TAWECHE'S N E PILLAR had been on my list for more years than I care to remember. The plans to climb it, though, had only been developing gradually over the last eighteen months. Permission had been granted, the four man team authorised by the Nepalese authorities and sponsorship arranged from the British Mountaineering Council, Mount Everest Foundation and Foundation for Sport and the Arts. We were just about ready to go until the telephone rang. It was my climbing partner Steve Sustad.
"Sorry about this but I've just got frostbite in my big toe. It's likely to be amputed and the doctors tell me that I'd be stupid to come".
He sounded distressed at missing out on Taweche and pretty disinterested about the fate of his toe. I was then enthralled by tales of his epic ice axe-less solo retreat down the south face of Aconcagua in South America - but at the end of the day the Taweche trip was in trouble. The arrangement was that we would operate as two almost independent teams of two, Mike Morrison climbing with Chris Watts and me with Steve Sustad. Steve's injury left me with a problem. There aren't a lot of people that are keen enough and silly enough to head out on six week trips to nasty unclimbed Himalayan buttresses with only three weeks notice. And, of course, the choice of partner for such exploits is not be taken lightly. Normally a well tried and tested partnership is the only one that I would consider. But none of my regular partners could make it. After three days, though, I'd found someone who was not only suitably keen and silly, but also tremendously talented - Pat Littlejohn.
I knew Pat primarily from his tremendous reputation as a rock climber. In fact, he was an early hero of mine as I struggled to repeat his classic routes on the North Cornwall coast. But I'd never actually climbed with him and didn't really know him very well. I couldn't help wondering how we would fare together on a 70/ 75 Himalayan multi-day mixed buttress climb. I re-read John Roskelly's account of his and Jeff Lowe's ascent of what looked to be a route of similar difficulty on the E face of Taweche in 1988.
'It is only when a team becomes one that success has a chance. Jeff and I joined together in mind and spirit - kind of like a full eclipse the combination seldom happens....'
I wasn't too sure about eclipses but could only hope that our minds and spirits would be on the same wavelength and our abilities up to the challenge on offer.
There was only one way to find out. Five weeks later we lay resting at base camp. Much as we seemed fine together as a climbing team our first foray had not been a tremendous success. We cut both of our ropes and I painfully twisted my knee by sticking it in a hole and falling over. Ultimately, the only constructive result of our recce was that we drew the usual conclusion that it was impossible to carry everything we would like. Some serious cutbacks were necessary. Out went my bivi-bag, half of the hardware and most of the food. Lightweight dashes or Himalayan hauling marathons seem to offer the only chance of success on steep mixed ground. Neither of us like hanging around. Our effort was to fall into the lightweight dash category with Pat's stomach not enjoying its usual intake levels.
Base camp at just over 5000 m was the highest I'd ever had and not being a quick acclimatiser I was still nursing a throbbing headache after the first week. Potentially I must have been looking even less healthy than our liaison officer. He was a Tourism Ministry official based in Kathmandu who had never been to the mountains of the Khumbu region before. Whilst he shivered in the cold and looked distinctly unhappy he could at least count the very substantial wad of money he was accumulating. Not only did he get a cash payment from us (in lieu of equipment) of $1200 but we also had to pay him about $4 per day and, to add insult to injury, foot the bill for his accommodation costs in Pheriche when, after only 2 days he decided that base camp was too cold for him. The average Nepalese salary is less than $500 per annum, so in British terms we seemed to be paying him over £50,000 cash for the pleasure of accompanying us. I had no such compensating thoughts and lay uncomfortably in the tent whilst Pat generally displayed a distressing amount of energy and wandered up to the foot of the face to check out the line a French team had tried in 1990. He returned exuberant to find me still in my sleeping bag whining about my knee and head. Apparently he had spotted some overhanging grooves which he felt should offer what he described as 'wonderful climbing'.
I managed to delay things to two days but inevitably the time came when we approached the route together - feeling very small beneath the huge expanse of vertically rearing up above us. The aim of the day was to climb up an overhanging rock bank leading to the foot of a prominent ramp line.
"Looks good, doesn't it?" Pat's enthusiasm was clearly not diminished by our imposing surroundings.
I wasn't so sure. The line he was pointing at looked to overhang disturbingly. In sunny, warm conditions on a sea level British crag I might have given it a go. Here at just over 5000 m below a steep intimidating Himalayan face, I was glad that I'd left my rock boots at home. "Important to keep the weight down" I explained to an incredulous Pat. It all looked horribly difficult as I sat comfortably watching the proceedings from my well protected belay.
The heroic rock master inched his way up through the overhangs and then - even more impressively - back down again.
"I don't think that's right".
Across to our left a mixed but vertical and loose fault line looked to give the shortest way up to the toe of the ramp. It looked much more my cup of tea. A reluctant Pat dragged his eyes away from what he still felt to be appealing overhanging groove lines and we plodded across steep snow to the foot of our new line of attack. By now it was mid morning, the sun had hit the face and the first icicles had started to clatter down. The initial section was gently overhanging so once again Pat's rock boots were brought into play and I belayed comfortably in the knowledge that my climbing partner was both immensely talented at this rock climbing business and also, even more importantly, appeared to have an insatiable appetite for it wherever it may be. I watched intrigued as he tried several times to free climb a move involving a tiny dubious looking undercut. A good nut protected the move and looked to be an ideal handhold. Pat though was clearly reluctant to stoop to my own 'pull on it if it's easier' Himalayan ethics so early in the climb. And so we continued for 60 m or so - Pat, laybacking, bridging and whooping with joy whilst I struggled along behind with double boots and a sack.
By late morning we had reached a sheltered belay just to one side of the toe of the ramp. Above us the heat of the day was now bringing down too many large icicles interspersed with rocks to justify continuing. In any event the main aim of the day was completed and the way to the ramp was open. Keen to ensure that we could regain this point as quickly as possible we abseiled down leaving our ropes in place and headed off back down to base camp.
Two days later we were back. Our big effort was under way.
"Are you sure you've got your slings the right length?"
The owner of the voice wafting down from above was clearly aware that the Fowler body was having a bit of trouble. His concern was fully justified. This jumaring business is supposed to be fast and energy efficient and yet there I was after 15 minutes of maximum effort hanging upside down, completely knackered and only a few inches above the ground. The problems seemed numerous, the main one being my sack which had the distressing effect of pulling me backwards in such a way that I was unable to push the jumars up the rope. Improvisations flowed thick and fast but the only thing that seemed to make any difference was attaching my rucksack chest straps into the top jumar. This partially strangled me and seriously restricted the jumar movement but at least enabled some limited progress to be made. In retrospect I'd have been better off seconding the pitches again. Pat seemed to find all this particularly funny if rather incomprehensible. (I suppose guides aren't allowed to revel in incompetence in the same way as is amateurish types). Meanwhile, I hung from the rope, in full gasping fish mode vowing to take jumaring lessons at some stage in life .... (I won't of course. I like climbing steep bits of rock and ice, not ropes).
Above us the ramp looked challenging. The French had been up somewhere here in 1990 and soon a despicable bolt gave a clue as to their abseil line. Pausing to spit on such an unethical eyesore we scrabbled up awkward mixed ground heading out to the objectively safe but technically difficult looking right hand edge of the horribly huge and intimidating ramp. In the shade at base camp it had been below freezing all day but here at 5500 m in the direct sun the temperature was distinctly on the warm side. Gushing waterfalls provided ample evidence of this and cascaded noisily down the bed of the ramp which was by now definitely falling into the highly unpleasant and essentially avoidable category. Out on the right edge technical loose rock was providing much in the way of what we carefully referred to as 'interest'. At least, we were now alternating the leads, climbing with big boots and sacks. I was beginning to feel more at home. This sort of ground was much more my cup of tea then pouncing around in rock boots or jumaring up ropes. Pat led a distressingly difficult pitch and was belayed in an awkward looking position. He pointed gleefully at his belay - a huge wedged flake sitting precariously in a loose 75° groove.
"You can either climb over this and kill us both if it comes off or lead out left onto that featureless slab".
Rushing out to the left I was soon in a world where slivers of rock peeled off readily under scraping crampons. I gibbered badly. The French obviously hadn't come this way.
"What's it like?"
"It will be retrospectively pleasurable, Patrick".
This was to be our pet phrase for the route. It's true, of course, if you think about it.
Pleasure on the route is sometimes not readily evident, retrospectively, though, one can spend a lifetime enthusing over photographs of the severity and saying how enjoyable it all was.
After several more retrospectively pleasurable pitches Pat stopped at a horizontal knife edge crest.
"Bed time, Michael".
I looked around hopefully. We had arrived at the prominent shoulder on the NE buttress, the first real landmark and reached well within our projected time scale. My hopeful look was soon turning into an acceptance that it would be one of those special nights astride an ice crest or perched with one buttock on a 6" wide ice-ledge. Pat though likes his comfort and started laying into the ice crest with a worrying degree of enthusiasm. The man clearly wasn't as tired as he should have been. Not feeling so energetic I positioned myself such that I could contribute by ineffectually flicking my pick at the iron hard ice whilst Pat secured himself to a screw and used full body swings to make some meaningful progress. I thought of the 3 broken axes out of 4 record on my last trip and hoped that the ones we were using this time were up to this special brand of Littlejohn punishment. Remarkably, the end result was a campsite perched right on the crest. It lacked amenities and was only big enough for about 2/3 of the floor area of the tent but I had to admit that it was an awful lot more comfortable than my suggestion of a 'perch on your bum' bivouac. And none of our axes had broken.
Two pitches further up and we found our final piece of equipment from the French 1990 attempt. The report in the American Alpine Journal said that they ground to a halt in the face of 'soft snow and technical difficulties'. Looking up the technical difficulties were all too apparent. I just hoped that the white stuff shaking down the corner lines was ice and not the feared soft snow. My first pitch on the buttress proper was rock so it fell to Pat to discover that, much as the white streaks weren't exactly perfect ice, they were in fact climbable. We were in with a chance.
Above us the buttress crest was dominated by a huge phallic pinnacle with a wavy white snow feature decorating its top. For some strange reason we christened this 'The Penis' and avoiding it by a series of grooves on the side was to both exercise the adrenaline glands and keep us fully occupied for most of the day. The problem was that the only real line followed the fault descending from the col between The Penis and the main buttress. This was absorbingly loose and tended to suffer from occasional rock falls long after the sun had left the face. To begin with these were dismissed as freak rocks bouncing down from higher up. As we gained height though it became clear that the fault itself was the source of these missiles. There seemed to be little doubt about it. The Penis was imperceptibly moving! At perhaps 150 m high by 60 m across its demise was unpredictable but not something we wanted to hang around for. Sneaking gently off to a knife edge ice ridge listening to the clatter of intermittent stonefall across in the direction of the Penis. It was still there in the morning and, in fact, much to my surprise, was still in situ 10 days later when we left base camp.
9. Taweche northeast buttress. (Mick Fowler)
10. Tirsuli West. The attempt stopped at the rotten rock-gendarme seen.
Article 8 (Julie-Ann elyma)
11. Looking across the southwest face of Tirsuli West from the 'notch'. The northwest ridge is plumed in cloud on the skyline.
We had chosen the pre-monsoon season hoping that the powder snow problems experienced by the French would not be so acute. On that front we seemed to have made the right decision. The downside though was the weather pattern. It snowed every afternoon. And I mean every afternoon. By the end of day 4 on the face I was getting a bit sick of this. The climbing had continued up steep ice plastered grooves which tended to act as 'chutes' for huge quantities of the stuff. Frequently heavy waves of it would catch me unaware and snow would force its way deep down the front of my jacket. During our fourth day a prominent rampline had taken us round to the right side of the buttress when the afternoon's onslaught hit us with even greater ferocity than usual. A bivouac where we were was out of the question but up to our left was a glimmer of hope, a snow patch and, I couldn't be sure, but it looked like the entrance to a small cave. Pat had been stationary for a long time whilst I prattled about lost to sight under the waves of snow. Not being a fan of inactivity, he jumped at my suggestion that he get some exercise and warm up by climbing a difficult looking corner, leading to the bivouac. Dusk found us both hanging from an ice screw just outside a very constricted looking ice hole with a substantial lip of iron hard ice overhanging the entrance.
"Doesn't look very nice, does it?" Pat sounded disheartened. He doesn't like discomfort. As, in Pat's eyes, the master of uncomfortable bivouaces I left obliged to sound a bit more enthusiastic.
"Be fine once we've dozed off'.
Keen to demonstrate this - and even more keen to surround myself in nice, warm, cosy down - I thrust my sleeping bag into the cave and squeezed in. It was even worse than it had looked. At the entrance the diameter was probably two feet or so but the feature was more of a wind formed ice tube than a conventional cave. It sloped downwards at about 45° for 2 m before levelling off. Unfortunately, though, by the time it levelled out it had narrowed to about 12 inches across by 18 inches high. I lay on my side, at the bottom. Even my weedy shoulders and hips were too broad to turn over. I tried hard to control a rising sense of claustrophobia and keep smiling whilst Pat's swearing up above suggested that the entrance area was equally uncomfortable. Every now and then various objects would be dropped down on me .... a Thermos, Pat's boots, the stove .... I was staring intently at the stove wondering how to position myself to make a brew, when there was a distinct and unexpected change for the worse. The wind, which up until now had been in our favour, had clearly changed and suddenly it was as if a fireman had directed his hose straight into my bedroom. Spindrift piled up with alarming speed immediately burying everything Pat had dropped down to me. My initial concern was keeping the snow out of my sleeping bag. Hopefully, I lifted the entrance out of the main flow but the volume was such that within seconds my priorities had changed and I was more concerned that I would be trapped inside by a wall of spindrift. Abandoning every other thought I fought to extricate myself from this cold and constricted hell hole and fight my way back to the surface. This proved challenging in the smooth 45° tube section. My struggles and screams prompted comments of the 'I thought you liked this kind of thing' category but at least had the desired end result. The night though was but young as I dived headfirst in an effort to retrieve boots and stove whilst Pat grappled with the complexities of extracting the tent and arranging the fabric in such a way that we both be at least partially protected.... And so what was undoubtedly the most uncomfortable night of my life began. We were both supposed to have the tent over our heads but the angle of the tube was such that my head was level with Pat's feet. I spent the night trying to prevent myself sliding down into oblivion by hooking my knees in to the fabric around the door whilst Pat cursed and swore about the pressure on his head and shoulders. Fortunately for me it wasn't until much later that we realised that my efforts and Pat's problem were connected. We never did manage to get into our sleeping bags again, the awkwardness of the situation, fear of melting spindrift freezing the down and a conviction that we should make it anyway tempted us to stay as we were.
After twelve hours of -25° or so a blast of sunlight is decidedly welcome. Unfortunately though our hole (or 'the Torture Tube' as we now familiarly referred to it) was mean to the last and necessitated 3 m of climbing before we could soak up the sun.
Surprisingly enough our first pitch of the next day was only 3 m long.
Bright sunlight and calm weather have a remarkably positive effect on the body. By the end of the first full length pitch the rigours of the Torture Tube were receding and our minds were fully engrossed in the climbing difficulties. We were just to the right of the crest of the buttress now and as this was the North side we feared that the permanently sub-zero temperatures would allow a build up of bottomless powder snow. Our binoculars had revealed very steep white streaks hereabouts and we were prepared for a precarious wallow. How wrong can you be?
Distressingly steep streaks of hard ice soared up for hundreds of feet. In places they were truly vertical. Pat was belayed below what was clearly to be the first really steep pure ice pitch.
"How many screws have we got?"
"Er. three". Sheepishly I recalled throwing out the extras that Pat had packed and insisting that three would be sufficient. Somehow one ice screw at each stance and one for a runner didn't seem very satisfactory in 45 m. Very careful climbing ensured for a few pitches until the inevitable afternoon spindrift onslaught started. A hole up to our left beckoned uncomfortably; I was wary of holes after the Torture Tube. This one looked different though. Initial impressions were quite good; it was an ice-hole which pierced the crest of the 65° buttress but was perhaps 3 feet high, 4 feet across and 5 feet long. It had a flat floor, and one of the finest views in the world. To the east Makalu, Everest and Ama Dablam with the east face to Taweche dropping away below, to the west Cho Oyu, Cholatse and below us the unclimbed north face of Taweche. Unfortunately, it was clearly created by the wind which duly started to gust through our 'campsite' as we struggled to establish ourselves in our half erected tent. Inside the fabric flapped incessantly and hoar frost rained down.
"Why do we do this, Patrick?"
"You like it, Michael, makes holidays more memorable".
I lay back and contemplated. It was true, of course, if everything went according to plan life would be pretty boring. Inside my sleeping bag life was warm and cosy and dry .... pretty good really.
I was glad that we'd suffered the sleeping-bag-less masochism of the Torture Tube and kept our 'pits' dry.
We were somewhere near the top of the buttress but it was difficult to say quite how close. Above us was that very special sort of uncertain ground, very steep and very white. It was Pat's turn to lead the first pitch of the day whilst I belayed uncomfortably in the tunnel which had become even colder and windier without the blocking and protective qualities of the tent. I concluded from Pat's progress that the first pitch was (very) hard ice where, judging by his comments, more than three ice screws would have been distinctly useful. By the time I was engrossed in the second pitch the daily dose of bad weather was again closing in fast.
"Watch out" Pat had said, "Belay's not very good".
These words kept repeating on me uncomfortably as I struggled away in my own little white windswept world. Somewhere above me was the top of the buttress. I should be able to do it in one pitch if only I could control myself on the ice-screw placements. Somehow precarious ice climbing seems so much more difficult when you have to keep looking down. But judging how far I had come and weighing the distance up against the fear factor was the only way to limit my protection to the means available. It felt a long pitch; soon I couldn't see Pat any longer and concentrated on my last screw and the ground ahead. The end came all rather suddenly, there was hardly any easing of the angle just a sudden realisation that I was about to swing my axe into thin air over a narrow snow crest. The other side of the crest was easy angled.
It felt strange after 5 1/2 days of steep technical ground. Walking has never been my strong point, but here I felt even less attuned to the joys of stumbling over bottomless powder than usual. Pat seemed not to be so badly affected by loss of balance and general lethargy. Strong chaps these guides, far too much energy.
A solitary glimpse of the summit was all we were to get that night before staggering off along not very obvious ridge leading in its general direction. Somewhere in the limitless white an area that looked to be flat enough to pitch the tent materialised and we collapsed in a horizontal position lost in our cosy sleeping bags and lulled asleep by the purring stove.
It was a memorably pleasant experience to wake up and find that we were much closer to the summit than expected. Perhaps 1/2 hour above us was the top of Taweche. Pat was on the ball.
"We must have been joined in mind and spirit - as rare as a full eclipse".
"Pardon?" I asked, marvelling at the effect of altitude on the brain.
Not being of a poetical persuasion I had forgotten Roskelly's words. I certainly didn't feel very connected to my own mind and spirit, and Pat's was already fast receding as he powered up the last few feet to sit down just before the highest point.
Being terribly English we shook hands formally on the top. I think we were even emotional enough to manage a (very) small French style hug.
"Look at all these things to do". Pat was bouncing around enthusiastically. Meanwhile I contemplated whether I could summon the energy to rotate my body sufficiently to manage a summit panorama from a sitting position. I could and now back in Britain I too am able to enthuse about the worrying possibilities the world has to offer. I have to agree with Pat's on the spot assessment.
"There's still a lot to be done".
And he is even older than me. There's hope for a few more yet.
The first ascent of Northeast Pillar of Taweche (6501 m) in 1995, by the British expedition.