.m. we reached the large "Central neve. Our difficulties should have been over, but the snow was thigh deep, and had been softened deep below the surface by raw, high altitude sun. The original plan had been to climb to the main summit by a series of linked snowfields, but now we could barely move. In one hour we plodded no more than one hundred metres, so we chose a line that exited through the summit cliffs, to the right of the main summit. The perfect weather of the morning began to deteriorate through the afternoon. By 3 p.m. we were only able to spot our route through intermittent clearings. We were aiming for a vertical chimney, blocked with a blank looking boulder, which appeared to lead onto a couple of pitches of slanting snow-ramps. We reached the chimney pitch at 5 p.m. The next two pitches were the hardest of the day, then a couple of slightly easier pitches led to the summit ridge.

It was 9.30 p.m., pitch black, and blowing a snowstorm. We had arrived at the point marked 7600 m on the excellent Schneider map. A sort of south summit. Turning left would, we knew, in so far as we knew anything, take us to the main summit. Turning right would take us down, we never knew it. The map showed the Makalu la as being due south. It did not show the bands of cliffs across the face. We had no idea of their existence until we almost fell over them. Heading due south, we moved roped together, first down a knife-edge with a cornice under cutting it, then a broad gully, Steve slipped down a powder filled chimney which looked like an innocuous snowgully, but the snow fell away as he stepped into the chimney and left him dangling. Below the chimney the slope was cut across by a blackness, which swallowed the torch light. In tiredness and despondency we turned to the left, and followed the edge of this thing, - a long cliff, or an enormous bergschrund. After a while we found ourselves confronted with a broad easy ice-ramp, which cut across the black thing, and led us down to the plateau of the Makalu la.

The next part of our story is a little confused. We were tired, hungry, and the water in our bottles had frozen. Ice-berries formed, in jangling bunches on our moustaches, and though irritating at first, later proved a useful source of water when licked. We needed to follow compass bearings. But facing into the storm, which blew from the south, was unpleasant. So we measured the wind direction, and walked into it. But whenever I put the damn compass into my pocket, the wind changed direction, it must have. Because twice we checked our bearings, only to find we were heading north, away from the Makalu la. Trying hard, 1 managed to recall the consequences of descending the wrong way off the Makalu la. It would take us into Tibet, via the seracs of Chomo I.onzo. We would finish upon the Kangshung glacier. And we did not have our passports.

By 2.30 a.m. Steve's toes had begun to freeze, and he needed to loosen his boots. Also, we were a little lost. Perhaps dawn might bring new information. Our bivouac was a pair of holes in the snow. The idea had been to dig deep enough to get out of the wind, throw the rucksack into the bottom, and sit out the night but, the sack filled the hole, and projected us into the weather. Steve slept well, his head thrown back, muttering peacefully. I spent the time shaking with cold, and cursing the frozen water, while trying to melt the chips of ice by breaking into the neck of the bottle. 5 a.m. brought light, clouds and more snow, and the realisation that we were still lost.

After an hour, a dim outline which we guessed to be Kangchungtse, gave us a rough bearing. Keeping the full 50 m of rope stretched out, we managed to steer a straightish line till we stumbled on the three empty tents of the Catalan C3, and knew that we had joined the ordinary route again. That was the last we saw of the ordinary route. The tents were at 7500 m. we had overshot the la. Somewhere below us were drifted over tracks leading to fixed ropes and C2. Stumbling and down climbing, slowly sensing that we were losing height, we passed down buttresses, broad gullies and avalanche slopes. We became involved in a small avalanche, it took us 50 m further on our way, Steve's only comment, brushing the snow dust out of his hat, was 'I hate avalanches. . .'.

By late afternoon we began to recognise the contours, the seracs, and the shape of the slots. It had taken all day to reach our tent, which at first we could not see. Standing 10 m from it, 1 shouted to Steve that the tent had gone. Then 1 realised that the small pyramid of fresh snow was the tent. We "had been away just 46 hours and in that time, over a metre of snow had fallen.

The next day, still dehydrated, we packed the tent, sleeping bags, stove and our rubbish. The rucksacks were heavy, and the snow feathery. When we sat down, we didn t stop till the sacks had dragged us below the surface.

The descent to 6000 m should have taken an hour, it took five. In the blank whiteness, wheezing and gasping under the squeeze of the monstrous loads, we waited for clear patches to drift our way. Then one of the Catalan marker flags would appear briefly. To fix the direction before the flag disappeared. Steve would hurl a ski stick in the right direction. It was halting procession. In one place, where the way lay down the steep side of serac, a hissing noise came out of the snow as I stepped on it. And then as if a knife had been drawn across it, a slice opened across the slope. Shaking with fear I drew my foot back. I suddenly felt sick, and sat down . forgetting about the feathery snow.

'What's it like? asked Steve, addressing a pair of boots sticking out of a hole in the snow.

'I think we might be stuck'. I muttered, trying to clear my face and glasses of snow.

The problem was that the only way down was this slope, bivouacking there was uninviting, and uphill retreat unthinkable. The solution was a small crevasse above the slope, and the job of belaying from inside the crevasse fell to me. I tied the two ropes together to lower Steve whose job was to set off the avalanche by descending in the clumsiest way possible. Steve was up to the task, and soon had set off a magnificent chest deep slab, which took the entire slope before it. It took the rest of the day to reach the deserted tented village of the ordinary route's Cl, at 6000 m.

It was another full day to base camp, wading with snow-shoes through thigh deep snow for 10 km of broken glacier. But the weather had changed again. The skies were clear, a thin wisp like a ragged prayer flag, trailed from the summit of Makalu. The storm had ended, and like good amateur chaologists. Steve and I tried to made sense of is all.

'Easter Island' suggested Steve.

' Pitcairn.' I countered.

' I bet it was Vairaatea.'

'No no no. Hereheretue, for sure.

'Tongatapu ? '

And then again, it might have started in the pub.

SUMMARY

A British attempt on Makalu II (Kangchungtse) (7678 m) in September

1989.