THE BIRD OF HAPPINESS, DRANGNAGRI
WE ARE TOO MANY," I shouted to Chris, "some of us have to go down. It is getting late. With 11 people hanging around, none of us will make it to the summit. We might even have an accident".
Fifteen metres below me five people were hanging from one ice-screw. If that ice-screw broke, they would all tumble down the wall. Within a couple of seconds the falling load would pull at Chris' ice-screw. It would probably break and Chris would be in the air. Next in line would be myself. Through the fixed rope we were all connected. If the ice-screw now carrying five people broke, we would all be ripped off the wall. I felt centipedes crawling in my guts.
Chris nodded. "But who has to turn back and who continues?"
I stared at him. My heart grew heavy. I knew the answer. Bjorn who was in the lead and who had done most of the difficult work, was obvious. And, since this was a joint Norwegian-Nepali expedition, Pema Dorje, the Nepali co-leader, was also unquestionable. Chris, being the only Englishman, and having done his part of the hard climbing, was the natural third to bid for the summit. Another Norwegian would require another Sherpa to balance out the team. But five would be too many. Three was enough.
Thinking it was straight forward. But my lips grew stiff and my tongue grew heavy. It meant ruling myself out of the summit team!
We were on the steep north wall of Drangnag Ri, 6801 m, an unclimbed peak in the Rolwaling Himal (Nepal), close to the Tibetan border. It was a joint Nepali-Norwegian expedition with Pema Dorje Sherpa and Arne Naess as co-leaders. We were 11 Norwegians, an Englishman and 9 Sherpas. It was the 10th anniversary expedition of the Norwegian expedition to Everest in 1985.
Happiness is a rare, beautifully coloured bird. Its wings takes you flying to the summits of your life. Everest gave us our happiest hours. She lifted us to heaven and kissed us gently before sending us back to everyday life. She made friendship blossom and gave us the joy and the deep, calm satisfaction that only love can give.
We all wanted to fly with the bird of happiness again. Like kids - we thought that once we were together in the mountains, we would take off like before.
Chris had seen Drangnag Ri from Menlungtse. "The obvious choice forour lOthyearanniversary," he said, "unclimbed, untouched, the centrepiece of the northeastern Rolwaling Himal, complicated to reach, difficult to climb".
It certainly was complicated. From Namche Bazar, it took us a week to cross the Tashi Lapcha pass (5760 m) and establish advance base camp by Khabuk on the Drolambao glacier at 5450
In ABC another flying creature visited us, the bird of fear. Vegard Ulvang, the Norwegian skier-adventurer, caught seriously ill. Our doctor managed to keep him on the shores of life till we could have him evacuated by helicopter. It was the first warning that Drangnag Ri was not happy to see us.
The Drolambao glacier runs due north for 12 km, then bends and runs another 3 km to the northeast where Drangnag Ri resides. Because of the bend she shyly hides herself to visitors until they cross the threshold to her home.
It took us another week to ferry loads up the glacier and build Camp 1 at 5850 m just before the bend. The glacier rises gently and invited Nordic skiing with spectacular surroundings some of the best unclimbed peaks left in the Himalaya. To the east the awesome Tengi Ragi Tau (6943 m), to the south Bigphera-Go Shar (6729 m) and to the north the beautiful Eagle (6425 m), like a standing eagle spreading its wings to protect its nest.
Around the bend we saw our mountain for the first time after two weeks of travel. It was early morning. The shadow from Eagle peak stretched over the glacier in front of us and made it look like a dark abyss. On the other side of that abyss stood Drangnag Ri. We recognised the features from the pictures the steep southeast wall, the vertical south ridge and our planned route, the snow- covered east ridge.
The morning light made the rock look golden and the snow white as a silk robe. She was beautiful.
The gully up to the notch on the east ridge did not look too difficult. But the ridge itself was forbidding. Not very steep, but knife-sharp with ice-seracs and hanging ice-towers blocking the route. The solution, if there was any, would have to be found on the north side of the mountain after having climbed to the Notch. Chris was confident that we would find a camp site in the Notch. I doubted that, the Notch seemed very narrow, the walls falling vertically to both sides. I did not feel very welcome.
Camp 2 was established close to the east col at 6100 m. It was Hotel Grand Vision; Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu.
It took us 4 days to climb and fix ropes up the southeast gully to the Notch. The ice was 40°-60° in the lower part, steepening to 70°-80° the last pitches. Climbing was not very hard, but the ice was crumbly with rock pieces frozen in, making it difficult to get sound belays.
What happened to the bird of happiness? It had grown old, like ourselves. Its feathers were grey and dull, not colourful and shiny, its wings grew tired when flying high. It preferred humping around ABC picking leftovers outside the mess tent instead of circling the sky. It mirrored the team, two guys psyched out above Camp 2, another got headache, one got back-problems, one did not adjust well to altitude and one had already been evacuated. That left 4 of us to the job. Chris Bonington (60), Bjorn Myhrer Lund (44), Ola Einang (50) and myself (57). A geriatric excursion! Of these four, only one was really enthusiastic and dedicated all the time; Chris. He was the oldest, but he was the youngest at heart. He enjoyed the walking, the camping, the exploring and the climbing like it was his first visit to the Himalaya. He as stronger, more confident and more aggressive than on Everest 10 years ago. He proved that when your mind and your heart are in what you are doing, then age is not going to stop you.
Ola is a powerhouse. He never wears off. He is teaching outdoors and lives in the mountains half of the year. His pride demands him to carry the same weight as the Sherpas. He has a conscious nature, giving priority to helping others or preserving nature over his own ambition to summit. On Everest he gave up his place in the summit team in favour of maintaining the route through the icefall to secure a safe return for the climbers and the Sherpas. Anyone who has heard about the icefall, understands that he accepted a personal risk equal to or higher than bidding for the summit. On Drangnag Ri he spent a perfect day for summiting ripping the fixed ropes off the mountain instead of climbing it. Alone!
Bjorn was our secret weapon. He is an ideal climbing partner, kind and caring (at home he is a nurse) but with a will of stainless steel when it comes to the core; climbing the mountain. His two adventures on the Eiger north wall winter storms are true epics. It was obvious that he didn't enjoy expedition life like he did before, and that his thoughts were as much with his 1 year old twins at home as they were with us. But we all believed that by the time the going got tough, Bjorn would be out front.
As for myself I was only half way into the expedition most of the time. Physically I was doing well, but my heart was somewhere else. I was missing the intense joy of comradeship and accomplishment that I had felt on Everest. I did my duty, but without much energy and enthusiasm. The food was dull and the drinks were tasteless. This went on until we had reached the Notch. Then suddenly I realised that I was not the only one that lacked motivation. Camp 1 looked more like a military hospital for veterans. I understood that if it went on like this, Drangnag Ri might still be unclimbed when we turnback. The thought shocked me. We were the invincible team, the most successful expedition to Everest. No! I would not let this happen. It was not a question of my personal ambition or pride. Our dignity as a group was at stake. I felt a wave of energy flooding through my veins. It filled me with calm determination. I knew that we could climb Drangnag Ri. It was only a question of workmanship and staying power. I knew there and then that I would stay on the mountain till the job was done.
The Notch (6400 m) presented a fabulous camp site. On the leeward side to the northeast the monsoon had built a snow balcony hanging in the air. It had the form of a half circle 15 m in diametre. The rim of the circle was lifted up above the centre making it look like a huge birds nest. Eagle's Nest was the obvious name of the camp.
The east ridge confirmed our fears, a jagged ridge consisting of treacherously leaning ice-towers. It would take weeks of difficult and dangerous work. The north wall looked better. It was a steep ice wall, 50°-80°. We would have to climb diagonally under the east ridge and then somehow find a way up to the ridge above the most dangerous part. It would be a long and difficult climb, but it was 'doable'.
Ola had lead one pitch when Bjorn and I had settled in Eagle's Nest. The next 2 days we climbed and fixed ropes for another 4 pitches, 2 per day. Then Chris joined us and did 2 pitches on the fourth day.
Time, food and equipment was running out. There was still some rope-lengths left before we could join the east ridge, but we would have to make a summit bid.
The weather was not good. Nights were clear and cold. Mornings were sunny and nice. Clouds would form around noon, and in the afternoon we had snowfall every day, often also thunderstorms.
The evening before the summit attempt Eagle's Nest crowded up. Chris, Bjorn, Ola and I were there. Pema Dorje and five other Sherpas were there. Klaus Erik, the photographer, and his Sherpa were there. I knew this could not work out but did not have the guts to tell half of us to get the hell out of there.
The next morning therefore saw two summit contenders jumaring up the fixed ropes. Bjorn took the lead. The ice was very steep, 80°. Progress was slow. People crowded up hanging from a few ice-screws. Clouds were closing in. This was madness. We were inviting disaster. "We are too many," I shouted to Chris..................................
I made the selection. Bjorn, Pema and Chris continues. The rest of us turned back. I told Ola and Klaus Erik and asked Pema to tell the Sherpas. Chris passed by me and started along the rope up to Bjorn. Ola and Klaus Erik began the descent together with some of the Sherpas. A couple of the Sherpas refused to go down. I urged Pema that this was dead serious. As Pema passed by me to join Bjorn and Chris, he said in low but firm voice, "Lhakpa Gyalo must come with me". I insisted that 3 was the maximum if we were to succeed. But he repeated: "Lhakpa Gyalo must come with me". It was not a question, it was a confirmation. I understood that there was something behind this that I did not know. I hesitated I could not send Pema down. But Pema would not go without Lhakpa Gyalo. "OK", I said to Pema, "Lhakpa goes with you". Lhakpa passed me and disappeared up the rope. But now the team was out of balance: 2 Sherpas and 1 Norwegian. I looked down. Ola and Klaus Erik were gone. Above my head Bjorn was shouting, "is anyone else coming up?" "Yes", I yelled, "I'm coming".
We could now cross over the east ridge into the upper part of the southeast wall. Clouds engulfed us. It started hailing, and the wind rose. Chris lead up a couple of steep ice sections. He was climbing strongly. We could not see the summit. But we knew it was somewhere above our heads. Visibility was down to 20 metres. Hail flowed down the mountain in small rivers. We had one rope left. So far we had fixed ropes all the way. This would be the last. Where would it take us?
Chris started out. The ice was steep and hard. Slowly he worked his way and disappeared into the clouds. Time went by . Seconds, minutes, hours! The rope was out. Chris' voice came through the wind. Did it sound differently? Was he at the summit?
Lhakpa Gyalo followed. Pema after him. Bjorn disappeared. It was my turn. As I approached the end of the rope, I could see Bjorn and Pema standing on a narrow ridge. I understood that they were on the summit. Then suddenly a blinding white light and a detonation. Lightning! Crampons came down towards me. It was Bjorn. "Down", he shouted, "we will be killed". "Hell, I haven't been to the summit", I yelled and pushed him back up. I passed him and Pema who stood hesitating. The narrow edge rose gently to the highest point 6-8 metres away, 1 metre higher. Chris and Lhakpa Gyalo came towards me, they had been there. Then another blinding white light, a deafening blast and an invisible hand that threw me backwards. I stumbled. Chris and Lhakpa Gyalo stood frozen. I took the message. You have climbed the mountain. To set foot on the highest point might cost you the highest price. My hair started to whistle, small, blue sparks danced on my ice axe. The next lightning would be only seconds away. In a jump I passed Pema and Bjorn and started sliding down the rope. Inside me I heard the shrilling sound that calls a submarine down. "Dive, Dive!"
The next morning was perfect. There were fixed ropes all the way to the summit. But energy was out, and time was out. Everybody wanted to go home. We did not get what we really wanted; a happy reunion. But we did do the job. We climbed Drangnag Ri. It proved to be a distant and difficult mountain.
The last question is: How many got to the summit. Chris Bonington and Lhakps Gyalo obviously did. What about Bjorn, Pema and myself? Purists will say: "Sorry Ralph, you were 6 metres in distance and 1 metre in altitude away. You turned back in fear, not of your own design. You didn't climb the mountain". Personally I rest calm. I climbed Drangnag Ri. We were five people on the summit that day.
Joint Norwegian-Nepali expedition to unclimbed Drangnag Ri, 6801 m, Rolwaling Himal, Nepal under co-leadership of Arne Naess and Pema Dorje Sherpa. Climbed by the southeast gully to join the east ridge, at 6400 m, diagonally through north wall to rejoin the east ridge at 6700 m, following the southeast wall to the summit. Steep ice 50°-80°. Summit was reached on 30 April 1995 by Chris Bonington, Lhakpa Gyalo, Pema Dorje, Bjorn Myhrer Lund and Ralph Hoibakk.
Camp 1, unclimbed Tengi Ragi Tau peak in the background. (Ralph Hoibakk)
First sight of Drangnag Ri (6801 m.) (Ralph Hoibakk)
Camp 1 (5850 m) on way to Drangnag Ri. (Ralph Hoibakk)
Camp 1 (6200 m) on Drangnag Ri. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and peaks of Khumbu in background. (Chris Bonington)
Drangnag Ri (6801 m) from Tram Bau glacier. Route of ascent was via the east ridge. (right). (Chris Bonington)