(Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)


IT'S GETTING BRIGHT. Lying in my sleeping bag, I zip open the door of the tent and see that it still hasn't stopped snowing. At least half a metre must have fallen last night. I grab the thermometer and scrape off the layer of ice. It's minus thirty-two. I crawl back quickly under the warm down.

10 April. During the snowstorm yesterday, after an eight-day walk, we reached the glacier at the foot of Dhaulagiri. There, struggling against the wind, we set up two tents — my base camp — 4650 m. The north face of the Dhaulagiri is close-by, but the snow and clouds have kept me from catching a glimpse of it yet. From that direction, comes a heavy booming, probably ice pinnacles crashing down, and behind it avalanches of snow that rumble like express trains. At six-thirty, Tashi brings tea. He crawls into the tent and says: 'Bart, problem'. He points towards the mess tent. 'Porters blind. Jenbu, Prem, Pasang, Maila.' He laughs nervously and mumbles the names of the others. All eight porters are snow-blind. Yesterday they refused to wear their sunglasses on the snow-covered glacier. I take a bottle of anaesthetic eyedrops from the medicine barrel, put on my Moonboots and hurry through the deep snow to the mess tent. The porters are lying close to each other on thin mattresses, their eyes swollen and teary. Two kerosene burners rattle in their midst. Tashi holds their groaning, complaining heads, and I put the drops in their eyes. I see, that they really are blind as bats, and that's how they'll stay for at least another twenty hours. They won't be making the descent today.

Photos 3-4-5

My plan for climbing the 8167 m Dhaulagiri is a simple one. Solo, no fixed ropes, no walkie talkies or radio, sleeping only in the little bivouac tent I carry with me. During the first few weeks I plan to get used to the altitude and solitude by leaving base camp, cook Tashi and his helpers Prem and Jenbu, for more than two weeks. During that time I'll cross the 5360 m pass known as French col to climb a couple of 6000 m peaks to the north. Then I'll rest for a few days at base camp and focus all my attention on Dhaulagiri: find a route along or past the treacherous icefall, camp above there and then climb on to northeast col, 5877 m high, where I plan to drop a tent, gas and enough rations for a good ten days. Then back down to base camp, where I'll rest and wait for good weather before making the final assault on the summit during the second or third week of May, a period when the wind traditionally veers from west to east — before the coming of the monsoon — and loses its high altitude velocity.

The porters leave the next day, sunglasses planted firmly on their noses. They will return in the middle of May. There are only the four of us now. It snows for days on end. We set up two more small tents and take turns going outside, once every hour — round the clock — to shovel the snow off them. I leave my tent a few times a day to eat in the mess tent, but the rest of the time I lie in my sleeping bag, sleeping or reading. I listen to cello suites by Bach and piano sonatas by Schubert until the tape recorder finally gives up the ghost. For the next six weeks I will have to make do with my own humming and with Prem, who has brought along a bamboo flute on which he produces the same Nepalese ditty again and again. I long for the sun and for the time when I can move out on my own, and try not to worry about aD the snow that's fallen, about the danger of avalanches and the crevasses now covered with a layer of powder snow.

The snow peters out. It begins to hail and the wind picks up. On the fifth morning, though, the wind has died down; it's not snowing or hailing, but the cloud cover is thick — I still haven't succeeded in glimpsing at Dhaulagiri from base camp. Avalanches thunder down on aD sides. Pairo, pairo! Tashi calls out excitedly every time it happens. 'Avalanche, avalanche!'

Then one night it suddenly clears up, and I see the base of the mountain wall. It seems very close. Up there — three and a half kilometres above me — is the summit. The snow glistens in the moonlight. Avalanches veil whole sections of the white mountain. I put on warm clothes and climb up to a flat rock above the camp, where I drink in the view until my knees knock from the cold.

Next morning the temperature's down to less than thirty-seven degrees below zero. The sun is still behind a ridge. The line of sunlight slowly descends the north face of Dhaulagiri and creeps closer across the glacier. Most of the snow that's fallen during the past few days has blown away, but there's still at least a metre left. The paths we dug out between the tents look like trenches. I roll up the tent door, crawl back into my sleeping bag with a cup of tea in my hands and, for the first time, examine the route I plan to climb. It's the one taken by the Swiss, the first party to reach the summit in 1960. It was a large-scale expedition, they actually even used a plane — the Yeti — which landed a few times on the northeast col. The Yeti brought up hundreds of kilos of supplies before it crashed. These days, sometimes as many as five expeditions attack the mountain at the same time; my expedition is the only one this season.

The first leg across the glacier should present no problems, except for the thick layer of snow. The icefall, a 500 m wide crack in the glacier through which the ice slides down in huge blocks, is inaccessible. The route along the rock walls to the left, which bear the scars of avalanches of fallen seracs — ice pinnacles — is impassable. That leaves only the right wall: across icefields at the foot of the Eiger, a high rock face named after its lookalike in the Alps. The rocks are covered with thick layers of snow which, loosened now by the heat of the sun, fall down onto the ice field in the form of avalanches. Climbing there is too dangerous for the time being. I can't see the glacier above the icefall, but I can see the northeast col. The powerful wind up there is blowing snow into the air. The graceful spirals dance towards the snow ridge leading to the summit. Once the bright sunlight reaches my tent, it becomes too stuffy to stay inside. I hang my sleeping bag and down jacket on top of the tent to make the temperature inside bearable.

'Bart, breakfast', Tashi calls. I saunter over to the mess tent. On the table of piled stones are plates of pancakes, chapatis and fried eggs next to jars of jam, peanut butter and chocolate sprinkles. Every morning Tashi urges me to eat it all. I never succeed.

That day the sun keeps shining until noon, when clouds begin to rise up from the lower valleys and bring more snow with them. At first I think this is the shift towards predictable good weather, but the mountain's rhythm remains unchanged during the next few days: more than half a metre of snow during the afternoon and evening, clear nights and in the morning a burning sun that causes enormous avalanches on the mountain. I wonder whether it makes any sense to carry out my plans to go to the six thousand metre peaks to the north 'Isn't the snow too deep?' I ask myself again and again. But after a few days of sitting around base camp, I load my pack and head off in the direction of French Col while it's still dark. Despite the ski poles, I have to turn back after only three hours. The snow is up to my hips. It will take weeks before the pass is accessible. I trudge back, disappointed. The warm sunlight makes the snow softer and softer, and I sink down deep into it, all the way back to base camp. Tashi is waiting for me, holding a pot of tea. His amazement is plain to see. 'New plan?' he asks. I point to Dhaulagiri, there's no other choice. The sky grows overcast, the first flakes are already falling, and I drink my tea in the mess tent.

At four o'clock the next morning I'm on my way again. I use the beam of light from my head lamp to search for the bamboo sticks I planted on the glacier, marking a safe, zigzagging course between the crevasses. It's just getting bright by the time I reach the bottom of the Eiger. There is a thick layer of snow on the icefields, but it's powdery and the tips of my crampons grip firmly on the hard ice. I climb quickly, pause at the bottom of a steep passage, pull out my ice hammer and climb on. I kick the tips of my right crampon into the ice, shift my weight to it, pull my left crampon free and kick it in next to my right foot. I stand up carefully, pry the ice axe free and drive it back into the ice as far above my head as I can reach. Then comes the ice hammer, after which I pry loose my right foot and do it all over again. Once I'm past the steep ice, I climb along the edge of the icefall. The snow is firm and I revel in the movements, the hard work and the view, finally different after all that time at base camp. I stop for a moment beside a bamboo pole with an orange pennant — it must have been left here by last fall's expeditions. Below me the ice pinnacles crack in tiie chaos of the icefall, above me towers the snowbrushed face of the Eiger. The sun has barely touched the top of the mountain, and the first powder avalanches are already falling. I hurry, and two hours later I'm climbing across snow that's dammed up between high seracs and the rock wall. Thirty metres above the icefall now, level with the glacier plateau. The snow is turning soft, I have to stamp it down with every step I take, and even then I sink in up to my knees. A bit higher the snow is up to my waist. It's only fifteen metres to the edge, and I take the shovel, dig a trench, stamp down the snow and try to struggle my way up. It all ends in useless thrashing about in a deep bank of powder snow. I stop and look up, discouraged. It's hot and sultry, the rock wall is standing in bright sunlight and a couple of heavy avalanches fall onto the snow above me. 'Get out of here', is the thought that flashes through my mind. I quickly unload my backpack — rope, ice screws, carabiners and some rations, mark the spot with a long tent pole and descend. The mountain seems to grumble and shake off its layer of snow. Small avalanches follow me down, but none of them succeed in hitting me. Once the last icefield is behind me and I'm back on the glacier, safe and sound and relieved, I realize that this climb is really very dangerous. I've never been caught in an avalanche. Here it could happen any moment. Had I taken it all too lightly back home? I chose a high mountain and a simple route. Had I somehow skipped over the warnings in all those old journals? Or was this just my own rotten luck?

Approching Nanda Devi East.

8. Approching Nanda Devi East. Article 7 (J-A. Clyma)

Nanda Devi main peak.

9. Nanda Devi main peak. Article 7 (R.Payne)

Watching from base camp every morning for the next four days, I see the avalanches from the Eiger face thunder down across my route. Every afternoon it snows without stopping. I lie in my tent and try to read the mountain off my mind — Patriots and Liberators. With Simon Schama as my guide, I wander through the impoverished Holland of two centuries ago. I have to be careful not to read too fast, otherwise I'll have finished my four books before the week's over.

It snows less on the fifth day, and I leave camp in the dead of night; I have to make the most of the nocturnal cold. But the snow is softer and deeper than the first time, and it's eleven o'clock by the time I reach the spot where I emptied my backpack. I search for the tent pole, but it's nowhere to be found. I probe the snow with a ski pole, but no luck. I give up the search. As small avalanches blow over me, I go to work frantically with the shovel. It's warm and the snow is heavy and soft as porridge, and I get stuck again. Nearby, beneath a rock ledge, is a sheltered spot where I set up the bivouac tent. Later that afternoon I unzip the door of the tent and see a curtain of white flakes. The snow keeps up until a good two metres have fallen.

The night is clear and I continue my climb, but it takes even less time than yesterday to get stuck up to my armpits in snow. It's hopeless. I turn back, take down the tent and begin my descent. Traversing the icefields is sometimes like crossing a busy road: wait until the avalanche has gone by, then run for it. Craaawhooosh, craaawhooosh, there they go again behind me. The fresh powder lies loosely on heavier snow that barely has a hold on solid ice 'You could get killed doing this,' I mumble to myself.

By the time I'm back on the glacier, the tension and fear have left me exhausted. I stop for a moment and look up at my trail, a deep channel through soft snow. Just then a small avalanche starts high on the face of the Eiger. It careens off rocks and causes an even bigger avalanche, a gray mass of stones and ice that goes into a long free fall before exploding on the lowest icefield. It's quiet for a moment, then I hear the roar and see that the thick layer of snow has broken loose from the ice and is sliding downhill. Slowly at first, until the two-hundred-metre-wide pack begins picking up speed. The snow rumbles and roars, its surface undulates. At first I look on in fascination, but then I realize the danger. I free my hands from the loops of the ski poles, toss the poles down next to the ice axe. I race to a dip in the glacier, glance up at the tidal wave of snow and broken ice bearing down on me, lie down and roll myself up as small as possible — my head clutched in the crook of one arm, my lower legs in the other. The roar swells, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The avalanche rolls over me. One moment I'm lying in the dip, the next moment I'm picked up and carried away. I bounce off a huge block of ice, go head over heels a few times and then slide downhill amid the frozen debris.

As soon as I've stopped moving I open my eyes. I see blue — the sky. That means I'm lying on the surface. I turn my head and look down into a deep crevasse. The wind suddenly mounts, it's the flurry of powder snow that follows an avalanche. I puD my collar up over my head and hold my breath until the cloud has blown over. All of a sudden it's quiet, I hear only the cracking of the icefall. It's over, I realize. My arms are trembling.

It snows less during the last week of April. At base camp it's melting faster than it can fall and, higher up, Dhaulagiri seems more accessible. I succeed in passing the icefall, camp on the glacial plateau and at the northeast col. I leave the tent, gas and rations behind, well-marked, and climb on past the remains of tents from earlier expeditions. I turn back at 7250 m, at the foot of a rock wall plastered with snow and ice — the last challenge before the summit. Another week of good weather and I can make it. I return to base camp the same day for a two-day rest before returning, with the warmest clothes I have, for the climb to the top.

I look up at the northeast col and trace my trail across the face of the glacier, past the seracs and over the snowfields. A hard, graceful line, as if I had etched my mark across the face of the mountain. I stare at the place where the avalanche broke free, the avalanche that took me with it. You can still see the line where it broke off. The day after tomorrow I'll climb past there for the last time. Full of good cheer, I set the loaded backpack in the entrance to the tent.

Four days later, the backpack is still there. It's been storming for three days. A hiking party of Slovaks is camping nearby. I become jealous when they move on, and curse my forced stay here at base camp. I'll have to wait until the mountain has once again rid itself of its cargo of snow.

But then the weather clears up. The sun beats down for a day and I leave under cover of darkness. Tashi gets up and walks with me halfway up the glacier. If I'm not back within three weeks, he's to break up base camp and leave. Out on the glacier, I laughingly remind him of his promise not to search for me. He shakes his head and says only: 'Summit, good luck'.

The snow is even deeper and heavier than last time. There's not a breath of wind, it's pararyzingly hot on the glacial plateau. The glacier is full of crevasses still hidden under snow. It's too dangerous to climb on in this heat, so I decide to spend the night here. I pitch the tent on a slight rise in the middle of the U-shaped valley, as far as possible from the remains of avalanches. I can't find a safer spot. Drinking chocolate milk outside my tent, I study the ridge and locate the spot where I turned back last week.

Dhaulagiri, route of solo attempt.

Dhaulagiri, route of solo attempt.

Clouds rise again from the valleys during the afternoon, but it doesn't snow. I'm in high spirits by the time I fall asleep. At three o'clock in the morning the sky is clear. I scrape together a pan of snow put it on the burner. I want to get moving fast. But before I've even finished the first half-litre of tea, the sky has gone cloudy. The wind picks up and it starts snowing. Before long the wind has swelled to storm force. I turn off the burner and crawl back into my sleeping bag.

The gale howls around my tent all day and on into the next night. In the middle of the third night, I wake up. It's strangely quiet outside. I sit up and open the door of the tent. Snow falls inside, and I yank the zipper closed. I kick hard against the cloth. It won't budge — the entire tent is buried in snow. I put on my clothes and begin to dig it out. When I'm halfway done, a strong wind comes up and soon frees the tent of its burden. But the wind is blowing the snow towards the col. It must be metres deep up there by now, the path to the summit is blocked.

My plans and expectations quickly change. A couple of days ago I was still climbing the ridge in my thoughts, setting up tents, thinking about skipping the third campsite and moving on directly to the highest bivouac. Now my only thoughts are of getting back down safely, of avoiding the snow-covered crevasses, of the seracs in the icefall, the ice-field on the face of the Eiger, the avalanches. Do I have enough gas and provisions to stick it out until conditions are good enough to descend? In my thoughts I'm already packing my things at base camp and walking back through the green valleys. Away from this mountain. That afternoon the storm dies down for a while. I open the zipper of the tent and, through the wisps of mist, I see a dark strip — the first bamboo pole marking the path down. Two weeks ago I planted it there, straight up and easily a metre-and-a-half long. Now it barely pokes out above the snow.

On the sixth evening the wind stops. I no longer even care whether this is a sign of better weather or merely a calm in the storm. My food and gas supplies are almost finished and I have to go down. At two o'clock in the morning I sit up, put on my head lamp and start melting snow. After I've had a litre of tea and eaten the last cracker, I warm my hands for a moment above the burner. I hear a cracking sound high above me. After all this time I recognize the sound as a piece of the hanging glacier breaking off, more than two thousand metres up the mountain. The first night I was scared stiff when one crashed down onto the icefield, but now I've got used to it. The ice cracks and scrapes along the rock wall. I rub my hands together and put on my silk gloves, no longer even paying attention to the falling ice.

Suddenly the tent is filled with a deafening roar, the floor of the glacier sways, the howling builds in intensity and I fly through the air, tent and all, bounce off the glacier and am blown further down the mountain. 'This is it,' is what races through my mind. 'Buried alive under metres of snow!' My reflex is to grab my pocket knife — I can use it to cut my way out of the tent. In the other hand are my overshoes. Fortunately the burner has gone out. The tent is picked up one last time, then I slowly slide on a bit further. The tent is leaning heavily to one side. I push it back upright. Then the tent stops sliding, the wind dies down. I smile and carefully zip open the door. The slight rise where the tent had stood is at least a hundred metres uphill. The remains of the serac are lying close-by. Dhaulagiri is telling me to get lost. I quickly pull on my clothes, fill my pack, take down the tent and begin my descent.

I'm sitting on a big rock, sulking. It's the middle of May. There's been a crack in the ice at base camp for the last couple of days. It runs right past my tent, right under Tashi's, through the middle of the mess tent and then back uphill. At night the ice creaks and rumbles, we can feel the tremors. We occasionally poke a bamboo pole down into the crevasse, or drop a stone to see how deep it is.

Beautiful weather today; for the first time we saw the sun go down, almost without a trace of cloud, behind the Dhaula Himal, the high peaks around Dhaulagiri. But with the monsoon on its way, I can no longer count on six days of good snow and weather conditions. I've given up on the climb. We'll be leaving the day after tomorrow. This afternoon I sorted the equipment, burning everything that's too heavy to lug back — a torn sleeping bag, sacks of muesli, gas tanks, batteries, books. What's left over after the fire goes into a deep crevasse. I'll only have three porters to help me make the five-day hike across two high mountain passes covered in snow — the other five porters never showed up.

There's a lump in my throat as I warm myself at the fire. When I see the brown mess tent and the three blue bivouacs, I hesitate. Shouldn't I give it a few more days ? But when I look up, from my trail across the glacier on up to the summit of Dhaulagiri, I know there's no sense in even hoping to climb there soon. The powder snow on the Eiger's icefields has turned to porridge, the enormous banks of newly fallen snow under the northeast col still haven't settled into place, and avalanches crash down constantly around the plateau at my first camp. I spend a few minutes staring at the summit ridge and peak, and imagine for a moment that I'm climbing there. It's just a big rock, no more than a few meters across. A white pennant of snow is hanging there, so it must be cold and blowing hard. But isn't that exactly why I brought that pair of down overalls? In my imagination I search for the piton Kurt Diemberger left there after the first successful climb, look to the east — Nilgiri and Annapurna, then to the north — the brown plateau of Tibet. I know the view from the summit like the back of my hand, I've seen so many pictures of it. Before I left Holland I was so sure I would reach the top. I felt strong. 'Goddamn mountain' I mumble, murmuring angrily against the officials from the Nepalese ministry of tourism who charged me eight thousand dollars for a permit to climb the mountain and then acted as though they'd done me a favour.

I don't want to look at Dhaulagiri anymore, "so I turn around to face north, where a muddy torrent is rattling its way down across a pile of melting debris.

After dinner, Tashi sits with his back to me. He whispers to Prem. When I become curious and try to peek over his shoulder, he turns around in triumph. He's holding a cake, covered in white icing. He grins. 'For you. Mountain full of snow'. He takes a deep breath and blows gently over the summit. 'And wind'. The tent is lit only by a little candle, so Tashi can't see the tears in my eyes.


A solo attempt on Dhaulagiri (8167 m) by a Dutch climber in May-June 1994.

View of Dhaulagiri north face and northeast ridge from the French col.

View of Dhaulagiri north face and northeast ridge from the French col. (Bart Vos)

Dhaulagiri from NE col.

Dhaulagiri from NE col.

Dhaula Himal from Camp 1.

Dhaula Himal from Camp 1. (Bart Vos)


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