KUSUM KANGURU, 1991
IF THE KUSUM KANGURU expedition had a theme it was that excellent adage, 'any old fool can be uncomfortable'. Henry Day, Himalayan veteran of Annapurna, Everest and many other bumps, asked to join the trip as team manager. He offered generously to contribute to expedition funds on the condition that we walked into Solu Khumbu from Jiri, travelling in gentle stages, with suitable staff to ensure maximum ease and comfort. Neither he nor his wife, Sarah, had any need to prove themselves. There would be no unnecessary suffering.
I was delighted. Even the ascetic Dick Renshaw, now mellowing into middle age, accepted the idea; the third member of the climbing team, Brian Davison, although younger, was equally happy to travel in style. So we contacted Pasang Norbu.
Pasang runs his own trekking business based in Namche Bazar and Kathmandu. He had been our cook on the 1988 Everest Kangshung Face expedition. He makes arguably the best momoes in Asia and he has trained up a young apprentice, Jeta, to carry on the tradition. Dawa and Mingma made up the complement of domestic staff.
It was great to see Pasang again and he did a superb job of organising our approach to the mountain. After eight enjoyable days we arrived on 26 October 1991, keen and fit, at the entrance to the Kusum khola, which branches off from the main valley just north of Lukla. I had never climbed in Nepal before and this was my first experience of Solu Khumbu in the high season. Watching the rush hour traffic heading up to the airport at Lukla, we felt glad that in the morning we would be heading off into the jungle for a spot of peace and quiet.
I had picked on the southwest face of Kusum Kanguru after looking through John Cleare's and Bill O'Connor's photos. The mountain is stunning and as far as I could gather no-one had ever set foot on the southwest face. We later heard a rumour that Peter Hillary had once been to have a look but had never reached the head of the valley. Pasang, who lives only a few miles away, was extremely vague on the subject.
There was a path of sorts but it soon petered out. Brian, Dick and I did a recce and started marking a route with cairns. Then the following day the whole caravan started up the Kusum khola. The first campsite was a delightful bed of moss in the forest. On the second day we found ourselves in steep thick bamboo jungle, slithering and hacking our way up with kukris. Evening came and several porters asked for their pay but a few gallant volunteers promised to return in the morning. Meanwhile Pasang set up kitchen on a small rocky ledge while the rest of us used bamboo, rotten rhododendron trunks and leaf mould to construct tent platforms. Only on the third day did we finally emerge from the jungle. The final obstacle was berberis - impenetrable, thorny thickets of the stuff, through which we hacked a path to a sloping shelf of ground by a stream. While Pasang performed a puja, producing delicious wafts of smoke from the aromatic leaves of Rhododendron anthopogon, the rest of us started terracing the mountainside. During all our time in the Kusum khola and on the mountain we were never once able to pitch a single tent without first building a platform.
Base camp was Sarah Day's Annapurna and after only one day in residence she had to leave to return to England. However, Henry, the team manager, had longer holidays and stayed on to provide moral support for the three climbers. He helped us find a route up to advance base, where we did some more inspired landscaping, nicely complimented by Jeta's magnificent cairn which stood like a beacon to guide us into camp on foggy nights.
All this time we had been pursuing a quiet debate about our precise objective on the mountain. Renshaw, with his infuriating, persistent, good sense, had pointed out that my proposed 'diretissima' up the centre of the southwest face looked very dangerous. Davison reinforced the argument by pointing out that my consolation alternative - a subsidiary line on the right - led to the crest of the undimbed south ridge which sported a magnificent great buttress of granite. Happy hours were spent at the telescope, spying out cracks, corners and other tempting features to exploit my weakness for high altitude rock climbing. So the great Eigerish concave wall was left for 'other men, less wise', and we set off to explore the sensible men's alternative.
The team leader accompanied us one fine dawn to the foot of the southwest spur and wished us good luck as we headed off towards a band of dark, loose, overhanging rock. Brian led us up the band and later that morning we established a cache of food and gear part of the -way up the route, ready for our full attempt. A hundred yards to our left the central buttress - my diretissima - was bombarded by flying granite. Not for the first time I felt glad to be guided by such sensible companions.
Satisfied with our recce we returned to advance base. Descending the scree slopes, Dick suddenly found a rusty battered Camping Gaz cylinder, destroying in a moment my deep satisfaction at being in a valley where no man had trod before - a state of affairs that I had already boasted about in my despatches to the Daily Telegraph.
It was a terrible shock. I wondered what sort of bribe would be required for a promise of secrecy. Then I remembered that Dick was a man of principle, not the type to toe the party line for a few pieces of silver. My thoughts continued in this gloomy vein until I realized that the gas cylinder was not in fact any proof at all of a previous visit. When people dispose of gas cylinders they either burn, flatten and bury them properly or they just dump them as they are. This cylinder was only partially dented. Its dents were obviously not the work of a manic ecologist. No - they were the haphazard blows inflicted on a light object falling from a great height - in this case from the crest of the west ridge of Kusum Kanguru, 1500 m above us. All the debris from that part of the mountain ended up next to our advance base, including this gas cylinder which Tommy Curtiss must have thrown away from his bivouac at the top of the north face, years earlier. That was the nearest anyone had been to our virgin cwm.
I felt much better after concluding this thesis (later confirmed by Mr Curtiss) and returned to base camp next morning in high spirits. Satisified with our recce, we enjoyed two days of Pasang's catering, then said goodbye to Henry and returned to the mountain.
There is no point in describing the climb in detail. It was a magnificent route with steep climbing on snow, ice, rock and mixed terrain. It probably approximated to the French alpine grade of TD sup. Travelling as a threesome and delayed by unsettled weather, we took four days to climb the mixed spur leading to the south ridge.
On the fifth day we did a recce to the first steepening of the great buttress on the ridge. It was a glorious morning and for the first time we had a new view, out over the Hinku valley to Mera, Chamlang and the distant outline of Jannu and Kangchenjunga. The rock buttress looked wonderful and that evening Brian enthused about possible tactics on the steep pitches to come. In the morning, however, he was very lethargic. He had been developing steadily worse headaches and occasional vision problems. Only a few months earlier, on Broad Peak, he had suffered a retinal haemorrhage - a problem which he thought had cleared up completely. Now, obviously at risk again, he offered to wait while Dick and I attempted the summit, but Dick insisted rightly that descent was the only option. So, bitterly disappointed, we set off down, taking twenty abseils to get off the mountain.
Late that night we arrived back at base camp, to wake up a very surprised Pasang. Already Dick and I were talking about the possibility of another attempt and in the morning Brian offered generously to wait at base camp and man the telescope for five days while we had another attempt at the route.
This time we were much quicker, straightening out the line and reaching the previous highpoint in 1 V2 days instead of 4 V2. On the second afternoon we started up the granite buttress, following a huge square cut corner, formed by a giant pillar leaning against the buttress. We hoped to camp on top of the pillar, but after an hour of struggling in a vicious wind to build a platform with granite blocks all I had achieved was some very numb, bloody fingers. So, at Dick's suggestion, we climbed down into the chimney behind the pillar, where there was some shelter. We pitched the tent on a vague ledge of jammed blocks. Unfortunately a giant chockstone was suspended, like a pendulum, just where we needed to put our heads. Determined to stick to the principle of not suffering unnecessarily, I organised a winch, hauling up the lower end of the chockstone and belaying it to a Friend wedged higher up the chimney.
It worked like a treat, leaving just enough room for the two of us to sit upright in the tent. I could swear that the entire pillar, 70 m high, swayed in the wind that night; but my main problem was a desperate attack of claustrophobia. In the end Dick had to give me a sleeping pill to shut me up.
On the third morning we had to wait a while for the wind to die down. When we eventually left at 9.00 a.m. it was still very cold and I spent a lot of time talking to my fingers, willing them back to life after each skirmish with the ice-cold granite. But it was wonderful nevertheless - first a long steep corner pitch, then easier ground, then another long pitch up thin cracks, tiptoeing on the edge of a huge overhang. What with blowing on fingers and hauling sacks, we only did five pitches that day and it was dark by the time we had built accomodation for the night - a half metre wide ledge with just enough room for the two of us to half sit, half lie, with feet hanging over the edge.
In nearly twenty years climbing I had rarely had such an enjoyable day. The rock climbing had been a treat and Nepal in November really was everything that it was cracked up to be. The weather was perfect, with that brilliant blue clarity that you never get in summer and we had been enjoying ever more spacious views out to Rolwaling; in the morning, provided that we reached the summit, we would be able to look north to Everest.
We did reach the summit on the fourth day and we did see Everest. It was November 20th and a huge plume was blowing off the top of the world, eighteen miles away. Down on our summit, at 6369 m, it felt quite cold enough and I understood just what a miserable business it must be, climbing 8000 m peaks in winter. Our so-called 'trekking peak' had been quite demanding enough. It had given us four days of beautifully varied climbing and we still had a long descent to complete. We did four abseils and downdimbed back to the top bivouac that afternoon. The next day, everything, for once, went like clockwork. Many of the anchors were in place from the first attempt and we completed the 25 abseils in 7'A hours. Even Brian, a far better climber than either of us, was impressed and complained when we arrived at base camp for supper that we were two hours early.
The direct line up Kusum Kanguru's southwest face remains untried, but in retrospect 1 think that the flanking route we climbed was actually a better one. Just reaching the foot of the face had been exciting and on our approach to base camp it had taken .three days to cover four miles. It was encouraging to discover that even in Solu Khurnbu, on a famous trekking peak, you only have to walk a few hundred yards off the beaten track to find an adventure. With someone like Pasang Norbu in charge it can even be a comfortable adventure. It makes one hopeful for the future of Himalayan climbing.
A three person British ascent of Kusum Kanguru (6367 m). The peak was climbed on 20 November 1991 via the south ridge.