AT 12.30 P.M. on 1 August 1990, Andrew Knight and I met in the bar of the Ski Club in Eaton Square, London to plan an expedition. We spent the afternoon reading in the library of the Alpine Club about peaks and valleys in Nepal. After another week of almost continuous research one mountain, Chamlang, had caught my imagination.
Chamlang, (7319 m) which in the Sherpa dialect means 'Big Bird Rapping Wings', was first climbed in 1962 by a Japanese team on the south ridge, a route repeated by the Koreans in 1987. Our attempt at the south ridge was to be the first British attempt.
Thatcher resigned, Mr Hussain invaded Kuwait, Mr Major went to the Gulf and the might of the Allied forces fell upon Iraq. Meanwhile we received permission from the Nepal ministry of Tourism to climb Chamlang and our plans materialised. Finally, a team of 10 members formed consisting of 7 climbers (Andrew Knight, Andrew and Peter Pollard, Annette Carmichael, Angus Andrew, Neil Howells and Dave Gwynne-Jones), an expedition doctor (Andrew Knight's wife, Carolyn), an amateur botanist (Richard Hancock) and our scientific officer, David Collier, led by Andrew Knight and myself.
We arrived in Kathmandu in mid-September 1991, a year after the expedition's conception and immediately began the struggle against bureaucracy and corruption to get the necessary permits, and to extract our freighted equipment from Customs before we could set out for base camp.
The march to the base camp took two weeks and the variety was tremendous. We began our trek almost at sea level in the Arun valley with temperatures in the sun of over 45°C and 100% humidity. These days were sweaty and I remember one evening drinking 5 litres of tea!
On 21 September we left the Arun and headed west, gradually gaining height and cooler air. However, this brought a plague of leeches which seemed able to get into, through, up and down all articles of clothing for a feast.
During the trek David was conducting his experiments in a frenzy. The expedition members were enticed into his tent late at night, even invited into his sleeping bag to be connected up to a selection of gadgets measuring everything from arterial oxygen saturation to blood pressure. Our Nepali staff were fascinated by his flashing lights and rude mechanical noises and sat for hours watching.
From Naulekh at the head of the Hinku valley, we headed east, ascending to 5400 m and crossing the Mera la below which we made our base camp. From the eastern side of the pass we had our first view of Chamlang, an enormous sheer face of snow, ice and rock, 'the big bird'. It was breath-taking and wonderful and I was filled with doubt that we could climb it.
Because of a strike by some of our porters it took several days to ferry loads across this glaciated pass and I stayed behind to escort the porters while the rest of the team set up base.
On 4 October I arrived at a deserted base camp, the others who had gone in two parties to reconnoitre a route to the south ridge of Chamlang were expected back on the next day. Base camp (4700 m), in the early morning sun was glorious. It was a grassy place strewn with large boulders beside a babbling brook from the banks of which hung cold fingers of ice. Camp was 100 m above the 1 longu river, a wild torrent draining innumerable glaciers. Across the river and now 2.5 km straight up above a tremendous face of rock and ice stood the snow-covered summit of Chamlang, golden in the sun. Beautiful and terrifying.
Hongu Valley And Chamlang
At lunchtime the two parties returned from their reconnaisance. Neither group had fouiid a straightforward way to reach the south ridge of ChamSang and the mood was solemn during the afternoon. In 1962, the Japanese took nearly two weeks to find a route onto the south ridge, and we didn't have that amount of time.
6 October. Angus, Neil, Ngatemba and I left the base camp at 3.30 a.m. resolute in our determination to push a route onto the south ridge of Chamlang. First we descended with difficulty down to the river Hongu, following the brook from base in the dark. Then we headed steeply up the other bank of the river resting frequently, weighed down by ropes, stoves, gas, axes, crampons and gear for a bivouac. Initially, we followed a loose rocky ridge to the right of a glacier flowing west from the end of the south ridge of Chamlang. Soon as we approached steeply sloping snow-covered rocks it became clear that we didn't have the resources or the time to push this highly technical route.
Instead, we dropped down onto the moraine below the snout of the glacier, passing a meltwater stream amongst the loose unconsolidated boulders and noting the place as a possible site for advance base camp. From here the glacier snout dominated the view east. We pressed on taking the glacier on its left, up loose rocks, before traversing across a threatened platform to the right side of the glacier. From here the climb was straightforward on steep snow but exhausting with heavy rucksacks at over 5500 m. We bivouacked that night in a crevasse in thick freezing cloud.
Morning was clear and we found ourselves 100 m below the crest of the glacier. The crest was a flat football pitch sized snowscape. On its right rose the south ridge of Chamlang 250 m to the blue skies. Here we chose the site for Cl, launching place for the skies.
On 8 October, the arduous task of load carrying began. The fittest of us carried 35 kg rucksacks and it took all day to reach the site lor advance base camp (5170 m). We pressed on to Cl (5740 m) the next day and set up siege headquarters — a collection of 3 tiny tents in a desert of snow.
During the next two days two parties investigated the first part of the south ridge and laid fixed rope down the 250 m trade route to the start of the ridge. We could soon see that the first part of our climb was to negotiate two rock towers which barred access to the next part of the ridge. On the second day Angus arrived at camp in the dark, filled with anxiety. He had descended the fixed rope expecting Ngatemba (our Sirdar) to follow but he had not appeared. We discussed a plan of action and concluded that it was not safe to search in the dark. At first light Ngatemba appeared, he walked stiffly and silently into Cl. He had spent the worst night of his career without shelter or bivouac equipment in high winds on the rocky ridge. The night before he had been unable to descend to warmth and safety as he didn't have a torch.
Demoralised, we talked all day about alternative routes, the danger, and giving up. Finally, we decided to push the ridge. However, Andrew who had only been married a few months made the brave decision to turn back. For him the danger was unacceptable.
Our next task was to make the first rock tower safe and we spent a day fixing rope in a rising traverse on loose rock.
Neil and Ngatemba pressed on to the second rock tower with more fixed rope, planning to bivouac that evening and go further in the morning. Meanwhile Dave and Annette carried loads on to the ridge above Cl. The next day, we rose early and climbed the fixed rope along the first rock tower. At one point I turned round to see Angus sitting with his head bowed on his chest, emotion hidden behind his reflective goggles. Whilst undipped from the fixed rope, he had stumbled and fallen onto his left shoulder, narrowly escaping an enormous fall to his death.
It was nearly midday and we spotted the other two already on the top of the second rock tower some 4 hours ahead of us but Just within earshot. Neil shouted that they were going on.
That afternoon was the most glorious climbing for me. We descended from the first rock tower to take a line between the snow plastering the west face of the ridge and the second rock tower above. We were carrying heavy loads of climbing equipment and food to dump In preparation for the summit bid. Behind we could see Cl and ahead was the summit of Chamlang and in the distance to its left the black South West face of Everest looking most unfriendly, Angus and I returned to Cl that night, while Neil and Ngatemba established C2 (6280 m) on a thin snow arete on the crest of the south ridge of Chamlang — base camp visible as a collection of red dots far below.
That night I lay awake for a long time. The next problem was who to send for the summit. Neil and Ngatemba returned the next afternoon and Peter's arrival with buffalo fried rice and cooked potatoes decided our fate. We would rest for two days at Cl and then all 4 go for the top together.
On 18 October we set off for C2, fixing the last 100 m of the second rock tcjwer and arriving to pitch tents in the afternoon mist.
The morning of the 19th was fine and we set off over the frozen snows northwards at 7.45 a.m. The morning was a long and terrific ridge bash with incredible exposure and hard work as the sun softened the snows. We climbed as two pairs, Neil and Ngatemba ahead breaking trail. By mid afternoon we reached the feared rock band which had dominated our conversation as we viewed the mountain from base camp. This had been the crux of the climb for the Japanese on the first ascent. Neil led the climbing on the rock band, 50 m of technical rock (VS) followed by a steep ice slope. Above this we roped together again as a four, Neil still leading. We were now on steep, unconsolidated snow, 3 m deep and we found ourselves almost swimming to stay on the mountain. Neil fell. Angus shouted, 'He's off.' There was nothing I could do, I was struggling to make any upward progress myself let alone arrest a fall. He whizzed past me and momentarily I realised that we were all about to plummet down the west face over the rock band, seven and a half thousand feet (2300 m) down, pulled by the rope. Then it was all over, he stopped just past me, incredibly held by Ngatemba, I don't know how.
As darkness fell we clambered into a crevasse and dug out places to sleep, brewed and spent a fitful night at 6800 m, short of air and desperately cold.
The morning of 20 October was again clear, but as we climbed out of our crevasse leaving behind all of our bivouac equipment the full force of a high altitude easterly wind hit us. Painful spin-drift struck all exposed flesh and dropped chilling flakes inside clothing. The slopes were straightforward now and at 10.50 a.m. we stood on the summit of Chamlang at 7319 m.
Ngatemba took out a Nepali flag and we all posed beside him for photographs. The wind was terrific, burning our faces and taking breath away. Neil took off his gloves to take some pictures and his fingers were frostbitten within seconds. We hurried down from that unpleasant spot to escape the cruel wind.
It was dark as we climbed along a knife edge of snow following our footsteps of the day before, back to C2. The wind was still roaring but with less ferocity than it had 7 hours previously when we had stood on the summit where, now, in the dim moonlight a plume of snow was blowing unrelentingly east. I was staggering with exhaustion after 10 hours of climbing at high altitude. At 7 p.m. we collapsed into C2. Neil and Ngatemba Sherpa had been back an hour and had some hot orange ready and we sat rehydrating in silence and relief.
5. Kusum Kanguru: Reshaw on summit ridge. Gonglha in background. Article 5 (Stephen Venables)
6. Climbing on SW spur of Kusum Kanguru. Numbur on left, Rolwaling peaks on right. Article 5 (Stephen Venables)
The ascent of Chamlang (7319 m) by a British team, on 20 October 1991.